Each morning I unlock my bicycle chained to the outdoor staircase of my row home and hit the streets. Ten metres into my ride, my body ceases to shake and a smile overtakes my tense face, and a warm rush of adrenaline flows through my veins. This is how I survive winter.
It is estimated that there are about 50,000 of us on the Island of Montreal that pedal as a means of transportation during our harsh winters, and the numbers are growing. This weekend Montreal is hosting the 5th edition of the Winter Cycling Congress, which coincides with the city’s 375th anniversary. I’ve watched the community grow year after year through online forums such as Vélo d’Hiver- Montréal and have seen the presence on the streets multiply since I completed my first four seasons five years ago. There is a camaraderie that is hard to explain between winter cyclists. I sometimes feel like we’re waving at each other when crossing paths, like we’re in this together.
Our history with the two-wheel goes back almost 150 years. The first penny-farthing in the country roamed our streets in 1874 in front of the eyes of the impressed bourgeois, who soon after began purchasing their own high wheels from Europe. Montreal’s first cycling community was beginning to take shape. There already existed the Montreal Snow Shoe Club, the Montreal Lacrosse Club and, as of 1878, the Montreal Bicycle Club. Just before the turn of the century, the city hosted the World Bicycle Meet which drew participants from as far as Australia. Bike usage transformed from sport to transportation and delivery, before seeing a big halt when the electric tram network quickly expanded after claiming the streets in 1892. The car did to the trams in the 1950’s what the trams did to the bike…and video killed the radio star.
In the 1970’s, the OPEC embargo saw prices of oil skyrocket and, like vinyl today, the bike made a comeback. Not just a novelty item, bikes were actually outselling cars for the first time. Suddenly there was a need for paths and infrastructure to accommodate the increases in ridership. One of the most common reactions by American visitors on the city bike tours I run is how impressed they are by the network of paths we have. Many of these date back to the early days when activists took to the streets to put Montreal ahead of the game in North America. Though I personally feel we have plateaued in the last decade, there are, luckily for us, citizen groups today pushing forward with the demand for a safer urban riding experience.
Groups like Le Monde à Bicyclette are to thank for access to the Jacques Cartier Bridge and the fact that today we can haul our two-wheels onto the métro during designated hours. Influencers like Bicycle Bob and Claire Morissette devoted their lives to having our voices heard through events like the Die-Ins and other witty publicity stunts that the media has been quick to eat up. One year after her passing, the Claire Morissette bike path was inaugurated. The separated lane that crosses all of downtown became the first path on this continent named after a cycling advocate.
Vélo Québec, which initially started as a cycle tourism group, has been a provincial leader in the industry for some 40 years now. They helped change the Highway Safety Code, organized the first Tour de l’Île and, after the city hosted the first World Bike Conference in 1992 (our city’s 350th anniversary year), finally got the ball rolling to set up the Route Verte, North America’s longest bike path, named the number one bike route in the world by National Geographic in 2008. This weekend they are hosting the Lune d’Hiver à Vélo, a 3,75 km winter night ride.
Our generation witnessed the birth of the BIXI bike, and cities around the world purchasing our bike share system. New York saw the fastest membership growth after implementing their Citi Bikes, and London boasts over 11,000 of our bulky rides, something we should be proud of.
There is, however, lots of work to be done on the local scene. We are in the slow process of obtaining year-round access to our bridges and a decent winter network of plowed and cleared safe paths. Montreal has landed the first Copenhagenize Design Co. office outside of Europe since last August in the Mile End. The Montreal office is currently working on projects in cities like Detroit and Long Beach. CEO Mikael Colville-Andersen is in town for talks at the conference this weekend. He fell in love with the borough that houses the office so much so he tattooed St. Viateur Street’s layout on his arm.
Their office shares the space with Rebicycle, a social enterprise run by Ben Adler and his team, giving new life to used bicycles. They have an exclusive contract with Cycle Nord Sud, an organization founded by Claire Morissette that has sent over 50,000 donated bikes to countries in Latin America and Africa. When these bikes don’t do well with the terrain of their new adopted land, Ben buys them back and custom builds each ride based on customer usage, sizing and budget.
New local racing troops are popping up every year, and since 2016, the Girls On Cycling Team and Club has become a key player for female riders in a male dominated sport. Paula Manzano, who began racing as often the only female rider in 2014, joined the mixed BIKURIOUS Race Collective before founding Girls On. She aims at sharing her love for riding among other passionate cyclists with the club and creating more equality between men’s and women’s racing, though she has more cojones than most of her male counterparts, figuratively.
New bike shop/cafés such as Allo Vélo in the Southwest and C&L Cycles on Rachel have seen light, and Montreal even saw its first coffee trike by Café Pista hit the streets in 2014. Each year I see more families commuting together and more and more cargo bikes on the road moulding the next generation of winter cyclists like myself. In two months the over 600km network of paths on our island will get their spring paint job and the herds of rush hour riders will once again take over St-Urbain Street in the morning. I’ll be back guiding my ducklings around town, showing off our bike friendly city, the BIXI stations will take over parking spots, and the canal path will fill up on weekends with Sunday riders. It’s not biketopia, but here’s to hoping we remain progressive and continue writing our success story one pedal at a time.