True Life Stories of the Carfree– Melanie, Michael, Ryan (4) and Sarah (2). Winnipeg, Manitoba

In the fourth of our series about carfree families (that aren’t us), we turn to Melanie & Michael of Winnipeg, Manitoba, to provide us with some serious inspiration for winter riding as the weather gets colder. Are you a carfree with kids? Would you like to share your story? Please contact us at carfreewithkids at gmail if you’d like to contribute to this series.

Melanie writes:

We are a family of four – Ryan (4 years), Sarah (2 years), Michael and myself, Melanie, living carfree in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada). We started to go carfree about a year and half ago, and sold our car this past March. The deal was, if we could make it through a Winnipeg winter without using our car, we’d sell it. And we did! We’re heading into our second carfree winter.

Our primary motivation for going carfree was the environment, but the other advantages (health, money, fun, not having to deal with parking etc.) are so huge that I’m not sure we’d go back even if that wasn’t a consideration. We mostly use bicycles for transportation, although I usually take the bus to work – the infrastructure just isn’t quite good enough to make it safe and feasible to bike on a regular basis, even in the summer. We have a bakfiets (a workcycles long) for our “family bike”, and a folding bike that I take on the bus with me so I can bike partway to work. Ryan is training-wheels free, so we recently purchased a trail-a-bike, but we’re having trouble figuring out how to get it stable enough to ride comfortably on real streets. Not sure if it’s our hook-up or if we just need more practice.

The first year was a bit of a challenge. We were hit with record-breaking snowfall last winter, and the first storm dumped snow on us almost continuously for well over a week, so it was definitely trial-by-fire. Er – snow. We were slowly acquiring the items we needed: Pogies (handlebar mittens), rain gear, studded tires, etc., so we were sometimes cold, and I spent more time slipping on snow-covered side streets on my crummy Giant than I care to admit. But by the end of the season we’d pretty much gotten our groove (and our stuff), and this year should be much easier.

With respect to winter cycling (with kids): The physical challenges I was prepared for, and we did fairly well. There was one day where Ryan got sent home from school early because they suspected pink eye, but it was just a reaction to the cold. We learned our lesson there, and Ryan now wears a balaclava and goggles when it gets really cold, even with the canopy cover. But the physical challenges were expected, and easily solved. By far the more difficult, and unexpected, challenge for me was dealing with the abuse hurled our way by motorists. I had not anticipated the number of people who would feel the need to roll their windows down and shout epithets our way (in front of our two young children!) for daring to ride a bicycle in the wintertime. There were several times this past winter that I was quite literally reduced to tears by angry comments or dangerous behavior from motorists. And there was a time early on when I almost threw in the towel. Not because I believed them to be in the right, but because I wasn’t sure it was really worth the emotional trauma.

Luckily, I hung in there, and things did get easier. I learned to (mostly) ignore the small number of road tyrants and strive to take extra courage from the much larger number of people who smile and nod and shout encouragement to us. I especially love the positive feedback from young people (that’s how I learned that “that’s sick!” is a compliment). It gives me hope that things will change. Thankfully, as spring came and the snows receded, so did most of the angry comments from motorists.

Transitioning from the car to bicycles is part of a much larger change in how we run our lives that includes growing a garden and eating seasonally, reducing our garbage waste to close to nothing (we fill about a cheerios bag worth of garbage per week), cloth diapering, etc. Almost invariably, and going carfree is no exception, our experience is that the change is a positive one, not just because “doing the right thing” feels good, but because the net impact on our lives is a positive one, even setting aside the larger environmental picture. Yes, it requires some sacrifices. We think twice about signing up our son for that gymnastics class halfway across town in the dead of winter. When our local library branch shuts down unexpectedly for four weeks, I endure the pitying look of the librarian as I explain to her that, no, it is not likely that I will “just happen to be driving by” a library that is several miles from home because we don’t own a car. We can’t hire a babysitter unless they live nearby or have their own transportation. But by and large we find that the things we are sacrificing aren’t nearly as important as we thought they were, and pale by comparison with the things we’ve gained, like remembering what it’s like to feel the wind on your face, or smell the fall/spring/summer air (in the winter my face is covered by a balaclava – I don’t smell anything except snot), the physical pleasure of the ride, the pride of accomplishment, not to mention the good feeling that comes from living our lives according to our values and teaching them to our children. We’re learning to live our lives (not just eat) more seasonally.

Michael provides tips on winter bakfiets riding and Canada-tested outerwear to stay warm on the road:

One very significant detail about riding our bakfiets in fresh, rutted snow is that I lower the seatpost slightly. Combined with the very shallow seat tube angle and my thick-soled boots, I am able to put both feet flat on the ground without dismounting, so the only problem is glare ice. I ride with studded tires, but not studded boots. There are some Winnipeg-winter advantages. First, there isn’t even a hint of a hill anywhere. Second, the temperature in the sun stays below freezing for at least two months in a row, so there is no ice, just hard-packed snow — which is a better surface than the summertime pothole-ridden streets. The two most essential items for getting through the winter were the canopy (the kids very rarely complained of the cold) and the pogies (my hands were never cold, even when the temperature was -35C). In fact, I was generally warmer bicycling than I had been the previous winter driving — I stayed warm from the moment I stepped outside until I arrived at my destination.

The pogies we use are made by Dogwood Designs in Alaska. We bought them from another Alaskan company, Relevate Designs. has the same pogies, but a bigger selection. Another company that makes fairly well-liked pogies is Moose MittsThese are the wool gloves that I wear underneath. One note on pogies (at least the big huge ones we use); they are very spacious, so it’s possible to store things in them. I generally keep a garage door opener in one (I clip it on my belt in warmer weather).

We both wear Bern skiing helmets (Baker for me, Muse for Melanie) in the winter, with balaclavas underneath. I wear ski goggles over helmet & balaclava, and carefully arrange it so the goggles won’t fog up, which can be tricky sometimes. Our favorite long underwear is ramboulliet wool from Rambler’s Way in New England. As an outer layer, I use a rain jacket and matching pants from MEC. They are waterproof and not really breathable, though the jacket has vents. On the bike, in addition to switching to Schwalbe Marathon Winter tires, I use MKS touring pedals, which are very good for clearing the snow from the bottom of my boots.


About Nathan

Nathan lives in North Cambridge, MA with his wife and two kids, and prefers never to be in cars if he can avoid it. Nathan thinks parenting is way more fun when you don't have to worry about car seats.
This entry was posted in Biking with kids, Links and reviews, True Life Stories of the Carfree. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to True Life Stories of the Carfree– Melanie, Michael, Ryan (4) and Sarah (2). Winnipeg, Manitoba

  1. Margot says:

    Thank you for sharing this inspirational story. My family also lives in Canada (Calgary), and although we are not 100% carfree, we are hopefully heading towards that direction. It’s great to read about the specific gear and strategies to employ in similar weather conditions as ours.

  2. sara says:

    Love hearing how it can be done in cold, snowy places.

    As an American, I must admit to being surprised hearing how much you’ve gotten harassed bicycling. It definitely happens here but I had as sort of “it’s better over the border” thinking.

  3. Erin B says:

    Michael – where in Winnipeg did you get your cargo bike? I’m from Saskatoon. The lack of local availability of kid carrying bikes has been a big problem for me.

  4. Michael says:

    Erin B — We bought our bakfiets (Workcycles Cargobike) from Dutch Bike Chicago (RIP). We could have ordered on from Fourth Floor Distribution (a.k.a. Curbside Cycles) in Toronto, but it would have taken another eight months for us to get it. If I were looking for one now, I would try Curbside, maybe Rain City Bikes in Vancouver, My Dutch Bike in San Francisco, Clever Cycles in Portland, OR, or Adeline Adeline in NYC. Some shops that used to import Workcycles (Van Andel) bakfietsen seem to have switched to Babboe, which I gather are of rather lower quality. The ones that I have seen made in North America have all failed to meet my requirements for a complete all-weather vehicle where winter gets very cold for long stretches. Derailleur gearing, no chaincase, no generator/lights, no canopy, rim/disc brakes…

    We took a risk when we bought it; we had never ridden or even seen one in person. Even so, I was pretty well convinced that it was what I wanted. Luckily, I was right, and it has served us very well. The only important thing I plan to change is the rear cog; I basically never use gears 7 or 8, and a lower gain ratio than the bottom gear would be occasionally useful, even on the prairie.

  5. Melanie says:

    @sara: having lived in both the US and Canada, I can say that Americans don’t have a monopoly on rudeness. It is really a very small number of drivers that react that way, but somehow it cuts much deeper than the positive comments I get (I’m working on that!). What’s frustrating is that there is room for honest dialog about whether winter cycling is safe or not. I have some very committed cyclist (or not) friends who think it is not, and I respect that. We can discuss their concerns and I can describe the safety measures we have in place, which are not necessarily immediately obvious to a passing motorist. It is impossible to have “honest dialog” with a nasty comment hurled out of a window, though.

    @Erin B: Unfortunately, there isn’t a place here in Winnipeg that sells them. We ordered ours from south of the border (though I don’t recommend that – we ended up paying through the nose in taxes and duties). There is also a place in Toronto that distributes them, and possibly Vancouver. Michael would know more about the various possibilities.

  6. Ryan says:

    +1 to anyone who rides a bike in the ‘Peg…Not because of the weather but the motorists. I swear Winnipeg has to be the most dangerous city in Canada for cycling, or at least from reading things in the past that’s the perception I have.

    I really like this car-free-family-cycling feature! A few years ago my local newspaper (St. Catharines, Ontario) ran a story on a family who gave-up their car in favour of cycling! Hopefully they stuck with it. My city isn’t bike UN-friendly, but at the same time is far from cycle-friendly.

    @Erin B: You can buy a cargo bike in Vancouver at Rain City Bikes, although according to their website, it says they are sold out:

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  8. bryn says:

    @erin b

    I am also in saskatoon. :) I would call sean at BikeBike in Calgary, if you are looking for a close option.

    Right now though metrofiets is having a sale of sorts if you email them…


  9. Dorea says:

    It makes me very happy that all you fabulous and tough canadian bikers are finding each other and chit-chatting in our comments thread…

  10. Sylvia says:

    It’s great to hear about other people biking in Canadian Winters. We live in Ottawa and are carfree although we haven’t added any kids to our lives yet. I was surprised this winter at how many cyclists were still on the road and it’s great (although today at -30 I didn’t see as many)

    My fiancé wears the same MEC rainpants you reccomended and loves them

  11. dave says:

    Great story, just the info I was looking for! I am from Winnipeg also and am looking to purchase a bakfiets. I’m using a chariot trailer now. In the winter I will sometimes ride my bike on the sidewalk if there’s too much snow or ice along the curb to stay clear of traffic. Is it pretty much impossible to pop the front tire up to go over a curb if needed?

    • Angela says:

      I find it pretty hard to pop a bakfiets up over a curb — you really need someone else to help you lift it. A low bump is doable, but a real curb is a stretch, especially loaded with kids.

  12. Erin says:

    Thank you for posting this! We have recently moved to Edmonton from Victoria, where we could bike year round. I’ve been dreading the day that we have to pack up the bikes for winter, so it is very encouraging to read that we might not have to! I have a 3 year old and a 19 month old – so I’m thinking of trading in our xtracycle with yepp seats for a bakfiets for winter riding. Thanks so much again for sharing your experiences =)

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