Wednesday 16 December 2009

It's too cold to cycle...

A few weeks back someone pointed out to me that cycling in winter is difficult in Portland, Oregon because of the low temperatures.

I looked into this. Portland's average low in January is 1 C (33.7 F). Groningen's average low in January is -0.6 C (32.9 F). I haven't found figures for Assen, but it is just a few km south of Groningen so it'll be virtually identical.

Note: Video has captions which are only visible on a computer, not on a mobile device.

Last year we had several days of -12 C ( 10 F ) weather. Cycling continued, and ice-skating became popular. So, as you'll see in this video and several other examples, people cycle to go ice-skating.

It was quite cold today, and the radio reported that in some areas it is already possible to skate on natural ice, so there will already be scenes as in the video.

OK, so sometimes the weather really is too extreme in some places. However, mostly "it's too cold in the winter here" is just another of those excuses people use not to cycle, and not to provide for cyclists. It isn't necessary for everyone to make all their journeys by bike, but there are few places where the weather is really too much of a challenge for cycling in all four seasons.

Here in the Netherlands the cycling rate in winter for utility purposes is about 95% of the rate in the summer. Cyclists are supported by the cycle paths and roads being kept clear of snow, and cycling is thus just as convenient and safe as at any other time of year. That's why there is significantly more cycling in Assen and Groningen in the middle of winter, despite the conditions, than in Portland in summer.


SteveL said...

As someone who lived in Oregon for four years, I can reassure all residents of the Willamette Valley that it is warmer in Winter than anywhere in the UK, especially places on the east coast: Cambridge, Edinbu. rgh, etc, where a biting wind comes off the North Sea.

What you do get in OR is rain. From November to April. But no wind. So provided you have waterproofs, not quite as miserable as it can be. No pedalling down a hill in low gears into driving sleet.

Every so often you do get snowstorms in the valley. They are fun. Time to walk.

Anonymous said...

I think it can be a valid point that in some places it's difficult to cycle because of the weather - for instance, here in Portland last year when it snowed nearly two feet, few of the roads or sidewalks were cleared, and therefore almost nobody could go anywhere, no matter their means of travel. That is not the fault of the people of Portland, nor is it really an excuse, because riding in those conditions really is very difficult.

Our *typical* weather in the winter, however, is just rather wet, so if you have a good poncho or rain coat, you should be fine. We did have temperatures of -9 C all week last week though, which makes for nice red cheeks arriving at work :)

Kevin Love said...

Winter is no obstacle to cyclists here in Canada.

One of Canada's highest bike commuting rates is in the Yukon Territory. Right now in Toronto, many people are going to work each day on their bikes. I'm one of them.

Then there is Toronto's annual Ice Bike Race every February. People put on their studded tires and race on the Dufferin Grove Ice Rink. See the video at:

Adrienne Johnson said...

I can honestly say that cold is rarely something that keeps me from doing something. Wet, that's different. I can always find a reason to not cycle in the rain. I'll do it, but it is something I usually have to make myself do.

Author said...

What a sweet video.
Keep up the good work.

Duncan Watson said...

I live in the Seattle area.
Last week it was 18F (-8C), it was trivial to cycle though I needed to dress better. On Monday it was 35F (1C), but due to the wetter weather during the higher temperatures the roads were covered with black ice. I did not ride.

When the weather is wet and the temperature hovers around the freezing point of water it is more dangerous than subzero (C) weather. Ice can and will dump me on a two wheeled vehicle. For icy weather I prefer a trike.

The temperature is not a complete statement of the riding environment.

Kathleen McDade said...

I'm another Portlander. :-) I did cycle through the -9 degrees C temperatures last week. If it were that cold all winter, I would find that discouraging, but that is probably the coldest it will get this season. I disagree with SteveL on the wind, though. In Portland, we can get pretty strong east winds, which are difficult. And I did get pretty well soaked yesterday, despite my rain poncho. I'll keep cycling just the same, though.

Mark W. said...

Ah you beat me to it David! :-)

Today I went out in my lunch break and filmed a number of passing cyclists in Utrecht.

It was a beautiful day today with a pale sun but a lot of cold. One of the first days this winter with temperatures that stayed under freezing point all day.

And as you stated... people do not cycle any less here.

spiderleggreen said...

I think what the Dutch have that most of the rest of have is habit and tradition. They don't spend much time thinking about the alternatives. Having a car myself, I do wimp out some days, especially when there's a dramatic drop in temperature.

While it is true that you can ride a bike at almost any temperature, that doesn't necessisarily mean you can just hop on your bike and go. Not in Minneapolis this time of the year. It was -10F, earlier this week. You had better know what you're doing or you'll be in bad shape, quick.

Having the right bike and clothing are essential. When it's that cold, things don't always work right on a bike. The chain doesn't want to move and is more likely to break. Any weak link is at risk for failing at just the wrong time. Knowing what kind and how much clothing are needed,a also makes a big difference. It's the difference between a sweet, crisp ride and painful endurance test.

The other important thing is letting your body adapt to the changes in temperature. When it dropped from highs in the 50's to -F in a week, I needed time to acclimate. 2 or 3 days usually.

None of this even touches the issue of road and trail conditions. Few have a system near as safe as the Dutch do. In my city, you're pretty much on your own in the winter.

But is it ever too cold to cycle? Hell no!

David Hembrow said...

Portlanders: Please note this is not in any way a criticism of Portland, or of any individual's choice. It's simply that "it get's too cold here" is one of those excuses made in many places to excuse a low cycling rate (along with "it's too hot", "it's too hilly", "it's too dense", "it's too spread out" etc.). The real reason for a low cycling rate is almost always that cycling isn't pleasant due to a lack of cycling friendly infrastructure.

Spiderleggreen: You're absolutely right with that comment. Many many Dutch people do just travel by bike through force of habit. Working out an alternative for just a couple of days a year when it might be quite unpleasant to cycle is not straightforward. I recently heard a comment about how just 1% of journeys in the UK (the speaker was from the UK) involve a rational decision about choices. The rest are simply "do they normal thing". Where the normal thing is to drive, the result is that most journeys will be by car.

The infrastructure here makes cycling into a very easy default choice - hence the cycling rate.

-10 F ( -23 C ) is colder than I've ever cycled, and perhaps it would be enough to put most Dutch people off too.

BTW, today's commute was at -7 C, so pretty close to what you Portlanders just had. It snowed while I was at work, it was still snowing for half my journey home, and there was still snow on my bike when I got home. I was actually quite cosy.

Velouria said...

I think it's not so much a matter of "excuses not to cycle", but of individual comfort levels. In order for a person to cycle, they really need to enjoy it and to choose it as their favoured method of transportation, rather than being guilted into it. Some find it difficult to cycle in cold temperatures. Others are miserable in drenching rains. And others still are afraid of the snow and ice. I say, if you don't feel comfortable cycling in certain weather conditions - then don't do it. Work up to it slowly, or find other methods of transportation during those times. Cycling is there to make you feel good, not bad.

David Hembrow said...

Filigree: My point really is that "it's too cold to cycle in winter" gets inflated into an excuse why there is a 1% cycling rate in the middle of summer.

It is absolutely a matter of comfort, but the discomfort that most people feel most of the time is due to the proximity of motor vehicles, and that's why cycling rates are so low in many countries.

Anneke said...

@ Filligree, Sure, I get cold on my bike, last night in the -7C cold, and icy wind that made it feel like -15C I still biked home. In the end my fingers were numb and my ears hurt, and that is uncomfortable, but I still get on my bike. I don't think it really has anything to do with comfort. If it pours, freezes or snows (like right now) I still have to get to places. It doesn't really matter how I get there, but I always take my bike. I think David is right when he says that whether or not a bike is used has to do with trafficfacilities (like bike paths).

Frits B said...

David: Since we have a bit of snow as of this morning which as usual halts traffic abruptly (5 to 10 inches is a lot for Holland), here's a nice reaction from one Victortje in Capelle near Rotterdam on Autoblog: "me pa heeft de fiets maar genomen is nog gezond ook!" = "My dad decided to take the bike, better for his health too!"

David Hembrow said...

Hi Frits, I like the idea that it's good for one's health.

There really is a lot of snow today. I still rode to work ( 30 km from home in Groningen ) but it took two hours to get there, and I Had to stop four times. On the way into Glimmen it was going very well, beautifully clear cycle path at that point... but then I found the snow plow which had been clearing the cycle path, itself unable to move because there was now so much snow, and my journey was much slower from then onwards.

Anonymous said...

Minus 10 this morning in Seoul. Crisp and dry though, which helps.

Every single person who's seen me with the bike recently has asked, "Isn't it too cold?" To which I point out that as long as you're dressed right, you generate more heat on the bike than on foot.

Last two days I've started wearing a bright red santa hat over my normal wooly one, as a sign that I'm actually quite enjoying the ride. ;-)


Joachim said...

To cold to cycle? Nonsense!

Only here,in the US,will you hear this from a car crazy,overtly comfort addicted populace.

Natty said...

Winter is only getting started here on the Canadian east coast - only 40-50cm of snow down at the moment and temperatures between -10 & -20C.

The "it's tool cold to cycle (or run, or ski)" is a common refrain here. Most find the time spent clearing the snow from their drive and motor vehicles to be all the winter they wish to embrace. But as all here know, with proper preparation (studded tyres @ lower pressure, single speed / internal gear hub) and adequate clothing you can cycle most, if not all, of the winter - I will admit, there are days in January where the temperature drops below -35C to -40C that I have taken driven or taken transit - especially if it is windy.