Commune with your commute

Who’s ready for an ice-cold, refreshing bike ride?


Illustration by Bryan Gomm

The transition to winter is difficult to swallow each year for commuters. Drivers struggle not to slide around and off the roads. Walkers run the gamble of walking on slick or unshoveled sidewalks, in addition to being very cold. Cyclists, however, face a combination of these problems each year on top of their own bicycle-specific concerns.

Most of cyclists’ concerns are typical of winter’s general landscape, but for the community, the features of winter can become an extreme inconvenience to riding. While motorists generally have warm, dry and clean rides, bikes don’t offer those kinds of luxuries. Biking is a great alternative to the carbon-sputtering steel boxes we call cars most of the year. However, the messiness of the season, in addition to other road users and the roads themselves, can make riding to work or school and back difficult.

Libby Landvater, a new cyclist, was seeking advice on winter biking for her and her four-year-old son who rides in a trailer.

“It’s the way I get to and from work,” said Landvatter. “I think it’s better than the bus. I really feel like biking is my best option.”

On Nov. 9, John Higgins, an experienced cyclist, quelled concerns and answered questions about winter bike commuting in a special class at the Salt Lake City Recreational Equipment Inc. The 30 or so attendees shared problems they’ve encountered and tips, in addition to receiving advice from Higgins.

Higgins’ first major point is that winter bike commuting is largely influenced by your own attitude. He emphasized the mentality necessary to create a situation where you can get excited about riding in winter.

“Come up with something that says, ‘Yep, I’m going to be out there,’ ” Higgins said of the overall enthusiasm needed for the ride. “Think of it as a new winter sport. Think up new ways to get excited.”

But attitude will only get you so far before hypothermia and frostbite set in. Winter bike commuting involves multiple dimensions of safety to both prevent illness and accidents while riding. Higgins emphasized that making your ride as comfortable, efficient and safe as possible largely comes from experimenting and the conditions of the roads you end up on.

Because you and the bike are essentially the only elements in use when you are riding, your attire and accessories can either help or hurt your riding experience. For example, one of the most common problems with riders new to winter commuting is over-dressing. Higgins explained that what you wear is mostly dependent on the conditions outside, but emphasized the use of layering as a way of controlling body temperature from head to toe.

“You’ve got to think about how much physical exertion goes into your ride, and that will determine what you wear,” Higgins said. “Your ability to regulate body heat is critical to your riding.”

The bike itself becomes a source of concern in the winter as well, as tires must be paid attention to. Higgins suggests using the widest tire that will fit with your bike; mountain bike tires are good to use as well. Maintenance in the winter becomes all the more important. Salt and other corrosives can contribute to the breakdown of your bike, so keeping the bike clean ensures better riding.

Greater amounts of time will be spent riding in the dark, so having reflective clothing and lights is key to making situations with limited light safe. Higgins said the addition of a helmet light has significantly improved his safety as a rider, in addition to the well-lit “Christmas tree of a bike” he has now.

Higgins gave very practical advice about what to do when you finally get onto the roads. Just like when driving, when you bike, you need to be gentler when you start moving. Go slower and give yourself more time to get around. For more cycle-specific skills, Higgins suggests not riding on the paint, but rather rounding out your pedal cycle, taking corners upright, and keeping the front end lighter.

Route choice is very important in the winter and involves some calculation to find the most efficient route. Look for the roads that get plowed first to create a less snowy ride, and avoid roads with lots of trees and shade because they’re more likely to have ice and snow fall on you.

“You want to stay out of the headlines with your winter commute,” Higgins said.

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