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Home > Blog > Winter Biking > Winter Ride: My least favourite thing about riding a cargo bike in winter


It’s not the cold. Honest.

It’s the snow. And, not in small quantities, nor where it is adequately maintained. Our box bike handles unbelievably well in the snow, especially when loaded.

It’s the snow in large quantities. An anomaly for where I live (Calgary), usually. We are normally subject to fairly dry winters and while we do see some snow, it rarely accumulates past one or two small storms as we are subject to a weird and wonderful meteorological phenomenon: the Chinook, which causes massive temperature fluctuations and mass melting. (For example, yesterday morning started at -28C in my neighbourhood and was up to -3C by mid-afternoon. As I type, it is currently 8C at the personal weather station nearest me (via T-shirt weather!



A season in review so far

The 2017-18 season has proven to be a challenging year to winter bike through. Doable for me since my trips are generally <5 km each way, tend to be predominantly along corridors that are mostly very well maintained, and I usually only have a few blocks on either end of my commutes to navigate to get to said corridors.

But, when we have any significant snow, the tricky part is getting to those corridors. I gave up for the first time this week, in part due to an unpleasant interaction with a foul dude on Wednesday (see below), but mostly because we woke up to a boat load of snow Thursday morning and could cross-country ski straight from our back door! So, the CETMA came inside for a few days for cleaning and maintenance, and we skied instead.


Why is snow tricky?

Riding in fresh snow (even without a fat bike) can be a beautiful experience, especially when the substrate is a solid, cleared surface. When snow accumulates, my ride becomes a completely mixed bag: well cleared pathways, often decently cleared sidewalks, snirt-y streets, slush, and difficult to impassable windrows.

Large amounts of snow are tricky for two reasons:

  1. Side streets
  2. Transitions

I find that I can sneak onto the sidewalk on most side streets and get by quite well (pulling over for pedestrians, etc.) as most people are decent at shovelling their walk in a timely fashion. Yes, street crossings can be a snirt-y affair, but my philosophy is ‘better just a crossing than a whole snirty street where I’m dumping my kids or getting too closely passed by an impatient driver‘. So, my strategy for side streets makes it a slow — but generally doable — affair.

My main challenge lies with transitions. Currently, with the amount of snow we have, I often can’t even get my bike from the sidewalk to the street in order to cross it, and then suffer the same issue on the other side. Transitions from sidewalk to road or road to pathway. I do not ride a light road bike with a tiny backpack; I observed one such rider hop off of his bike, pick it up, and like a deer, jump over a 2′ snow bank to get on to the pathway from the road. I ride a heavy bakfiets-style cargo bike with at least one, but often two, kids. It is a feat getting the front wheel up anything more than 3-4″.

In our city, snow removal is compartmentalized and each party has a 24 hour grace period from the last snowflake falling before they have to clear:

  1. People and businesses are responsible for the sidewalks in front of their properties.
  2. Parks clears pathways.
  3. Roads clears roads.

It is rare that you get a clear transition between any of the above. Sometimes you even have a full on turf war.

Calgary winter tires

A particular transition that has historically been a turf war: The pathway starts at the end of this street but Roads refused to clear the little stub and Parks refused to clear from the pathway to connect to where Roads had flat-bladed the street. This year, it has been decent and in this photo you can see the positive effect it has when we have a warming trend (where there is a clear, dry path and the rest of the snow has turned into compact snow/ice). While the two departments seem to be playing nice here, the road is often unridable or extremely challenging and the path is not cleared to connect to the sidewalk (and there is often a parked car in front of the start of the sidewalk).


A low point

Last Wednesday, I was transitioning from the off-street pathway to ride on a street that connected to a downtown cycle track. My first step was to cross a busy street at a marked crosswalk at a set of lights. I reached the crosswalk and dismounted in order to cross as a pedestrian (the law). I was just in the process of putting down my kickstand so that I could leave my kids in the bakfiets and climb up some snow to press the beg button when the light changed and it was my turn to cross.

Only it wasn’t.

The hand was still orange (since I hadn’t activated the beg button) and no one would stop for me. I had three drivists wave at me, thanking me for allowing them to go ahead because they were hurrying off somewhere in rush hour. And when I finally got the front tire up and over the frozen windrow between me and the road I needed to cross, yet another car refused to stop for me. I was pretty frustrated at this point, so I gave the guy the finger (whoops). In return, he took the effort to roll down his window, point at the hand telling me that I’m not allowed to cross (technically, he is correct, which I now know), and call me a “f*cking cunt” in front of my 6 and 3 year old daughters.


I got to be sexually harassed in front of my young girls all because we are unable to maintain transitions (and properly clear beg buttons or really, have beg buttons at all).

The irony of it all was that I was heading down to a Winter Bike to Work event. My consolation was there was hot chocolate and kind folk, plus I witnessed an enthusiastic soul strip down to a bikini for her Winter Bike to Work photo — proof that we winter cyclists are not afraid of the cold!

The whole experience has unfortunately made me somewhat fearful of large quantities of snow, reducing my confidence that I can go anywhere and that people are kind. I have lost some of my confidence that my city is looking out for me — just a mom who bikes and a woman who seeks safe streets.


Snow intersecting with safety

Snow is gorgeous. It sparkles, it’s clean, it’s white, it’s enchanting. My beef with it is transitions. I yearn for Montreal-style snow removal in the inner city or, at the very least, well maintained transitions and plowed on-street signed bike routes. (YouTube this; when I lived there, we would sometimes sit on our front stoop and watch the déneigement in awe.)

How does a city budget for proper snow removal that aligns with its policies? This year is clearly a worse case scenario. The kind of year you hope never materializes when you’re budgeting for your own home’s maintenance. But, when your pipe bursts, you still have to fix it.

I have never seen so many walking casts on people as I have this year. Or, heard of broken ribs from falls, broken wrists, etc. (None related to biking that I am aware of, just walking.) Not to mention the heaps of wrecked cars being dragged around the city to get fixed or turfed.

We desperately need to align our policies with our budgets for the safety and accessibility of all.


Winter Ride Series