For my 72nd blog, I bring to you an element of the elements that hadn’t crossed my mind before – the ins and outs of winter cycling on a bicycle. The book ‘Frostbike‘ starts with the question ‘is happy winter cycling possible?’ This means serious cycling in snow and freezing temperatures, not the relatively mild winters we have in coastal Australia and elsewhere. Even here the number of cyclists in winter declines markedly. So, thanks to Tom Babin, there is now information available on what bikes are suitable for winter cycling, how cities can be designed to accommodate it, and the importance of people’s attitudes towards winter and, with it, winter cycling. The book also provides a fine example of how our attitudes towards the elements can have an impact on our behaviour and wellbeing.
In ‘Frostbike‘ Tom refers to research that identifies the most bike-friendly winter cities in the world. The top ten on the list were all in Finland and Sweden and had populations of less than 150,000 people. All of the cities had small populations of active people that allowed cyclists and pedestrians to comfortably share infrastructure during winters that were snowy, predictable and relative mild. It is important to note that the survey data had strict criteria and was limited by lack of information from countries such as Russia and China. Even so, it gives some sense of the key factors that encourage winter cycling.
Importantly, these cities made it easy to ride bikes over winter which made them attractive to people. Even with the health and economic benefits associated with riding pushbikes, if it is not easy to do, people are less inclined to do it. Tom Babin also feels that culturally different attitudes to winter in Europe and North America is related to the number of winter cyclists. His view is that the habit of complaining about the weather has become second nature in Canada, and perhaps North America, to the extent that it helps explain the reluctance to embrace winter and, with it, winter cycling. This is in contrast to countries like Denmark where thousands of people ride their bikes through snowstorms. In northern Europe, he says, they don’t see winter as the enemy. It just is what it is, so they just deal with it.
Tom concludes that winter cycling can be a viable and pleasurable way of getting around, especially with the growing popularity of ‘fat bikes’ that have larger tyres than normal bikes. Importantly, and interestingly, he emphasises the importance of attitudes and outlooks on winter as the key to the mass acceptance of year-round cycling. This applies to other weather/elemental conditions as well. What struck me on my recent trip to Japan was how people kept riding their bikes during the warm rainy season (tsuyu) – they just used an umbrella or wore wet weather gear. I was impressed.
Viewing rain and snow and wind in a different light can make all of the difference, as Tom experienced. He found that embracing winter gave him a new appreciation of the world around him. Not only does continuing to cycle in these conditions provide exercise, it contributes to a persons overall wellbeing. The same can be said of other activities that get us out and about in weather conditions perceived as poor. It may take some effort but it’s worth it.
Since writing this post I discovered the Siberian Ice Marathon, held each year on January 7th in Omsk, Siberia. The participants are really cool dudes! You can read more about them and other elemental topics in my post ‘Catching up on the elements‘.