When the dark first comes it’s a shock. I love cycling, and I especially love riding with my young kids. But it takes an extra adjustment, a mindshift even, when nursery and school runs, and then commutes to and from work, must suddenly be ridden with no light from the sky. I blink into the blackness. It always takes a few days for my eyes to accept to this utterly predictable yet still constantly surprising shift in seasons.
At first the streets seem less knowable. The cars louder and more predatory, their lights shining like violence. And my kids who all summer refused to leave the house without their bikes suddenly take coaxing, especially the youngest who conquered his first pedal bike this summer.
It would be so easy to stop now. Take the bikes out of their cosy corner of the living room and lock them in the shed for winter. As a child I rarely rode through the dead of winter, lights were rubbish and expensive then and my school days lasted as long as the cycle of the sun. And in my 20s when I first started commuting in London, a 15-mile daily round trip, I took a winter break for the first two years, pausing from late October until March. The roads felt less safe for cycling to me then and I just couldn’t handle the bleakness of it all.
But by the third year I was too hooked on cycling to not ride to work and back. Public transport was horrific in winter anyway so even if cycling in winter was marginally less fun than cycling in summer, it still had to be better than squishing into a steaming and soggy tube carriage. That winter changed everything. I got good gloves, some base layers, a waterproof breathable jacket and trousers and great lights. And I left a towel and smart pair of shoes at work should I ever need them. I lined my backpack with a plastic bag and double-bagged my laptop.
Then, riding through winter became not just something I endured but something I really enjoyed. The being outdoors twice-daily in a season where we’re normally trapped inside. The changing nature, the sky, the trees, the flame-coloured leaves, the parks so pretty I’d often stop to take pictures on my phone. The low, dappled light, the early sunsets and late sunrises. The frost, the snow, the ice…
One of my favourite things about riding in winter then and now is how quiet the city can be late at night. There’s no summer beer-drinkers spilling out onto the street, just flashes of cosy misted up pubs, as I speed past. The odd fox, the tops of Christmas trees above the blinds in terraced houses, the blue of screens. The city feels different, eerie but enjoyably so, a place I can plant my own stories upon. But my kids are yet to appreciate all this. “Can’t we go in the car?” the eldest says when it’s time to ride the mile and a half to his younger brother’s nursery. He knows the environmental lecture by heart. I think he even gets it, but he’s had a long day of school and football practice. I have to bribe him with snacks.
Another effective strategy has been to get them both fun-looking lights, good gloves and hi-vis vests, not cheap but nothing compared to what an average person would spend on car kit. They love them and really needed the reflectivity for safety reasons anyway. We have no cycle paths on this route so we ride on the pavements, with me sometimes next to them on the road. But even crossing roads with them can be scary as cars thoughtlessly zoom about the place and turn into streets at pace with no regard for the pedestrians or cyclists who may be crossing them.
But I love the ritual of these rides. The chats you only seem to have when you’re facing forward riding a bike. The made up adventure and ghost stories we tell each other. Watching the changing seasons with them and letting them know, perhaps subliminally, that cycling is simply how we get around town, whatever the weather or season.
There are some exceptions, with my kids at least. We live by the sea in Brighton where we sometimes get storms that bring strong winds and horizontal rain. I’ve started to give them a pass on those days after the youngest, while being blown backwards on his bike, complained in tears that the icy rain was scratching his face. I want them to grow up loving winter cycling as much as me and never hate it.
I’ve read that 80 per cent of cyclists in Copenhagen ride all through winter. In London and Brighton the numbers definitely seem less than that, but they’re growing and I’d advise anyone wavering at this time of year to keep on riding. For fitness, for your head, for your ritual, for your kids and for the rest of us. Air pollution levels in cities are at a record high this winter, so the more people we can keep cycling the better it is for all of us.
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My way into bike advocacy: How to spread enthusiasm for bikes
Mark Sutton, a bike advocate, talking about spreading the enthusiasm for bikes.