Diary of a Winter Commuter: The Polar Vortex

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. 



Right now you can’t turn on the radio or TV without hearing about the winter weather phenomenon known as the Polar Vortex heading towards the midwest. The Polar Vortex is an incredibly impressive sounding name; it sort of implies that we may all get swept up and spit out into a frozen cyclone of sorts.

Anyway, they’re calling for a high on Monday of -15 and a low of -25 with wind chills as low as -55. Because I commute back and forth to work by bicycle year round, I’ll most assuredly be taking some additional precautions to super-special-game-plan my clothing for the 6-mile ride each way. On a normal morning, the ride may take as little as 20 minutes but the upcoming weather will change that significantly. There’s a big freezer-burned iron fist coming and the commute may now take twice that long, maybe longer.

Preparation for riding in this kind of weather is of paramount importance. I dress in layers beginning with base layers on both my upper and lower body. I’ve ridden all year round for a long time now; in fact this is my 20th year. I don’t know how I made it as long as I did without Craft base layers; they’re warm, comfortable against my skin and most importantly, they wick perspiration which prevents the wearer from becoming chilled, thus retaining the highest possible level of warmth. They are truly a modern miracle. I wear a secondary base layer over the Craft and over it, a nice heavy fleece. Rounding out my upper body protection is a Camp-Mor rain jacket which is pretty wind and waterproof. It doesn’t breathe much but you just gotta block that windchill out somehow.

I also wear a wide assortment of headgear to ensure that every part of my face is covered. All that remains exposed are my eyes and I take extra precautions with them by applying Vaseline to the area immediately around them. My feet get the double sock treatment and hiking shoes. On my hands, I wear Outdoor Research mittens complete with double layer wool liners. On the coldest days, I also microwave the palm-sized rice bags my wife made me and insert those into my mittens for extra warmth. And that’s it. This gear is what will protect me against the death grip of the Polar Vortex on my commute to and from work.

Even the bike I ride in the winter (1995 Barracuda 26er) handles oddly in this chill and it feels like it’s fighting me a little bit. The tires move differently on the pavement, like the outer tread is folding inwards and the resulting sensation feels alien to everything I’ve come to experience on two wheels. This is the kind of weather that the Norwegian Black Metal bands are always shrieking about. Old Man Winter is reaching for you and you’re reminded just how mortal you really are. This kind of cold kills everything that isn’t wrapped up and tucked away, or at the very least, working hard to generate some life-sustaining heat.

I’m not typically listening to Black Metal or much music at all when I’m riding in the winter. It wasn’t that many years ago that I almost always rode with ‘80’s hardcore punk or thrash metal on my iPod. I still listen to that or some contemporary sludge-core (think Bongzilla or Cavity) once in a while, but on these days it seems like my ride is intense enough without additionally manic music as part of its soundtrack. There’s a space and time for almost everything for me but listening to Bolt Thrower on the commute in either direction is usually too much for my senses in the winter; I know what I’m up against and don’t need the aural encouragement. These days NPR and episodes of the old-time Jack Benny radio program are my companions for the ride.

Naturally, I try and choose the least traveled and most direct way to work, especially when it’s this cold. I ride southwesterly for about 2 miles until I hit the road which runs parallel to the Canadian National railroad yard/track system that bisects the city. I’m afforded a nice paved trail to ride on (when it’s been plowed). A couple of miles later and I enter the business park via another trail that runs under the freeway overpass. About a mile later, I arrive at work.

Despite the bitter cold, the moment I stop pedaling, I begin dripping with perspiration. I park my bike, unload it, flash through security with my ID badge and take the stairs two at a time until I reach the 4th floor. Taking the stairs like that after a hard ride is the ultimate little punctuation to an already taxing aerobic challenge. By now, the endorphins are going crazy. Once punched in, I shed most of my outer layers under the blinding fluorescent lighting above my cube and start to unpack. I bungee a roll-up canvas bag to my rear bike rack which carries my two meals, clean clothes, phone, and glasses. I can also throw in a fortnight’s supply of protein bars and cans of mixed nuts when I begin getting low on either. In winter, it’s also kind of nice to have some extra weight on the back to keep me upright and moving forward so carrying a lot of stuff back there doesn’t bother me.

It’s so tempting to try and take pictures of what you see when the cold becomes this oppressive. Everything has that harsh, ready-to-shatter look to it and I’ve seen a lot of things that actually do just that. While I’m riding, I’ve seen deep freezes snap tree limbs, bust open water mains and peel paint off of houses. That’s why you really don’t really dare stop pedaling because once you do, you’re on nature’s clock. Better to keep moving until you get where you’re going.

Or at least I don’t dare try to take pictures. I have a weird condition called Reynaud’s Syndrome which results in my hands being ultra-sensitive to even moderate cold. This manifests itself as a frozen numbness in my hands and fingers and they often turn an alarming, corpse-like white. It’s really painful sometimes and I could never consider exposing my hands for even a moment, much less the time it would take to fish my phone out of some pocket and take a shot. It’s too bad because with the bitter cold, there’s usually very little or no cloud cover at all and the resulting sunrises are frequently spectacular.


It’s Thursday and the Polar Vortex is back for a return engagement in central Wisconsin. This is the 3rd straight day with morning temps of at least 5 below not including wind chill. Tomorrow promises to hit the mid-20’s but with some snow accumulation and then we’re back to the PV with high temps in single digits. Unless we have some crazy-early kind of spring, this winter just seems poised to be one for the ages.

At this point, I don’t even dare begin to think of warmer times. Every winter, a year older and still living in Wisconsin, I ask myself what we’re doing living in this kind of frozen hell. I often fantasize about life in the southwest, riding my bike shirtless in the dry heat year-round while the Midwest is getting hammered, its residents staying indoors for days at a time.


It’s been an exceedingly short weekend as have the last three. I’ve been getting double (and sometimes even triple) O.T. backing up our company’s call center. Some things I can’t handle without transferring but they mostly just need people answering the phones and I can’t refuse that kind of money. I can be helpful for $40 -$60 an hour.

But now I have the Sunday Night Dread in a profound and resentful way, the aforementioned extra money a pittance not worth the precious lost time. The weekend was over before it started and tomorrow is supposed to bring a low of -26 with wind chills in the area of -50. The high is scheduled to be 7 below.

The combination of just being that it’s Monday and those kinds of temperatures isn’t fair at all. I really don’t want to think about it and certainly can’t bring myself to look at the 10-day forecast right now.

I long for summer, those long, shirtless rides and the warmth of the sun on my skin. Best not to even think about that though because there’s a long, long way to go. Not just today, but for the rest of this interminably brutal winter. So in the meantime, I just keep pedaling.

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