When celebrated Long Island, N.Y. punk band Latterman sang that “The TV’s on way too loud and my bike’s covered with snow,” it was a reality plenty of Calgarians could certainly relate to once old man winter hits.
But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. After all, the city has more than 350 km of on-street bike lanes and an additional 700 km of pathways dedicated to bicycle transportation. Nearly half of the city’s residents live within 10 km of the downtown core, a distance commutable for even novice cyclists. And, according to a report published by the Pembina Institute, a non-profit environmental organization aimed at sustainable energy solutions, Calgary has the most bike paths per capita of any major Canadian metropolis.
Still, according to Statistics Canada, three quarters of the city’s population still commutes by car, a figure that surely rises once temperatures plummet. And beyond the obvious deterrents for winter cycling — suspect road conditions, lack of experience and the fact that it’s fucking cold — there are ways to do it. And reasons, too.
THE ERRORS IN THE TERROR
Johnny Barrett, co-founder of the Eau Claire Market’s Good Life Community Bike Shop, says that confidence can be a major barrier to wintertime cycling. But its benefits are immediately evident — and, with a little bit of preparation, icy conditions and sub-zero temperatures can be easily overcome. Those trepidations are something that Good Life hopes to conquer in its workshops by offering winter tips and single-speed conversions.
“I think urban sprawl is a huge issue. It seems like such a huge distance, especially on those really cold days,” he says. “And sometimes it is slippery, sometimes drivers are assholes and sometimes visibility is limited. But once people do start riding, they get over that. It’s quicker than cars, and you don’t have to worry about your bike not starting.”
Sean Carter, a former board member of cycling advocacy group Bike Calgary and current owner of the commuter-centric 17th Avenue shop BikeBike, agrees. He says that a few handling techniques — staying over top of your bike, defensive strategies and less of a reliance on your brakes — keep you, er, rubber side up in icy conditions. And while the salt and calcium chloride mixtures used on Calgary streets can cause bike parts to seize, a spray-down and fresh lube can counteract most catastrophic bike failures.
“We saw last year that (salt) was welding bikes together,” he says. “The best offence is a good defense. Hose your bike off, take it to the power washer and spray it down, drip dry and re-lube the chain. Get the salt off your bike because it will eat everything.”
PATHWAY TO HEAVEN
While navigating unkempt roads can be tough — this year’s snow removal budget is $33 million, and it places priority on the maintenance of the downtown core and arterial roads — Carter says the city’s paved pathway system provides a solution. Further, the city’s Bike ’N’ Park sites, which are located at seven spots around the network, can offer entry points for suburban commuters who don’t want to fully commute by car.
Duane Sutherland, the pathway co-ordinator for the city’s parks department — which is responsible for maintaining the path network — says pathways are often ploughed by 7 a.m. It’s impossible for the city to maintain the entire network, he says, adding that the network is classified into two priorities based on usage, with private contractors clearing high-priority zones. Determined in a Parks and Pathways survey assembled in 2006, 150 km of the paths are cleared regularly, many of which surround the Bow River.
“It’s all weather dependent,” says Sutherland. “You see everyone using it — people walking their dogs, out exercising. The only people you don’t see are the rollerbladers and the skateboarders.”
And while the pathways’ 20 km/h speed limit is considerably lower than most streets and it’s certainly not the most direct route to downtown, the network provides not only a quicker, more convenient commute, but a more picturesque one, too.
But that’s not the first choice for Juliet Burgess, a year-round cycling commuter. While she says she uses the paths, she prefers sticking to the roads.
“I don’t really trust a lot of the paths. They’re sometimes just randomly closed and there’s no warning signs. So you’re just stuck in the middle of the pathway,” she says. “So, I end up sticking to the roads and going really slowly. But it still ends up being faster.”
“I don’t really use the pathways in the winter, because they’re icy and scary,” she continues. “The pathways, they twist, they turn, you go over and under things — it’s fun in the summertime, but in the wintertime I try to steer clear.”
Burgess’s choice to use Calgary roads might seem odd at first. While Calgary’s wide-curb bike lanes notoriously meander (and infrequently connect), they also pose another hazard: They regularly disappear after a fresh snowfall, even if the city claims it tends to high-priority streets 24 hours after snowfalls.
“Calgary doesn’t have safe bike paths (to begin with),” says Good Life co-founder Jackie Mann. “So if you look carefully — like on 11th Avenue — they’ll have some paved in the path of car doorways. Calgary also doesn’t remove snow very fast, so when the white snow covers the white paint, it’s hard to tell where everyone’s supposed to be.”
Carter, for his part, acknowledges that problem, but says cyclists need to inform the city of these problems.
“People should know they can actually make a difference by simply calling 311 and reporting (uncleared bike lanes),” he says.
And in snowy weather with suspect bike lanes, the space given to cyclists lowers drastically — in fact, the 1.5-metre clearance, as outlined in the city’s Bicycle Policy and Needs report for “comfortable lateral clearance,” is a concept that’s thrown out the window. Still, adds Burgess, Calgary’s grid system offers plenty of side-street alternatives, while busier roads tend to clear themselves through high-traffic volume.
“Road conditions are just like they are for cars,” says Burgess. “I think that I like the wintertime, because people are more respectable about traffic. I like it, because we’re all in it together — it doesn’t matter who’s next to you. Maybe the guy next to you is a huge fundamentalist and I’m like this crazy, pro-choice biker girl, but it doesn’t even matter, because we’re all working together.”
Mann echoes that sentiment. Drivers, she says, can be more compassionate in the wintertime — a sign that both drivers and cyclists consider it a serious mode of all-season transportation.
“Patience can still be an issue,” she says. “On those really cold days, where people’s cars aren’t even starting, I feel that people are a bit more respectful. It might just be that they’re taken aback by the fact that people are cycling. Compared to 15 years ago, it’s a huge difference.”