The coldest winter in decades has proven challenging to year-round cyclists in Winnipeg, but not because of the temperatures alone.
In late December and early January, people who use bikes to get around uttered many of the same complaints motorists made about the condition of the city's streets. The heavy ruts that made driving difficult a month ago also made cycling frustrating and dangerous, especially on routes where cars and bikes are expected to share the road.
Although road conditions have improved, Winnipeg's recent transportation headaches will provide a timely backdrop for a gathering of international winter-cycling advocates and experts known as the Winter Cycling Congress. Beginning this Wednesday, approximately 170 delegates and speakers will spend three days in the Manitoba capital, sharing ideas about making winter cycling easier, safer and more accessible.
Conference director Anders Swanson said slightly less than half the participants are coming from outside the province, including delegates from European and North American cities and towns where the winter climate is similar to that of subarctic Winnipeg.
"What we're trying to do is change the conversation in terms of what is possible for year-round transportation," said Swanson, who travelled to Oulu, Finland, for the 2013 conference before lobbying to bring the event here this year. "We're trying to connect places that know what they're doing with places that are learning to fully embrace the bicycle year-round."
As recently as the 1990s, the only people who rode bikes year-round in Winnipeg were couriers and a handful of die-hard commuters. Now, both recreational cyclists and commuter cyclists are a common winter sight, albeit in modest numbers.
The main obstacle is not cold, but road conditions. "On some of the colder days, you have to bundle up a bit more," Swanson said. "In my experience, in cities that take care of winter cycling infrastructure properly, the cold really doesn't matter."
Swanson said several Scandinavian cities are among the world leaders in this capacity, but that's hardly surprising considering the immense popularity of warm-weather commuter cycling in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
The challenge in North America -- and in Winnipeg in particular -- is to convince cash-strapped municipal authorities to devote more resources to clearing bike paths and bike lanes.
Swanson said he believes the City of Winnipeg is doing the best it can. "I have no interest in suggesting there's any problem this winter, when we've had a lot of cold and a lot of snow," he said.
Still, delegates to the Winter Cycling Congress will hear from a range of Scandinavian and Canadian panellists about ways to improve winter street and bikeway maintenance. Other conference topics include sessions on the design of the perfect winter bike, winter cycling fashion and the creation of other modes of alternative winter transportation, from Winnipeg's river trail to a curb-side commuter-skating trail in Vancouver.
The conference was timed to take place the same week as this Friday's Winter Bike To Work Day, the 130-kilometre Actif Epica winter race on Saturday and Sunday's Icebike race. The Forks also hoped to extend its river skating and walking trail to the University of Manitoba by this weekend, but the weather would not co-operate.
"We came up against the worst conditions on the Red River we've ever encountered," said Paul Jordan, chief operating officer at The Forks. The presence of almost more than two metres of snow on the Red insulated the surface, creating dangerous slush that made the southern extension of the trail impossible, he said.
Jordan nonetheless expects existing river trail sections to be visited by the roughly 75 out-of-province Winter Cycling Congress delegates as they explore downtown Winnipeg by bike.
"This conference has really exploded," Jordan said. "There are a lot of cities looking at doing more (with active transportation) during the winter."