By Chris Ferguson
The air is a bit thinner, the roads a tad narrower and the motorists a touch more impatient. There’s also the slush factor. But for local bike shop employee and self-described “loyal cyclist” Geoff Vance, it’s just another day.
The Peterborough native arrived in Ottawa after five years cycling through rough Atlantic winters in Halifax. He’s still going strong, in all four seasons.
His motivations are both philosophical and practical.
“I firmly believe that bikes are here to stay on the road,” he said. “If they were to go away for a season, then people would get used to not driving with cyclists.” Having a “constant presence” of bikes on the road is important to remind motorists to share the roads.
Plus, Vance just doesn’t like taking the bus. He said biking provides “regular exercise” as part of a daily routine.
“It’s probably a little intimidating” to start biking in the winter. “But if you just keep doing it, you don’t realize when it goes from 20 C to 10 C to 0 C.”
Geoff Vance wears a balaclava, a toque that covers the face, to shield his lungs from the cold air. “It doesn’t take long to get used to it,” he said. Like any physical activity, it’s just a matter of maintaining focus and commitment, and it gets easier every day.
Road conditions, on the other hand, can stymie even avid cyclists, though not Vance. “It’s more dangerous than cycling in the summertime, for sure,” having to navigate the slush and snow, and the narrowed space between cars and the snow-covered curb said the lanky, fit biker. Drivers are also a problem. To Vance it seems like they’re “less careful” of cyclists once the snow falls, perhaps because they aren’t expecting die-hards like him to still be riding.
Humans can suffer from something called “inattentional blindness,” meaning that they don’t see things they aren’t expecting. In a study by psychologists at the University of Illinois and Harvard University, subjects were asked to concentrate on counting passes between a circle of basketball players. They were so focused that half didn’t notice when a man in a gorilla suit walked right through the circle.
Despite close calls, Geoff Vance is accident-free through six years of winter cycling.
There a few things to keep in mind if you want to bike through the winter. Preparation comes in two parts: winterizing your bike, and yourself. According to Vance, who works at the Bushtukah outdoor shop in Westboro, it’s not that hard to get started.
Clothing should be like what you’d wear cross-country skiing, warm, but as lightweight as possible. “You don’t want to be in a snowsuit,” said Vance.
And don’t forget how early it gets dark: wear reflective clothing.
For your bike, Vance recommends a simple switch to skinnier, studded tires – which can be attached to your regular rims and cost as little as $30 apiece – fenders to minimize slush spray and, of course, lights.
For Vance, winter biking is just a matter of doing what he always does. It’s possible. “I, like everybody else, have somewhere to go and I want to get there the fastest,” he added. Considering winter traffic in Ottawa, you may want to take your bike to the shop for a winter tune-up this season, instead of packing it in the garage.