Friday, December 12, 2014


I’m a regular reader of Tom Babin’s cycling blog, Pedal. Babin’s day job is Features Editor at The Calgary Herald, but Pedal gives him a chance to write about his passion for cycling, especially bike commuting, bicycle infrastructure and culture in Cowtown (er, I mean, The Heart of the New West), and winter cycling. Babin’s posts on Pedal are always engaging and accessible, a provocative blend of the personal and the topical. 

Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling is a longer-form exploration of several ideas Babin initially explored in short bursts on Pedal. It’s the only book I know of about winter cycling specifically, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is bike-curious about winter. It’s a breezy read, and a mostly compelling combination of personal narrative, light research on the history and geography of winter cycling, and an argument for embracing both winter cycling and just winter, in general.

The book’s divided into three sections. Season One: The Bike, consists largely of an account of the early stages of Babin’s personal journey toward becoming a winter cyclist and his parallel quest to find the right bike for winter commuting. It’s a story that many winter cyclists will find familiar: an evolution from skepticism to curiosity to experimentation to, eventually, hard-core commitment, complete with epiphanic moments along the way.

The story of Babin’s conversion to winter cyclist isn’t likely to offer any profound insights to veteran winter riders (we all know that studded tires are a game-changer; the crap bikes are best for winter commuting, that dressing in layers is key, etc.). But I suspect that Babin’s audience is less the hard-core cycle-yetis and more the semi-serious bike commuters who have wondered about riding in the winter but never seriously tried it. For them, Babin’s story may well be inspiring. He captures nicely the specific thrill of a winter ride:
Two tires cutting through the snow blends fulfillment and recklessness into a unique feeling of empowerment. Sure, riding in poor weather is something every cyclist does eventually, but besting the rain or the early morning chill is more accident than accomplishment. Besting winter on a bike, however, is an act of defiance. It’s a challenge to one of the few remaining intrusions of nature into modern life.

For me, many of the best bits in this part of the book relate to what Babin calls the “unknown history” of winter cycling, from the late nineteenth century to the present, from Klondike Gold Rush bicycle adventures to the origins of the fat bike. These researchy parts are fascinating and, indeed, largely unknown to most cyclists, I think. True, Babin really only scratches the surface when it comes to the history of winter cycling. Reading his book makes me realize that there’s a much bigger history to be written on this topic. But that’s a different project.   

Season Two: The City, turns to issues of urban planning and advocacy around winter cycling and recounts Babin’s experiences in Calgary and elsewhere, especially in a couple of northern European cities. He points out how, despite the reams of surveys and studies on urban cycling around the world, rarely is winter seriously mentioned in the discussion of city infrastructure and policies, even in places like Canada.  So when he discovers Oulu, Finland, Babin is astonished. It’s the closest thing to a perfect winter cycling city and a magical example of what winter cycling could be in places like Calgary or Edmonton—at least in some parallel universe. The account of his visit to Oulu almost reads like some kind of dream sequence: He sees people of all ages and sizes riding their bicycles all over the city in the middle of winter. On his first day there, he stops in the street in wonder: “I realized I had probably, in just a few minutes, seen more people riding in the snow than I ever had in my life.”

The chapters on Copenhagen, by comparison, feel a little out of place. As Babin admits, Copenhagen’s winter isn’t much of a winter by most standards, so the Danes’ winter cycling story (80% of bike commuters ride through the winter) is a bit of a red herring. This part of the book feels a bit like filler. Babin’s got some terrific material about cycling in Denmark, but I’m not sure it belongs in this book.   

Season Three: The Attitude, is the most surprising part of the book, and, in some ways, the most compelling. Babin offers an extended essay on shifting cultural attitudes toward the idea of winter, arguing that winter has gotten a bum rap in recent decades, especially in Canada. Babin suggests that Canadians have gone from being hearty winter people to whiny winter pooh-pooers. For some reason, we don’t like to go outside in winter anymore, even though the data suggests our winters aren’t really very cold.

Kids love the snow, but, for some reason, adulthood tends to wean us off this fondness. This attitude, Babin argues, may be the biggest obstacle to the viability of winter cycling in Canada—not the cold or the ice or the snow. His evidence for this shift is, admittedly, rather light—pop cultural references, in particular—but he’s clearly on to something here.

What’s surprising about part three of the book is that cycling makes up only one part of Babin’s larger thesis. He tells of his own personal commitment to embracing winter—getting outside, with his family especially, and trying to see and enjoy the snow the way his kids do: as magical, fun. Winter cycling, it turns out, is just one part of Babin’s larger pro-winter philosophy.

In the end, Babin’s message is a sage one: Winter is what you make of it, and so, for that matter, is winter cycling.

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