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Finland blazes trail in keeping citizens cycling and healthy - The Guardian

The temperature, even at 9.30am, is -13C, and light snow is falling on the already white-blanketed playground. But dozens of primary-age children are out, and doing something you might not expect in such conditions: riding bikes.

Teachers say about half of the children at Joensuu normal school in eastern Finland usually arrive by bicycle, even during the icy winters. Even more have done so today, as an external instructor is here to lead them around a snowy bike obstacle course and other fun challenges.

The school is hosting the opening event of the Winter Cycling Congress, a small and slightly niche annual gathering held this year in Joensuu, which prides itself that many of its citizens refuse to see several months of constant snow as a barrier to getting on a bike.

Officials say close to 20% of all trips in the compact city about 250 miles north-east of Helsinki, near the Russian border, are cycled on average year-round. This drops in winter but still remains many times the equivalent UK rate of about 1% to 2%.

Juha-Pekka Vartiainen, in charge of roads infrastructure for Joensuu and among the dozens of people speaking at the three-day gathering, says the city’s year-round cycling is partly down to geography and demographics.

Three-quarters of the near 80,000 population live within 20 minutes’ ride of the centre, and the terrain is flat. More than 10% of the population are students.

But far more important, he stresses, is the fact that he and his predecessors have spent years building safe bike routes, separated from the motor traffic. “There’s a long tradition of cycling here. But we also have a long tradition of planning for cycling,” Vartiainen says.

“The things that are important for people cycling in the summer, they become critical in winter. For example, if you don’t have a cycle route it’s almost impossible to cycle in the winter – the road gets really rutted with snow and ice. It’s dangerous.”

The Winter Cycling Congress, where academics, activists and other experts present research and swap tips, is run by a tiny group of volunteers, who rely on host cities to fund and promote the annual gatherings.

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