I first met with Kimberley Nelson last year at the end of October. Snowember had come and gone, and Calgary wasn’t into full blown winter yet. We were both out and about on our road bikes so we met in Kensington for a coffee and a chat. Kimberley had graciously agreed to give me some advice about our project in her capacity as President of Bike Calgary. Bicicles, the documentary, was just getting underway (it didn’t even have its name then), and things like the WCBC Survey weren’t part of our lexicon yet. I also took the opportunity to talk with Kimberley about her winter commuting experiences. We only caught up again this past January to take a few photographs to go along with her story. By that time there was no question that we were into full-on winter.
Kimberly wasn’t always a winter commuter. She was just a fair weather cyclist until about three years ago. Up until then she was living in Lynnwood in the SE and commuting into the Foothill’s Industrial part of the city, which made for a “sometimes terrifying” ride into work and home again. When she changed jobs and started working in the NW, she was now looking at a 20km commute. Her first thoughts were that there was “no possible way I can do this!” After a few calamitous attempts at public transit, Kimberly found herself back in the saddle. To ease into the longer commute, which included negotiating hills both coming and going, and to increase her range without increasing her stamina right off the bat, she added an E-Assist kit to her Marin Coast Trail mountain bike. The E-Assist was like “training wheels for starting longer commutes.”
The first snow that year was on October 31st. Instead of hanging up the bike for the winter, Kimberley kept on riding, and all of a sudden it turned into “I can probably do this!” The E-Assist got her through that winter. Since then she’s moved into Bridgeland / Riverside, cutting her commute in half, and dropping half the hill climbs in the bargain. Hills are a big thing with Kimberley and she tailors everything around whether you have to deal with a big hill or not.
When we met in January, Kimberley invited me into her home while she got ready to head out for work in the morning. Like most of us, she layers up in the winter – lots of layers. When it’s really cold, her riding gear includes a balaclava and snowboarding goggles. She’ll go out on her balcony to get a first hand appreciation of the temperature and then will start getting ready. After throwing on some coffee, she’ll put on her first layer and then go stand outside again to get acclimatized, and to make sure she’s not going to get too warm on the ride into work. When she’s ready to head out she’ll throw on her final layers, give her cats some loving and food, and then go get her bikes out of the lockup.
She keeps her bikes indoors; they occupy one of the two rooms allocated in her condo for bike parking – everyone else gets the other room. She still rides her Marin Coast Trail in the winter, albeit without the E-Assist now. She also has a couple of Broadies, one of which is on its last legs, and an Electra. The bike rooms are in the basement so it means hauling them upstairs to get them out of the back door of the condo and onto the back pathway to the street. When it’s not raining or snowing, there’s a bike lockup outside of the condo and her bike will hang out there instead of getting hefted up and down the stairs.
Like quite a few of the people that I interviewed for Bicicles, Kimberley doesn’t have a car and rides everywhere for everything. She finds transit to be less than reliable, having had direct experience with the entire system, seemingly, crashing after just one accident. She is, however, multi-model and will take transit, or drive, as the circumstances dictate. For example, for her ride on this January morning just after a heavy snowfall, with the hardpack starting to soften up, she looped in the LRT. Instead of taking her usual route up Centre Street to 20th Avenue NW, and then cross-town to 19th Street, Morley Trail and 32 Avenue, Kimberley crossed the river into downtown and caught the LRT up to University Station. From there she zigged and zagged through the University into work at Smart Technologies in University Research Park. They’re provisioned their building with underground parking for 42 bikes, a spacious change room, showers and lots of lockers.
She said that her co-workers know exactly how she’s gotten into work: If she’s grumpy, then she drove; if she’s groggy, then she took the LRT. And, if she’s wide awake, smiling, cheerful and ready to go, then she biked into work that day. All of her ride is sans-bike lane, and her usual route is all roadway. Center Street and 20th Avenue NW are generally hassle free, but she says the drivers on 19th Street are pretty aggressive and she gets yelled at all the time. Kimberley said that she’s had a couple of close calls on 32nd Avenue; it’s short but you have to be on your toes when you’re coming up to the Crowchild Trail turnoff. She might try out the newly minted bike lanes on Brentwood Road and 40th Avenue instead of “running with the cars” on 32nd.
Kimberley said that she used to get buzzed a lot when she was still riding Ogden Road. One time a truck clipped her handlebars and sped away, leaving her a bit distraught. It took another rider to get her going again. Thankfully the only injury was a bit of fright. That’s been her only car-bike encounter so far. She said that she was injured riding her bike once, a serious elbow injury, when another cyclist T-boned her and sent them both sprawling.
I asked Kimberley about her hardest, most challenging and best winter rides so far. She said her hardest ride used to be through Beaverdam Flats. The pathway there includes a steep hill with a hairpin turn at the bottom and then goes over a wooden bridge. In the winter it seems to be iced over all the time. It was early morning, there was no one else around and as she slid down the hill she was wondering if she’d wind up in the drink with no hope of rescue for hours. It was a narrow miss, but it started an on-line argument with Brian Pincott to clear another bike lane in the winter.
After telling me that she didn’t have any bad winter riding stories, Kimberley regaled me with a couple of tales, including getting caught unprepared in a polar vortex situation. She was out in the industrial section, after normal business hours and there was nowhere to shelter and get out of the cold. Another time she got stuck at a railroad crossing while a train was doing it’s slow crawl across 11th Street and was rescued by two of Calgary’s finest who let her warm up in their cruiser.
Her best ride, of course, is riding through dry, fluffy flakes of snow, passing Prince’s Island Park, with the skating rink and trees all lit up, the street lights all different colours, and the music being piped off the bridge; “It’s awesome!”
She said that she feels that people in cars are more patient in the winter. Perhaps because they’re in awe of anyone commuting by bike. Drivers also tend to be a bit more cautious when there’s snow and ice on the road.
Kimberley said that if anyone wants to ride their bike in the winter, they should just give it a try. Get a bike buddy, someone that’s already riding in the winter, and just go out and do it. Dress appropriately, watch what other riders are doing, and pick a route that suits your abilities. Remember that routes that look OK in the summer can turn into something else entirely in the snow and cold. Check which roads and routes are cleared and go from there. She also suggested checking out the Bike Calgary website and maybe posting that you’re looking for a route, or even a riding partner.