Winter on two wheels: an interview with Tom Babin

WG-frostbike lani babin

Long marginalized as mentally unstable radicals, there’s a particular group in Calgary and beyond that is fighting back against stereotypes in an effort to bring more unwitting citizens into their fold. Terrorists? Scientologists? Climate-change deniers? Nah, winter cyclists.

Front and centre in this battle for the minds is Tom Babin, senior tablet producer at the Calgary Herald and author of the new book Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.

“I think the biggest obstacle to adopting winter cycling is having a healthier relationship with winter and getting over the fear of being cold and the fear of being outside,” says Babin, chatting over a coffee.

His book is geared mostly to people who are considering taking the step of riding year-round, weather be damned, and acts as a sort of guide for how to get started. In it he talks about attitudes and infrastructure around the world, dives into some history and shares information on available gear. He also shares anecdotes of his own journey — from car-dependent, to fair-weather rider, to winter cyclist — in the hopes that others will avoid some of the same mistakes he made, or simply gain the confidence to mount up when the thermometer dips.

“For me it was, I kept wanting to read something as I was starting winter riding and it was hard, I was just figuring it out on my own and I felt there were no resources,” he says. “So I thought, ‘I went through this whole process, I need to write something to help other people out.’”

One of the main issues with winter cycling is the perception that it is difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable, and while you do have to be more cautious — just as you do in any vehicle in winter — the truth is that winter cycling isn’t such a big deal.

“I also think that’s part of the problem right now, it’s sort of holding it back from being accepted as more of a mainstream thing, this idea that you’ve got to be this super-tough masochist to want to ride in the winter,” says Babin. “A lot of that comes from people who ride in the winter themselves — we like to sort of foster that image, and I admit it feels good to be exceptional, but it’s not that exceptional. If we want it accepted widely, we have to normalize it. We have to get over this idea that we’re doing something unique.”

He uses the example of seeing “grandmas putting their groceries in their basket and riding through the snow” while he was touring around Europe as fodder for his argument. He also highlights better clothing and equipment that make it easier to ride in the cold.

Although Babin is careful to note that you can’t sugarcoat the winter riding experience, and he documents a few wipeouts in his book to drive the point home, he also thinks there’s a critical mass of riders in the city who are looking to ride year-round and who need the support — from current riders and from the city. Maintenance and clearing of pathways is important and so, too, is debating cycling infrastructure, no matter how tiresome it can be.

“It would be nice to see the city get beyond the same arguments we’ve been going over and over and over again,” he says. “It would be nice to have a wider recognition that this is a good thing, but we also have to be reasonable too. Not every street should have a bike lane, and not every idea that comes out of the city is a good one, that’s for sure, and not every idea that comes from a bike advocacy group is a good one, but at least these are conversations that we’re having now and it’s nice to see us moving in the right direction.”

At the end of the day, however, it’s Babin’s lucid descriptions of those special moments, like riding down vacant streets and paths as snow falls and silence envelopes the city, that really capture the imagination and encourage a winter ride. You can argue infrastructure and gear all you want, but one trip like that and you’re bound to be hooked.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

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