Opinion·First Person

Keen to avoid public transportation, a fair-weather cyclist re-evaluates winter biking

The pandemic convinced me to keep riding all through last winter. It was a challenge that I’m not sure I would have otherwise taken up, but I’m proud I did. Bring on this winter, writes Ele Pawelski.

I’m a staunch cyclist, but winter was always off bounds. Until the pandemic

Keen to avoid public transportation during the pandemic, Toronto writer Ele Pawelski decided to re-evaluate biking during the winter months. (Hailley Furkalo/CBC News Graphics)

This First Person column is written by Ele Pawelski, a writer in Toronto. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

It snowed all morning. By the time I headed home from work, more than a foot — also known as a helluva lot — had accumulated. Downtown Toronto, usually a traffic jam, sported a few cars, some bundled-up pedestrians, and one I've-got-this cyclist. 

Until then, my foray into winter biking had been rather gentle.

It was January 2021. Canada was well into the pandemic's second wave. Like most, I wasn't doing much in the evenings and weekends. I was, however, working from my office 85 per cent of the time. Spring, summer and fall had provided straightforward every day rides in, rain being the main obstacle. Winter, historically a no-go for me, was a different matter altogether. 

Keen to continue avoiding public transportation, I'd re-evaluated biking in those ice-prone months. Here's where I landed:

Bike lanes and/or a biking culture are major pros for winter cycling. Dedicated lanes, and drivers who are used to sharing the road with cyclists, set up for a good ride in all conditions. 

I live in Toronto, not the most bike-friendly city in the world or even in Canada. Still, in the past couple of years, new bike lanes had been edged into existing thoroughfares (yay!). This meant there were decent routes available, some even separated from traffic. 

The right gear

Weather is obviously a consideration. If it's not sunny and temperate (an incentive at any time of the year), it may be off-putting to bike anywhere when there are other options available. But, hear me out: with the right gear, it's very doable. 

My ride is 25 minutes at most. I wear a down jacket and windbreaker, rain pants, a toque under my helmet and repurposed ski gloves. Cold never figures in. A 100 per cent chance of snow flurries all morning did give me pause for thought. But I'd just gotten a tune up and new tires. Note that it's best to get out after the snowplows have been through.

Internal clocks and/or work hours also feature in winter cycling as it's easier to see and be seen in the daytime. 

I am most definitely not an early riser, so it's tricky to avoid a darkish ride home once the clocks have moved back. To help with that I use lights, and recently bought a construction worker illuminated vest (which I'm confident can double as a Halloween costume in future). As an aside, I seriously need to think about readjusting my sleep schedule to keep this up.

A big plus is that biking beats going to the gym, in my humble non-gym-going opinion. Seriously, a non-workout workout is the most effective kind there is. But you do need to find the right pace: ride in too fast and it's hard to cool down no matter how many layers you shed upon arrival; ride in too slow and the efficiency is lost. It's an art, but it can be perfected with practice. 

Further, if you aren't going to the gym, you can repurpose all the money you would have spent on a membership. While there is some dishevelment/flat hair to get used to if you don't or can't shower at work, not to worry, in my experience, no one will ever say you look unkempt. At least not out loud.

A second cup of coffee

For me, the real reason to bike to work all year is that it buys time. The thing about biking is you know exactly how long it will take you to get somewhere. You don't have to factor in additional wait time or put up with bad traffic. This means you can actually enjoy that second cup of coffee you brewed at home. 

Finally, with winter biking I've discovered incredible satisfaction in doing something the vast majority of Canadians living in snow-ridden areas would never even contemplate. I love telling people I bike all year and watching their expressions of disbelief, shock or amazement. 

Back to that January day.

I gripped my handlebars as tightly as possible and headed into the flurries. Sound was muted, air was cool in my lungs, the snow sparkled. Truth be told, it was beautiful.

I started off in the middle of the right-hand lane heading west. While not plowed, the snow was slushy enough for traction. Cars crawled beside me, not going much faster. Where the streets opened up and snow wasn't melting, I pushed my bike on the sidewalk. But mostly I rode, feeding off a combination of adrenalin and awe. 

It took me a little longer than usual to get home. But I did it! 

With that winter behind me, this fully-fledged four-season biker is confident for the next one. Bring it on.

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Ele Pawelski lives, works and cycles in Toronto. Her debut novel was inspired by a true bombing in Afghanistan, and she's working on a second one about a mother searching for her son as Nazi Germany falls. When she's not wheeling about or writing, Ele's road tripping in Ontario or adventuring even further away.