Winter biking in Calgary: Why some cyclists say it's worth it

Various measures have shown cycling is on the rise, in general, but along several stretches of the downtown cycle track network, in particular, the numbers are down so far this year compared last year, when the winter was milder.

Colder weather, economic downturn cited as reasons for lower downtown ridership levels so far in 2017

Winter bike counts down in Calgary but year-round cyclists note unheralded benefits

5 years ago
Duration 0:42
Winter biking in Calgary: Why some cyclists say it's worth it 0:42

A light jacket, a pair of earmuffs and some gloves are all Duncan Findlay needs before hopping on his bike at the crack of dawn in –20 C weather.

The Calgary geoscientist has been riding his bike to work for the past five years and isn't bothered by the cold.

"As long as I've got my extremities covered and my ears aren't flapping in the wind, I feel fine," he said. "I bike to work in –30 and I don't know it's –30 until I get there."

Duncan Findlay says riding to work year-round keeps him fit, saves him money, and is more fun than driving. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

He likes riding because it keeps him fit and is more enjoyable than driving, while also saving him money.

He said his wife feels the same way, but she draws the line once winter arrives.

And apparently, so do many Calgarians.

Various measures have shown cycling is on the rise in general, but along several stretches of the downtown cycle track network in particular, the numbers are down so far this year compared to last year, when the winter was milder.

Cyclists ride past the bike counter along the 5th Street S.W. cycle track in downtown Calgary. The automated counter has recorded 21,502 bikes so far in 2017, down from 31,703 during the same period the year before. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Between Jan. 1 and March 7, there were 21,502 bikes recorded by the automated counter along Fifth Street S.W. at the CP Rail underpass. That's down 32 per cent from 2016.

It's a similar story along the 12th Avenue cycle track, where counts near the intersection of Eighth Street S.W. are down 33 per cent to 11,413.

The drop-off is less steep along the Eighth Avenue cycle track, where counts near Third Street S.W. are down five per cent to 20,330.

A cyclist rides past a locked-up bike along the 8th Avenue cycle track in downtown Calgary. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Kevin Schlauch, who rides year-round, believes weather and the economic downturn are behind the declines.

"It has been a colder winter and everybody might have a different tolerance for what their drop-off level is for how cold they'll bike in, but it is something you get used to," he said.

"And also, unfortunately, there's probably just less people working downtown these days."

Kevin Schlauch rides his bike for most trips in Calgary after he and his wife went car-free last year. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Schlauch figures he and his wife have saved $15,000 over the past four years by relying more heavily on riding than driving.

Last year, they went entirely car-free.

He doesn't feel as impervious to the cold as Findlay — quite the opposite in fact — so winter riding requires a little more preparation for him.

"It runs in my family that we have very poor circulation in our hands and feet," Schlauch said.

"So that's why I've got really warm boots on. I've got electric gloves underneath my winter gloves. And once I've got all that set ... I can handle any cold weather."

Calgary resident Kevin Schlauch says electrically heated gloves beneath his winter gloves help him ride his bike comfortably throughout the winter, despite poor circulation in his hands. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Findlay recognizes winter cycling isn't for everyone, but believes more people might like it if they gave it a try.

He said the biggest thing stopping many people who ride in other seasons isn't a lack of gear or experience, but a mental barrier.

"There's a perception that it's deeply unpleasant, that it's hard, that you're going to be somehow sweaty and freezing by the time you get to work, that it's dangerous," he said.

"And, well, in my experience that's not true."

Duncan Findlay rides his bike down the Centre Street bridge toward downtown Calgary. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)