I won't be shut in
"Yes," I said. "And a truck, too. Why?"
"I was just wondering."
Well, his thinking got me thinking about why I pedaled to school that subzero morning. Just why did I ride a bicycle in winter? From November to March, it would be quite simple to jump in my Subaru, dial up the heated seats and drive the three miles to the university, while sipping warm coffee and listening to "Burning Ring of Fire." Simple, warm, convenient - sounds like the American way.
Perhaps riding a bike in the dead of winter was my protest against these cultural values. For sure, it didn't have much to do with saving money since bicycle commuting saves me only about five bucks a week in gasoline. I could save more money by drinking coffee from a can instead of the expensive stuff I do drink. Nor did I think my commuting was saving the world. One fighter jet sortie over Iraq or Afghanistan burned more fuel than I would ever save in a lifetime of bicycle commuting.
Being frugal and green are important virtues, but they aren't my main motivation. Honestly, winter bicycle commuting is my way to beat the bitter elements of winter and not let the cold and darkness keep me captive inside. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing give me the same liberating feeling. I like to ride, so why let winter shut me down? That sounds a bit macho, but it's really not, given the equipment available today. Essentially, winter commuting in comfort is a matter of being prepared. It's Boy Scout stuff.
Winter in the upper Midwest isn't kind to bicycles, thanks to the liberal doses of salt dumped on our roads that rust and corrode chains, cogs, cranks, derailleurs, cables and any other part exposed to the urban slop we call snow. Fortunately, my frame is made of aluminum and so the corrosive elements don't affect it. But the crank finish is flaking off like the sloughed skin of a snake. This bike is nearly 10 years old, so I don't mind the abuse that winter throws its way. It makes little sense to ride a nice bike in the winter or one you really care about, unless it's your only bike. Better to buy an old clunker mountain bike and dedicate it to riding in the winter.
For clothing, I mostly wear what I wear cross-country skiing. There are times, however, when I need more protection and wear heavier gear - mittens, balaclava, Gore-Tex hunting boots and Army surplus over-pants. Some of my hardiest gear came from the surplus section at Fleet Farm. It's durable, warm and it was cheap.
When I was a college student, I rode an old three-speed around Iowa City, a bike today I wouldn't even think about riding on snow or ice. Fixies today are all the rage on campus, and I'm glad to see them in the bike racks. But skinny tires, especially since the advent of the mountain bike, simply don't make winter sense anymore. In a perfect world, I would have two sets of 29er wheels for winter riding: one with aggressive tread and the other with studs. Studs work like magic on ice but roll like stone wheels on dry pavement. For the one or two icy days per winter, I take my chances, preferring the performance of standard and much lighter mountain bike tires. Studs do bite into the ice and provide confidence and security, however.
Nearly all of my winter spills, including one that wrecked a cyclocross bike, occurred because I wasn't taking winter seriously. They were early in the season on lightly frosted roads. I crashed a few years ago in early November in front of two old ladies waiting at a stop sign. A barely discernible light frost skimmed the surface of the road. The ladies were nice enough to clamber out of the car and make sure I was OK. Last year, I slid out on frost-covered leaves on a bike path through the park.
It takes me a while to start paying adequate attention. Either that or I just don't want to admit that winter is lurking just over the horizon. The other day, after a hard frost had leveled gardens, I rode into school without gloves and wearing just a light sweatshirt. I rode down the hill with my hands stuffed into my armpits. When I got to school, my fingers were so cold I could barely work the buckles on my messenger bag.
Get prepared, I warned myself. Winter's coming.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.
- Meeting a need for singletrack in metro Milwaukee
- Can't stop ... too often
- Beware the lever
- A stout St. Patrick's Day Ride
- The difference a fat bike can make
- Cycling trainers
- Two cheers (per bike) for the Midwest Tandem Rally
- Midwest mountain bikers unite!
- Moby Hill
- Standing on the pedals vs. sitting on the saddle