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3. 3. 2014

Getting a five-year-old to school in Winter, on a Bike

It might seem strange. But when I cycle in winter, to face the sheets of ice, pockets of slush, and mounds of snow, I make a tacit agreement with the car drivers whom I usually do not trust. That they will not drive too fast. That they will not attempt to. That when they see the child bicycle trailer they will slow down, be patient, and not be tempted to try and make a precarious pass over snow and ice close beside me.

That they will drive slowly so they have lots of space to hit the brakes when they have to. Everything slows down. Toronto is not an easy city to cycle in. Drivers claim a certain sense of privilege and superiority on the roads. Like everywhere. But when the snow and ice come, everyone slows down. And it might seem strange, but the cars become partners in that negotiation. When everyone slows down the streets are safer, because they are less predictable than when the roads are dry. And their tire tracks, where they have warmed and melted the ice, creates two temporary winter bike lanes, a narrow respite from the snow and ice. That means biking in the middle of the road, no pulling aside to let cars pass. They can wait. Everything slows down.

With a bike trailer things are more complicated.

The  tire tracks are no longer in the right place, so the trailer bumps and jumps over the clumps of snow and ice that accumulate around the impromptu winter bike lane. Asher—my five-year-old son, who I ride to school everyday—didn't seem to mind. While I scanned the road for patches of black ice—the ice you cannot see, the most dangerous kind—he was singing to himself ostensibly enjoying the bumps of the ride. He was pretty oblivious, but together we laughed when we would see someone struggling to chip off the hard surface of ice that had formed on their cars and we could just get on the bike and ride away. He was well-dressed, lots of layers, but in the trailer he did not have the wind blowing in his face.

I was covered from head to toe, four or five layers of wool, including wool socks long enough to be pulled up to my knees and a face mask that covers all but a sliver of my cheeks. And I was thoroughly energized by manoeuvering the bike through what most would seem unfriendly bike territory, expecting at any moment that the bike could slide out from under my feet, but at the same time, fully confident that I could handle any kind of ice. Asher was fine in the trailer, it was not going to topple over, and it was also a beacon of red and yellow amidst the white ice.

Yes, the right balance for winter biking is lots of confidence, but at the same time always with the feeling that at any moment, things could go wrong.  But, bicycles are resilient machines. And if you ride them every winter, they begin to get used to it, the bike begins to understand the contours of the winter terrain.  I do not ride a mountain bike, the tires are thin, pumped up to their maximum, and in the cold the tires are hard, like ice. I like the energy of the cold air. I like the feeling that a bike really can make it through all seasons and there is absolutely no reason why bike lanes cannot be plowed in winter. The dirty, black snow and ice, mixed with obscene amounts of road salt,  that accumulates at the sides of roads is always the last to melt or be taken away. Precisely in the space where a cyclist would ride. So I move to the middle of the road and take up the lane.

I do not like that I am at the mercy of the cars. That I need to trust the very people who, during normal weather, exceed the speed limits, run stop signs, and generally drive too fast. But during the most recent spell in Toronto of temperatures reaching to -30 below, the car drivers cooperated. And I was happy for that. And while cars got stuck in snow, or could not make it up hills, we pedaled along, walking when the hill was too steep. Still, I would rather be on my cross-country skis in the winter and when it really snows this becomes the best form of urban transportation. But that is for another story.