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Winter (cycling) is coming

As winter cycling grows in popularity, the infrastructure and safety needs to grow with it

Cycling to get around Whistler has been a local staple for decades. As an active recreation community, it’s no surprise during the summer months about a third of Whistler’s full-time residents choose to commute by bicycle to their jobs, to school, and for all the other errands and social events dotting the calendar. Commuter e-bikes have made those trips faster and easier. But when temperatures drop and the winter snow flies, many of those bikes go into hibernation, not to be seen until the spring thaw. Today, a growing niche of riders is bucking that trend by winterizing their rigs and suiting up for the chilly commute.

According to Whistler’s Community Life Survey, in 2020, just one per cent of the local population cycled to work during the winter months. By 2022 it had grown to between two and two-and-a-half per cent. By 2023 it jumped to just over four per cent. For comparison, the fraction of people commuting to work by bike in the summer of 2023 was 34 per cent.

“With the winter ridership hopefully getting up to around five per cent this year, it’s worth the municipality taking a look at how we can provide facilities to support that use,” says Dale Mikkelsen, the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) general manager of climate action, planning and development. “The (Climate Action Big Moves Strategy) is one of the most important policy objectives of the municipality. Active, low-carbon transportation is the biggest component of that. As we see these numbers grow, I think it becomes our collective responsibility to make sure the opportunity [to winter cycle] is as accessible and safe as possible.”

Resources for winter cycling in Whistler currently consist of a lone information page on the RMOW website, which encourages the use of lights, fenders, panniers and, most importantly, studded tires. Riders curious to try winter cycling will often get most of their starter information from YouTube or asking questions in community groups. New winter cyclists in Whistler may wonder where all the bike racks go around the village (they are removed to allow for more efficient snow removal), but Mikkelsen says the RMOW is developing plans to add more covered bike racks around the village and near the Whistler Blackcomb gondolas. Secure underground parking is currently available for bikes in the winter under the library, and it’s very popular.

“Once we know we have the infrastructure in place to support enhanced winter active commuting, we’d want to start communicating how to prepare for winter cycling, that not only you can do it, but how to do it,” he says. 


 Pathway to Pedalling 

The Valley Trail remains the safest route to get around Whistler by bike, even during the winter. On snow days, RMOW crews clear as much of the Valley Trail as quickly as possible to allow residents to get around.

“There are a lot more walking commuters—as well as cyclists—using the Valley Trail in the winter than there used to be,” says Mikkelsen. “We’ve identified the priority areas for clearing, which is around the Village, around the schools, and the neighbourhoods adjacent to those schools. Our Valley Trail clearing vehicles used to leave the works yard at 6 a.m. and work their way south towards Cheakamus, but we realized that method would often miss clearing the key areas around schools during their commute hour. Now, we immediately deploy those clearing vehicles to the priority areas. We’ve also increased the number and quality of vehicles we [use to] clear the Valley Trail in order to do a better job, faster.”

The section of Valley Trail along Green Lake between Rainbow and Emerald remains closed in the winter due to the heavy—and often dangerous—spray from highway snow plows. Highway 99 is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI), so coordinating snow clearing of that section of highway and Valley Trail, while keeping Valley Trail users safe throughout a day of heavy snow, remains an unsolved challenge for the RMOW.

One of the most diligent users of the Valley Trail year-round is Whistler resident Rod Nadeau. He commutes by e-bike from Rainbow to his office in Function Junction every day, in almost any condition, using neighbourhood side streets to link various sections of the Valley Trail. When he reaches Creekside on his way south, Nadeau will choose one of two routes depending on how deep the snow is.

“The quickest way is to go through Alpha Lake Park. There’s a short section of doubletrack trail next to the lake that isn’t cleared, so depending how many people have walked on it to compact it down, I’ll have to get off and walk my bike through the snow on that section about 10 to 15 per cent of the time.”

Once he makes it to the railroad tracks, he jumps on Old Gravel Road, pedals up the hill to Alta Lake Road, and then takes the unpaved track from Millar Creek to Function Junction. If that route is too snowed-in, from Creekside he’ll take the Valley Trail through Bayshores and Spring Creek.

“The highway in the winter? That’s asking for it,” says Nadeau. “I used to ride my road bike on the highway in the summer and I stopped that and switched back to my mountain bike so I could take the safer route. It takes longer, but I’m OK with that.”

Nadeau knows more than a few people who were lost to cycling accidents. 

“A driver in a raised pickup truck probably isn’t going to see you before they turn right in front of you and cut you off,” he says. “We have great, safe cycling infrastructure because we’re off the roads. We’re fully separated from traffic with a barrier, not a line. That’s the gold standard.”

If the aim is to get more people out of their cars and onto e-bikes, having to ride alongside vehicles on the highway isn’t going to convince people who don’t have Nadeau’s experience of navigating urban traffic.

“If you make it easier, faster, and cheaper than driving, people will consider it,” he says. “But if you don’t make it as safe as possible with separated cycling infrastructure, you’re never going to convert the masses to biking.”

 Is the highway a possible solution?

Despite its hazardous nature, Highway 99 is far and away the quickest route for bikes, summer or winter. For cyclists looking to achieve commute times similar to driving to Whistler’s outlying neighbourhoods, the highway is currently the single express route.

Eddie Dearden has committed to riding his e-bike year round, primarily for his commute to work in Function Junction from his home near the village, but also for errands such as dropping off and picking up his four-year-old daughter from ski school. In the last two years he has clocked approximately 8,000 kilometres on his e-bike, all in the Whistler Valley and in every possible weather condition. Dearden keeps a waterproof pannier on his bike with a bright yellow Helly Hansen rain suit inside, so he’s ready to go out no matter how much precipitation is in the forecast.

“From the village, it takes me just over 13 minutes to get to my office on Alpha Lake Road in Function,” says Dearden. “Driving to work takes maybe 11 minutes, but when I head home on a Friday afternoon, I’ll sometimes pass hundreds of cars lined up to get into Whistler.”

While Dearden is pretty comfortable riding on the highway, he understands the risks, especially during heavy snow events.  

“The highway snow plows don’t clear the bike lanes,” he says. “You end up with a roughly (1.2-metre-) wide bike lane that’s full of crud. To ride safely on the highway, you need to be able to see the tarmac under your tires, and that sometimes means you need to ride on the edge of the traffic lane. The traffic lane is quite wide, so there’s plenty of room for cars to pass me at 80-plus kilometres an hour. But I can see why that would be terrifying for some people.”

Dearden thinks a good place to start is clearing the shoulder and bike lane on the 99 with the same priority as the vehicle lanes. Signage along the highway indicating regular cyclist traffic would also help motorists maintain their awareness and hopefully slow down a bit.  

As someone who has brought up the issues of cycling on roads at council meetings, Dearden gets frustrated that the RMOW pre-empts every discussion with the notion MOTI calls the shots on Highway 99. Any changes to its clearing road lines need to pass through the bureaucracy of the provincial government, which seems to happen at a glacial pace, or in a lot of cases, not at all. 

“If you slow down the cars, the biking gets safer. If we reduce the highway speed through Whistler down to 40 km/h, vehicles are more or less going the same speed as an e-bike. That feels really safe as a cyclist,” he says. 

“The cars wouldn’t need as wide lanes at that speed either, so you could give e-bikes much more room in their own lane. Add clear signage and you have a much more pleasant experience in Whistler for the people who are contributing to our climate goals.”

Whistler is doing a reasonably good job at keeping options open for winter cyclists, but there is always room for improvement. One only needs to look at progressive, year-round cycling cities like Oulu, Finland to see how arctic temperatures and cycling can run like a well-oiled machine. Some of the methods the city employs include not letting daytime snow depths exceed four centimetres on cycle paths; the contracted snow-clearing companies not sub-contracting their work to ensure a high standard; and having snow-clearing crews contractually obligated to ride bikes on the paths they clear—also to ensure the quality of work. 

The more people who choose to commute by bikes and e-bike during the winter, the more likely the RMOW is to invest in more infrastructure. So suit up, get those bikes out of storage, and say no to small car trips, whatever the weather. 


Eddie Dearden

What made you want to try winter bike commuting and how long have you been doing it?

I was inspired by several people I knew who biked through the winter, including my friend’s dad (Rod Nadeau) who would bike from Rainbow to Function daily all through winter. So when the bus strike happened, I thought if he can do it, then so can I.


What bike do you ride?

I ride the VoltBike Yukon, which is currently priced at CAD$1,899. In the winter I run 45NRTH Dillinger 4 studded fat bike tires. I wouldn’t dare bike in winter without studs, otherwise, you won’t make it home under certain conditions.


What’s your typical commuting route? 

My daily commute is on the highway between the Village and Function Junction. I avoid the Valley Trail as much as possible, except when taking my daughter to school. Otherwise, I use my e-bike for all trips in Whistler: going skiing, to the gym, out for coffee or a drink with friends, and I can fit $140 worth of groceries nicely in my double-wide breadbasket.


Do you have any tips for people curious about starting to winter commute by e-bike?

The right outerwear combination is crucial. I wear Helly Hansen rubber rain pants over whatever pants I’m wearing. For atmospheric rivers, a Helly rubber rain jacket is essential. Otherwise, Gore-Tex or just a puffy jacket suffices when the weather is nice but cold. I run neoprene handlebar mitts when it’s cold. I wear a ski helmet, clear glasses and 18-inch-high rubber boots that keep my feet toasty. Remember to store your battery indoors when not using the bike. You wouldn’t leave your phone outside overnight in winter!


What do you think would be the most beneficial infrastructure upgrades to support winter cycling in Whistler? 

The best piece of infrastructure we have for e-biking is the Sea to Sky highway. It’s the straightest and fastest route between two points in Whistler, offering sunshine on my face and great views. The town is missing out on a fantastic experience by letting our major artery be a sacrificial zone for fossil cars and fossil trucks.


Will Stewart

What made you want to try winter bike commuting and how long have you been doing it?

I started looking into e-bikes after we set up Coworking Whistler in the Village. My girlfriend works from home at the same time I’m in the Village, so 99 per cent of the day we don’t have an overlap on needing to drive our car. Our issue was more that our vehicle would always be  where one of us needed it. Instead of adding a second vehicle for the odd trip, we bought our first e-bike as a substitute and it became my year-round daily commuter. 


What bike do you ride?

Being a first-time purchase, we didn’t look for a specific make or model and kept our eyes out on the used market locally. We ended up getting an older VoltBike Yukon model for $800 cash with just 300 kilometres on the odometer. It’s one of the best purchases I’ve made in years, and I have put thousands of kilometres on it around the Valley Trail system alone. Now that we’ve tried e-bikes and proved their value, we are planning to buy a second one.


What’s your typical commuting route? 

I commute from Alpine into the Coworking Whistler space in Village Square. The bike’s battery is removable, so in the winter I lock it outside and bring the battery in to stay at room temperature to avoid thermal shock to the battery. The daily rides usually include other errands like working out at Meadow Park, swimming at Green or Lost Lake, grabbing groceries, or meeting up with friends elsewhere around the Valley Trail network. 


Do you have any tips for people curious about starting to winter commute by e-bike?

For anyone starting to ride in the winter for the first time, treat it like when you learned to drive a car in the snow as a learner. I’ve had a couple spills at the start of the winters by not being present and still riding like it was summer—you need to ride more defensively, especially on e-bikes.


What do you think would be the most beneficial infrastructure upgrades to support winter cycling in Whistler? 

With parking already a major issue in peak season, anything the RMOW and Vail [Resorts] can do to help keep e-bikes safe and warm during the ski season would be a wise investment into infrastructure. Having fewer locals needing the roads and occupying parking spots is a better experience for everyone involved. 


Kate Covello

What made you want to try winter bike commuting and how long have you been doing it?

I started commuting by bike last winter and pedal into the village from Alpine almost every day. Previously I was relying on the bus to get around Whistler, but I didn’t particularly enjoy organizing my schedule around the bus timetable. The Valley Trail system is the sole reason I would call biking around Whistler “pleasant,” and I would absolutely not cycle on the highway! It takes me about 20 minutes to get from Alpine to the village in the winter, and on icy or snowy days, I give myself extra time. Biking in the winter is pleasant as long as I have extra time for the ride. 

Cornering and braking is to be avoided when the trail is slick with ice! 


What bike do you ride? 

I ride a Kona Smoke that I’ve had for 15-ish years. I’ve ridden this bike all over B.C. on summer bike trips like Whistler to Revelstoke and Whistler to Bella Coola. I’m an enthusiastic bike-tripper and bike commuter, but I try not to worry too much about having the “perfect” bike setup. I don’t have studded tires, but this is in part because Whistler’s Valley Trail is so well-maintained that I feel confident enough to ride around Whistler without them.


What’s your regular commuting route? 

I live in Alpine, so I commute on the Valley Trail from Meadow Park to the village. I’ll also ride to Creekside or Function if I need anything. I don’t know the Valley Trail maintenance schedule, but the trail always seems to be cleared by 7:30 a.m. My weekly commute includes working in the village at Fanatyk Co., and one day a week I volunteer for ski patrol.

Do you have any tips for people curious about starting to winter commute by e-bike? 

Fenders are the most important item on the bike. Fenders mean I can ride without wearing rain pants and feel confident that I’ll arrive at my destination without wet clothing. A headlamp and a red tail light are also really important. I’m really cautious about intersections where the Valley Trail crosses the highway and “being seen to be safe” is important. If it’s a busy morning on the highway, a hectic powder day, or there’s a lot of snow on the curb, I’ll walk my bike across the crosswalk. Drivers aren’t always expecting cyclists in the winter. 

Also, remember to regularly clean the chain and cassette to avoid the winter rust.


What do you think would be the most beneficial infrastructure upgrades to support winter cycling in Whistler?

Whistler gets an A+ in my books for biking infrastructure. The Valley Trail is a gift, and there always seems to be enough bike racks wherever I need one. I do not ride an e-bike, and unfortunately I see a lot of potential for conflict between e-bike riders and “acoustic bike” riders on the Valley Trail. This isn’t a problem in the winter because there’s less traffic on the Valley Trail, but in the summer I’ve had some near-misses with e-bikers going over 30 km/h. I don’t know what the solution for that is. Maybe if e-bikers want to ride that fast, they should ride on the highway? I know it’s a contentious topic, and I think everyone should feel confident enough to ride their bike of choice around Whistler. 


Brendan and Amanda Ladner

What made you want to try winter bike commuting and how long have you been doing it?

We are in a climate emergency and we are disgusted by the use of fossil-fuel cars for even the shortest tasks, which we can chalk up as one reason we don’t have a ski season this year. Winter biking is faster and more comfortable than walking. Driving is insane with the emissions, traffic and parking. It’s often much slower than biking. This is our fourth ski season with no car and every single trip to the hill is by e-bike. 


What bike do you ride?

We ride a VoltBike Kodiak, with a trailer for gear (our version of a pickup truck bed). This is our second winter with studded tires, which give us much more confidence riding in all conditions.


What’s your typical commuting route? 

We ride our kids to school every day. We ride to work every day, which is a 15-kilometre round trip. Our commute is a combination of roads and Valley Trail. To school we have to ride the roads because there is no Valley Trail option. The Valley Trail near Myrtle Philip school has too many pedestrians and off-leash dogs on it and the surface is less smooth, so we ride on the road. Taking the Valley Trail from Whistler Cay to Spring Creek daily is good, but not great, most of the time. Roads are always plowed before the Valley Trail, so on snow days we often find ourselves on the road.


Do you have any tips for people curious about starting to winter commute by e-bike?

Get a trailer. Get neoprene bar mitts. Get studded tires. Put a dedicated outfit together with snow boots, waterproof insulated loose-fitting ski pants, sturdy insulated jacket (reflective workwear is best and safe), great gloves, eye protection (not tinted) and wear the same thing every time. If you don’t have to consider your outfit you’ll save time for your departure and arrival. For safety: take the lane or you will get passed dangerously close often. Ride in car tracks when it’s snowy and take corners slowly. Be visible and be obvious. 


What do you think would be the most beneficial infrastructure upgrades to support winter cycling in Whistler? 

We need a direct route parallel to the highway that is straight and cleared. Dedicated bike lanes that are not shared with cars or walkers. The village needs bike lanes—there is no safe route throughout the village (Whistler’s main attraction) for cycling. Imagine if we snow-cleared bike lanes with the same rigour as our streets! 


Making your e-bike winter ready     

Whether you choose a fat bike or a mountain bike with standard wheels. or whether you prefer a mid-drive, hub-drive, or good old fashioned human-powered motor, the essential accessories for successful winter cycling remain the same.

Full Fenders 

No, the little bendy sheet mud-guard you have ziptied to your mountain bike fork will not suffice. Full fenders cover about a third of the front wheel and about half of the rear wheel, and require secure mounting points to your fork and frame. Heading out in snow, slush or rain without them will make cold-weather cycling miserable. This is the first upgrade you should look at for winter cycling. When shopping for full fenders, make sure you have sufficient clearance for your tire width.

Studded Tires 

This is one of the pricier upgrades for true winter cycling capability, but you only need one ride on icy roads or compact snow to convince you they’re worth it. Expect to pay as much as—if not more than—a performance mountain bike tire. Quite a few fat bike riders I spoke with don’t necessarily upgrade to studs, because they feel they have adequate traction, even in icy conditions. The price of fat bike studded tires can be as high as quality winter car tires. Note that most studded tire manufacturers recommend up to 40 kilometres of riding on pavement to properly seat the studs, so factor that into your winter bike preparation.


In mid-winter darkness, a lack of proper lights can be extremely dangerous on both the roads and the Valley Trail. Make sure you don’t leave the house without a red light on the back for visibility and a handlebar-mounted headlight so you can see what’s coming up. If riding on the highway or crossing at busy intersections during the day, turn on your front headlights for additional visibility.

Pogies/Handlebar Mitts 

These are an optional accessory for very cold conditions. Properly installed handlebar mitts keep your hands shielded from the significant wind chill you experience when riding at speed. They let you use a lighter glove, allowing more dextrous control of brakes, shifters and e-bike handlebar controls.

Other Accessories 

A rear luggage rack comes stock on many commuter bikes, but can be a bit trickier to fit to mountain bikes. Consider running a rack, a pannier bag (or two), or front/rear basket so you can haul your cargo around, or shed layers for the longer rides.

Proper Clothing 

Old ski gear is perfect for winter cycling. A breathable, waterproof shell is great when it’s snowing or wet, but consider reaching for something rain-specific if you intend to keep riding through atmospheric river weather systems. Just like skiing, layer according to the conditions and your expected aerobic output. Winter boots are perfect for cycling, as they’ll keep your ankles warm and dry in all weather. A ski helmet and low-light goggles or clear glasses work great for keeping your head warm, and don’t forget the neck warmer on those cold days.