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Winter Road Warriors
By Staff
Date: 3/24/2007
Winter Road Warriors

Winter Road Warriors
It may be that Spring has just returned, but "... for many cyclists, a cold, harsh winter is no excuse to stop riding. Some use their bikes to commute while other diehards find it unbearable to take their training routine indoors." A last look at how some riders in Montreal, Quebec deal with Winters challenge.

By Adam Klevinas

When the mercury dips below zero, it is hard to imagine getting on a bike for any reason. By the time the first snowfall hits, most people’s bicycles have already been tucked away in their basement or garage for the winter, letting them collect dust over the long, cold months.

A cyclist makes his way down Ste. Catherine street in downtown Montreal during a late winter blizzard. Photo c. Adam Klevinas

But for many cyclists, a cold, harsh winter is no excuse to stop riding. Some use their bikes to commute while other diehards find it unbearable to take their training routine indoors.

Lorenzo Caterini of Halifax is one cyclist who braves the winter on two wheels for training purposes. As a serious athlete, he rides year round to maintain form for the upcoming racing season. Caterini can’t justify riding an indoor trainer and often switches between his road and mountain bike depending on the conditions.

"Neither Snow nor Sleet" stops one of Montreal's year round bike messengers on the job. Photo c. Adam Klevinas

In mid-February, Caterini and 12 of his training partners set out on a typical 115-kilometre training ride on a blustery Sunday morning. Aside from the sub zero temperatures, thirty kilometre per hour winds added an extra bite to the cold.

“The biggest problem is the wind and blowing snow across the roads near lakes,” said Caterini, an Aliant Digital Switch Maintenance Center employee. “There are stretches where the snow can be about 5 centimetres deep across the entire road.”

In such conditions, many cyclists would have long packed their bag for the gym or set out for the local cross-country ski trail. But for training, Caterini doesn’t think the winter is an excuse to stop riding.

“The best way for a cyclist to train is to ride outdoors,” said Caterini, “ Some people are just very serious about their training and racing.”

Caterini, like all winter cyclists, converts his bike into a machine capable of handling all weather conditions. He takes mountain bike tires, drills holes in the rubber studs and inserts metal car studs from the inside out to keep his grip on the road and snow. He then inserts a cut-up road tire as a liner between the tube and the rim to prevent the studs from causing punctures. Once that is complete, “you can carve up any icy surface,” according to Caterini.

Caterini also uses front and rear fenders over his tires that extend almost all the way to the ground. Aside from keeping the individual dry, it also prevents snow and slush from spraying up onto his training partners. To keep his feet warm and dry, Caterini uses special winter cycling shoes and inserts Toasters, a heated rechargeable insole he can control with a remote. Caterini may be an exception among his fellow winter cyclists. Most people who ride through the winter use their bike to commute.

John Burke, a civil engineering student at McGill University, is one of many cyclists who use their bike to get around Montreal throughout the year. Burke feels his bike is a more convenient method of commuting than Montreal's public transportation system, even in the winter.

John Burke, a McGill University student, arrives at Montreal's Concordia University for an engineering fair. Photo c. Adam Klevinas

“The bus doesn’t come often enough where I live,” said Burke, 20, “Riding my bike is just easier and cheaper. I don’t have to buy a bus pass and wait around wasting my time.”  “Besides, it saves gas and is much better for the environment,” acknowledged Burke, as he locked his bike to a rack during a blizzard that left Montreal beneath thirty-five centimetres of snow.

Although much of Canada has seen very little snow this winter, big snowfalls make cycling difficult, but not impossible according to Burke. “You absolutely can’t go fast in the snow,” said Burke, a mechanic at Martin Swiss Bicycles, a local bike shop, “You have to take turns really slow. If you want to go fast, you have to be on a long straightaway with lots of time to apply your brakes slowly.”

To bike safely in the winter, riders have to take very specific precautions.

Burke wears a downhill ski helmet with ski goggles on really snowy, cold days to protect his head and maintain visibility. But on typical days, a regular bike helmet with a balaclava underneath is sufficient. Burke’s bike is outfitted with cyclocross tires- a tire of road width but with rubber studs like a mountain bike tire- to maintain grip on the road. Over top of his tires, he has installed fenders to stay dry. Behind his seat, flashing red lights allow him to stay visible to cars on the busy city streets.

Cyclists in Halifax, Nova Scotia test out a frozen lake near Hospital Hill.
Photo c. Lorenzo Caterini.

All winter cyclists have to take especially good care maintaining their bikes throughout the season. On warmer days, Burke hoses his bike down to remove salt from the components and applies bike grease or WD-40 to keep things running smoothly.

Like Burke, Stephen Bowman, a civil servant with the Canada Border Services Agency in Ottawa sees his bike as a cheaper, more convenient method of transportation. Bowman, a year round cyclist, also uses his daily commute for training purposes, adding, “not polluting is a nice, secondary benefit.”

He also cautioned that riding in the winter requires extra vigilance on the cyclist’s part. “You just have to ride with a bit more care and reduce your speeds,” said Bowman, 34. "Fat winter bike tires and poor snow removal on Ottawa’s city streets automatically reduce speed anyway," he added.

Bowman resorts to a fixed, single gear bike, which he says helps generate more power to push through the snow and slush as a result of the lower gear ratio.

The key to fighting the cold is layers, according to Bowman. He wears a wind proof jacket, tights and polypropylene top and bottom underwear as a base layer to stay warm.

Winter cycling requires a lot of extra effort and care on the part of the cyclist. And while reasons for riding may range from commuting to training, cyclists, consciously or not, and regardless of the season, are contributing to the fight against global warming by being one less car on the road.

Aaron Derfel, 40, a journalist at the Montreal Gazette daily newspaper, realizes that by riding his bike year round on his daily commute to the office, he is contributing toward keeping the air clean.

But Derfel finds that reason a bit sanctimonious. His main reason for cycling in the winter is that he enjoys the freedom and welcomes the challenge.

Adam Klevinas is a freelance writer and journalism student at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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