By Steven Bercu (@bicycleurbanist) & Becca Wolfson
In winter, much of the world’s ornamentation, its foliage, its riot of color, falls away. We are faced with things in their essential nature: the bare branches of trees, the traces of our breath, gratitude for closest friends and loved ones, and the basic challenge of moving from Point A to Point B.
The fifth annual Winter Cycling Congress, held earlier this month in Montreal, had no official theme. But the theme could have been Paring Away: the search for what is most essential during the still, cold, dark season. Here we present some highlights and meditations from our time among others who ponder and practice winter bicycle use in its various forms.
On the first morning of the conference, we met Pekka Tahkola, Vice President and a founder of the young Winter Cycling Federation. Pekka hails from Oulu, a city in northern Finland that hosted the first Winter Cycling Congress in February 2013. Oulu, where 42% of the populace bicycles during winter at least to some extent, is in some sense the spiritual home of winter bicycling. Pekka told the story of bumping into a 91-year-old man at an Oulu bike shop who rides through the winter with his 86-year-old ladyfriend: “The gentleman is well preserved due to spending half his life in a freezer.”
Truly, the people of Oulu (Ouluians?) have turned their cold climate into a virtue. To keep its estimable network of multi-use paths (a network that crisscrosses the downtown) operational during the cold season, Oulu has pioneered an unorthodox approach. Completely eschewing the use of salt, the city instead allows paths to remain covered with a thin layer of hard-packed snow, which crews keep groomed using a toothed plow blade that leaves grooved ridges. This surface offers sufficient traction for bicycles, and the system apparently works quite well provided that temperatures remain consistently cold—historically this was never an issue during the long Oulu winter. Cycles of thawing and freezing, leading to ice conditions, work against the Oulu method, and Pekka noted that climate change is leading Oulu to begin rethinking its approach.