winter bike

Riding through the winter: Profile of a Bike Ottawa member

Winter is approaching, but many of those who bike in Ottawa won’t be put off by the snow: in recent years we’ve seen an expanding network of winter-maintained cycling routes in our city and growing popularity of riding bikes straight through the winter.

Etienne Grall is one regular winter cyclist among Bike Ottawa’s members. We interviewed him about his experience biking through the winter, what motivates him, and why he encourages others to give it a try.  

When did you start cycling in winter?

I moved to Canada from my native France just over 18 years ago, and spent 17 of those in Ottawa. It did not occur to me at first to tackle it on my bike: “you just don’t do that in the Canadian winter, right?“ While commuting on the bus during my first Ottawa winter I kept watching conditions. They didn’t look as bad as I anticipated and so I decided to give riding a shot the following winter. I have not looked back since and am riding through my 16th consecutive winter.

What motivates you to ride your bike in the winter?

The great thing is that I always know exactly how long it will take me to get to or from work. No traffic jams, peace of mind and the beauty of winter mornings as a bonus. There is nothing like riding on fresh, squeaky snow, to start your day. Of course one needs to be mindful of the increased hazards. 

What are the challenges and how do you address them?

Weather, although a little intimidating at first, was not really the issue. Road conditions were, or at least I thought they were. That’s when I realized that on most days streets are for the most part clear, and that the remaining obstacles (snow banks, ruts, soft or icy patches…) are very manageable with the right gear and the right level of vigilance. I choose quiet routes and ride conservatively. And I know when not to insist and leave the bike home: typically just after a large snow fall (more than 5cm), before crews have been able to clear the secondary streets. On those days the nuisance (and danger) factor tends to outweigh the pleasure.

What do you wear and how do you equip your bike?

I have learned not to overdress. Two to three well-picked layers are generally all that’s needed, waterproof booties over old running shoes to keep feet clean and warm, windproof over-mittens to keep hands warm.

Ottawa’s favourite form of precipitation – freezing rain – was a challenge until I realized that studded tires work marvels and generally keep me safer than if I walked to the bus stop!I have mounted my studded tires on a second set of rims so I can throw them on quickly, and use them only when they are really needed. You don’t want to wear them on bare pavement and realize they are dull when you really need them! The rest of the time, a pair of not-so-knobby tires works just fine. And above all: lots of lighting, front and back! I am also very lucky to have an employer who offers a secure indoor bike garage, changing rooms, and showers.

What advice do you have for others interested in trying winter cycling?

My advice to would-be winter cyclists: try it, chances are it will become the best part of your day too. After all, it’s the same cold you are exposed to while waiting for the bus, and you are generating a lot more heat. Ironically, I suspect I sometimes wear less than some drivers in their car.

It is very encouraging to see the number of winter cyclists, of all ages, genders and walks of like, increase year after year, and witnessing the efforts of the City to improve cycling infrastructure. This all contributes to making our community better.

This interview was originally published in our 2016 Report on Cycling (PDF, 3.2MB).