Consider This: You Can Bike to Work Year Round

By Nicola DiNicola

By Nicola DiNicola

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It was early morning on December 2. I made my way through the newly fallen snow to the university. The morning was a muffled, peaceful quiet, the kind that settles on the city after a heavy snow. Ahead of me lay a pristine, undisturbed white landscape strewn with blue/grey shadows of shapes buried in a blanket of white. Behind me, the tracks of my bike tires snaked in undulating dark lines, the first tracks to disturb the fresh snow covering the 83rd avenue bike lanes. I felt sweaty under my winter layers, but an invigorating chill brushed my cheeks, burnishing them to a rosy glow. I felt euphoric pride in my accomplishment and so thankful for the community that turned me into a winter cyclist.

Why would anyone want to bike in winter? I answer that it's for all the same reasons I want to bike in the summer. It's an extremely efficient and enjoyable way to get where you need to go. Commuting by bicycle is not some behavioural oddity. The benefits of active transportation are well supported by research. The physical and mental benefits are enough to motivate me. The financial benefits are an added bonus. I no longer worry about the price of gas, the cost of insurance, and the nuisance of parking. With the recent addition of cycling infrastructure built on Edmonton's roadways, and the accommodation of bicycles on Edmonton transit, travelling by bicycle has become a viable safer and cheaper option instead of car travel.

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I am a fair-weather cyclist, but last fall when I mused out loud "I feel like I should be winter cycling," there was an immediate flurry of support from my bike friends. One said, "If you get a studded tire today, I'll put it on for you tonight, and you'll be set." So, that's exactly what I did. Overnight, I was ready for winter cycle commuting.

Myths and misconceptions about winter cycling abound as evidenced by these remarks and questions I frequently hear and try to dispel.

"You cycle all winter? Wow, you're hard core!"

No, I'm actually very soft core! If it was difficult, I probably wouldn't do it. Everyone can do it!

"I could never cycle in the winter; I couldn't stand the cold."

You would tolerate the cold on a bike the same way you do when you walk or take the bus in the winter. You dress for the weather, and plan your route accordingly to minimize the time you spend outside.

"So do you ride one of those bikes with the fat tires?"

"I wish!" I say, laughing bitterly. I would love to have a fat tire bike, and they are such amazing fun to ride in the winter. However, they are rather expensive for my budget. It would be an impractical option for me for everyday commuting. My winter bike is a modest, reliable 20-year-old mountain bike on which I installed one studded tire for good traction, and it serves me perfectly.

"You really need to be properly outfitted for winter cycling and have really good gear."

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Just wear the clothes you would normally wear in the winter. Like any other sport, there's an infinite amount of money you can spend on gear and clothing. Whether any of it is actually needed is highly debatable. If a piece of gear is something that really improves your experience, go ahead and buy it. Besides the studded tire, the only special piece of gear I bought was a vented face mask. I could have done without it, but it is very useful and improves my riding experience. Other than that, my gear is a rather frugal hodge-podge of basic winter apparel.

"Winter cycling takes real dedication."

Well, we all need to be dedicated to finding transportation that works for us and fits our lifestyle. Also, we have to give ourselves permission to change it if it's not working for us. Cycling in general does take a certain amount of forethought and organization, especially around planning unfamiliar routes and carrying things. If you cycle every day, the planning becomes part of your routine.

But, if the weather turns very bad, or I feel unsafe, or I just don't feel like riding one day, I put my bike on the bus and leave the driving to someone else. No one is keeping score. I just do what works for me. In the bitter cold of this past February, when temperatures stayed below 30 for days, and my bike's bearing lubricant froze, and the roads were treacherously icy and snow-covered, I made the reasonable decision to commute by transit. Soon the weather broke, and the snow was cleared, and I was happy to get back onto my bike again.

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Cycling is my passion. But, it's not enough to find your passion; you have to find your community too.

I have been a cyclist all my life. But, in many ways, my cycling has been a solitary pursuit. Unknowingly, when I eschewed car ownership three years ago in favour of bicycle and transit commuting, I made the first unconscious step toward joining a community I was not even searching for.

Though I've focused on the practicality of cycling, I must also confess that I view cycling as much more than simply a mode of transportation. Cycling brings me great joy; I own four bikes and use them to explore this amazing city, navigating through life on my own terms.

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Recently, I met a like-minded group of fellow cyclists. We meet for coffee on Friday mornings at a local park during our commute. Casual acquaintances morphed into friendships as I got to know the group members better, and I discovered that sharing my cycling passion with friends not only broadened my knowledge and deepened the intensity of my interest, but it gave me endless opportunities to celebrate it. My relationships with my bike friends have sparked new interests in issues and topics related to cycling. We share ideas, experiences and discuss routes, challenges, and techniques. The group is diverse with all manner of bike preferences. Some drive cargo bikes. Another rides a unicycle, others love their fold-up Bromptons. There are the "fixie" riders and mountain bikers. One friend travels with an inflatable dinghy strapped to his bike for impromptu river adventures. A recently retired member of the group bought an electric assist bike and let me ride it. I was enthralled and excited about the accessibility of electric biking which makes it possible for anyone of any age to cycle, even in a hilly city like Edmonton.

Moving through the world on a bicycle is making a conscious choice to be closely connected to your environment, to be present and engaged in all weather and all circumstances. It allows you to speed up or slow down in rhythm with your inner momentum, and to notice and respond to what's around you. This is the very definition of freedom.

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Nicola DiNicola has been support staff at the University of Alberta since 2010 in various roles in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and in the Faculty of Arts. In her current capacity as a graduate and undergraduate student advisor, she feels privileged to help students navigate through their transformative educational journeys. She loves being part of the campus community. When she's not cycling, she enjoys reading, birding, playing squash and hanging out with her two wonderful daughters.