Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Riding in a Winter Wonderland

On Sunday, we had a truly beautiful winter day. Because the blizzard hit Boston on a weekend, the snowplows were not as active as they would have been during the working week. For the first half of Sunday, the entire neighborhood lay covered in a blanket of pristine white snow, and only around lunchtime did people begin emerging from their houses to reluctantly shovel their driveways.

Despite being down with a minor cold, Velouria could not sit still in the blizzard. Stir-crazy in our small apartment and desperate to feel the fresh snow under her tires, she begged me to come out just for a bit, at least to give it a try. How could I resist her charms?

She posed for me next to the fence while I photographed her this way and that. A kickstand was not necessary, because the foot-deep snow enveloped her wheels and functioned as a bicycle rack. With her black frame and cream tires, Velouria was stunning in the snow. The aesthetic experience of seeing her thus even made up for carrying her down the front stairs - which had been semi-visible when the Co-Habitant left for work several hours earlier, but were now completely buried in snow. With the bike in my arms, I slowly extended my toe and felt each step under the snow before proceeding onto it. With the 40lb DL-1 this was doable, but I would not have been able to execute the same maneuver with the heavier Pashley.

The snow was still falling as we prepared to head out, quickly covering the saddle with a thin layer of powder.

Upon Velouria's advice, the voyage I chose was an easy and safe one: a trip to a grocery store that is just a 6 minute walk (3 minute ride under normal conditions) from our house via a secret route through dead-end back streets. There would hardly be any cars there, and if I found myself unable to ride I could just walk the bicycle the rest of the way to the store and back.

I took my camera along and had grandiose plans to stop every so often and photograph Velouria against the backdrop of various winter scenes. However, the visibility was so poor and the snow so... snowy, that getting off the bicycle to pose it became the farthest thing from my mind once we were underway. Instead I offer you views of a few landmarks.

"No Outlet" - Hah! Perhaps not for cars, but for a bicycle the gaps between fences will do just fine.

Arriving to the grocery store via the back parking lot.

At this point I will give you my ride report: Basically, my biggest problem was visibility, or rather, the lack thereof. These pictures do not really capture how difficult it was to see in front of me as I was cycling, but the falling snow obscured my vision completely. In these back alleys that was okay, but I cannot imagine cycling on real city roads in these conditions. As for the bicycle's behaviour... It was fine. Granted, I was so paranoid about falling, that I cycled very slowly and made ridiculously wide turns. Riding through the snow in this manner felt similar to cycling on the sandy fire trails on Cape Cod, only slower.

I did not experience a sense of slipping on the snow while going straight or while making turns, but again, I was intentionally cycling very slowly. The tires on my DL-1 are the Schwalbe Delta Cruisers, 28" x 1 1/2". By the time I returned home from the grocery store (having purchased a bag of raw cranberries and some chocolate), the snow had made its way into every single crevice of the wheels, covering the spaces between the spokes and dress-guard cords.

If you click to enlarge the picture above, you can see that the snow also made its way into the gaps around the brakes. This is a problem not just for bicycles with rod brakes, but for any bicycle with rim brakes. The snow lodges itself in between the rim of the wheel and the brake pad immediately, increasing stopping time considerably. Because I was cycling so slowly, this did not really matter; at that speed I could stop the bicycle by merely putting a foot down. But if you plan to cycle with anything resembling normal speed, I think drum or disk brakes are the only solutions that will provide adequate stopping power.

This short but beautiful winter adventure was more than enough for me and Velouria. We were happy to return to the warmth of our home - both of us trailing lots of snow. That snow on the saddle accumulated during the time it took me to drag the bicycle up the front stairs. If you don't want snow on your leather saddle, consider swapping it out for a vinyl one for the winter. For me, a little precipitation on the leather is okay though.

I did experience a panicked sense of remorse when I saw the extent of snow accumulation on the bicycle once we got home, and the next 30 minutes after this photo was taken were spent with a rag, frantically wiping off the moisture. I have been assured however, that the snow in itself is not bad for the bicycle; it is only the salt that is damaging. Thankfully, the roads had not been salted yet at the time of our ride. Velouria enjoyed the refreshing tour through our local Winter Wonderland. She is up for doing it all again - as long as I promise to go slowly, keeping her rod brakes in mind.

21 comments:

  1. Thanks for telling us about your and Velouria's snow adventure. I have been putting off cycling for a week due to snow and have noticed how my mood has dipped as a result. I am too easily swayed by well-meaning family who think the notion of cycling in the snow and ice is nothing short of crazy. By reading blogs like yours and Dottie/Trisha's it reminds me that it is definitely do-able and that I need to trust my own judgement a bit more.

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  2. My poor bike is covered in salt... and though it is aluminum, I am sure it can't be good for the paint. Ahh, whatever -- it was destined to be my commuter so off we are about to go into the wet/salty/snowy roads once again...

    I do tend to agree that snow is best enjoyed in small amounts, and then only occasionally.

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  3. Jen- it is totally doable with a little preparation and a good mind-set.

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  4. It is nice to ride when there is no traffic, snow or no snow. And somehow, all that white fluffy stuff probably put many of the drivers into hibernation mode. Hooray!

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  5. Wow. Lovely scenery and lovely bicycle! And so much snow. We had a lot here in last few days, but now it got warmer and everything melts away. I don't have a bicycle at my mum's home, but my sister has a unicycle that I might try :). Looking forward to that...

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  6. I thought I saw you on Mass Ave. yesterday around 6:15 or so, wasn't 100% sure it was you, and when I was about to run out of the dry cleaners to say hello, I remembered that we've never met and that the mere fact that I regularly read your blog does not make us friends.

    Anyway, another great post, thanks.

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  7. wow, that was brave to head out into the storm with only the delta cruisers between you and terra firma! as an aside, it's totally cool that you can use back alleys and paths to get to the supermarket from your house!

    see what i mean about snow getting *everywhere* on the bike??!! this is why fenders, while helping keep the rider dry, don't protect the bike from gritty, salty slush-- it manages to get caked on every possible nook and cranny. that makes a good argument, as you mention, for drum brakes on a winter bike, as even the best rim brakes (e.g., koolstops on aluminum rims) will perform poorly when clogged with snow, while drum brakes will mostly seal all that stuff out. disc brakes are great too, but are vulnerable to oil and grease, which can easily be picked up riding on urban streets.

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  8. A plastic bag from a grocery (or other) store will easily stow in a coat pocket and will keep that leather saddle dry if you leave your bike outside for a shopping excursion. When it gets too worn, those things multiply without any encouragement anyway...

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  9. Jen - Well, it is crazy. But who says "crazy" and "do-able" can't co-exist? : )

    Astroluc - Dang, I am still thinking about the "winter commuter" thing. I felt very bad after riding my DL-1 in the snow and part of me wishes I had gotten this bike on clearance over the summer after all. In this case, not loving the bike would be a good thing.

    SSJ - Sorry, it wasn't me!

    somervillain - The Delta Cruisers were honestly fine, though I can't stress enough that I was riding in slow motion and making comically wide turns. The grocery store - you know which - really is very close to my house and accessible entirely via 1-way back alleys. It probably takes twice as long to drive there and park than to ride a bike. Under normal conditions we almost never go there, preferring Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. But it is useful for "we're out of milk" runs and other emergencies, like the sudden need for chocolate during a blizzard.

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  10. And I cannot stress enough how right you are about every element of road grime and snow get caked all over the bike!

    Here is my bike after my ride into the city yesterday... (I actually blogged about that commute) and the road tires were far from ideal, so I switched to my cross-tires that came with the bike and that made a lot of difference.

    Today I decided to brave the paths along the Charles; and I must say that for being one of America's most bike-friendly cities, Cambridge has done a poor job of clearing it's side... when I jumped over to the Boston side it (for the most part) was plowed, salted, and dry.

    Even so, $800 is a lot of money for a bike you don't like, even if it is for a specified purpose. After I lamented a few months back about my old 70s 10-speed and it's lack of fenders and adequate braking power (reason #1 I would not worry about not having that Old Dutch) I wound up getting a Specialized Tricross Singlespeed as a commuter on clearance; specifically to use for that purpose.

    Been good so far, but I don't expect it to stay pretty. :/

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  11. Filigree, I'd really like the studded tires for Christmas. I'm tired of being cooped up inside and I'll be really hurt if you replace me with some cut-rate winter bike. Thanks.

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  12. ^ Ummm... Okay all, who wrote that? : )

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  13. Blimey, you're game! I was biting my lip reading your tale of finding your way down the snow-covered stairs with a bike in your arms. Looking at the snow itself it looks crunchy rather than slippery, with that depth of white stuff.

    An interesting choice to take Velouria on a run, with her rod brakes. Are you going to give Eustacia Vye a ride in the snow as well?

    Given your report on the lack of braking power on the Batavus Old Dutch it probably wouldn't be an ideal winter bike either. What a dilemma; you have a lovely bike with hub brakes which could probably provide a safe enough ride in the snow... but she's too nice to let get rusty from the salt.

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  14. Astroluc - That silver Batavus I linked was on clearance for $395 over the summer; so the price was good. However, the problem of bad brakes would still have had to be resolved and that would cost extra. Your winter bike is hard core! I can't imagine riding in the snow with those drop bars and skinny tires!

    Carinthia - One reason I did not take the Pashley was precisely fear of the stairs. I cannot hold her up for as long as I can hold the DL-1, and I could just see myself taking a tumble and hitting my head on the concrete with the beautiful 55lb steel monster landing on top of me. The DL-1, even though it looks like an old clunker, is considerably easier for me to wield around. With the stairs cleared of snow and ice, I will take Eustacia for a spin as well.

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  15. Cheap old rigid fork mountain bike in winter - cheaper and better. Cable brakes on aluminum rims, which still work in rain and snow, though not as well in the dry. Even better would be disk brakes. As for navigating the stairs, even a clunky mountain bike is a lot lighter than 40 pounds.

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  16. i love this post! riding in the snow sounds like so much fun--i'm sad we haven't gotten that much where i live.
    good to know about the brakes, though...

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  17. I want snow! SoCal weather is so boring.

    Beautiful photos

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  18. I love riding in fresh snow!

    Here's a tip for better rim brake performance in snow: If you keep your bike somewhere warm, leave it outside, preferably somewhere dry, to cool down to below freezing before you begin your ride. When the bike is warmer than 0C/32F, the snow will melt on contact and then re-freeze, usually in an inconvenient way like as a layer of ice on your brake pads. And in case of brake failure - redirect into snow drifts ;-)
    I've given up on riding bikes with tightly fitted fenders in winter because they get jammed full of snow & ice. Ugly rat-tails & plastic sheilds all the way!

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  19. Looks like Velouria did wonderfully in the snow! Like you, visibility is the biggest obstacle for me when considering a ride in snow or rain; as you say, on side streets or a bike path this is not so bad. And doing things like slipping through the fence on a "no outlet" road is one of the reasons I like cycling so much. :)

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  20. Thanks for a great weblog! You're partially responsible for my recent purchase of a Pashley Sovereign. It just arrived here in Louisville, KY yesterday. Rode it to my office in the cold rain this morning. I went online and bought the Brooks leather grips and Brooks bags exactly like yours. You have a clone down here in Kentucky. Check my Flickr photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kirkwrites/sets/72157622986057003/

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  21. bikecommuter - Thank you and enjoy your Pashley!

    canadian cyclist - I agree. All of my bicycles are kept indoors. Luckily we live on the ground floor.

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