I’m sitting hunched in my parked car on McDermot Saturday morning, catching up on a few emails and texts. It’s nearly minus 30 outside with the windchill. That’s when Aaron Boissonneault and Suntka Rost glide past me, walking with long, swift strides, casually pushing their bicycles down the street. I hunch down further behind the steering wheel, finish off an email and follow them inside Forth minutes later.
The pair courier for Natural Cycle, a worker co-op that delivers city wide for local businesses like Mama Pacha, Green Bean Coffee, Just The Goods and Bronuts. On any given day, they’ll be cycling all over the city, no matter the weather. In addition to the bikes, Natural Cycle has recently acquired an orange mini truck. Aaron tells me, “We’re still in the beginning stages with the truck. We don’t like to use it, but we’re tracking how viable it is for us. It means we can do more and more crazy things in crazier weather.”
FULL: On an average day, how long would you say you ride?
SR: Last Friday was insanely busy, so we rode late. I started at 8:30 and then rode until 5pm. But this past Friday was very slow, so I only rode for two hours. I still have to be on call, but the actual riding varies depending on how many calls we get. We also have regular routes and clients we run for.
AB: If you ever eat a Bronut at Thom Bargen, one of us brought it there.
FULL: What would you tell people about winter cycling?
AB: It’s crazy, don’t do it.
SR: People will get mad at you.
FULL: They get mad?
SR: Some people will be excited and cheer you on. You get both sides. Someone might be next to you and give you the thumbs up, because they’re impressed, but others get mad.
AB: We had a rider come in frazzled after an encounter on the road yesterday. She was headed northbound on Osborne. Someone honked at her, swooped by and cut her off, then stopped at a red light. Our rider slid and bumped the driver’s bumper with her rubber wheel. The driver got out and swore at her, saying, “You did that on purpose,” and wanting her MPI information. All because she didn’t believe that our cyclist should be on the road.
But, it’s technically illegal to ride on the sidewalk, and our business requires that we be on our bikes, so...
SR: We’re going to be on the road.
FULL: What are some safety precautions you’d recommend?
AB: Lights are important. The worst thing you can do when you ride your bike, winter or summer, is hide. I see a lot of people trying to be as far over to the curb as they possibly can, which just makes them invisible to cars. It’s recommended that you be least a meter or three feet from the curb. And usually the curbs are not cleared anyway, so it’s packed with snow and that pushes you farther out.
SR: Take a lane if you need to. It’s safer than being on the side and having people try to squeeze by or push you over. You have a right to be on the road.
Also, you want to brake in advance. Any sharp turns can be dangerous.
AB: Two brakes.
SR: Slow down much more in advance, so that if someone does start to brake ahead of you, you can react to that.
FULL: The same sort of things that people hopefully do in their cars during the winter.
SR: Good winter bikers actually make great drivers, because they are very careful.
AB: Contact with the road is important when you’re riding. You can increase your contact by letting a little air out of your tires, so they hug the ground and give you more traction. And of course when it gets really bad, studs on the front will help with sliding. You’ll slide anyway, and that can be fun, so long as you stay on your bike.
FULL: What type of equipment do you wear to keep warm?
SR: The important things are feets, hands and face. Your core keeps warm pretty well, and it’s easy to overheat if you have too many layers.
AB: Fingers and toes, keep them warm.
It’s important to remember that when you ride your bike you generate your own heat, and so you get sweaty. A couple Tuesdays ago, I had to deliver something out past Moray, down Portage, and it was into the wind and minus 40 with the windchill. But I got there and when I took off my gear, a cloud of steam came off of me, because I’d generated so much heat. It turned to snow, and then all my stuff was covered. That’s when you get cold, because you’re wet. So stay dry. Wools are good for that.
Two pairs of socks at least, two pairs of mitts depending, sometimes two toques. it can be that cold.
SR: Goggles make a big difference. They keep you so much warmer. On windy days it’s good to have windbreaker material.
AB: A nice shell.
SR: Surprisingly, your thighs can get pretty cold in the wind. I mean there’s not much danger of frostbite, but it can get uncomfortable.
AB: I like vests, because it keeps your core warm and then you can radiate all the extra heat out your arms. I’d also recommend changing your socks so your feet stay dry.
SR: It’s a learning curve. You learn how to bike and dress better. Everyone has different heat. We have one rider who’s very cold all the time. She often wears three pairs of pants, while I only wear one.
FULL: So initially, when I asked about winter cycling, you said “Don’t do it.” Is that more of a joke or is there some truth behind it?
SR: To me it’s a joke.
AB: You have to be a confident cyclist.
SR: And confident in the city especially.
AB: It is all about confidence and assertiveness, and you do have to follow the rules. If you’re going the wrong way on a one way street, you’re making all of us look bad.
SR: Most people we talk to about winter cycling aren’t scared of being cold, they’re just scared to be on the road. They don’t think it’s safe.
FULL: I know a lot of people who are scared just to cycle on the road, doesn’t matter what the weather is.
SR: The funny thing is that being on the sidewalk is way more dangerous.
FULL: Well that’s another misconception I think. When you’re on the sidewalk you’re invisible twice. You’re invisible to motorists, but going way faster than pedestrians.
SR: And they don’t think you’re on there, so they’re just going to be in your way.
AB: And then you get pedestrians on the bike lanes.
SR: People often cross bike lanes without checking for bikes. You can’t help but run into them because they cross directly in front of you.
AB: I’ve seen someone pushing their shopping cart down a bike lane.
FULL: One thing I’ve found with being on the road is you have to be hyper aware because so many drivers don’t shoulder check, or if they do they don’t see you because you’re small.
AB: A lot of people don’t shoulder check when they’re turning right. Almost all of my close calls have been from motorists who don’t check or feel like they can beat me on their turns.
SR: We’re moving with them. So when they cut in front of us and then turn, we run straight into them.
FULL: How many collisions have you been in?
AB: They’ve all been near misses. But there have also been cars turning right, not signaling, not shoulder checking who ran me off the road. Once it happened three times in one day, and I punched a window.
My only real collisions have been running into jaywalkers. This past summer I ran into two belligerent jaywalkers within a week. The more serious one was as I was accelerating. The jay followed his buddy out after the cars had passed and didn't bother checking for anything else. I was going to swing around behind him, but suddenly he saw me, stumbled and fell backwards into my shoulder. We hit the pavement hard.
SR: I’ve gotten bumped by cars a couple times in the back tire at stop signs. Never bad enough to make me fall.
AB: When you come to a stop sign, get into the middle of the lane. That prevents people in cars from squeezing you out thinking they have the right of way.
FULL: So if someone were to approach you saying they were interested in winter biking, you’d tell them to make sure they have lights, wear layers and keep warm, be assertive on the road, and don’t be afraid to take up space.
SR: And have a good bike with proper tires. You want fenders if you can.
AB: The ability to keep up with traffic is important too. If you want to go slow, stick to the lazy roads.
SR: If you hold up traffic you’re representing cyclists in a negative way.
AB: Passing busses is another thing to gain confidence with. If you’re on Portage following the 11 and stopping at every stop, you might as well be taking the bus.
SR: You are faster than a bus, especially the ones on Portage that make a lot of stops. You need to be able to shoulder check, change lanes and pass back.
FULL: Do you find that busses are generally a little more considerate of cyclists?
AB: No. We have a lot of problems with busses trying to race us.
SR: We share the same lane, but I don’t think they like us there, because we can slow them down. At the same time, they pass us, then stop again, so we have to pass them. That becomes very frustrating.
FULL: What are some of your favourite bike paths?
AB: The bike lane along McGillivery’s good. It’s usually pretty clear.
SR: Most bike lanes aren’t cleared in the winter, so it’s tough to ride them. Like the bike lane on Sherbrook gets too bumpy and icy, I don’t use it in the winter.
Assiniboine can be really nice, but now there’s construction along there.
AB: With Assiniboine, you see people driving into the bike lanes or parking in them. And there are often joggers along there, even though there’s a cleared sidewalk right next to them.
FULL: What are some things about cycling in the winter that you really like? That make it a pro over other times of the year?
AB: Fresh snow, before it gets ruined by cars. Snow storms are fun. Everything sort of slows down, which makes it easier for cyclists. And it’s just fun to cycle in the snow. It’s like hopping in and making an angel.
FULL: What you’re saying makes me think about how when you’re cycling in general, you’re just so much more in contact with the environment around you.
AB: One thing that I think might be a misconception about winter cycling is the idea of crisp, fresh air. It smells like bus exhaust out there. And the air is thinner, so you huff and puff a lot more.
SR: It can be exhausting.
AB: It makes you appreciate the summer though.
SR: We become really good summer bikers.
AB: You feel like you’re flying in the summer time.
Although some aspects of the riding are easier in the winter. There’s less construction and fewer potholes because they get filled with snow.
SR: And in general, cars are more careful, so they can be more aware.
FULL: Are there some positive interactions you’ve had with motorists in the winter?
SR: Once I was stuck in fresh snow near the U of M. It was a residential road and I couldn’t bike through it because it was so high. A car stopped and offered me a ride. I didn’t take it, because I knew I’d be through the thick snow in a few blocks and be fine afterwards, but it is nice of someone not to hate you for cycling in the winter: to see your situation and offer help instead.
AB: I was doing a delivery on a beautiful sunny day in the wintertime, headed down a bike path through Charleswood along the William Clement Parkway. Most of it was cleared, but then it stopped, and I was standing in front of an eight-foot wall of snow. That was pretty fun. I grabbed my bike and I climbed through the snow. Eventually I had to give up on the bike lane.
FULL: Crazy. Are there any other things you do to get you through cycling in the winter?
S: Take warm up breaks.
A: Maybe travel with snacks.
S: Yeah, boiled eggs. That’s what one rider does.
A: She has a hardboiled egg in each pocket - very mom.
S: It’s cute. Some people do trail mix. I don’t do snacks, I eat a really good meal the night before. That keeps me energized for the next day.