🚵🏻‍♂️ Early Winter Cycling Lessons

Fog seems rare in Montreal

If you follow me on Mastodon then you’ll know I’ve committed myself to Winter cycling this year as Bixi, Montreal’s bike share system, is running its first pilot through the Winter months. I’ve been writing my thoughts over on Mastodon using the #WinterCycling hashtag, and will continue to do so until Spring next year.

But last week I learnt a lot about cycling out of the warmer seasons, even though the day in question was about as mild a Winter day as you could possibly hope to experience.

When I woke up, there was a light layer of snow over the sidewalks, which by the time I left for work had turned into scarce amounts of slush along the freshly ploughed cycle lanes. The temperature was barely below freezing.

It should have been an easy ride, but instead I quickly found a summer attitude towards cycling wouldn’t cut it.

Bixi Bikes in Winter

As part of the pilot programme, the normal tires are being replaced with special Winter tires which are thicker and have studs to aid grip. Along with this, the pedals are being changed to have better grip as well, so your foot doesn’t slide off so easily.

At the moment, Bixi crews are in the process of modifying the bikes, so you can still pick up bikes with the regular tires on them. And doing that would a major mistake.

There wasn’t even a tiny amount of snow, just a few mounds here and there of slushy white stuff. At one point I had to turn off the cycle lane and into the road to avoid some construction in the lane, and as I did I went over a tiny bit off snow and almost lost control of the bike.

Moving off from a stop in first gear and the front wheel would spin, and so I quickly realised to start from a stand in a higher gear.

Downtown as I was heading past McGill University, the inevitable happened. My bike started shifting sideways against my will and I lost control. I went down and the weight of the bike came down on my knee. I was fine, but I do have a bruise to show for it.

I got thinking about how that might have played out of I’d had to swerve to avoid a dangerous driver. Surely it wouldn’t have ended well.

I’ve learnt my lesson here, and if I can’t find a Bixi with winter tires, I won’t be cycling for that journey. I still have my OPUS card if I need it.

Comparison of a summer tire (left) with a winter tire (right). When you see these up close, it becomes clear why the summer tires don't cope well with ice and snow.

One general grumble I have with Bixi is that not all bikes have the same maximum seat height. Being 6’4” it makes a huge difference having a saddle extended to the correct length. Often I get a bike with a saddle which is too low, and that increases the effort needed to cycle. I just wish Bixi would modify all the bikes to have the full variety of heights.

I’ve also noticed lately an increasing number of bikes with missing bells. Granted a bike bell is useless when faced with an SUV blasting music at top volume, but it is helpful to make other cyclists and pedestrians aware of your presence in a pinch, and it feels odd riding around without one.

Clothing

Some obvious stuff here, and some less obvious stuff.

I definitely need warmer gloves, and ones which are waterproof. When I fell of my bike, my hands got soaked in icy water and my gloves did nothing to keep the water out.

My winter hat keeps getting pushed down over my eyes when I’ve my helmet on. I kept having to stop every 10 minutes and try and adjust it back, which was annoying.

My hat did keep my ears warm, but it reduced my ability to hear things clearly, which made me a little uncomfortable.

I’m also considering getting some kind of fluorescent jacket to go over my coat. Riding in the fog, I’m not convinced I’m visible enough to drivers.

Finally, my glasses would steam up from time to time, usually when I came to a stop. In one instance I turned into a side road and the temperature quickly dropped as evidenced by the sudden presence of fog. My glasses steamed up at the same time, and I’m wondering if I need a ski mask or something like that.

The Cycling Experience

I have to say the city did a great job of clearing the cycle lanes, making sure they get at least equal priority with roads.

I’m fortunate enough to have my office right next to an area with three large docks, so I had no trouble finding a space to put my bike on arrival.

In my own neighbourhood, they’ve still not removed the summer docks so finding a bike remained convenient. That’s inevitably going to change when I’ll essentially have just one dock within walking distance of my place.

Since I was cycling more cautiously my travel time is up from my usual 35 minutes to going on 50 minutes and costing me a few extra cents as I go over the 45 minute limit.

This is going to be annoying as the school run restricts my ability to leave earlier. However I can console myself that cycling will remain at least as fast as public transit, if not faster.

The number of people cycling is massively lower than just a few weeks ago. I miss the critical mass of cyclists which helps protect you from traffic. Cycling alone for stretches definitely leaves you feeling more vulnerable when not part of that larger group.

Another small annoyance is needing to take my phone out with gloves to check the Bixi app. I’d like to find a device which lets me securely mount my phone on the handlebars of the Bixi. I don’t know if such a thing exists.

Lastly I need to sit down and have a talk with myself about keeping my cool when confronted with traffic violence. Giving a driver a piece of your mind rarely ends well for the cyclist and deescalation is always the best option, even if someone just casually risked your life and the adrenaline is pumping.

I’m wondering if a small camera in my bicycle helmet will act as a deterrent in such situations.

So, there are challenges and I’m only at the start of my winter cycling journey. But it does make for a liberating experience and leaves me feeling invigorated when I arrive at the office, so onwards and upwards!

If you want to hear more of these adventures, follow along on Mastodon and keep an eye out for the #WinterCycling hashtag!