When I had my paper route I rode 364 days per year (no paper on Christmas Day). I didn’t think much of it; it was what I had to do for my job. Nowadays people make a big deal about winter riding. There were a few exceptions to my daily riding: when I was sick I got a ride in the car, and my dad had a rule that when the temperature was colder than -20 degrees I got a ride. (My mom once pointed out that, while it was my dad’s rule, she was usually the one who got up to drive me.) This was before wind chill was widely known or reported, so it meant actual air temperature. There were mornings I looked out the window and saw -18 and wondered how I could make it read a few degrees colder. This was at 4:30 AM and the temperature tends to continue to drop until shortly after sunrise, so I was probably out at -20 several times without knowing it. I figure if that rule was good enough for my dad, it’s good enough for me, so I ride to work unless the temperature is colder than -20 degrees.
There are a few simple principles for winter riding that I have figured out over the years: 1) keep your hands and feet warm, 2) cover all skin when it is below zero, 3) don’t fall – it hurts more in the cold, so use studded snow tires. (Those didn’t exist when I was a kid, either.) (The mittens shown above were made by Kevin Kinney of Empire Wool and Canvas Company. They are no longer available. Maybe if enough people ask nicely, he’ll bring them back.)
It also helps to have wraparound glasses if your eyes are sensitive. Mine tend to water in the cold and my eyelashes flick the tears onto my lenses, where they freeze – when the ice sublimates (or melts and evaporates when I go inside), I’m left with salt stains that are hard to see through. Glasses do make their own problems. If you have your face covered it is hard to keep from fogging up your lenses. If it is cold enough, that fog freezes and may need to be scraped off periodically. Not needing glasses may be an advantage. I know someone who wears goggles and breathes through a snorkel.
Twenty below zero has gotten rarer these days. If you doubt the local effects of global climate change, see http://www.aos.wisc.edu/~sco/lakes/Mendota-ice.html, where you will see the history of when ice has formed and melted on Lake Mendota since 1852.
There are a few tricks to winter riding. Studded tires work great on ice and hard-packed snow. They are not great on clear pavement. Since you’re riding on metal and not rubber, you need to take turns more slowly with less lean or they will slide out from under you. They are not great in deep snow. The worst is that brown, greasy snow that collects at the edges of roads and in unplowed intersections. If anyone knows a good solution to that snow (other than staying out of it) put it in the comments below.
Riding predictably in a straight line is more important than staying to the far right. There will be more on this in a later post. Snow tends to get pushed to the edges of the roadway and then partially refreezes. The edge between pavement and this stuff is treacherous. Rather than riding in the slop and sliding around, ride on the clear pavement in a straight line. The law in most states says to ride “as far to the right as practicable“, not as far to the right as possible. I avoid streets with bike lanes in the winter, as that is where all the slippery stuff collects. Instead I take the side roads that cars tend to avoid because they (the roads, not the cars) are slow. Since roads are crowned, as snow melts (from salt or the heat of car tires), it runs toward the edges, then refreezes. Particularly bad are roads where the middle gets full sun and the edge is in shade (think urban streets with buildings close to the street).
In the winter, simpler is better, so my current bike has no derailleurs. It has a three-speed hub (like the English three-speeds of my youth). It has hydraulic disc brakes which work better when wet, icy, or gritty. Brakes on the wheel rims take more time to dry when you apply them, plus the grit from sand and salt wears the rims quickly. Wheels last almost forever on bikes you ride in good weather (assuming you take care of them in other ways). Winter bikes go through rims in a couple of winters. And no chain, as keeping a chain clean and lubricated is an essential but messy and time-consuming winter chore. To clean the belt, I park the bike over the floor drain in the basement, fill a bucket with water, and pour it slowly over the belt, rotating the cranks so the whole belt gets rinsed.
Really, anybody can ride a bike in the winter. It is not a big deal. If you are warm for the first two blocks you are overdressed. You’ll start cold and heat up quickly. I found that, when I drove to work one below zero day last winter, I arrived feeling colder than when I ride my bike. The car never really heated up fully.