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Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee rides his bike at Nathan Phillips Square recently (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee rides his bike at Nathan Phillips Square recently (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Folks, a rusty steed is a friend indeed - even in winter Add to ...

mgee@globeandmail.com

'You're brave," people exclaim when I arrive at work in my winter-cycling getup. By which they really mean, "You're off your nut." One cyclist who runs seminars about winter biking begins his talks with a cheery "Welcome, everybody. You have now joined the ranks of the criminally insane."

Most cyclists hang up their wheels when the first snow flies. A recent survey showed that just 10 per cent of Toronto cyclists ride through the winter. Even among "utilitarian" cyclists - dedicated types who use their bikes for practical stuff like getting to work and going shopping - the figure rises to only 15 per cent.

Opponents of spending money on Toronto's cycling network seize on these figures as proof that bike lanes are for the birds. Why annoy motorists by building a bike lane down Jarvis Street, say, if it's going to be all but empty for half the year? The way most people see it, winter biking is simply too cold, too dangerous and too much hassle.

I'm here to say it's just not so. In two winters biking Toronto's streets year-round, I've discovered that it's far safer and more comfortable than you might imagine and a lot more fun.

It's liberating at any time of year to avoid the restrictions of driving or public transit and set out on your own, a free agent of the street. In winter, with the sharp, fresh air on your face, it's exhilarating. You begin and end your day with a little adventure. As the winter cycling website icebike.com puts it, with perhaps a trace of irony, "You arrive feeling very alive, refreshed and with the aura of a cycling god."

The cold is no big deal. Your body heats up fast when you're pedalling. I get by nicely with a waterproof Gore-Tex windbreaker with office clothes (and, okay, long underwear) beneath. I wear a thin wool tuque under my helmet. When it's really cold - say, minus 10 or worse - I add a polyester balaclava that covers everything but my eyes.

For the hands, I have a pair of those lobster-claw gloves with two fingers instead of four and a fleece strip on the thumb for nose wiping, a bonus in the eye-watering cold. On my feet, I wear thick wool socks under pull-on Blundstone boots.

If it's slushy or rainy, I complete the ensemble with a pair of canary-yellow rain pants. With front and rear helmet lights flashing after dark, I look like a safety-conscious ninja assassin, but most of the time I'm perfectly warm. If you ski or skate in the cold, why not bike?

I'm no daredevil, and winter biking strikes me as no more dangerous than the summer kind. The main streets get cleared pretty efficiently after it snows, so most of the time you're travelling on clean pavement or a little slush, not ice or snow (and the hardcore guys have studded tires for that). My experience is that drivers are warier on winter streets and more inclined to give cyclists a wide berth.

Yes, you have to be careful when snow builds up along the curbs, sometimes forcing you into the car lane. Yes, icy streetcar tracks and slush-covered potholes are a hazard. And yes, there are stormy days when it's wiser just to leave your rusty steed at home.

But most of the time it's a breeze, and it's bound to get better as more cyclists take to the winter streets. As part of its drive to promote cycling as a commuting option, the city has been clearing snow off the waterfront's Martin Goodman trail since last winter. The Internet teems with tips on everything from glasses that fog up (smear them with a dab of gel toothpaste) to protecting extremities ("windproof jocks, as used by skiers, are much appreciated by men") to bike storage (let your bike get cold outside before you mount up or snow may stick to your brakes and derailleurs).

And think of all the neat gear you can buy! A Globe colleague who has been winter cycling for two decades (starting in Winnipeg) confesses to owning Gore-Tex socks, polypropylene underwear and a three-ply ice-climbing jacket brand-named "the Instigator."

As for the inconvenience of winter cycling, well, everything is relative. I started riding to work last winter out of frustration with the alternatives. Standing in the cold waiting for poky downtown streetcars was a drag. Driving meant scraping off the car and fighting for a parking space when dropping the kids at school.

So instead of putting my bike in the shed in November, I just kept riding. I was amazed at how easy it was. After a few days I was asking, Why haven't I always done this?

Winter cycling may not be for everyone, but it's not an icy hell on wheels either. Try it. It feels good to have everyone call you brave, even if they think you're mad.

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Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

 

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