Diary of a Winter Commuter: Just Keep Pedaling

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.

Photo: Andy Carlson

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 some time in 1989, I just sort of dropped out of the driving world and walked or took the bus wherever I needed to go. In the 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 Billy’s 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 fishtail on ice or snow, don’t freak out and try to overcorrect; 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 meltdown because they can’t get their personal technology to work, I also take some snarky pleasure when the 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 round 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 workday 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 stoplight 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 quiet satisfaction in it. It might after all be the highlight of my workday.

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 web@bicycletimesmag.com with a story about why you started bike commuting and we’ll publish our favorites.

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