Winter: The Beautiful and the Damned Difficult

So winter is not going anywhere; we are smack dab in the midst of it. Unlike some of my fellow velo bloggerists, I am fortunate enough not to suffer from SAD-like symptoms or "winter blues". I love winter! The Co-Habitant does as well, and whenever we have the chance we travel North to get even more of it.

In my own neighborhood, winter is quite beautiful as well. The snow, the bare trees, the crisp air, that somewhat surreal quality of light - I love it all.

What I don't love so much, is winter cycling. Sorry, I really am trying. But I just don't love it. The combination of how time consuming it is to get my clothing just right and how much more vigilant I have to be of the road conditions, adds stress and sucks much of the joy out of it for me. I still cycle, but unless the day is exceptionally warm, it has become an activity that I do mostly out of necessity. I look at Dottie's pictures and narratives on Let's Go Ride a Bike, and I am in awe on a number of levels. But not everyone's experience is the same, and I think that's okay. I have the right wool, the right boots, the right bike - but most of the time I still do not find it easy or enjoyable. If this disappoints some readers or says something terrible about my character, then so be it, but I prefer to be honest.

A couple of weeks ago, Un Vieux Velo humorously pointed out the "competitive winter cycling" phenomenon that was spreading through the blogs and flickr after the Christmas blizzard, and to some extent I do think it's true that we - perhaps unconsciously - sometimes try to outdo each other (Coming Up Next Week: "My blizzard was blizzardier that your blizzard! And I biked to work in a bikini!").

But jokes aside, I do feel some responsibility if I present an unrealistic image. Despite the snowy scenes I show, I do not mean to pretend that I am a stoic winter cyclist. Quite often I am miserable. If my destination is close enough I prefer to walk. And while I don't drive myself (don't like it), the Co-Habitant does, and for a number of reasons we use the car much more often now than during the warmer seasons. And that's perfectly fine with me.

If you love winter but don't love winter cycling, I think the only thing to do is just to let it go and not try to combine the two. You cycled only twice this week? Fine. No need to feel bad. Enjoy taking a walk around the neighborhood instead. Or forget the bike and go skiing, if that's your thing. Or sit by the fire place reading cycling magazines and watching the snow out of the window, if that's what makes you happy. It's all about improving the quality of your life, rather than proving a point. Happy Winter, and enjoy it in any way you like.


  1. Thanks for this! I wish that more people would acknowledge that not all of us ride on the same level. I've been getting into this with people I know in real life who seem to think that if I'm displeased with local street conditions, that there must be something wrong with me. On days when the bike lanes are cleared of snow, or mostly cleared, I tend to love it. But when I'm trying to navigate around chunks of ice, frozen solid mounds of snow in the street, parked cars, and moving cars, I can get into a mood quick. Sometimes, mentally, it's just easier to walk than to get on the bike when the streets are slushy.

  2. Good point. What is it about bicycles that make people so competitive?

  3. "If this disappoints some readers . . ."

    I wasn't aware it was my place to expect anything of you.

    ". . .or says something terrible about my character . . ."

    Perhaps, but:

    ". . . then so be it . . ."

    There ya go.

    "I prefer to be honest."

    Always the best policy if you aren't absolutely certain you can remember and get away with an artful lie.

  4. You are absolutely correct, you know. Out of the 5 years I have been cycling again, and the now 3 years I have been bike commuting, this is the FIRST Winter I have braved. Prior to this year (09/10) I was a bit of a cold weather wimp... yes yes, me Mr. out in 2 degrees... I used to not go out on the bike if it dipped below 40.

    The only reason I am riding through this Winter is to prove something to myself, not to "outdo" anyone else. Trust me, I am in complete acceptance when it comes to the fact there are others who will pedal faster, in more adverse conditions, wearing less, and more often than I, regardless of whether conditions.

    Oh yes, I ride in the horrid cold, snow, and wind... but my rides for pleasure are very few and far between. My decision to continue to bike commute is more due to my primal hatred of public transportation! ;)

    So no worries about not cycling much come the cold and snow; if you don't like riding in the Winter... don't ride! My take on it is if you force yourself to ride too much and you don't enjoy it, you might get to resent it... and later associate that dislike with ALL cycling.

    One day you might want to, maybe you won't... but no matter; you don't now. So don't! Spring will be here eventually (I hope!)

  5. Bicycling should never feel like an obligation or proving something, that could just make it joyless. If you don't like winter riding, you don't. Nothing wrong with that.

    I don't like riding in 95° heat with 98% humidity (and it's 110° on the asphalt). I don't like spending 15 minutes drying off and changing clothes in an office restroom for a 20 minute meeting. So, lacking resonable transportation options in Orlando, I drive my car a lot more in the summer.

  6. Fil, I love your transparency, not so much about winter, or winter riding, but about the competitiveness, or one up-manship of the bike writing. Face it, it is just "macho". I am drawn to cycling because it simplifies my life in a few ways. If the snow and ice are thick, what more simple way to get around than walking. Down here in Texas it isn't snow and ice, it is rain. I hate riding in the rain, so I get in the truck. Stay warm.

  7. I couldn't agree more. Just because you can ride
    in the dead of winter doesn't mean you always
    want to. Also all the attention to all the special
    winter gear i.e. the perfect gloves,tires,boots,
    bikes, wool, types of wool, just smacks of the same
    tech nerd scene as the roadie aero dynamic
    sunglasses and lycra.
    To each their own,
    I guess I'm just thinking that biking is supposed
    to be fun.
    I like your new mast
    Jon C.

  8. Coming Up Next Week: "My blizzard was blizzardier that your blizzard! And I biked to work in a bikini!"). Snortle!!

    Lovely snow pics though. Don't blame you for not riding; if you're not comfortable riding in the snow, the bike police won't force you to.:-)

  9. Ah, you are so right. Great post. Not everybody likes to cycle in the ice and snow - I had a day off the bike last week because of the snow (although, that said, the bus I took instead 'to save time' actually took 3 times as long as normal and was jam-packed full and just horrible, so I got back on my two wheels the following day, just because I knew it couldnt be any worse than the bus!). You are so right about the competitiveness as well - it seems to happen in real life as well, amongst my friends who cycle (all of whom are guys and seemed genuinely shocked that I had braved the weather last week - nearly as shocked as they were that I knew how to change an inner tube, in fact....!).

    I've really enjoyed the snowy cycling most of the time though and it's still been the quickest way for me to get from A to B, but it's definitely not been the same sort of enjoyment as normal! You really have to pay attention to everything and everyone all the time, and start braking a lot earlier too. It's hard work!! And it's scary knowing that if someone comes out unexpectedly at a junction, you might just not be able to brake in time on the icy roads when it's snowing and your brakes are therefore all wet. A man actually died in London last week when he came off on an icy street and hit his head on the tarmac. That was sobering. And our weather hasn't even been anything approaching extreme by your standards - I'm not at all sure I'd be going out in what you have going on there!!

    That said, I do enjoy cycling when it's crisp and cold and just gently snowing - the roads here really empty out when the weather is bad and it's just very serene and quiet and beautiful, London feels like a new city and the trip feels like a great adventure!

  10. I say keep salting the roads. I am willing to tolerate any damage to equipment, bikes and cars so long as the roads stay ice free. I wouldn't ride if I constantly encountered black ice, but it's been very well plowed and maintained thus far this winter in Boston & Cambridge.

  11. I'll be honest too. I love, love, love, love winter cycling. I can't get enough of it. I do it for at least an hour and a half each day. I just love being outside when everyone else is hiding, crispy winter evenings in the city, warm lights that make downtown look like a forest of Christmas trees, blankets of fresh snow, peeking into peoples' warm homes ;) , drinking hot chocolate when I get home. I won't pretend that I can understand how someone might not like it. I accept it, but I don't understand it.

    BTW, I positively refuse to use any special gear on my bike or on me. (Except for wool socks. Can't do without those!)

  12. Giffen - Thank you for your acceptance : ) And I also like the way downtown looks in the winter; those lights create a magical atmosphere. I am envious of you cycling at least an hour and a half each day; perhaps next year that will be me.

    One thing I notice, is that I find it a lot less stressful to cycle in the winter with the experienced Co-Habitant than on my own. So it would be neat to have a "winter mentor" programme, where a more experienced cyclist leads a less experienced one on a winter ride that the less experienced cyclist would not have been able to take on their own. Just daydreaming here - but imagine a virtual bulletin board where cyclists post "Mentor wanted/ Mentor available" ads, listing the routes they wish to take and the day...

  13. MDI, while i'd love not to worry about riding on black ice and slushy snow, salting roads does more than corrode bikes and cars (and public infrastructure, like bridges). it also damages ecosystems, and has other negative biological effects on wildlife. sure, there's an argument to be made for public safety, and also for economic continuity (can't slow down capitalism because of a bad storm!). however, it's mother nature, and maybe we should all take a cue from her and seek alternatives to our transportation habits when the weather turns foul and dangerous. as much as i appreciate an ice-free ride to work, and also think that salting is a necessary safety measure, i do wish that municipalities would cut back on their excessive salt usage. studies have shown that the necessary amounts of de-icing chemicals for effectively clearing roadways is orders of magnitude less than some towns use.

  14. Filigree, interesting idea with the mentor thing. I've long believed that the best way to learn how to cycle around a city is to do it with a seasoned local. Here's a little trick which I often use in new cities: Follow around cyclists who look like they know what they are doing. Not for long enough to creep them out, but for 5-10 minutes or so. You'll learn all sorts of cool tricks. For example, that's how I discovered that Summer St. can be used to get to South Boston by bike. Okay, I hope this doesn't sound too creepy.

  15. I agree with somervillain, to the extent that if the chemicals are synthetic I would prefer limited treatment. Have a look at Silent Spring and Our Stolen Future to understand this point of view. However, ideally I would prefer it if they developed a non-harmful treatment instead, especially as not all areas can count on non-car and non-bike transportation.

    When we lived in NH, the roads there were somewhat plowed, but not salted nearly as much as here. This was not for environmental reasons I suspect, but rather for financial ones. Everyone where we lived owned a 4WD, us included, as this was the only way to get around. Still, I got in a very scary accident driving home from work one evening, as a result of road conditions. Not to mention the number of near-accidents, when the car would start "pinballing" on the winding road that were part of our daily commutes. So often it is a choice between immediate safety concerns and the generational safety from contamination. How to choose?

  16. filigree, silent spring is the book that has most influenced the way i think about the world around me!

  17. somervillain - An acquaintance of mine who used to work for the EPA introduced me to these books. The information in them is something I had always independently suspected, but never realised that for decades there had been research to confirm it. It does change the way one views the world.

    Astroluc - Fear and loathing of public transportation is a big reason I continue to cycle in the winter. I don't like crowds, and the feeling of dozens of people pressing against me in an underground tunnel is just too much.

    giffen -Following cyclists around in my neighborhood would mean blowing red lights and stop signs!

  18. just to clarify about road salts and other de-icing chemicals: they don't have to be synthetic to be bad. the best de-icer (and the one that is most widely used) is plain old table salt, but just because it's naturally occurring doesn't mean it doesn't wreak havoc to the ecosystem!

  19. As much as I support public transportation, and love it in other countries, I *hate* the T. I ******* hate the T. The waiting is the worst thing. Poor temperature control (cold, windy bus stop, Park St. oven, hot bus, cold train, etc.) is the second worst. Then there is the disrespect. The smells. The noise. The scenery of blank and angry walls. The COST!!! It's so damn expensive nowadays. I will do anything, ride my bike in any weather, just to avoid taking the T. I curse the years I relied on it before discovering the wonders of two wheels.

  20. I appreciate this post. I read your blog often and sometimes I feel jealous that I dont have the will power to get out and ride in teh snow. I commute in good weather (non-snow) but my husband commutes rain or shine/snow or not. but to hear it from someone else that it isnt always possible or that enjoyable to commute in the snow I dont feel so bad now. Thanks!

  21. Yeah, I like your approach. Winter cycling is only good when you can enjoy it a little bit. No need to force it. But I think it comes naturally and after a few years it gets easier as one is more aware of how to dress and how to cycle in certain conditions. Still more exhausting than in the summer. And kind of depressing when there is a lot of slush on the streets and the sky is gray. Well, not to much snow and slush in Vienna, anyhow. Mostly dry roads, and so cycling in the winter is not that hard :).

  22. Thanks for this - and for the lovely snowy pictures.

    I do love hearing about intrepid cyclers through snow and ice. They're an inspiration. But I want to keep my longtime simple enjoyment of just riding for the fun of it and the eco-sense (-nomic and -logical). And not start to feel guilty or less than authentic as a rider because I sometimes choose the car or walk instead.

    p.s. I'm still eagerly awaiting your test ride of the Electra Ticino?

  23. giffen-- i agree with you about the more undesirable aspects of the T, and compared to practically any urban rail system in europe it fails miserably. on the other hand, also consider that it's probably the second best system in the US (next to NYC), and is a fraction of the price of the NYC subway system. in fact, the T is the cheapest urban transit system in the country when you buy a monthly charlie card-- $59/month for unlimited train and bus service. i'm probably also a bit biased toward the T since i'm spoiled with only ever having to use the red line-- arguably the most reliable line in the whole system. (i'm also biased towards it because my company gives free charlie cards to discourage car commuting, so i ride the T for free). but if i have to rely on the green line or the bus system regularly, i'd probably start describing the T with various obscenities as well.

  24. oh man, i hear ya! i have yet to get back on the bicycle since i've been home (over a week!) and i'm feeling mighty guilty, but it is seriously slushy and icy out there and it takes so long to get suited up in all the layers.
    i'm looking forward to more bike commuting when school starts (always better than the bus), but you're totally right--it is way less fun to be freezing your ass off.

  25. I loathe winter. We call it the season of complaints at our house. Truly, I am happiest when it's at least 80 degrees out. YET. I love cycling in the winter. Weird.

  26. Filigree - Thank you for saying what needed to be said (and saying it quite well too). Cycling isn't always easy or fun or carefree. Sometimes it actually takes quite a bit of effort both mentally and physically. The sad part is just saying so will undoubtedly raise the ire of certain bikes-as-fashion purists. Funny, isn't it? It's like a religion, and you just don't mention the elephant in the room lest you be cast out.

    BTW ---- I lo-o-o-o-ove winter riding, but I certainly understand why others don't like it.

  27. Beautiful pictures and great post! I love your honesty - I think it's particularly helpful for those newer to riding (like me, for example) to know it's okay to not force yourself to ride. Sometimes it's possible, but just not practical or pleasant. I'm finally realizing that's okay and I don't need to put myself through the throes of guilt everytime I feel that way.

  28. imaginary bicycle - I've been looking through my images and realise that I erased the ones of me riding the Electra Ticino, so I won't be writing a formal test ride report after all. But I posted my thoughts on your wordpress blog (you have 2 blogs now!). Hope they're helpful.

    Krista - My husband commutes in the snow as well. All things considered, he still finds it easier than driving to work, because the parking situation there is crazy. And he finds it easier than public transportation, because the closest T stop is a 10+ minute walk from our house anyway. But he is also much more athletic than me and a more experienced cyclist - so even cycling in a blizzard is within his comfort zone. That's very cool and I admire it, but I'm just not at that level yet.

  29. CrankyPants - I certainly did not intend to evoke ire, and I hope that's not the case. I honestly admire both Dottie from Let's Go Ride a Bike (I would ask her for one of these photos to have as a poster for my wall, but fear that she might misinterpret!) and my own husband, whose winter pursuits are quite authentic. I wish I were at their level and also found the whole thing easy. But I'm not and I don't. So I just wanted to point out that there are many experiences out there, and how "easy" or "difficult" something is, is a very subjective thing.

  30. I sometimes think of how competitive I once was about my cycling and equipment, even long after I stopped racing. Let me tell you, it's been really nice to lose that!

    That said, I do have a reason why I haven't ridden in the snow we've had. And that reason is medical!

  31. Well said! People should try winter riding a few times (to figure out how they should dress), but if they don't like it, no big deal. I think a lot of people would be surprised by how normal it feels, and a lot of people would be miserable.

  32. The simple fact is again that a bicycle is a tool for getting from one place to another, and it's great to use it as long as it's effective in accomplishing that goal. When it's not, use another tool (your feet, bus, car, etc) that is a better tool given the circumstances, unless you just have no choice, of course. That being said, even the best and most convenient means of travel isn't always enjoyable under all circumstances, it's just the best choice.

    In Portland, it's fun and adventurous to ride the few days we get any kind of snow, but I can see doing it everyday for months could be difficult and tedious (given that you're not in Copenhagen where they clear the paths everyday).

    I'd probably choose to ride the bus and walk much more often in those circumstances, as we and everyone else did in Lithuania when it was snowy/icy from December through March. They didn't salt at all, as far as I know, but simply cleared roads and sidewalks each morning, and people rarely had mobility problems because almost everyone walks and rides transit every day of the year, it just takes marginally longer when it's snowy.

  33. I live in Sweden, and have a 10km ride to town, own no car. I have to ride in winter too. I love winter, but we have minimal road service here, so it does get very hard to ride in all the mess cars makes; washboard-like ice slaty slush etc. I have come to the conclution that Hakkapelitta´s is not enough, I need a fork with suspension too.

  34. I love winter riding, and curiously am looking forward to it again very much (even though it is mid August.) One thing I have found really helps is prep work.

    I lube the daylights out of the moving parts of my commuter with an oil like Phil's Tenacious Oil which lasts almost a week in a Southern Ontario snow/slush fest before needing to add more. I also coat the lower parts of the bike and exposed nuts etc with rust proof spray which matches that which we put on our cars. The bike also gets 700x40 Schwalbe studded winter marathon tires. 120 studs a tire means virtually no slipping, and like a car snow tire, the rubber stays soft even at -25. Just don't dry steer the studs - they can pull out. In deep snow or on ice, run the tires a bit soft so more studs hit the ground. Other than fenders and good lights, the bike is the same as it is in the summer time.

    As far as what I wear? I am a huge fan of layers and use a lot of them - wool is best. I top the whole mess off with either an EMS jacket I have (totally wind and waterproof) or a canvas farm coat (styling!). I don't bother with fancy pants and ride in the winter in jeans with thermal long johns under them. Bogs go on the feet - nice and warm, nice and waterproof. Way too flexy, but there ya go. Usually, unless we are getting "thick wet rain" (really wet snow) I arrive where I am going dry.

    It only takes me about 5 minutes to clean up at work which is not much longer than it does in the warmer months when I ride in.

    Best bit is though, all I see from my fellow winter two wheel wanderers is smiles. And I like the crazy looks I get at work. Also, there is something wonderful about blasting down a MUP (ours get -mostly- plowed all winter) at 25kmph or so in about 10-15cm of powder snow at -15. The snow makes a neat "poof" noise. Last year's useless winter had virtually no snow and I missed this.

    All that blather said, I totally get that most don't like doing this. For me, it is a lot of fun, but that is just me (and my friends actually - we are all a little nuts :P)

  35. I use my bike to commute for all purposes, work, shopping, appointments etc. - I don't have a car and nor do I want one. I just love cycling but, if the weather is extremely cold, rainy or windy then I walk; I want to enjoy my bike and on those occasions when I leave her at home I enjoy a different experience and most importantly appreciate even more the next time I ride.


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