WINTER CYCLING IS ALL ABOUT BALANCING OPTIONS

March 4, 2016, Hamilton Spectator

It was a cold Friday in February for Hamilton’s first Winter Bike to Work Day. They met in Gore Park over some high-end donuts and fair trade coffee, while others gathered elsewhere in the city to pedal their boneshakers through plumes of cold mist rising from sewer grates.

I’ll admit I gleaned this from photos posted online. I was at home drinking my own freshly brewed fair trade coffee while cooking my morning oatmeal. Have I wimped-out before the Viking Biking crew?

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Bicycle, Westdale in Winter (photo by Randy Kay)

The winter ride’s argument is that even in frozen Canada cycling is a year round option for travel. It’s true, no doubt. When bike paths are clear of snow and ice, cycling is just a matter of dealing with the cold, entirely manageable.

But they are not clear of snow and ice. I sometimes Imagine the winter of discontent drivers would have if they had to deal with the same level of service as cyclists. Some glorious day we will achieve snow-plowing parity, and the winter cycling argument will pick up steam.

Until that day, my bicycle and I remain fair weather friends. After my leisurely Winter Bike to Work Day breakfast, I left my bicycle leaning in the dark hallway and walked a few frozen blocks to buy groceries. That evening I booked the Hamilton CarShare so that I could drive to Toronto and retrieve my daughter as she exited the Megabus from Kingston to start her reading week. The car ride on such a cold night was a welcome luxury, and cheaper than our combined bus fares.

Any particular day I can choose to walk, bicycle, transit, car-share, and on occasions borrow a car. I have yet to take a SOBI bike share membership, but that’s another option many Hamiltonians have already taken up. Let’s just agree that I have a diverse array of transportation options for a guy who doesn’t own a car, options available to most in the city. When we get Light Rail and a mountain bound Gondola, I will add those to the mix.

While the message of Winter Bike to Work Day is at the core “we can do this,” this bold claim could be tempered with a modest question; perhaps: “what is the best mode for me given the conditions?”

Do I ride my bike in winter? Yes. But peering through frosted window panes helps me decide how I am going to move my butt for things like getting to work (3km) or to the Hamilton Farmer’s Market (1.6km). The first consideration – like the topic of conversation in coffee shop lineups – is almost always weather conditions. Très Canadian.

My preferred modes are cycling and walking, but if the roads are covered in snow and ice I’ll trade my bike for boots. If the walk seems treacherous (or I’m feeling lazy) I’ll boot it to the bus. Other considerations include distance, how fast do I need to get there, what kind of exercise I want to get, will I be carrying something, and my energy level.

Usually my mood improves when riding. But riding in my balaclava, my sunglasses worn to cut the glare of sun on snow are annoyingly misting up with each exhale. My feet and hands, despite excellent winter gear, rarely get as warm as I’d like, though my core is toasty. Let’s consider this a bad-mood-inducing input. On the coldest days I prefer walking to cycling since my body heat disperses more evenly, my toes and fingers warm enough to remove my mittens about 10 minutes in. These physiological inputs form neural pathways not easily forgotten in the algebra of winter awareness. My cycling enthusiasm sags as the temperature drops.

This winter has been easy on cyclists and snow plow crews. Poised between winter solstice and the spring equinox, I’ve ridden more this year than I have in recent years. But I remain a fine weather agnostic on the subject of how to get around.

There are other shortcomings in my personal winter cycling preparedness. I don’t want to have to change tires, clean off salt and slush, nor do I have room for a second winter-beater in my already crowded abode. This is when a bike share like SOBI makes sense. At $15 per month during the winter season (December to March) I could access their bicycles and let them worry about storage and maintenance.

But that leaves the condition of pavement as the ultimate barrier to cycling: If the city could keep clear lanes for cyclists the way they do for motorists, I would be back in a happy place, even it my fingers and toes were a bit cold. As far as I can tell, we’re not quite there yet.

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