Winter Cycling in Finland

Cycling in winter, is that even possible? Yes, is what I keep saying, but we hardly have real winter conditions in the Netherlands anymore to prove my point. That is why I took the opportunity to attend a Winter Cycling Masterclass in Oulu and Helsinki, last week. After the planned Winter Cycling Congress in Karlstad in Sweden was unfortunately cancelled, the Finnish Cycling Embassy stepped in to offer people who had already booked a trip (or for those who simply still wanted to go after not yet registering) an alternative. The Masterclass was the second official event the FCE organised. The goal was to learn from what Oulu and Helsinki do to get more people cycling in winter.

This bicycle counter (of a type that is designed and developed in Oulu) counts people on foot and by bike who are using the bridge between Oulu city centre and the island Pikisaari.
At the intersection of the main road called Kainuuntie and Teuvo Pakkalan katu there are wide and (socially) safe underpasses for cycling and walking.

The Winter Cycling Masterclass attracted participants from Norway (4), the United States (2), Slovakia (1), Canada (1) and myself from the Netherlands (1). With the organisers and some other people tagging along, the group was mostly around 12 to 14 people. Why would you still go to Oulo, when the entire internet is full of pictures and tweets about this town? One of the delegates, Petra Nečasová from Slovakia, made a striking analogy when she said it’s like “seeing videos of a favorite band for so many times, for so many songs, and then actually coming to a concert and feeling the energy and seeing it all live, that’s how coming to Oulu made me feel!”

After presentations in the morning, the group cycled over 50km all around Oulu on two consecutive afternoons with a very different type of weather. The first day it was sunny and -15 degrees Celsius (5F), while on the second day it snowed constantly with a temperature of around -5 degrees Celsius (23F). On the third day there was a tour in Helsinki, but unfortunately, I could only attend the presentations there, not the ride.

Finland introduced a new traffic sign in 2020, a cycling crossing. This has to be a raised crosssing and it means crossing cyclists have priority (just like the pedestrians). The cycle crossing does not need to be combined with a pedestrian crossing, but I noticed the two often came as a pair.
Bicycle parking racks in the centre of Oulu are always full, even in winter.

The main lesson I learned is that Oulu and Helsinki studied the best cycling practices from around the world and tweaked what they learned for their specific situation – different even for these two municipalities – for the benefit of the people in their communities.

Oulu took the minimum widths used by the Dutch at heart but dropped the kerbs between cycling and walking to make the total width manageable for the snow clearing machines. The end-result is then better than the example of the Netherlands, because now also people walking get a usable surface and there is no half visible dangerous kerb under the snow.

Good winter cycling conditions start with good cycling conditions in general. This is the design width of a bicycle superhighway in Oulu. 2.5m for walking, a stripe of 10cm wide and then a cycleway of 4m wide. A total usable width of 6.6 meters!
All the participants needed a picture of the teeth of the blade of the snow plough. The smooth and narrow snow ridges that are the result of this blade give the surface enough traction to cycle with normal tyres. That studded tyres are not necessary is clear when you study the tyres in bicycle parking racks, many bicycles have ordinary tyres.

Helsinki is currently working on expanding their cycling network as such, which is unfortunately still mostly about closing gaps. To learn about how best to do that, Helsinki is in a European program called Civitas Handshake Cycling where evolving cycling cities connect with established ones. Helsinki mostly looks at Copenhagen, which it feels more related to (since that is also a Nordic city) and the weather conditions are quite similar. But Oskari Kaupinmäki, cycling coordinator of Helsinki, said that he does not hesitate to also borrow good ideas from the Dutch.

Oulu is the winter cycling capital in Finland, which even the general public there knows. Snow maintenance has evolved into an artform in Oulu, which is a growing city; currently it is the fifth largest municipality in Finland with around 210,000 inhabitants. Also called the “Capital of Northern Finland”, Oulu is situated by the Gulf of Bothnia, at the mouth of Oulujoki (Oulu river), around 170km south of the arctic circle. The city proper was founded in 1605. The centre is a mix of older and newer buildings, but the city’s main expansion took place after 1960. That means most of the suburbs are relatively young. Oulu was fortunate that the city already had a Cycling Plan in 1971 and that the suburbs have always been well connected with cycle paths with routes separated from the car routes, standard in the Netherlands and I also found that in Malmö on an earlier study trip. During the winter solstice days in Oulu only last 3 hours and 34 minutes, while during the summer solstice days last 22 hours and 3 minutes.

The modal share of cycling in the residential area is 22 % which means that there is also a lot of driving in Oulu. There is for instance a large car parking garage under the city centre with 900 spaces carved out of the rocks. There are two entrances for cars and at 6 different locations elevators take people to a place in the centre.

Yours truly on the ice of the Baltic Sea (Gulf of Bothnia). Picture by Pekka Tahkola.
According to some other participants that smile was on my face for the entire time I was riding! Picture Pekka Tahkola.

What sets Oulu apart, even in Finland, is their maintenance category which they call “Super Class”. This is a recent development. The first (unsuccessful) contract ran from 2017-2020 and got a lot of negative feedback for many different reasons. A new iteration of the contract for this new type of snow clearing runs from 2020-2024. The tender for this contract included many new requirements, and after finding a motivated contractor this type of winter maintenance is now a success! On 165km of cycle ways the city applies the super class winter maintenance category (from the 950km long network). The cost of the superclass winter maintenance is around € 400,000 per year, which amounts to about € 3,200 per km per year (compared to € 2,000 per km per year for ‘ordinary’ snow removal).

The conditions in Helsinki are quite different. When temperatures alternate between freezing and thawing it is impossible to keep a nice snow layer. Helsinki needs to use salt on the road and that results in much more slush.
Where there was a snow layer on the cycle ways in Helsinki that layer was much thicker and more uneven than what the delegates had seen in Oulu the days before.

The 165km is divided into six routes which amounts to about 27km per driver/tractor. Due to the width of the cycle superhighways those parts of the routes need to be cleaned in two halves. These routes need to be driven twice to clean once. There are two stages of treatment. The first priority is to open the route as quickly as possible. In the second phase the aim is to clean the surfaces further (by getting rid of snow ridges in curves and at intersections for instance). Drivers (or driver teams) have their own dedicated route, so they know that route well and get a sense of pride from how it looks.

Oskari Kaupinmäki, Helsinki’s cycling coordinator, acknowledged that the city has work to do. That is two-fold, closing the gaps in the cycling network and improving the maintenance and thus the condition of the cycling network in winter.

Contributing to the success are monitoring and quality control. In Oulu that is done by bicycle. The contractor’s drivers are required to ride a bicycle on their own route and, perhaps even more importantly, also on those of their colleagues. The reason is to give feedback about the quality of the snow removal from the point of view of the end users. Another requirement is that contractors talk with the end users in so-called roadside events. Where – over a cup of hot chocolate – people get invited to say what they feel about the route they use often. The reason for this is that Oulu feels winter maintenance is a customer service business. The city only facilitates, it’s all about the contractor and the end-user. Details matter! After treatment no snowbanks, no slush of any kind is allowed to be present. No salt may be used and for additional traction absolutely no sharp grit may be added to the cycle ways (the latter to prevent damage to tyres). The surface that is left is a nicely striped, thin snow layer with a lot of traction. The width between those thin ridges is narrower than a bicycle tyre because the teeth of the snow plough blade are required to be that narrow. The ridges may freeze, and you don’t want frozen ridges that can catch a bicycle wheel!

One location where a lot of the customers go is the Metsokangas School, which is a collection of school buildings for up to 1,300 students in the age range from 7- to 18-year-olds. The school was built between 2005 and 2008 and by car it can only be reached via one route, but when you come by bicycle or on foot there are multiple routes. The school parking lot was full, even though that morning – when the children had to cycle to school – it had been -20 degrees Celsius (-4F). It was fun to see the students pick up their bicycle to ride home.

This study trip was very inspirational! There is a short video on Twitter from the organisers, but there is of course also my my video report below.

My video report of the Winter Cycling Master Class in Oulu (and Helsinki).
If you can’t get enough of the cycling in Oulu, this may be the video for you: an over two hour excerpt of what the rides looked like from the saddle!

5 thoughts on “Winter Cycling in Finland

  1. great article and videos. I love Europe for many reasons yet one of my favorite is the ability to bicycle safely. Unlike the U.S. where we are ran off the roads. thank you for your post

  2. That was an interesting video, as are all your videos. I’ve done a bit of snow cycling as a kid here in the US a very long time ago. An adventure for sure. On another note, I’ll be in Utrecht the entire month of June and it would be fun to meet you. I’m from San Diego, CA. This will be my third trip to the Netherlands. I love the place and hope to return often. It’s largely from what I learned from watching your videos that got me interested at first:-) Thank you for that. A life changing event(s). I wonder how I’d connect with you to learn of a way to meet. Maybe you’ll see my email address in this blog sign in.

  3. Maybe if the weather is cold enough to maintain a permanent snow pack (properly groomed as described) it is possible – I used to ride my bike around university all winter long – but at my age and stage today I would be afraid to risk slipping and falling on an ice patch. There is no chance of any such program happening where I live, because suburban sprawl made the area difficult to walk or bike and left no space for paths.

  4. Great post! Very informative. I would have thought winter cycling would be the very latest until snow appears. I did see mountain bikers in North Finland in Saariselka near one of the bigger fells in early October as you can see here:

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