Friday, January 22, 2016

Overcomplicating winter cycling

This winter is being easy on us so far. About this time a year ago we would be already well frozen, with average daily temperatures not rising over 15F (-10C) and easily dropping to negative American degrees (or -20C) at night.

Not this year though. We can still enjoy a balmy 20F (-7C) weather with only a thin blanket of snow. It's supposed to change this weekend as a bigger snowstorm has been already announced but it seems like it may skip my area and move somewhere further south.

All this means that winter cycling this year should be particularly easy (and it is!). Unfortunately, judging by the severely decreased number of fellow morning commuters I usually see on the Minuteman Bikeway, I guess that most people assume that bicycles are unusable in winter months.

Recently, I read a blog post by Mikael from Copenhagenize, who argues that most people who promote year-round cycling for transportation, do it wrong. According to him, they present winter cycling as something difficult and unapproachable without lots of special gear. That people who ride bicycles to work in winter must have super human abilities, otherwise they would not survive a few mile long ride to the office. A good example how over-complicated it could get is this article about a Boston female riding just 4 miles to her work: balaclava, ski goggles, ski helmet, two scarves, two jackets, tights, running pants, biking pants and shoe covers. Can she actually still move in all those layers? Well, maybe I shouldn't judge. Everyone has a different sense of temperature.

Mikael wrote that lots of advice you'll find about winter cycling is targeted at wrong people. Most of us don't need much of this superfluous gear because the right winter clothes are already in our closet - those that we wear everyday anyway.
What you need for riding your bicycle in the city and what various guides will try to sell you - according to Copenhagenize.

He is right, at least partially. If you live in the city and not too far from your work, riding a bicycle there in winter should be simple. All you would need is your regular winter outfit - jacket, hat, scarf, gloves, boots. There's really no need for any special gear, even if temperature drops down to negative Fahrenheits, you won't freeze to death on that 2-5 mile ride.

But at the same time, I think that Mikael's point of view is quite different than many of American winter cyclists. Lots of us here don't live that close to work or school. We live in suburbs. We have much longer bike commutes, covering often more than 10 miles one way. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, the situation looks as follows:
Number of Copenhagen citizens choosing bicycle as their main mode of transport drops down drastically once they have to ride further than 10km (6mi) (Source: City of Copenhagen 2010 study).

For those short trips, averaging between 2 to 10km (1 to 6mi) bicycle is the preferred mode of transportation for Copenhagen citizens. No wonder - it's simply the fastest and easiest to use. But once the same people have to travel further, they start choosing cars or trains and leave their bicycles behind.

This, I think, is the position of an average American bike commuter. Either we have an option to go multimodal (bicycle + train) or we have to ride the whole 10-15mi distance by bike. And that may require taking some special steps in severe winter conditions.

I wrote about it last year. Cycling at subzero temperatures, once your ride takes about an hour or longer, means that you will have to take some extra steps to stay warm. Fortunately, it doesn't mean you have to spend nearly $1000 (as Mikael suggested) for special cycling gear. In fact, I only use two pieces of clothing on my winter rides to work that I would consider cycling-specific. One is a wool buff, that I wear around my neck and sometimes over the face, instead of a scarf. The other one is $25 waterproof pants that I pull over my regular work pants when temperature drops down below 15F (-10C). The block all the wind very effectively, keeping my legs warm.

It doesn't have to be that complicated. Just get your bike ready, look in your closet and start riding.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, those Copenhagen commute stats are enlightening. While I live and work in a small town, most of my coworkers commute from bigger neighboring cities 10–25 miles away. I think your assessment is spot on.