Bike Commuters Coast Through Winter Weather

  • Winter cyclists in Ottawa brave the weather on their daily commutes. (Photo © Richard Guy Briggs)

By the first snowfall, most of us have long ago put our bicycles away. But in every city, there are a few die-hard souls who keep pedaling all winter long. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly offers a profile of the winter cyclist:


By the first snowfall, most of us have long ago put our bicycles away. But in every city, there are
a few diehard souls who keep pedaling all winter long. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Karen Kelly offers a profile of the winter cyclist:

I remember the first time I saw a winter cyclist in Ottawa. It was during a snowstorm and I had
just moved to the capital city of Canada. I looked out my window to see a guy on a bike plowing
through a snow drift. He had one glove on the handlebars – and the other carrying a three foot
long art portfolio. It was outrageous. But even more surprising – Ottawa is full of these people.

We’re talking a good four months of frigid temperatures here. And there are bicycles on the road
every single day. I wanted to know what could possibly motivate someone to hop on a bike when
the temperature is well below freezing.

To find an answer, I went to see Juergen Weichart. He’s a 37 year old father. A website
developer. And an avid winter cyclist.

“Okay, ready honey, why don’t you bring me your snowpants now?”

It’s 8:30 on a Monday morning and Weichart is preparing for his first ride of the day, transporting
his daughter to daycare.

Weichart is a rare breed – not only does he climb on a bike in the middle of winter – he drags his
kid along too. Unfortunately, guests are also invited. Next thing I know, I’m trying to fit a bike
helmet over my ski cap.

“It definitely fits different, right? What you can do is actually pull out these things.”

Weichart says you should dress in layers that are easy to remove. Once you start pedaling, and
sweating, the biggest challenge is often to stay cool and dry.

Today, it’s just below freezing, so Weichart throws on a long sleeved t-shirt, a fleece vest, and a
windbreaker with vents under the armpits. He hustles his daughter into a snowsuit and we’re out
the door.

As soon as we reach the driveway, Weichart is smiling.

He eagerly brushes the snow off his bicycle.

“It just brightens my day. It’s so sunny and beautiful and fresh out here and you get a little bit of
exercise, a little bit of warmth in your body and I realize if I don’t drive for a day or two, I realize
afterwards I’ve been typically crabby if I don’t get my morning ride.”

“Okay, so all the bikes look in good shape!”

Weichart covers his daughter with blankets in a trailer that he pulls behind his bicycle. Then he
and I hop on our bikes, inching them towards the top of the driveway, which is covered with ice.

“Probably the most dangerous spot right here on this whole ride is that patch down at the bottom
of the driveway. This up here has all been in shade, it’s been wet and now it’s frozen. Once we
get out on the main road, we’re going to have dry pavement.

“Here we go!”

We slowly make our way over the frozen tire tracks. It reminds me of cross country skiing or
skating. Weichart tells me to steer and brake, but preferably not at the same time.

(squeak of tires-road)

It’s actually pretty easy. And on the street, the conditions range from packed snow to dry
pavement. Weichart sticks to the bare road – even if that means taking over the lane. By law,
cyclists here have the right to do that. And the city actually encourages it – to make sure that
drivers see people on bikes.

But between the cars and the weather, it’s not surprising that most people assume winter cycling
is dangerous. Researcher Lisa Routhier decided to take a closer look at that assumption. She
recently earned a degree in environmental studies from Carleton University in Ottawa. While
there, Routhier surveyed 60 winter cyclists and 62 people who don’t ride in the winter. She
calculated the number of riders with the number of collisions and found no increase in cllisions
during the winter months. And generally, Routhier found the people on the bikes aren’t really

“One of the questions I asked was do you feel safe when you’re riding your bike in the winter and
82 percent responded they feel safe all or most of the time when they’re on their bike. And what I
found and what many people will notice is that many days during the winter, the roads are
actually bare and dry curb to curb. There’s no difference from summer cycling conditions.”

But what distinguishes many winter cyclists from the rest of us is experience. Routhier says these
are people who are used to commuting, regardless of the traffic or the weather. Juergen Weichart
fits that description. He says he’ll always choose his bicycle over the car. For a number of
reasons: It’s a way to exercise. It saves money on gas. And it’s better for the environment. But
mostly, he says he just loves being outside.

“One day I was riding not that long ago and there was a whole flock of birds on a lawn. There
must have been 200 little black birds sitting on a lawn and as I drove by on my bike, one of them
took flight and then the whole flock took flight and as I drove by, they flew right over top of my
bike and over my head and I thought wow, I could hear their wings beating, I could hear every
little feather going past me and the wind rushing and I thought, that’s amazing. You’re never
going to experience it that way in a car.”

(sound of riding)

After an uneventful ride, Weichart drops his daughter off at daycare. Even on a frigidly cold day,
he’ll choose the longer, scenic route to the office. Today is no exception.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.

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