Fat bike scene sees serious jump in Regina

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Bert’s ready to suit up cyclists for the season. Holly Funk

With the winter cycling season coming on fast, learn where you can ride safely and how to prepare

I was taught to cycle around age five by my dad, a longtime cyclist who for a time would commute to work on his bike through summer and winter. While I haven’t ventured into winter cycling quite yet myself, his stories of all the layers he’d dress in and the chaos he’d navigate on the road always made me curious. For these reasons and more, I was excited to interview Bert Seidel, another longtime cyclist who works at Western Cycle Source for Sports in Regina at 1550 8th Avenue.

There are two floors to the store with the bike shop on the second. Walking in, I was overwhelmed (in a kid-at-Christmas sort of way) by just how much equipment they’re able to organize in the space. I was strolling around their indoor riding track when Seidel came to join me for our interview, which was immediately (and delightfully) interrupted by someone entering the store, throwing their arms open, and yelling “Bert!” with the widest grin on their face as soon as they spotted him. I was feeling more excited than ever to pick Seidel’s brain. We wandered to a corner in the store, he grabbed us each a coffee, and we began talking.

In somewhere like Saskatchewan where it gets to -50C with the wind, why do people choose to winter cycle?

I get to work in the morning – doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer – when I ride my bike, I’m in a good mood. […] In my youth, winter sport would mean that I would drive to the mountain and downhill ski, but there’s not a lot of downhill skiing around here. Mission Ridge is cool, but again you have to drive somewhere, whereas fat biking, I can literally do that out of my house.

Could you explain a bit of the gap that fat bikes filled when they came out, that tech?

Yeah, so riding in the winter as a commuter, you’re mostly on streets and roads and whatever, so anybody can do it. You probably want to have some studded tires, and that’s that. What fat bikes allow you to do, they allow you to do sort of like mountain biking in the winter because they have the wider tires. They work great for commuting as well, and the wider tires – just like on a vehicle – they will give you more grip, and they will also give you some sort of float on the snow.

In the winter there’s gonna be fat bike trails around the park where we go over there either with a mechanical groomer, sled-type groomer, or we just pull weighted sleds behind us and compact the snow. […] If you run on fresh snow you’re gonna sink in with your fat bike, but if the snow is compacted down a little bit, it’ll stay afloat, and that’s what the fat bikes allow you to do.

Some people use them for commuting and they’re great for that because of the extra stability and you can sort of like plow through the snow really easily, but it is also super fun to just ride them off-road on those fat bike trails or, if you want, you can also go out to Buffalo Pound or Wascana Trails and actually ride the mountain bike trails in the winter. Buffalo Pound actually does a great job of grooming some of those trails so you’re not pushing your bike through like three feet of snow up the hill.

I heard that cycling really peaked right at the start of the pandemic. Do you think this was just people realizing how much they liked it and wanting to keep doing it?

Yeah, some of that, and then some people, like a lot of our customers, they were people that were already in the biking community, doing other things like road biking or mountain biking, and then they were like “Oh, maybe I should try this fat biking thing.” The thing in Regina, I mean, we have a pretty awesome cross-country ski system too, right? You can go to White Butte or within the parks, Kinsmen and whatnot, there’s usually big tracks. But you have to have snow for that, right, and you probably don’t want to do it at like, -20C and below. You can, but you’re not going to get very far. The snow is so sticky then. There might be some special wax that you can use, but I tried it once and it just sucks.

Whereas, on a fat bike, if you have snow, great. If you don’t, fine, you’re still riding your bike. […] Last year the groomed trail network that we had was just the park around the lake all the way. I think the furthest trail we had of ours was out by the university, but that got blown in all the time so we abandoned that one. A full loop, if I remember correctly, was like 15 or 20km. Doing 20 kilometres on a fat bike in the winter when it’s cold, on snow, you’re not going fast, right? So, that’s a good hour, hour and a half, two hours.

Who’s excited for some stunning morning pre-ride frost? credit: sawest via Pixabay

Would it be similar to trying to bike through grass or sand, something like that?

Actually, sand is very comparable, yeah. That’s why fat bikes are actually very popular in areas with beaches, may that be the ocean or the Great Lakes or whatever, because same thing.

There’s tons of talk in Regina about how drivers don’t know the first thing to do with a cyclist in the road, and a lot of cyclists don’t know either. How does that play out in winter? Do you have safety tips for people?

There are people out there that want to commute, be that in the summer or the winter, and there is that fear of being in traffic, which is justified. You know, you’re in a vulnerable position as a cyclist, you’re surrounded by tons of steel that goes way faster on the road than you are. […] And this is my personal opinion after commuting since, well, grade three. I grew up originally in Germany, so I was always on the bike and riding the bike to school, to work, to the university or to my job or whatever, and then I continued that here. I ride my bike like a vehicle in traffic, I’m a very defensive rider, driver, whatever, because I am in that vulnerable position as a cyclist.

I try to not be a dick on the road, and also try to anticipate what’s going to happen. If I do a left turn and there’s oncoming traffic, I’m gonna probably give them a little bit more room than I need to but, you know, the consequences of not doing that could mean that I’m under a car, right? The other thing is I try to ride pretty predictably too so that other people, even if they don’t know what to do with a cyclist on the road – may that be in the summer or in the winter – hopefully they say “Oh, okay this guy is turning left, he’s got his left arm out.” […] Let them see what’s happening, and I try to be visible. I personally don’t wear all this safety vests and whatnot because I don’t necessarily want to look like a traffic cone, but I am wearing my helmet.

In the winter my helmet has reflective bits on it, and my bike has got to have lights on it. I’ll turn on the lights, like a white light at the front, red light in the rear, and I’m gonna turn them on during the day as well as when it’s dark just to be more visible. It makes a huge impact, like I’ve had people stop next to me at an intersection and be like “Hey man, I love your light, I could really see you from like, miles away, that’s awesome. That’s a big difference.” And that’s the reason I do that, right?

What other preparation equipment-wise would you recommend for safety and for temperature?

With anything that moves, it needs regular maintenance. The big important thing? Make sure your brakes are working right. […] If I ride my commuter bike, I have studded tires on it. Even in the middle of the winter here, if I’m riding on the road, there’s very little time that I’m only on snow. It’s usually a mix of asphalt, concrete, snow, and ice, and the studded tires help immensely. […] The other thing, the tire pressure’s gonna be a little bit lower just to give me a bit more grip on the road. Which is gonna make it a little bit harder to ride, but I also ride a little bit slower in the winter.

I’m not gonna lean as far into the corner as I would in the summer, just because there might be a patch of ice there. My route changes slightly in the winter, so that’s mostly for commuting. Regina is probably not the best city when it comes to snow removal. It is challenging – I understand that. I’m fortunate enough that my route takes me a little bit through the park.

Which park is it that you go through?

Wascana Park. Those pathways are usually cleared or, even if they’re not cleared, they’re usually packed down relatively quickly, so that helps. I try to go on major arteries where I know they’re going to have snow removed first, but you won’t find me on like Broad Street or Albert Street if I can avoid it, just because they’re so big and so busy.

But, like Dewdney Avenue for example. Before I lived where I live right now, I would ride on Dewdney Avenue. It’s a two-lane street, like two lanes on each side, with a big parking lane. I hate riding in the parking lane because it’s usually full with the brown sugar snow or just snow piled up, and you have to veer in and out of traffic, so I’m gonna ride in my lane just like a car.

Which, you know, is not great for a lot of drivers when they’re right behind me, but Dewdney is a great example because they can go into the next lane without going into the oncoming traffic to pass me, which is great. […] So I try to go on roads where there’s a little bit more room but they’re not super busy, try to go on roads that have priority snow removal, or bus lanes are great. If you have a street where the bus goes down, you know that road is going to be either cleared relatively frequently or the bus is going to pack the snow down for you.

I try to stay on paths as much as possible, like bike lanes. There’s not a lot in Regina but there’s one that takes me down Lorne Street for example, there’s a painted bike lane. Which you don’t really see in the winter but, you know, at least it’s there.

Do you find the bike lanes are cleared alright in the winter, or do you have to rough it?

No, I don’t think any of the bike lanes in Regina – we don’t have a lot – but any of those are not actually cleared in the winter. There’s the bike lane on that street that goes by the university, they actually push all the snow from the road into the bike lane, and you see this every winter. […] They put a new bike lane in last year or the year before out on 14th Avenue that sort of goes towards 13th Avenue and the dog park, and that one is actually separated by thingies that stand up to have some sort of physical barriers between you and the cars.

That was covered in like three feet, maybe not three feet, but like a foot of crusty snow the entire winter last year. So it was like, “Okay guys, you put the bike lane in, but then you don’t clear it. It’s kind of confusing.” […] So yeah, bike lanes in the winter become, often, useless. They’re not usable if you actually want to try and stay in them, which is sad.

Yeah, I mean it makes more sense that fat bikes had the jump they did if you can’t really use the bike lanes here in winter. People just need an option.

Yes, yeah, and that’s the nice thing about riding a fat bike, like the safety aspect of it in the winter. Even if you don’t put studded tires on a fat bike in the winter and you ride in traffic, it’s so much more stable. We call it brown sugar snow, it’s like that browny, sugary snow that’s a mixture of whatever they put on the road, the dirt from the cars; it’s very weird. It almost feels like sand but slippery, so if that is on my lane that I’m riding on with my regular bike that has skinnier tires, doesn’t matter what kind of studded tires I have – it’s really dangerous to ride in that lane.

There’s just like one little hard section of that snow or sugary snow and then I’m on my face, and it really hurts to crash in the winter. But, with a fat bike, you can literally ride through that stuff and feel very safe about it. If you add the studded tires to a fat bike too – which are super expensive, stupid, but whatever – you’re gonna have a really great riding experience. You might have to work a little bit harder because they add weight, but it’s very, very safe.

I don’t recommend to ride after freezing rain. Maybe take the bus that day or walk, the studs won’t help you there, but any other day? Yep.

When it comes to the price difference between summer and winter cycling, what does that look like? 

If you buy a fat bike, it’s comparable to a higher end mountain bike in the first place. You can get entry-level mountain bikes; well, they’ve all gotten pretty expensive, but in our store they sell for $800 or so. I think you can still get something for around $500 that’s decent. For fat bikes, they start at like $2,000. And then when you look at that, like some of the stuff that you get there, the parts are the same on the $800 mountain bike.

The big expensive things on the fat bikes are the wheels and the tires because they’re not mass produced as much. […] Studded tires on fat bikes especially, again they are super expensive, like you can get car tires cheaper than that. An average studded fat bike tire I think starts at like $200 and up. You could buy $400 fat bike tires, and that’s for one. However, in my household for example, we do have a vehicle, we have one vehicle. I hardly ever drive the car so I’m saving a ton on gas, I’m saving insurance for a second vehicle, and maybe a little bit on my doctor’s bill because I’m out riding, exercising every day. […] The initial buying the stuff? Yes it’s expensive, but you get a lot out of it and in the long run it is cheaper.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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