As recently as the 1990s, the only people brave enough to ride bicycles throughout a Winnipeg winter were a half-dozen crazy couriers and a few other Lycra-clad diehards willing to endure hostile road conditions and even more hostile motorists.
Two decades later, Winnipeg winters remain almost just as frigid. Yet, seeing Winnipeggers bike to work in February is no longer any weirder than watching a lineup of cars snake out of a Tim Hortons drive-thru.
Like almost every other North American city, Winnipeg has witnessed a rise in the number of people who commute by bike during the winter. The precise nature of this increase is unknown, however, as there are no reliable recent statistics regarding Winnipeg commuter-cyclist numbers.
Seven years ago, the City of Winnipeg's seminal Active Transportation Study found 2.3 per cent of all Winnipeg workers and university students rode their bikes to their jobs or classes on a regular basis. The belief is that proportion has grown, as the cost of filling up and maintaining automobiles has only risen since 2006, along with the awareness of the health and environmental benefits of cycling.
But no one has a clear handle on the number of regular Winnipeg winter cyclists, aside from anecdotal evidence.
"Even among avid cyclists, winter cycling is an oddity," said Andrea Tetrault, a regular summer bike commuter and occasional winter cyclist who blogs at winnipegcyclechick.com. This morning, she'll be among the Winnipeggers taking part in Winter Bike To Work Day, an international event intended to encourage more people to try the once-unusual pursuit.
While it may seem counterintuitive, she finds riding her bike in temperatures below -20 C way easier than cycling when it's just below zero, as extreme cold transforms the ice and snow on city streets into a harder, more predictable riding surface. Warmer winter weather creates sloppier conditions that demand more bike maintenance in the form of cleaning.
Staying warm on a bike during the winter isn't all that difficult when you're moving, provided you take care to insulate your hands. Cleaning your bike during the winter is a bigger annoyance, which is why some cyclists just buy a garage-sale beater and ride it into the ground over the course of one season.
The real limiting factor is road maintenance, suggests Anders Swanson, an avid cyclist who travelled to Oulu, Finland, this week to attend the world's first Winter Cycling Congress. Somewhat optimistically, Swanson titled his presentation Winnipeg, Winter Cycling Capital of North America, and immediately got called out on Twitter by an indignant Edmontonian.
Oulu, which sits at 65 degrees north, is almost as cold as Winnipeg but quite a bit darker during the winter. Oulu also resembles Winnipeg in that it's not particularly dense, yet it still enjoys an extremely vibrant winter-cycling culture.
"The first thing that's immediately apparent is everybody rides -- your grandma, teenagers and stylish young women," Swanson said over the phone from Oulu, where he said the McDonald's has more bicycle parking than motor-vehicle stalls. "Until you've seen something like that, it's hard to fathom."
Swanson said the key to winter cycling's popularity in Oulu and other European cities is regular snow-clearing on all bike paths. Successful winter-cycling cities also clear their bike paths and pedestrian walkways before they clear their streets, he said.
Such a move would provoke riots in automobile-centric Winnipeg. But Swanson said it's not that far from what this city already does, given that Winnipeg clears sidewalks long before residential streets are plowed.
During the winter, Winnipeg clears snow off 130 kilometres of bike lanes on streets and also plows 75 kilometres of active-transportation corridors at a cost of $250,000 a year, city spokeswoman Tammy Melesko said.
Clearing more paths may encourage more winter ridership. But the actual need remains unknown, even though it appears Winnipeg now has more winter riders.
Motorists, meanwhile, have become more accommodating of winter cyclists, Tetrault said. "I think people are getting more used to it and are resigned to the fact we're not going away," she said. "In challenging conditions, I know I'm an inconvenience to get around, yet generally people are really courteous."