Beware the winter warrior, the unstoppable cyclist unbowed and unbroken by snow, by sleet, by howling wind and sub-zero temperatures. This abominable creature fears nothing and can often be seen dressed up like a SWAT team member. Some say winter cyclists are, in fact, cold-blooded, and that a gang of them once made the Night King, the icy Game of Thrones villain, actually shiver.
These are, of course, myths. Just like drivers, tucked cozily into cars with seat warmers and heated steering wheels cranked up to maximum toastiness, cyclists in winter are just trying to get where they need to go.
Riding a bicycle in winter is hardly deranged or dangerous. We should not be outraged or appalled that cyclists dare to venture onto the road when it’s snowing. After all, drivers are out there too. Instead, we should salute these winter cyclists and make way.
“A lot of people who haven’t tried [cycling in winter] subscribe to a number of myths around it; that it is an extreme thing,” says Anders Swanson, secretary of the international Winter Cycling Federation. He lives in Winnipeg, where, as we speak, there is a few inches of snow on the road and he continues to travel happily by bicycle.
“I would ask for people to recognize that we are riding in the winter because we have places to go. We have jobs to get to, we have food to get, have friends and family to visit,” Swanson says. He has a car and also takes public transit, but, like many others, he prefers cycling. “For us, it's the safest, quickest, cheapest way,” he adds. It’s not an extreme sport; it’s transportation.
Not everyone plans to bicycle through a snowstorm, either. Some people just get caught out and are trying to get home.
As drivers, who are we to judge? Roads are public and cyclists have as legitimate a claim to them as drivers do. Besides, every cyclist is potentially one less car competing for parking space or jockeying to get ahead in traffic.
The #wintercycling threads on Twitter and Instagram provide plenty of evidence that cycling year round is a viable form of transportation.
On a mid-winter day in Oulu, a Finnish town located just below the Arctic Circle, about 1,000 small bicycles are parked in the snow outside a school. The photo, posted on Twitter by @pekkatahkola, is accompanied by the caption: “1000 out of 1200 kids in this school in #Oulu, #Finland, arrive by #bicycle, even in winter. 100-150 walk, rest by ski, kicksleds and car. This day it was -17°C.”
1000 out of 1200 kids in this school in #Oulu, #Finland, arrive by #bicycle, even in winter. 100-150 walk, rest by ski, kicksleds and car. This day it was -17°C.— Pekka Tahkola (@pekkatahkola) February 6, 2019
@WCCCalgary2019 #WCC2019 #wintercycling pic.twitter.com/8vgDEMf56R
There was a huge turnout for Toronto’s Coldest Day of the Year Ride this past February. It was 2 degrees and roughly 150 people showed up for a long ride through the city.
As they say in Nordic countries, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
As winter cycling infrastructure in Canadian cities slowly improves, albeit at a glacial pace, drivers should get ready to see more cyclists out on the road in cold weather.
If you are driving and happen to come across a cyclist on a frigid day, just be cool. You’re comfy in your car; give way to cyclists – and pedestrians – who are out in the elements.
As Swanson says, “winter is a big experiment in natural traffic calming.”
Cyclists may be riding farther out from the curb than normal. Don’t become annoyed. It’s not a personal affront or a case of entitlement. They’re not trying to slow you down or get in your way. They’re just avoiding the mound of snow that’s usually piled by the side of the road. If they’re riding outside of a bike lane, it’s probably because that lane hasn’t been plowed yet.
Bundled up in a hoodie or wearing goggles, cyclists in winter may not have the situational awareness they do in summer, so turn your car’s lights on and drive predictably. Don’t swerve or make any daredevil passing manoeuvres. In a car, you’re a lot more dangerous out on the road than they are.
Neither cars nor bicycles handle or stop in winter as well as they do in summer. Drivers would do well to leave plenty of extra space around cyclists to account for the increased stopping distance on slippery roads.
Driving in winter is hard enough. Don’t try to do it blind. Brush off your car’s windows and mirrors before hitting the road. Go slowly and leave extra time to get where you’re going. There’s no need to spiral into a road rage, people.
Go for a ride
Many things seem scary or crazy until you try them – like sky diving or kite surfing or driving on snow – but these things can, in fact, be wonderful.
“You're missing out on just pure magic,” says Swanson about riding in winter. There’s less traffic and cars move slower. You can hear the soft crunch of snow under your tires. It can be very peaceful.
“My advice is really, seriously, for people who have a driving habit in their life,” he says, “to take a moment to think about the places they could go and try to bike there some time when there’s not a lot of traffic, on a Sunday, and see how it goes.” Who knows, you too may become an all-season cyclist.
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