Diary of a Winter Commuter is a detailed account of riding in Wisconsin during one of the harshest winters in the past 25 years (2014). Rich Sweet recently turned his journal entries into a 3-part story featuring anecdotes, advice and other random thoughts of a die-hard cold-weather bicycle commuter. If you missed Part 1, check it out here.
The person who got me into not only biking, but biking all season was my best friend since the age of seven, Billy Roberts. Billy and I rode a lot growing up together in southern Wisconsin. We also practically lived at each other’s houses for a lot of those years. We were thick-as-thieves and like brothers in every sense of the word. He was always a little different than anyone else I remember from a young age. My dad politely referred to him as “off.”
As we got older (not grown up) I’d run into a lot of trouble behind the wheel of a car and sometime in 1989, I just sort of dropped out of the driving world and walked or took the bus wherever I needed to go. In spring of ’93, while we were both living in Madison, Bill convinced me that instead of taking the bus to work, I should be riding my bike.
I had just bought an entry level Specialized Hard Rock so I took his challenge and rode back-and-forth to work every day. It was a beautiful ride that took me through Madison’s Arboretum and the surrounding neighborhood to the veterinary clinic I worked at. When fall came, I naturally figured that I’d better get the bike put away and pick up a Madison Metro bus schedule. Bill was Bill which meant blunt and to the point. His exact words were “only little kids and old people have an excuse for not riding, even in the winter.” He went on to describe his commutes to work while he lived in Alaska–death rides involving sub-arctic temperatures and spine disintegrating terrain. “You could do it,” he reminded, “Even with that shit bike of yours.” That was just the kick to the pride I needed and my first season of winter commuting was underway.
I learned about the winter riding gig as I went. Despite Billys direction that I should be riding in winter, he had precious little practical advice on things to do or avoid when actually doing it. “You just gotta get out and ride,” was his most common response when I asked him for any tips he might have. I knew this about it–the rides could sometimes be beautiful in the snowy early-winter evenings.
Commuting in winter was pretty rare then (it still kind of is I guess) and I did whatever seemed to make sense at the time. For a couple of winters, I misguidedly applied 10-30 motor oil to my drive train because it seemed like everything else I used washed off right away. While the oil was resistant to moisture, it clearly wasn’t meant for bicycles and I ended up seeking a new winter bike sooner than anticipated. I did however learn to make relatively effective fender extensions out of empty pancake syrup bottles. Again, the stuff you can now find in any bike shop for wet/cold conditions just wasn’t around.
I learned how to ride in the winter by riding in the winter, so Billy’s non-advice was accurate if not totally helpful. I guess it’s a little bit like anything else for which there’s no blueprint, no definitive way to do it. When the snow is heavy or you expect to be riding on ice, let a little air out of your tires to help with traction or better yet, buy studded tires. If you start to fish tail on ice or snow, don’t freak out and try to over correct; just keep your legs turning, your handlebars straight and more often than not, you’ll be ok. As always, be sure to have eaten a recent high protein meal before hitting the road. A ride even in which weather is a non-factor burns a surprisingly high number of calories. Having to work harder to push through the elements burns fuel at a much higher rate and there are few things more unpleasant than running out of that fuel, particularly in the winter.
I learned a lot about balance (mine sucks), basic body geometry (I’m much more comfortable turning left than right on hard-packed snow and ice) and the power of the human will. I also learned that failure to cover exposed skin in frigid temperatures will kill it. Prepping all the stuff I have to haul to work (dry clothes, multiple full meals, drinks and snacks,etc) as well as layering for the ride can be pretty time-consuming but every bit of it serves an important purpose.
I work in a corporate environment and I’m constantly being offered rides to or from work, particularly when the weather is bad. No one understands what the hell I’m doing out there and can’t figure out exactly what’s wrong with me. They’re nice folks with the best of intentions. Sometimes I sneak out and leave before they can offer their passenger seat to me and the bed of their SUV for my bike.
Others look at me like I’m the village idiot when they see me completing my preparation for the ride home. When asked why I insist on doing it, I mostly now just answer with “Because I can do it and it reminds me I’m alive.”
If I can get where I’m going in this kind of weather we’re having this year, I take a certain pride in knowing that I refuse to be beaten. I am also humbled by the knowledge that had nature been just a bit more severe, she could have struck me down for good if she’d wanted.
Just as I love watching someone melt down because they can’t get their personal technology to work, I also take some snarky pleasure when weather decides to get the last word in. Human beings so often seem to think that they make up all of the rules in life or that their money or other possessions will always pull them through in uncertain times. Mother Nature doesn’t care who you are or what you have. She has the last word, yet everyone seems to kind of forget that.
I could have stayed a bus rider indefinitely. I’m not ripping it; I did it for a couple of years and I firmly believe that the bus is usually a fine way to get around for most people. I eventually became more determined than ever to keep riding just because I kept telling myself that I could.
But there are so many things that I can’t do. I can’t build or fix things. I was described as having a “spatial relationship disorder” by the hippie veterinarian I used to work for. I also have an attention span which tends to wane if I have to sit and listen to someone speak for more than about 10 minutes. I can ride my bike all year around however and depending on which study you read, it can save anywhere from 8-10 thousand dollars per year, not counting health benefits, etc. I believe it.
When I get quizzed on it, I tell people that physically, anyone can do it. The barrier is almost entirely mental. It’s not at all impossible but it isn’t easy. The appeal for me is that almost no one even considers the idea of doing it. The very idea is laughed at and dismissed out-of-hand.
I washed dishes in restaurants for 10 years and I’m still proud of it. Why? It prepared me for a lot of relatively unpleasant things that I’d take on at various points during my professional life. It established and permanently set the bar for me. If you can handle the exertion and filth of dishwashing, nothing you do later will be beneath you. There’s a satisfaction in doing an expert job at something most people wouldn’t even consider. Winter riding is kind of the same.
A girl I work with calls me “crazy” for riding in the winter but goes outside 8-10 times each work day to willingly inhale tars and carbon monoxide so who’s the crazy one? It’s punk rock philosophy plain and simple–I can do this myself and on my own terms. I’m independent and want to keep it that way. I’m fine. You may be the one who has the problem(s) and you don’t even know it.
Naturally, it’s not always easy and not always enjoyable. A lot of winter mornings aren’t particularly beautiful nor is each and every commute revelatory or insightful. From late fall until well after the winter solstice, I’m riding both to and from work in the dark. That’s pretty gloomy and these days there’s an added feeling of vulnerability no matter how well I’m lit up.
Occasionally, some road warrior will buzz me (passing at an unsafe distance) and I can’t properly describe the rage I go into when that happens. I’ve tried following some of them, hoping to catch up at a stop light or store. I’m a person that avoids conflict like the plague, but there is something about being strafed like that which turns me into someone/something else entirely; pure righteous rage.
Thankfully, being buzzed by car drivers has become a less frequent experience particularly in the winter months. If anything, it seems to happen more often when I’m riding in the summer. People in cars actually seem to be more tolerant of me in the winter than they ever have before. Maybe they figure that anyone who rides in the winter is crazy and unstable people have enough problems as it is. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful.
The winter rides that are memorable somehow make it all worthwhile. There are a lot of exquisite sights and poignant (at least at the time) moments. It’s usually simple things–the aforementioned sunrises, elaborate graffiti on trains, a hologram from the frozen icicle forming on my eyelashes.
I know I probably won’t be able to do this forever, at least not during the worst of weather conditions. I’ve noticed that it seems just a little bit darker each winter and that I now feel slightly bit more vulnerable when I’m riding in traffic under challenging winter conditions. After going for a long time without a helmet, I began wearing one faithfully about seven or eight years ago and turn my bike lights on anytime it’s even a little bit dim outside.
With this new appreciation of my mortality in mind, I try to value each day that I continue to ride, particularly in the winter. No matter what else happens, I have succeeded in getting myself to work and back independently and while that doesn’t send me into waves of giddy euphoria anymore, I still take a quiet satisfaction in it. It might after all be the highlight of my work day.
More than anything however, I wish winter was over and I could make the ride without all of the preparation, planning and darkness. That time isn’t here however and for now, it’s important to be happy with small things–the next telephone pole, making it three more driveways and finally, rolling safely into my own.
Do you bicycle commute? Why or why not? We’d love to hear your stories. Tell us in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org with a story about why you started bike commuting and we’ll publish our favorites.
Tester: Eric McKeegan
Tallac is a small company in southern California specializing in a few small bike accessories. The Vier lock is an interesting take on the long-established U-lock. Made up of four pieces that can be quickly disassembled and stored in the included zippered pouch, the Vier provides full-size U-lock performance in a bundle the size of a burrito.
The pouch can easily be slipped into a bag or strapped to the saddle rails or in a bottle cage. Tallac is also working on a special carrier that mounts to the bottle cage eyelets. Only one side of the Vier locks, and the shackles attach to the other end with a quarter turn. Everything about this lock looks and feels extremely high quality, with a fit and finish as good as anything I’ve used.
The shackles come in three lengths: 5.25, 7.25 and 9.25 inches. I used the middle length and found it big enough to lock a steel frame and front wheel off the bike, but just barely. The larger size looks big enough to secure at least two bikes.
The Vier lock started life as a successful crowd-funded campaign, so the demand for this lock exists. While my locking needs are often met with a U-lock shoved into a back pocket, riders with a need for high security in a small package should take a look at the Vier.
More info: Tallac House
Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit Mini
Tester: Justin Steiner
Kryptonite’s New York Fahgettaboudit Mini is a burly little lock. On Kryptonite’s 1 to 10 security scale, this beefy lock registers a 10 thanks to an 18 mm, triple-heat-treated shackle and an oversized, hardened steel barrel. Because both ends of the shackle lock, it would need to be cut in two places to be defeated.
With that promise of security comes a big anti-theft protection guarantee of $4,500 should your bike get stolen. This protection is free for the first year, but must be renewed afterward at $10 for a second year or $15 for a second and third year of coverage. Of course, you’ll want to register your lock and read all the fine print on that agreement to make sure you’re in compliance.
As great as the security and protection may be, living with the Fahgettaboudit Mini has its challenges. The 3.25 x 6 inch opening inside the shackle can limit your locking options, particularly on bikes with wide tires.
If you’re running narrow tires you’ll be able to remove and lock the front wheel with the frame and rear wheel, but the odds of doing so decrease as tire size increases. It’s also a chunker, weighing it at 4.6 lbs. If you live in an area that requires high security, you don’t have much choice. Outside of areas requiring ultra-high security, the Fahgettaboudit Mini might be overkill.
More info: Kryptonite Lock
Abus Bordo Centium
Tester: Adam Newman
Here at Bicycle Times we’re big fans of the Bordo family of folding locks from Abus, and the latest Centium model continues our love affair with the German craftsmanship. If you haven’t used one before, the Bordo locks are made from a series of steel plates that unfold into a kind of rope. It’s utterly fantastic for locking to strangely shaped racks, looping through a wheel and making locking up a lot easier than it would be with a small U-lock.
Abus rates the Centium as a 10 on its scale of theft prevention, out of a possible 15, so it’s got you pretty well covered against most kinds of attacks. In highly vulnerable places I’ve taken to using a U-lock through the rear wheel with the “Sheldon Brown method” and the Bordo on the frame and front wheel. You can also order one with a specific key code, so if you have multiple Abus locks with the Plus cylinder you can use them all with the same key. With more than 250,000 key possibilities, that could come in handy.
The 5 mm steel links have a protective coating to prevent scratching your bike, and the stainless steel lock case—carved from a single piece of steel—has a cover for the key cylinder, a nice feature if there’s freezing moisture in the air. Ice can ruin your day in more ways than one.
The Centium comes with an attractive mount with a leather trimmed Velcro strap and a steampunk vibe. While I like the looks, it’s definitely heavier than the simple plastic holster of the other Bordo locks, so don’t be looking to save weight there. However the new bracket is side-loading instead of top-loading, which makes getting the lock in and out a lot easier. At 2.75 pounds, including the bracket, the complete unit is quite hefty, but I’ll trade a bit of weight for security any day.
There’s obviously a little flare to the Centium that you don’t normally get on bike locks, and it’s reflected in the price. For example, it ships in a very attractive commemorative wooden box built for Abus by a local nonprofit agency that empowers and teaches skills to developmentally disabled individuals. Like all Abus products it is made in Germany with more than a century of of lock-making expertise behind it. Whichever Abus Bordo model you choose I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
More info: Abus Locks
Tester: Jon Pratt
From time to time we all need to lock up our bikes in questionable surroundings. For this you need a good, strong lock. However, those kinds of locks are usually heavy and difficult to carry without bags or attachments on your person or bike. This is where the Hiplok Gold comes to the rescue.
Hiploks are easily worn around the waist and provide extreme protection for your bike. This Gold version has a 10 mm thick, hardened steel chain that carries Sold Secure’s (a U.K. security testing company) highest rating of Gold. The chain is wrapped in a tough nylon outer sleeve, which protects your clothes, bike and the object you are locking to from damage. The lock features a 12 mm hardened steel shackle and a brass locking mechanism wrapped up in impact resistant plastic.
All that security weighs in at a hefty 5.3 pounds. However, because the chain is worn around your waist, the weight is dispersed well and not much of a bother. A handy clip secures the Hiplok around your waist, so you do not have to lock and unlock to get it on and off. It’s super simple and fast. You can also adjust the length of the belt so that it will fit comfortably on waists from 28 to 44 inches.
Since I don’t have to take something along to carry the Hiplok, it has become my go-to lock when traveling around town. Just throw it on and off you go! I have also found the 33.5-inch chain and lock long enough to secure two bikes together in most situations, and even more if you get creative.
The Hiplok Gold is available worldwide, and there are several Hiplok variations available—I particularly like the highly reflective Superbright series.
More info: Hiplok
Photos: Emily Walley
Marin designed the Four Corners and Four Corners Elite for the daily commute and the weekend adventure, and it couldn’t be more on point. I’m testing the lower priced model, with an MSRP of $1100. It offers all the bells and whistles for fully-loaded touring in an affordable package. The Four Corners is an all-steel frame with mounts for a front and rear rack, fenders and three bottle cages.
Saddling up, I immediately noticed the upright riding position facilitated by the long headtube. The bars sit higher than what I’m used to and have a 20-degree flare to the drop. On other bikes, I’ve trended toward riding primarily on the hoods and tops, but the Marin’s upright position had me comfortably riding in the drops for long stretches of rolling hills and rail trails—a welcome change. The reach on the size small frame was a little long for me, so I put on a 20 mm shorter stem.
To get a sense of the bike’s touring capabilities, I added fenders and a front rack and loaded it down with gear for a mixed-surface tour from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh. The ride included crushed limestone rail trail, rolling hard roads, dirt roads and railroad ballast. I carried my weight low on the front rack and the bike handled very well while weighted down.
On the small-sized frame, I was unable to include a water bottle underneath the downtube because it hit the fender. Though I haven’t tried yet, I’m speculating that the tire will come very close to hitting even a short bottle without fenders. On my trip, I used a stem-mounted cage for a third bottle.
The other two bottle mounts are placed so they’re easy to reach for day-to-day use, but they’re not in an ideal location for a frame bag. I zip-tied a cage lower on the downtube, closing up the unused space and allowing room for my frame bag.
I found the stock Schwalbe Silento 700c x 40 mm tires to be an appropriate spec, rolling well in a variety of terrain and adequately burly, so I wasn’t overly concerned with getting a flat. The Four Corners has clearance for up 45 mm tires with fenders or 29 x 2.1 knobby tires without fenders.
The Shimano Alivio 9-Speed with 12-36T gearing was adequate while weighted down over Pennsylvania’s rolling hills, but I’d go with a lower gear range for an extended, fully-loaded tour with sustained climbs.
I was thrilled with the stock WTB Volt Sport saddle. One of the biggest pains of rail trail riding are the long, flat sections of saddle time. The WTB is comfortable and supportive and I didn’t find myself sitting gingerly.
Look for the full review in an upcoming issue of Bicycle Times. Not subscribed? Sign up today for our email newsletter so you don’t miss stories like this one. Or, subscribe to the print magazine, where you can find the full review of this bike.
Photos by Emily Walley
Marina Mertz, founder of Anhaica Bag Works, creates unique waxed canvas bags for both on and off the bike. The business is located in what we know as Tallahassee, Florida, but the name hearkens back to the city’s early roots as Anhaica, home and capital city of the Apalachee people.
Marina started small, sewing bags in a work space she rented from Tallahassee’s community bike shop, but soon her days were filled with crafting the Anahica collection, from bicycle touring bags to everyday totes.
The resulting product is beautiful. I was immediately drawn to the muted color palette and vintage aesthetic of the Anhaica line. I had the pleasure of testing out the Convertible Backpack Pannier: a versatile carryall for wherever your bike takes you.
The hand-waxed nature of the canvas gives the bag an aged appearance without sacrificing strength and regular use only enhanced its “weathered” style.
I have never bought a single yard of waxed canvas but instead spent months testing different mixtures of wax and application processes. We use 100% local beeswax for all of our bags. – Mertz
As stated in the name, this particular Anhaica bag converts from backpack to pannier for convenient carrying on your back or on your bike, and it does so quite well. For use while riding, the shoulder straps are designed to tuck under a large velcro flap and the bag attaches to the rack via two sturdy plastic hooks. There is not a lower rack attachment on the bag so if your ride involves fast-rolling, rough terrain I’d recommend using a zip tie or two at the top, for some extra security.
When worn as a backpack, the flap lives behind the straps. With the full bag length extending to 25 inches when open, 12 inches wide and 4.5 inches deep; it easily stows a 15-inch laptop in a padded case, a change of clothes and a lunch with room to spare. With the roll top closed, I had 18 inches of interior height. For grocery getting, it fits about one paper bag’s worth of goods. The straps are sewn below the pannier hooks, so they do not interfere with the bag’s wearability, and have a light padding making them comfortable even when loaded.
Between the wax coating and nylon lined interior, the bag can tolerate a bit of steady rain before your gear becomes wet. In a light shower, the water beaded up and brushed off. Anhaica recommends using the provided beeswax to keep the bag water-resistant and looking nice. The side seams are not sealed but they are covered by a layer of nylon helping to trap any moisture that could seep through. If you’re concerned about moisture, you could seal the seams yourself for a few dollars and a little time.
The two side pockets with reflective accents aren’t quite a standard water bottle size, but they are right-sized for tools, a map, or a thermos. The large 8″ x 10” front zipper pocket works well for a phone, wallet and keys.
I used the Convertible Backpack Pannier for toting stuff around the city. It’s a great commuter or book bag and could be easily be used for a light overnight. The Convertible Backpack Pannier is available in grey/brown (tested), blue/brown, and black for $220.
Born below the sandy pines of North Florida, on the sun softened pavement of canopy roads, under the deluge of southern thunderstorms and from the desire to create bags that don’t sacrifice style for function. – Anhaica Bag Works