Giving Winter the Gears

Somewhere in Riverdale, not far from downtown, but maybe a bit farther from the Canada Games Centre and the airport, lives a merry band of housemates – four adults and two children.

What makes them merry? At this time of year, nothing more than layering up their clothing, putting on their ski goggles, and hopping on their bikes to go for a snowy winter ride.

Dan Joseph, a seasonal fire fighter and substitute teacher, has been winter riding since 2008 when he was teaching in Irkutsk, Russia.

“The bus service wasn’t very good, and I usually wanted to stay out later than the bus ran, so I started riding my bike out of necessity,” he says.

He’s been doing it ever since, and now commutes exclusively by bicycle; riding up to the CGC and Ecole Emilie Tremblay on a regular basis.

His housemates Jean Bellefleur and Max Thibeault are also avid winter cyclists. Bellefleur occasionally pulls his 15-month-old daughter in a Chariot and rides up Two Mile Hill, although his older school age daughter is not yet allowed to ride her bike in winter.

Sarah Vachon is the newbie in the group. In Whitehorse for only two months for a work placement, she had never cycled in winter until two weeks ago. Now, she’s hooked, and will continue when she returns to Quebec in December.

What possesses cyclists to continue to take to the streets as the snow falls? For those that avoid driving, whether for environmental or financial reasons, the benefits are many. Cycling provides cheap transportation. You don’t need a fancy bike, and a bike is generally reliable—as reliable as you are, anyway.

Which brings us to the health benefits. As Bellefleur points out, “You get a lot more exercise going the same distance in the winter than you do in the summer. Commuting by bike means if I don’t have time to exercise, I’ve still had a workout that day.”

What this group of cyclists also appreciates is the fun factor.

“I really like it when there are big drifts of snow that I can slide around in,” Thibeault says.

Joseph likes the feeling of being prepared. “When I’m all bundled up and I’ve got my big mitts on and my neck wrapped up and my goggles on, I feel a bit like a spaceman,” he says.

They all agree that cycling in winter puts you in tune with your environment in a unique way.

Their advice for people wanting to start winter cycling is to get a mountain bike, preferably with studded tires. Get some key safety gear: proper lights, high visibility clothing, and a helmet. Then, think about those parts of your body that aren’t going to keep themselves warm: your hands, feet, and face. Invest in a good pair of mittens, or a pair of pogies, which are like mittens that stay on your handlebars and allow you to use a thinner glove inside. A balaclava or neck warmer will protect your face.

As for the riding itself, you’ll quickly learn through experience – assuming you’re reasonably comfortable on a bike already. Vachon notes that even in the two weeks she’s been riding she’s gained an intuitive understanding of how the bike handles in the snow and is increasingly comfortable.

In terms of safety, using hand signals, being cautious at intersections, and yielding to pedestrians are all good practices. Following the rules of the road will help gain friends of the four-wheeled persuasion. Plan your route in advance, give yourself plenty of time, be alert to hazards, and choose a route you’re comfortable with.

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