The anti-bike blog


I do not think [that word] means what you think it means

It has become a weekly, almost daily occurrence. A how-to article or blog post will come across my path – usually in my facebook feed – touting the wonders of winter cycling.

Not one to learn a lesson quickly, I keep clicking on them. Inevitably, I navigate away in frustration.

It’s fun! It’s easy! Anyone can do it! You don’t need special gear; you can even look chic while you’re doing it. Oh, and get off your high horse – being a winter cyclist doesn’t make you special.

This is the message of all these articles.

Lies, I tell you.

Now, far be it from me to dissuade people from cycling, but I think we may need different words for the varying circumstances that fall under the umbrella term “winter cycling.”

Take Vancouver and Seattle, for example, where bicycle enthusiasts will talk about “winter” cycling. I’ll grant you that a bone-chilling, relentless, drenching rain is its own special brand of miserable to bike in, but it’s not -40C before windchill.

Toronto and New York, I believe you that a repeating cycle of freeze and thaw makes for treacherous, icy roads, but it’s not 2 months straight of -20C and below when nary a snowflake melts.

Montreal, I understand that fresh snow, while beautiful and peaceful, is a bit of a challenge to bike through – because we get that too.

It just seems like winter cycling in Winnipeg and Saskatoon and Yellowknife is in a different league than the fair-weather cities where the authors of these articles evidently dwell. Those of us who cycle year round in continental extreme may not be superhuman (ask anyone I went to high school with and they’d fall over laughing if you used words like “athletic” or “energetic” or “hard core” [not followed by “nerd”] to describe me) but we do have an extra measure of stubbornness or persistence in the face of discomfort and potential danger. It’s probably more a mental strength than a physical strength, but the point is, I don’t think “anyone can do it” quite cuts it.

It may not require special gear, but at very least, it takes the kind of appropriate winter wear pathological drivers often neglect to own. And frankly, it IS easier with special gear.

You don’t need to wear ski goggles and a neoprene and fleece mask that makes you look like Darth Vader, but it sure is easier when you do.

You don’t need the special lobster mitts or the fantastic handlebar encasing hand-warming system pogies, but you’re likely going to want better mitts than the fancy but paper thin leather gloves you wear in your car.

As for looking chic while you do it – thank you, Amsterdam, for reminding us that you’ve never had personal experience with the formula that the attractiveness of your clothing is in inverse proportion its appropriateness for the plunging mercury.

You could simply use whatever bike you have, but why would you want to if you can possibly afford an alternative? Even more true in the freeze-thaw locations than in Winnipeg where salt simply doesn’t work half the time, why would you subject a lovely summer bike to the ravages of water and sand and salt that characterize winter roads?

As for wider tires, I believe bike couriers – for whom a bicycle is an extension of their very bodies – when they say skinny slicks work great for them, cutting through the snow and rolling safely over ice; I just don’t believe it would be so for me. I know from experience that the wider the tires, the more stable I feel – and the more confidently I ride, the better everything goes. My fat bike is definitely more work to pedal, and yes, it’s a tad embarrassing when a long-legged, skinny-jeaned hipster flies past me on his 10-speed-style fixie as though I were standing still, but it’s so worth it when I’m dealing with road snakes, and mercury ice and brown sugar and mashed potatoes.

I was infuriated when one of these authors who was extolling the merits and accessibility of winter cycling wrote that he puts his bike away when it reaches 5 degrees: anything below that is just too much. If that's Celsius, I can’t call him enough names. Even if that’s in Fahrenheit, -15C  would still have you sitting out 80% of a normal Winnipeg winter.

Don’t you tell me what it takes to bike in winter, bub.

Cycling in winter means covering every inch of my body because exposed skin will become frost-damaged over the course of my commute – but wearing a light coat that wouldn't suffice for standing at a bus stop, because as long as I keep moving, I’ll warm myself up. Cycling in winter means fat tires to deal with a plethora of weather-affected road conditions from slippery to uneven to rock-like (manhole covers are terrifying given the myriad ways that small stamped metal surface oozing rancid air may differ from the snowy pavement), not to mention the ruts and potholes already existing in the pavement. (By the way, the snow does NOT fill up the potholes, rendering the road surface even.) Cycling in winter means having enough energy to keep cranking the wheel around and around despite all the forces of the universe attempting to convince your muscles and the components of your bike that it’s simply too cold to move.

Finally, cycling in winter means a constant terror of falling, an ever-present fear that translates into tremendous triumph. I wouldn’t say winter cycling is fun, but simply by virtue of making it to your destination despite the odds, despite the scorn and bafflement of others, each trip is a victory, and there’s a certain pleasure in that. It’s satisfying to get around on your own power despite conditions most people think are unbearable. It’s energizing to be out there in the elements and undefeated by them.

Sure, winter cycling is doable, and there’s even something great about it. Now that you’ve got the story straight, will you join me?

Updated Apr. 6: alternate title added


Interestingly, I related to this but not because of cycling. I related to it through our culture of DIY and my current profession of renovating. Thanks to the plethora of shows, Home Depot presentations, and magazines everybody's an expert. Thank you, home-owner, who's only lifted a hammer when hanging your pictures frames for telling me how to properly build your basement walls. Thank you, home-owner, who worked a summer for College Pro for telling how to cut straight lines. Thank you, home-owner, who watches too much TV for telling me how to mud your drywall. The list goes on.

Thanks to decentralisation and the globalisation of knowledge, everybody's an expert on everything. Even though some guy only bikes until it's 5 degrees, he knows everything there is to know about cycling.

It does take a certain type, a certain mind - and it does take special gear. People used to be special when they became experts in a field from doing their 10 000 hrs. Now you can do it for an hour and be specialised.
kar0ling said…
Your beef is much better grounded than mine. It's not that I don't think the people writing these articles have biking cred, I just don't think they have what can be called winter biking cred.
But your frustration with people who think they know your work better than you? Now that's galling. I feel the callouses of your 10 000 hours.
Ali said…
Goggles and special tires sound absolutely necessary to me!

As someone who is afraid of both cycling and cold, the closest thing I can relate to is internet recommendations for maternity 'winter' wear, which usually boil down to adding not-warm boots and a puffy vest or loose scarf to an existing leggings and tunic outfit.

For the most part, when someone on the internet refers to winter, this is what runs through my head:
kar0ling said…
Yes, Al, that is exactly it! :)

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