Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Least Daunting Option

Well, it seems that we've been having one of two weather conditions in Boston lately: (a) blizzard, or (b) in between blizzards. When it's the latter, I have been riding my bike - sort of. To be honest, I would not be doing it if I didn't have to, because the road conditions are pretty bad. But the bus makes me motion sick, the nearest subway stop is a 15 minute walk from our house (longer in the snow), and the sidewalks are slippery. So except on days when the roads are completely impassable, cycling seems to be the least daunting option. Still, "least daunting" doesn't mean "easy," and I've had to make a number of adjustments to the way I ride a bike, in order to be able to do it at all.

For one thing, I cycle much slower than usual, because I am scared of hitting not only ice patches, but those mini-mountains of hard snow that seem to pop up when I least expect them, like some treacherous obstacle course. Cycling slowly allows me to see them in time to either brake, or figure out how to go around them safely (I am a slow thinker when it comes to spacial rotation tasks). Happily, there are almost no other cyclists on the roads, so there is no one to get annoyed at my crawling speed - I've found that I can go as slow as I like, and no one seems bothered. I guess to cars, it's pretty much the same whether I am cycling at 7mph or 20mph: Either way, they are faster than me and will have to pass me eventually.

I also simply accept that I will have to get off my bike and walk a lot - across impassable stretches of slush and even over snowbanks. Sometimes I'll walk for a quarter of a block, then get back on the bike and ride for a couple of blocks, then get off again, and so on. It's annoying, but still better than walking the entire way - at least to me. Warmer and faster.

Finally, I've been having to get really creative about locking up my bike. Most bike racks have been made inaccessible by the surrounding knee-deep snow. So I will usually chain my bike to a fence, or whatever is handy - often having to rest it on top of a snowbank.

While all this is kind of miserable, I also find it pretty funny. I am not a "hard core" cyclist by any means and I am extremely risk averse. "Wimp" would probably be the appropriate word. And yet I am one of the few people out there on a bike, which does make me question my sanity. But I guess there is no better motivator than having no other choice - or at least no alternative options that are less daunting. Cycling in slow motion through a winter wonderland is not so bad, after all, when I compare it to feeling nauseous inside of a stuffy bus, or slip-sliding along icy sidewalks.

49 comments:

  1. have I even mentioned how much I despise public transport? ;)

    http://astroluc-art.blogspot.com/2011/01/too-much-snow.html

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  2. It's a crucible. And a challenge to others.

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  3. Well, I find walking on ice, through slush, over snowbanks, in street extremely difficult and dangerous. So by default, I'm pretty much left with cycling as my only option for transport. But it works, somehow. You don't freeze, you can go at a constant speed and the roads are usually free from ice, unlike the sidewalks.

    Parking is kind of difficult, but on the other hand, there are less bicycles to compete with for spaces.

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  4. "Cycling in slow motion through a winter wonderland is not . . ."

    . . . a good idea. Momentum is your friend. Going in slow motion is what makes it treacherous. Suck it up and kick it up a notch and things will get better.

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  5. Winter cycling can be fun and was glad when I finally gave in and started riding year round years ago...but then moved to a place that barely gets snow.
    Take it slow and remember to shift your balance. It requires making yourself heavy and riding slowly but purposely. You should be able to go over patches of ice and ride through snow bits without danger.
    I was certainly scared at first as I can be nervous and a scaredy cat, but with the right tires it's fine and yes preferable to the bus!
    It looks beautiful!
    Heather

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  6. You are very wise, Take no chances. I fell off my Moulton recently, cracked ribs, cuts and bruises.

    During the winter I walk over Scrabo Hill, Saturday and Sunday mornings, this keeps my stamina up and leg muscles toned.

    Love your blogs.

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  7. I really wish my roads were that clear. Those crusty "mountains of frozen slush" are growing bigger here in upstate New York.

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  8. Luc - nice! I've linked to your post as well now. When I write about not liking public transportation, it is sometimes interpreted as snobbism - being too good for it or whatever. But no, I literally want to puke when I am on a bus for as little as 2 minutes. Subways are better, but still not great. When I arrive to my destination I feel battered and need a few minutes just to recuperate.

    kfg - The Co-Habitant is of the same opinion. But I think it depends on one's riding style and sensory-motor strengths vs weaknesses. I am not talking about riding over a patch of slush that is best taken at speed - that I can usually do. I am talking about small, hard 3D formations that will make your front wheel slip sideways if you attempt to go over them - at speed or not. Having cycled behind the Co-Habitant a few times, I have seen how he deals with these things: he glances over his shoulder with lighting speed, and swerves to go around them. I could not do that, period, because I cannot judge distances as well and as quickly as he can, and I do not have the same reaction time when it comes to deciding how to deal with obstacles. When I see an object blocking my way and there is a stream of cars on the left, I need time. In the summer, those objects are few and visible far ahead; in the winter they are many and tend to blend in with the road until you are fairly close to them. So, I reduce my speed in order to see them and to have time to react.

    lukeofny - The pictures here are not indicative of what the streets I cycle on actually look like, and in reality it is more like this. But yes, I bet upstate NY is far worse!

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  9. I too was jealous of your beautifully clear roads! One real downside to living in a remote location is our roads never get ploughed and rarely even get gritted. We don't get as much snow as you but what we get tends to hang around.

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  10. V -- I also tend to be slower when riding in the snow for similar reasons (and especially at night) so I don't think there's anything wrong with being cautious. As is the general consensus on this thread: Just don't let the combination of caution, traffic and ice lead to panic and freezing up. Maintain constant, if slow, forward motion.

    fwiw, on my usual routes, the hard ice blocks have all but been melted away by the last batch of rain that we got, so at least that's one winter hazard that one doesn't have to worry about for now.

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  11. It's been so long since I've lived in New England, I can't remember riding in the snow very well. I do recall the black ice and smacking the pavement the moment it snuck up on me. Youth and strong bones saved the day. Here in the Pacific NW, it's mostly rain we have to contend with. Preparation is key in dealing with this. Put off the prep until morning and it's an unpleasant, mad rush to find all the rain gear. Other than a dirty bike, rain riding isn't so bad.

    I have heard that fixed gear bicycles are good for foul weather traction and road feel. Have you (Velouria) considered trying one of those? I recall you had one in your collection at one time, but haven't seen any articles about it lately.

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  12. for me, the least daunting option is my car. of course, 2 weeks ago, it was parked outside my jobsite and a snowplow punched a hole thru the door. This presented a hassle, rather than a danger, but i find that sort of thing to be daunting nonetheless. So, yes, when the weather is bad, i drive. I feel badly about it, as i used to rely on bicycle as my soul mode of conveyance, but i remember some horrific situations from those years.

    When i do commute by bike in the winter wonderland, i choose something with full fenders on days when traction is half decent, and a mtb on days when the traction is terrible. The tires, the geometry, the lack of fenders (which prevents the snow from binding)-- these factors make it the best choice for rough winter commuting. Of course, no fenders = salty wet backside, so i have to wear my bummiest clothes, and change once i arrive.

    This has been a bad winter for commuting.
    -rob

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  13. Anon 9:21 - My only fixed gear bike is a racing bike, so it wouldn't be good for transportation. And I can't even try it out at all right now, as it's stuck at Harris Cyclery (a bike shop 10 miles away) after having gotten its bottom bracket replaced. Our car isn't working right now, so I can't retrieve the bike!

    Screech said...
    for me, the least daunting option is my car. of course, 2 weeks ago, it was parked outside my jobsite and a snowplow punched a hole thru the door...


    Um... Your 1st and 2nd sentences don't compute for me : ))

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  14. How does the Bella Ciao compare to the Gazelle under these conditions?

    I have been travelling a lot so have missed some of the snowiest roads, but I do find them daunting. I find I judge the condition of the streets -- whether the sides are slushy; whether the bare center allows enough width or to provide room for a car to pass a bicycle -- and then decide whether it's the bicycle or subway. So far, it's been manageable. I'm a little slower, but you can't build up speed in dense urban streets anyway, so that's pretty relative.

    I might push it a bit this week -- not enough time riding is making me a bit antsy, and I want to maintain stamina as much as possible, and also really dislike the gym. All else being equal, I may end up braving the artic blast on Monday....

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  15. all with kfg and the co-habitat. momentum is the friend, weight and an up-right riding position. so it is mostly my old gazelle a-touren on snow and ice. all weight on the back wheel. handle bar in loose grip so that front wheel has some tolerance to find its way. and then of course always prepared to slip and fall.

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  16. On a cleared road w/ a couple ice/frozen bumps and some slush here and there it doesn't matter, but on a freshly snowy road it's important to be able to change gears at will, sometimes you suddenly need a low gear because you're intending to spin the wheel, but often to a higher gear in order to avoid spinning out the rear wheel. Sort of similar to car-driving where deciding on degree of wheelspin is a fun part about driving in the snow. In any case, I haven't tried this on a derailer bike, but having an IGH makes it all the easier. And sometimes you end up getting stuck and having to re-start, being able to change gears then is a plus.

    As far as advocating going "faster" to have more momentum, I suppose that has a place, maybe when preparing to shoot through a mountain of packed slush at a cross intersection, but it's definitely not general advice for winter cycling. Keeping it slow is fine, I think. The spins & slides in snow are slow, too, so everything happens at a wintery pace.

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  17. it's the same here in saint louis. piles of new snow to deal with and only a few roads safely plowed and salted, which means if one wants to continue getting around via bicycle one has to get out on those roads. the sidewalks are useless and there are no shoulders so pedaling out in lanes with 35 mph traffic is down right scary at times. but i put on my bright yellow jacket, and today i opted for the helmut, and made my way. steady and confident was the key. cars were generally patient and i'm encouraged that there is, indeed, a way to make it work in the winter.

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  18. Jeanette - The Gazelle and Bella Ciao both have their advantages. As Jens says above, the Gazelle keeps its momentum well and it's heavy, which makes it go over bumpy surfaces like a steamroller. But in other ways, I find the lighter weight of the Bella Ciao easier to handle - especially on days when there is a lot of getting on/off the bike and dragging it over snow banks. I would be comfortable owning either of them as my only winter bike, it's a matter of which advantage is more important to you.

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  19. More about unplowed streets: I find that sometimes I even have to counter-steer a bit, while balancing the bike in the opposite direction. The rear wheel slides side to side often when going through slush and powder, and that causes the bike to vary its trajectory a bit, often at a slow speed, so steering and balancing become a somewhat different experience altogether from summer riding. I am not sure if anyone pointed this out yet, but you definitely have to deal with front wheel slip as well in those conditions, while pointing it carefully.

    I haven't tried it on a bike with Gazelle's geometry so I can't comment whether having some weight over the front wheel (as on my Pashley) is better or worse in these conditions.

    But, here in Cambridge/Somerville, the main arteries get plowed very reliably, in my opinion, so you only have to deal with powder/slush if you choose to go out while it's still actively snowing and the plows are making their rounds.

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  20. I don't want to advocate using the bike less, because I'm impressed! I'm unequivocally a wimp, and haven't been using my bike in the snowy, icy midwestern roads, especially as there are one or two slightly daunting hills. But when the ice is especially bad, if you would sometimes prefer to walk, have you tried a light hiking stick? I bought one this winter after selling my car, and although it has its own challenges (using it without contorting posture) it helps a lot with really icy conditions (e.g. London in December, where neither individuals nor local authorities clear sidewalks or roads in the side streets); it's a bit like having a third leg.

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  21. They also sell those spikey things you put over boots, if you want to get all technical and weird. :)

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  22. I don't see myself with a hiking stick, but I like the idea of these.

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  23. Ooh! The yaktrax things do look very intriguing. I think it's easier (in various ways) to use a hiking stick in a small-ish midwestern town where almost everyone else is in a car than in a place like Boston.

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  24. kfg - Perhaps you're being Socratic again, but I think that going fast is a really bad idea. When you hit a rut at speed, it can be very difficult to recover your balance. If you hit a pothole, it can be difficult to stop or swerve around it, etc.

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  25. Amazing that you can do anything at all in all that ice, snow and slush. I'm not certain I could handle that as I am not exactly sure what snow is... It does, of course get very hot and humid here in Charleston (SC) in July and August...

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  26. I just ordered some more studs to improve the rut climbing ability of my Nokian Hakka 240s. These are the screw in type and stick out a bit more. Hope they help cos I live too close to Siberia (sweden).

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  27. david...no the other one!January 22, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    I believe I have seen a solution to all of the snow and ice problems related here. It's the snow trike, a two front wheeled tricycle. Based on a mountain bike frame, of course as mentioned before here in the north west we are more plagued by rain so a pedal-boat would be more appropriate.

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  28. I've been riding on and off since the first major snowstorm. This past Friday I took the T. Miraculously, the three days this January that I've taken the T instead of cycling into work, the trains pulled right into the station just as I was getting there... both on my way to work and home. Miraculous.

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  29. I've had good luck biking in the snow this year within my neighborhood but have stopped riding across the bridge because it's been black ice at the bottom of both Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges and friends have fallen, one quite badly, on the hairpin Manhattan bridge turn. Just as soon as the two feet of snow had mostly melted it snowed again and now it's so cold that that snow won't melt at all. I want to cry. Yoga is saving my sanity, but I don't always have the time for it.

    Lately, I've been telling my husband that after this year it's no more NYC between January and April. It's not the snow itself, which I like to ski on and look at. It's the piles of grey half-melted urban icebergs, the giant puddles in every crosswalk that you end up having to step into lest you be hit by a car--only to discover they are calf-deep, the garbage apocalypse, the white salt footprints on our dark wood floors downstairs. Bleah!

    I agree that the bike is the least daunting option -- at least one is elevated above the slush and puddles. The lanes have mostly been blocked here, but the cars are pretty patient.

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  30. I've been telling my husband that after this year it's no more NYC between January and April. It's not the snow itself, which I like to ski on and look at. It's the piles of grey half-melted urban icebergs

    Yes! I would love to spend the winter somewhere like Vermont, working from home and cross country skiing every day. Maybe some day.

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  31. I think you are hardcore. The fact that you are out there and no other cyclists are, makes you adventurous and open minded to the possibilities of bicycle transportation. You're a trend setter that sets the bar high for the rest of us.

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  32. This is all very alien to this coastal northern Californian.

    Of course, I just fell arse-over-tin-hat on my algae-slicked wooden front deck an hour ago, so there's that. I might prefer snow.

    Velouria, several of my Minnesotan inlaws report good results with the Yaktrax.

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  33. Getting a trike is something I do consider alot. Either a traditional Brit ish one, or a modern leaning one.

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  34. The sun is out today and the temperature is in the high 20's and I haven't seen one cyclist out there today. At least you're out there V, whether fast, slow, long or short ride. I'm going to bundle up and go for a short ride. I'm sure I will get plenty of odd looks...I always do.

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  35. my dislike is certainly not snobism either... I get really anxious (could be claustrophobia, but I don't think that's the issue) but more the waiting and the irregularity of our local service. Many years ago I used to frequent the MBTA, but after what I can only refer to as an abusive relationship, I decided to break up with it. Too many times running down a street to catch a bus that was a few min. early just to miss it and have to wait as long for the next bus that it would have taken me to walk to the transit hub... or other times going to the bus and waiting for far too long for a bus that shows up exceptionally late (according to it's schedule)... I won't even get started about how the Red-line literally traps you for 10-15 min. at a time between Kendell/MIT-Central or Kendell/MIT-CharlesMGH (!!!). The rare times I have dealt with it in the few years that I have been bike-commuting only serve to reinforce my decision.

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  36. I am also very risk-averse, and thankfully the bus doesn't make me queasy any more--I can even read on the bus if I get a forward-facing seat next to the window. On the train I can read almost anywhere.

    When we had a bunch of snow and ice a few years ago (people *still* refer to it as the Snowpocalypse), and the first morning I tried to ride my bicycle to work. I eschewed my mixte for my old Raleigh 3-speed with its lower tire pressure. And I was fine, until a lady passed me too close and then turned left. I touched my brakes, and down I went, and I hit my knee on the ice.

    I took the bus until everything melted. I got a lot more novel-reading done, but I was very glad to get back on my bicycle! I had something akin to cabin fever!

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  37. Peppy (the 'what's with the yellow snow' cat)January 22, 2011 at 5:58 PM

    You should carry snowballs in your front basket and occasionally toss them at cars that you think are doing something fishy. That'll get their attention. :)

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  38. on the fixed v free question -- I spent most of the last few months commuting on a Raleigh Supercourse with a 3-speed fixed hub from Sturmey Archer, but have since had to bring it in to get its bottom bracket replaced after the early January snowstorm. This last week, I've been riding on my ANT Club Racer, which is a 27 speed sport touring bike. Both of them were ridden through at least one snowstorm (the Raleigh was taken out to pick up and drop off some drycleaning on the 12 Jan storm, the ANT was used for the 6.5 mi work commute on 18 Jan, I took the T on 21 Jan due to lack of plowing on our street)

    So comparisons:

    1) for general traction on fallen snow and ploughed slush, the fixed gear definitely has an advantage. A freewheel bike is generally fine, but it has a tendency to lose momentum more quickly and slip if hitting snow at low speed, a tendency that can be compensated for on a fixed gear by continuing to pedal.

    2) When braking, being able to supplement braking power with reverse effort is helpful if one is riding with rim brakes -- which are, of course, less efficient on snow covered rims.

    3) Being able to change one's gear ratio can be handy for dealing with different surfaces (ie. plowed to packed slush to sanded snow) where one wants to adjust speed and momentum, but might be more able to balance by maintaining the same speed of pedal rotation.

    4) an internally geared hub is preferable to a derailleur system partially for being to shift while stopped or stalled, but also in heavier storms, a derailleur that is caked with snow will be less precise in its shifting and might be more prone to skipping. There's also, the standard issue with accumulating road snow introducing sand, salt and grit into the drivetrain.

    so, yeah, it's a bit of six of one and half a dozen of the other with a slight edge to a fixed gear bike over a freewheel, presuming that the fixed gear has a useful ratio for low speed cruising. There are other features to a bike that make it more optimized for the winter (ie. fenders, tire width, lighting, etc.) of course, and these should be considered in conjunction with the drivetrain.

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  39. Velouria,
    I'm sorry but based on your comments in this thread you are to frail, to slow in your reaction times and really to frightened to even be on a bicycle let alone ride one in winter.

    While I do not know you personally I will still worry about your safety as long as you force yourself to ride winters snows. You have a car so use it for this snowy time so that we all can enjoy your cycling adventures from spring to fall of this year and every year thereafter.

    There is no disgrace in not cycling now at all. There is plain common sense in it for you.

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  40. It's not the snow itself, which I like to ski on and look at. It's the piles of grey half-melted urban icebergs...

    I agree with neighbortease's sentiment. At first, looking at all of these photos of pretty white snow from all the "Back East" bike blogs was making this Cascadian jealous. Then I remember the reality of winter from the lifetime I lived in Connecticut--slush, grey snow banks, the "surprise" April snowstorm when all you really want is the trees to frickin' bloom, etc. My least favorite were the "trapped icebergs" in suburban parking lots, when private contractors would plow all the snow into a few big piles. I remember seeing those ugly sand encrusted piles still there in late April, slowly melting away, occasionally a shopping cart would fall out...Don't miss that at all.

    And I shouldn't mention what the weather is like in Portland right now (sunny, 50F/10C, supposed to be like this for several days). No, I won't. ;-)

    And I second the Yaktrak/grippy things for the bottoms of shoes. I have a pair, and it's like magic when it actually gets icey here.

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  41. I am absolutely amazed how many people are out on their bikes in the DC area. There's no snow on the ground, but they are out there commuting when the temps are in, or near, the single digits (I can't imagine there's much pleasure riding going on right now, but who knows...).

    In my humble opinion, I would err on the side of be overly cautious (i.e. riding slowly). Cars can slide into you like you can slide into them. And, it might be a drag if speed is causing you both to be sliding out of control.

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  42. Thanks Cris!

    Good info, allways wonderd if a fixie was for me!

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  43. cris - Thanks for the comparison. I rode my fixed gear roadbike a couple of times in icy conditions in late November/ early December. I remember riding over an iced-over puddle and thinking that it felt different - more stable - than on a freewheel bike. And I agree about derailleur vs hub. My derailleur geared bikes have been staying indoors since the snow first arrived.

    Walt - I don't think that's necessarily the case, especially since my comments about spatial perception and reaction times are not at all unusual when compared to what other women tell me about their experiences. If I go at my own pace and follow my instincts, I am fine. Having cycled all of last winter and this winter so far, I have been fine. Also, I am not at all frightened, I am just aware of my weaknesses and adjust my style accordingly. That's logic, not fear. And as for driving, aside from the fact that we still haven't fixed our car, I have enormous problems driving in the city and don't feel safe doing it at all. The same spatial perception difficulties I mentioned in relation to winter cycling, make urban driving very ill advised for me. This was the reason I got a bike in Boston in the first place.

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  44. Just be sure when you are locking your bike to a "fence" to avoid the chain link variety. They are real easy to cut through quickly with the right tool.

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  45. You did better than I. This weekend, I didn't venture on my bike into streets strewn with ice puddles and banked with snow.

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  46. Studded tires make winter rides so much better. No more walking over ice! I've been amazed by how well they handle, and how fun winter cycling has become. I no longer dread snow! Bring it on!

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  47. I can relate to this in a way, except that here the problem isn't getting stuck in snow, it's getting drenched. Which feels a little less dangerous, but maybe more uncomfortable. We have fairly regular minor street flooding, especially in the late fall when all the leaves clog up the storm drains. It's also dark here during the day for most of the winter (I sometimes can barely shoot ISO 400 film with a 50mm lens at 1/60 second during the daytime).

    Anyway, I have to get creative with clothing in order to stay (more or less) dry, not warm, and keep my saddle from getting soaked and such (even most seat covers, if left out in dumping rain all day, will soak through). (post on this coming soon)

    It used to be that all of this meant that I was the only person, or one of few people, I saw out on bikes while riding during the winter - but this winter, I don't feel like the numbers have gone down at all from the autumn. The bike racks are still full, and I still see people riding all over the place. Good sign, I suppose.

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  48. i totally understand that nausea feeling in the bus. biking seems to always be the option in any case of bad weather than taking a dreadful bus in san francisco, i'm appreciative of fresh air and personal space, even in the rain and fog.

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  49. Oh yeah, I meant to be more specific in "I can kind of relate to this" - by saying that to me, despite the weather, I find riding a bike to be my best option. Even in dumping rain, I see people in cars stressed and freaking out, I remember the humid, crowded buses, and there is no subway here, so I'll gladly take getting a little wet and drying off, but staying calm and relaxed.

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