Cycling in winter weather

The snow is quickly melting away again after eight days of exceptional winter weather for the Netherlands. There hadn’t been this much snow and ice for over a decade. It snowed for almost 48 hours first and then the canals and lakes started to freeze over. At the end of the week the ice was strong enough to carry the weight of skaters and the Dutch went crazy over it. Did this mean they put away their bicycles? Not really!

Billet en français

After two days of snowing (and clearing that snow repeatedly) the accumulated snow was really impressive on the market square in ʼs-Hertogenbosch.
Minor streets are not cleared of snow and ice. You had to be really careful in those streets, but cycling was still possible. It was interesting to see cars still covered in snow up to six days after it had snowed. Private property stored in a public space that is at a premium and these vehicles aren’t even used!

The snow front arrived on Saturday night on the 6th of February, right at the time the Corona curfew started. This meant the snow was almost untouched when that curfew ended Saturday morning at 4:30, just as I was finishing last week’s video. I love snow, so I went for a morning walk. It was magnificent! But even at that hour the city had already sent out snow clearing teams. Their hard work had little to no effect at first because the snow kept falling (with short breaks) until Monday morning. Because the temperatures dropped considerably (up to negative 16 Celsius at some locations) and didn’t get over the freezing point until Sunday 14 February, the snow stayed for well over a week and the entire country was covered in a beautiful snow deck.

The walking route from the station to the city centre was cleared regularly. This is an even smaller version of the vehicles that clean the cycleways. The system is similar: a rotating brush up front and a dispenser of brine (salt/water mixture) at the back.
People soon picked up their normal cycling habits once most of the streets were usable again. They cycled everywhere, even with a precious load such as this little girl.

Snow clearing teams spread salt over the roadways, but that system relies on car traffic to spread that salt further for it to really work. Due to Corona there was almost no traffic during the nightly curfew, the lockdown and most people working from home. All non-essential shops, the bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and museums are still closed in the Netherlands. It led to quite a few disturbances on the road and also in the train services.

Separated and protected cycleways make cycling in the snow a safe activity, provided the cycleway is cleared of snow and ice and is no longer slippery.
Roundabouts with priority for cycling function normally once the paths are cleared. What works well without snow also works well in winter.

The machinery that clears the cycleways works differently. Bicycle tyres do not spread the salt as car tyres do, so these snow clearing vehicles have rotating brushes. These brushes clear the snow first and then fewer salt is necessary to melt the residue. This was now extra advantageous, it meant the cycleways in ʼs-Hertogenbosch were often cleaner than the roadways. It is a known fact that infrastructure makes people cycle on in the winter. It is not the cold stopping them. To stay warm I reused the winter outfit I had bought for my trip to Finland last year, to the Winter Cycling congress there. Incidentally this year’s Winter Cycling Congress took place last week in an online version.

This is one of two recently reconstructed intersections that I showed only a couple of weeks ago on my blog. The design still works. Even the markings warning for the speed bump are visible after the snow was cleared.
Locations such as this one, where the cycleway ends and you have to merge with other traffic, are tricky because of the ridges the snow clearing vehicles leave behind. Especially when they start to freeze again. I saw that people know this and take very good care around such ridges.

By Tuesday 9 February the snow had finally stopped falling and the essential routes were all quickly cleaned. It made cycling very much possible at most locations. Only in the smaller streets you had to be very careful. Cars made the snow messy: loose and partly melted with the salt they dragged to these streets from elsewhere. I learned the hard way that this makes cycling tricky, twice… And I was lucky there were no consequences in either of these falls. Unfortunately, not everybody is that lucky! In ʼs-Hertogenbosch the city clears some essential walking routes, such as from the station to the shopping centre. Most Dutch cities don’t do that. In the past it was customary that residents had to clear the public foot paths right in front of their property. These regulations were abolished decades ago, but that also meant most people stopped doing that and now the sidewalks simply stay untouched. After all the hard work of all these snow clearing teams the situation could be very different from street to street and from town to town, but people did cycle on. The Cyclists’ Union investigated how the paths were in a number of other towns and cities and it is indeed a mixed bag, ranging from unacceptable to very good, or improved after complaints. It is interesting to see that the current and former best cycling municipalities Veenendaal and Houten do a great job (and ʼs-Hertogenbosch is also a former winner after all).

It’s hard to recognise, but this is actually a cycleway. It is interesting how different things look when there is no ploughing at all and cars do not mess up the snow.
This water leading to the city moat of ʼs-Hertogenbosch freezes over more often. That is influenced by the wind, the currents and how deep the water is. This is always a perfect location for a picture that looks like a 17th century Dutch master, because the city never expanded beyond the mediaeval borders here and no modern buildings obscure the view to the cathedral.

When the sun started to shine later in the week. Cities and towns began to resemble paintings from 17th century masters. It was very enjoyable to be out and about. At the end of the week it became even prettier when the canals had frozen over. By Thursday the ice was capable to carry people and the ice skating frenzy took the whole country. Here too conditions vary a lot. While it had been possible to skate on some Amsterdam canals as recently as 2018, I know that I was on the ice of the ʼs-Hertogenbosch city moat for the first time ever. And I have lived in this city for almost 26 years. Foreigners were surprised that so many of the Dutch donned skates and took to the ice. But when you look at the speed skating medal table of the winter Olympics it should be no surprise that skating is the national sport in this country. Even last weekend the Netherlands won a lot of gold medals in the Speed Skating World Cup, held in Heerenveen, also in the Netherlands. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Dutch are all good skaters. The hospitals had to treat over 40,000 people for mostly broken bones sustained after falling on the ice.

The actual city moat, with the remains of the city wall now acting as a water defence system, freezes over sometimes but it is very rare that the ice is strong enough to skate on. I crossed the canal here to walk to the polder on the other side and that was the first time in the 26 years I have lived in the city

Last Monday the winter periode was over. Temperatures are now over freezing point and the rain started again. It may feel a lot like spring next weekend! Fortunately, I was able to take a lot of pictures and I also filmed a lot. You will see more snow on this blog in the near future, but let’s start with the video below. Enjoy!

This week’s video: Do the Dutch cycle in the snow?

Bonus video: a short ride in the marsh south of ʼs-Hertogenbosch.

One thought on “Cycling in winter weather

  1. Well in Den Haag they did a miserable job clearing the snow. Only the main streets, no small streets, no bike paths in the city. This wasn’t an aberration – in 2013 same story. The ice didn’t fully clear until the following Tuesday. So the Gemeente had many days after the emergency to do something both in 2021 and 2013 and didn’t do diddly.

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