Hello Winter! Commuting in a Blizzard

Sunday morning.
17°F (-8°C).
Snow emergency in effect.

The Co-Habitant has to work today.
He prepares for his commute as usual.

Dragging the 60lb beast down the snow-covered concrete steps.

The snow is deep and I grow a little alarmed. "Are you sure you'll be able to cycle in that snow?..."

"No problem," he assures me cheerfully, putting on his convertible mitten-gloves.

And, with the quiet chuckle of a man who has conquered nature, he is off into the blizzard. I scurry back indoors to drink hot coffee and put on a second pair of wool socks.

Pictures taken with his mobile phone upon arrival to work. Lucky for the Pashley, his workplace provides secure indoor bike parking.

Ride report (in a boyishly excited tone):
"It was so dangerous. I only got off the bike once to cross a snow bank in [Harvard] Square. The worst part was snow in the eyes and face. The bike kept sliding but was going and controllable. Pretty amazing. The worst conditions in a while. Took me 20 minutes instead of 10."
Should I be worried?

Morning view from a window at his workplace. It continued to snow after that, still is. Hope my fearless commuter rides home safely in the evening!

I too tried to brave the snowy terrain today, though on a much smaller scale. I will save that for another post.


  1. Exciting post! This blog is so lovely. I definitely understand the Co-Habitant's boyish excitement. I felt the same way the first time I cycled in a blizzard. In fact, it was one of the most invigorating things I've ever done.

  2. By the way, has the Co-Habitant installed studded tires yet?

  3. Is the cohabitant "palping" studded tires or just a good tread? Glad he was safe in getting there and here's hoping the local DPWs do a bit'o clearin' this evenin'

    I'm thinking I might throw on the cross-tires for the morning...

  4. I was thinking of you guys this morning when I heard on the radio there'd been a blizzard in Boston, and was wondering how you were going to get about. Now I know! That's a Boys' Own Adventure :-). Hope the Co-Habitant got back okay. Looking at those pics I can almost hear the snow crunching under the tyres.

  5. Cool pictures! Guys seem to savor the riding-in-crazy-snow opportunities. My husband is the same. Me? I look at something like that and take public transportation. At least cars probably aren't on the road as much and going slower. That helps with safety.

  6. Wow!

    I stayed inside all day long. Still in PJ's. I stepped out only to pull Tuber out of the snow bank he had fallen into making snow angels. ( I was watching from the window and B had gone down the block for something) I quickly ran back in after he was up. So color me impressed with you and Co-H. Can't wait to hear about your venture out.

  7. Giffen & Astroluc - No studded tires, at least not yet. He is "palping" the 28" Schwalbe Marathon Plus, which have pretty good tread.

    He is back now, and seems none the worse for wear. The Pashley looks good too; nice and clean from the snow.

  8. And off into the deep snow he and his bicycle go,
    And with boyish confidence , I am told!
    What could ever stop an ever intrepid man?
    Certainly not just a blizzard, huh...Co-Habitant!? :p

    Merry Christmas & A very Happy & Prosperous New Year to both of you.


  9. I passed a nordic skiier on the street near ours (yes, I was going faster!). Actually, I considered skiing in to work today and even saw plenty of tracks in a park nearby, but suspected the snow would be gone before it's time for me to go back. Indeed it was down to bare asphalt on my ride home.

    The ride was quite an experience and I shall post a more detailed report later.

  10. Lemony - Thank you, and happy holidays to you and yours as well!

    MDI - we need a ski bag with a strap that can be worn messenger-style on a bike. Then we can ride our bikes to the track in Weston.

  11. MDI, you're braver than i. on days like this, i just bum a ride from my co-habitant in a warm, dry car... or take the T. thing is, it's not that i don't get a thrill from riding in the snow (i was that male teenager stealing mom and dad's car to do donuts in the empty parking lot during a snow storm). it's more that i don't trust most drivers to confidently keep their cars in control in the snow... i don't want a car to slide into me.

  12. somervillain - I am trying to work out the logistics of you taking the T to work. You must live closer to Porter Sq than I thought. We live an equal distance from Harvard Sq and Porter Sq, with each being a 15 minute walk away. So before I can use public transportation, I have to first walk to the T - which in a downpour or snowstorm is not so nice. I am sure there is a bus closer to my house that can take me there, but I hate buses (plus standing still while waiting for one can be brutal!)

  13. dukiebiddle said...

    The day before the snow hit I took a half tumble in the middle of an intersection due to some black ice. I hate to admit this, but I was running a red light, mashing to beat the coming traffic and the rear wheel spun out to the side. Scary. I splayed and was able to stay upright, but my pedal drew blood on my achilles. Lesson learned, I'm going to patiently wait for green when the temp is below 35 from here on out. Being so much further south I use slicks year round. I'm a little too scared of what's under the snow to brave it. I'm really beginning to feel the suck of having to go a week or so without riding.

  14. Riding in winter is no problem, so long as you are prepared. Prepared can mean many things depending on your specific winter conditions - studded tires for ice, goggles for blowing snow - really depends on where you live. Give it a try if you can - it really is fun riding in the snow sometimes. I also find that motorists give you WAYYY more space in winter - probably because they are afraid if you fall you'll end up under their front bumper!

    Happy Solstice Everyone!

  15. filigree, it's easy for me to take the T: i'm a 20 minute walk from harvard sq, a nine minute walk from the porter sq. T, and 3 minutes away from the #83 bus which takes me straight to central sq, but as you say, it's not always fun standing to wait for a bus, and the #83 is always getting stuck in traffic through inman sq. whichever of the three public options i take, it turns into a minimum 35 minute commute as opposed to a 10 minute commute by bike. on the few days in the year when my wife drives me, it takes about 15 minutes, and we get the added benefit of conversation.

    and i have a dirty little confession to make: i actually drove to work today (and will drive again tomorrow). i've already put my winter beater in the basement for the holiday since i will be away for two weeks starting wednesday, and it's already in the process of getting a winter tune-up, so it's out of commission anyway. driving to work these last two days of work is my special little christmas treat to myself. (my company will reimburse me for the $19/day it costs me to park in the garage).

    and filigree, what in bloody hell is keeping you up at 4:21 in the morning??!!

  16. Yay! Competitive blizzard blogging. Clearly, your blizzard is far superior to our little pathetic sprinkling of snow. I must also take a minute to admire the Co-Habitants nonchalance in the face of all. That. SNOW. Terrifying.

  17. I am in awe - utter and complete!

  18. That's one thing I remember about the snow last year - I've never seen the tyres on my bike so clean! So much different from riding in the rain (which we have most of the year) and having everything be covered in a thin coat of dirt.

  19. dukiebiddle - The scenario you described is horrifying; you could have been run over by the cross-traffic! Don't run red lights, it's not worth it :((

    BikeBike - I agree about cars giving you more room, but on the flip side of that are the cars that can, as somervillain mentioned, swerve right into you after losing control on the ice!

    somervillain - The time difference between Boston and Vienna was keeping me up at 4:21 in the morning! One of the fabulous perks of my job.

  20. "Competitive blizzard blogging"! Nice one : )
    I did find some pictures of winter cyclists on flickr that puts this post to shame, so we are by no means the winners. Plus you need to see Dottie's winter posts from last winter on Let's Go Ride a Bike!

    portlandize - Good point, both of our bikes are definitely cleaner after being out yesterday! Though it's important to note that this only happens with "virgin snow", not once they pour salt and chemicals all over it.

  21. I promised a more detailed ride report.

    Riding on snow felt a little bit like driving on snow, except more complicated because in addition to left and right you must also control balance--leaning side to side to ultimately stay upright. A car may slide out of control on snow, but a bicycle will not only slide but tip out of control. In other words, it's a more "three-dimensional" experience than piloting a rear-wheel automobile through snow. If it sounds difficult and confusing, that's because it is and I had to learn certain things on the fly. With experience, I imagine the biggest lesson learned would be to avoid doing it in the first place.

    I noticed a few comments about driving, taking public transit or walking. All of these are excellent choices and I take no pride in having ridden a bike instead. I could've driven and parked or maybe hopped on the bus instead. I don't dislike driving now that I own a bike and don't philosophize about a car-free lifestyle to any degree. I did it because it seemed like a fun thing to do. I also like skiing because it's fun and would love an opportunity to ski to work (and back, too).

    Back to the ride report.

    If you pedal too hard (especially from a stop), the rear will lose traction. A higher gear might be advisable that is more difficult to spin than your usual starting gear. Braking is to be avoided (unless it is braking to a stop) and deceleration is best achieved by not pedaling.

    Flat terrain is a lot easier than hills up or down, so avoid those.

    The bicycle will slide toward the path of least resistance. Keep that in mind when you steer and avoid pointing the bicycle in a way that "feels wrong" when you want to turn and it simply doesn't have enough traction. Always think as if you are in a slide, steering to correct. Cars often fishtail the entire way in the snow, bobbing left to right as they are going in a generally straight direction and the bicycle may feel a little bit like that, too. Generally speaking, don't stop pedaling when the rear slides a bit. You may have to ease on the torque. The rear is always going to be sliding slightly so if you stop pedaling every time you feel unstable you won't get anywhere.

    [to be continued]...

  22. [...part 2]

    The front sliding is a different matter entirely. In fact, your entire attention must be devoted to anticipating and avoiding the front wheel slide while managing rear wheel sliding happens automatically in the background. One way to make the front of the bicycle slide and to fall is to try and get out of a rut, like one left by a car where slush and ice builds up on both sides of relatively compressed snow, so avoid doing that and avoid choosing a path that will require you to do it. In a way, it's all about choosing the correct path through the snow/slush ahead. It's much harder or maybe impossible to do in the dark.

    So what if the front does slide? Well, if you catch it right away and counter steer AND counter balance, you might be able to recover from it. It happened to me a bunch of times and I was lucky enough to pick easy terrain, so the front didn't slide too much. The best defense is avoidance of circumstances where the front slide is inevitable. The thing here--again--is that a car may understeer or oversteer and recover, but a bicycle doing the same must also keep balance. The rider better have a perfect sense of balance or be mentally prepared to continue the slide in a less vertical orientation. If I knew just how dangerous and difficult it would be, maybe I wouldn't go out heading to work at all, that's taking more chances than is sensible in simply getting to work. [I did enjoy telling my coworkers how I got there, though.]

    The issue of ice is a separate issue entirely. I didn't encounter any. I imagine any kind of front slide on ice is ten times more difficult to recover from than a similar slide on just snow. If you think there may be ice, you will need metal-to-road contacts because a sense of balance will not help when there is no traction. In a snowy slide there IS some traction even though it may seem like it's not there. Losing the front on ice wouldn't result in fishtailing (which is essentially a fall recovery), it would result in just sliding into a fall and that's that--unless you have metal in your tread. I don't have sufficient experience in this area to comment further.

    And then there is snow and ice in the face and eyes. I don't need to say much about it, it's unpleasant and it is disorienting. You must always know which way is up even if you can't see which way is up at the time. Snow in the eyes sucks and when you can't see, you can't steer. It's dangerous.

    So, to sum it up, the most important things are choosing the path and maintaining balance in slides which will constantly happen to the rear of the bicycle and occasionally to the front. Countersteering and counterbalancing are key, as is a sense of moving forward even if you are really moving to the side. You must not panic and be prepared to slide around a bit, and just go with it. Not all slides are controllable and several times I sacrificed trajectory in order to stay vertical. This is why it's important to not have cars nearby at the crucial time when you lose what little traction you have and go off sliding in a weird direction (maybe controlled by the pattern on the ground). If there were cars nearby (and there weren't that many) I would feel unsafe.

    So, perhaps the conclusion is that commuting in a blizzard by bicycle is just to be avoided.

    I hope reading this doesn't annoy too many experienced winter cyclists as I am sure my "revelations" are very pedestrian to them. If anyone has questions, I'll try to answer.

  23. MDI - Erm... that sounds like a great way for me to kill myself. Considering my balancing skills, or rather lack thereof, I should stay off the streets unless I get studded tires.

    Matter of fact, do you really expect me to be cool with you going out in conditions like that again after this little report?... Let's get you studded tires, eh!

  24. Your observations match mine. However, I disagree with the statement "commuting in a blizzard by bicycle is just to be avoided". I might agree with the weaker statement "commuting in a blizzard is just to be avoided".

    In my car-free experience cycling is easier than walking, which is often impossible because sidewalks don't get plowed fast enough, and it's easier than taking public transportation which usually requires walking anyway. Sometimes, cycling even seems easier than driving. During my last blizzard commute, I twice passed half-mile long (literally, I measured on the map) lines of trapped, idling cars in a city that never has gridlocked traffic. There was a lot of slipping and sliding but I arrived home happy and energized.

  25. Giffen said...
    and it's easier than taking public transportation which usually requires walking anyway

    That's certainly true in my case!

    As for the danger of cycling in a blizzard, I think that it all comes down to being responsible enough to know your abilities and limitation. MDI is a naturally athletic man, to whom things involving balance come very easily. He is also not afraid of falling or of pain, he stays calm in high-stress situations, and he is capable of paying attention to multiple sensory stimuli at the same time (like being aware of cars and of whether there is ice ahead). So for him, the whole experience is fun, and if he falls he figures that won't be so bad. Me, I am clumsy and neurotic, and horrified by the idea of falling off my bicycle on an icy road. So I would never dream of doing what he described, but it looks like he and Giffen are both looking at it as a "fun" activity. I will be open minded and trust that you all are capable of assessing the risk for yourself!

  26. I don't think studded tires help with slipping and sliding in snow (maybe dottie can weigh in on this) but lowering pressure might. This is a terrible idea in general because it makes the rims susceptible to damage, but might be worth it during a snowstorm since the snow will protect your wheels from potholes to some extent. However, they are indispensable on ice, and I recommend that you guys get two pairs as soon as possible.

  27. Filigree,

    Good point about the "fun" activity. I would never recommend blizzard-cycling to someone who needs to get from point X to point Y in Z minutes. But it's definitely something I encourage everyone to try for fun on a quiet street, to approach it much like skiing. Who knows? I think there are a lot of people that will discover its both fun *and* practical.

  28. I'm impressed. I don't have the courage to try this until I can get studded tires and even then I am not sure I trust all the car drivers who are slipping and sliding on the snow and ice.

  29. You're braver, or a little crazier? :) than I....Last week I concluded that the snow/slush piled onto the shoulders of our roads would leave me more squeezed toward traffic...but it seems you have sidewalks to use as well..... Cheers!


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