Diary of a Winter Commuter: The Big Snow

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.

Photo: Jeffrey Stern

Last week’s bitter cold spell finally subsided after what seemed like an eternity, even if it was only 5 days. When it’s that cold, riding or even just going outside is a jarring experience. Now that the temperature has moderated a bit, it’s time for some serious snow commuting! The weather guy on Channel 9 initially said 3-5 inches of snow was expected.

It was coming down pretty hard as I left for work at my customary 6:55 am and while I arrived just a little late, I got there safely. The volume of snow and the temperature made the roads incredibly greasy and traction was an iffy thing. We’d gotten a lot of snow when it was considerably warmer and now with the temperature dropping again, cars that had driven through the snow had erected frozen 4-6 inch deep ruts; completely immovable and hard as a rock. Even with the studded tires, I keep on the Barracuda and the lower tire pressure I was running, I really had to work hard to remain upright and moving forward.

While at work, I couldn’t help but catch frequent glimpses of the snow billowing down in huge flakes. The wind was really whipping too, a good 15-20 mph out of the west, the exact direction I’d be riding into on my way home. Later in the afternoon I pulled up Weather.com and saw that the expected accumulation had been updated to 7-10 inches.

Normally I work 7:30-5:00 but on this day I wanted to leave while it was still light out so I snuck out around 4:00. Overall, it was a good call. The only bad move I made was being ignorant enough to believe I could get through on the trail that connects the city with the business park area I worked in. It was under a good 2-3 feet of snow but since I was already there, I dragged/carried my bike the 1/2 mile or so until I could once again find pavement again.

Even when I was riding on the road, the riding was taxing and it was apparent that a plow had not come through for quite a while. I was also now traveling directly into the wind and the snow was stinging my eyes. You start setting little goals for yourself – just pedal until you’re in line with that telephone pole and then you can roll for a few seconds. Pedal hard for another 50 yards and then you get to slow down for an intersection.

I came out the frontage road that runs out of the business park and onto Patch Street which runs mostly parallel to the Canadian National railyard. The bike trail was covered in not only the snow that had fallen but also that which had been plowed up and off of the road. I would have to bike in the road at a pretty busy time of day in a near white-out.

Patch Street thankfully also has a bike line on each side but much of it was unplowed or not plowed recently. I’d hump it along as far-right in the bike lane as much as I could so traffic could get past me. When there would be a break in that traffic, I’d scoot out into the road and ride as far and as hard as I could before the inevitable headlights would again appear over my shoulder and I’d have to slide back over.

Everyone was really taking it easy and moving pretty slowly even after they’d safely passed me; no one was taking many chances which I was grateful for. In about another 50 yards I’d be turning off of Patch onto Michigan Avenue which starts with a descent and ends with a challenging climb. I noticed that I was starting to feel that empty sensation; the one you get when you’re running out of fuel to burn. I kept pedaling, made the hill and managed to get over into the left lane to make my next turn off without incident. While I was really getting hungry and still had a ways to go, at least I was out of the busier traffic. Just keep breaking the ride down into smaller pieces; next telephone pole, three more driveways, next intersection…

I was totally gassed when I pulled onto my street, almost an hour after I’d left work. When I saw my driveway, I couldn’t help but admire the perfect prank Moms Nature had played on all of Wisconsin but at that moment, mostly me. The driveway was buried with the kind of depth and hardened texture that would require not just shoveling (no snowblower here) but also a good amount of chopping. The end of the driveway was under the better part of 3 feet of snow and plowed ice/salt. After that fish-tailing, wind whipping, gut heaving ride, it was time to get to work.

The sweat was just now starting to cool on my back so after some water, a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a change of base layers, I got busy shoveling out the driveway and sidewalk just as the worst of the snow was subsiding. Clearing them took about an hour and twenty minutes. Between the ride home and the snow removal, I bet I burned at least 2000 calories. It was easily one of my three most harrowing episodes of winter commuting since I’ve been doing it. I was asleep a minute after my head hit the pillow that night and when the alarm went off the next morning, Mrs. Blakmor had to nudge me to make the awful noise stop.

What’s your best snow commute story? Tell us in the comments or email web@bicycletimesmag.com. We may even publish some of our favorites.

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