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Bicycling Through Chicago's Winter

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Winter is coming, which means continuing your daily commutes via bike may require more planning and perseverance as the temperature continues to drop and rain turns into snow and those rides when the gloves are forgotten at home are regrettable. But in the face of all these below-zero obstacles, allow me to attempt to convince you that braving the bitter cold is infinitely more agreeable than turning to public transit, driving, or walking.

You can ride in the winter for the exact same reasons you ride at any other point of the year: for the enjoyment, adventure, convenience, and reliability and because it's cheaper, healthier, and faster than any other forms of transportation.

The temperature is nothing that appropriate winter attire cannot overcome. I recommend investing in articles that keep extremities warm. Warm wool socks, waterproof and very thick mittens with thin gloves underneath, a scarf that can cover up to the nose or a balaclavas, thick tights under normal pants, a warm sweater underneath a thin, light, and waterproof shell jacket. For days of snow and awfully low temperatures, you will want glasses to protect your eyes. I use old snowboarding goggles.

The common advice for dressing right in the winter goes along these lines; if you're warm when you step out your front door, you've over-dressed. If you're chilly, you've found the right amount of layering.

The Active Transpiration Alliance has detailed advice on dressing for four levels of winter cold here.
Bike Winter Chicago with the motto "Everyday is a great day to ride a bike!" provides inspiration, education and determination to stay on your saddle year-round and has detailed advice for clothing.

From Copenhagen, there comes the Cycle Chic approach to winter bicycling. Bicycling is always the easiest way to get around when focusing on style over speed no matter the season. Their Cycle Chic winter is a mentality that goes:

"We wear the same clothes cycling around our city that we wear whilst walking around our city. Why would we need anything different? We have winter clothes and they're great on foot or on two wheels. Anyone who tells you otherwise probably wants to sell you something... let's just suck it up, buttercup and get on with it. Summer is, as always, just around the corner."

Pictures on the Cycle Chic site are particularly inspiring.

Locally, look to Bike Fancy for inspirational photos of people looking good on bikes this winter.

The roads are much better maintained in the winter than sidewalks. Major roads with bike lanes are plowed and salted before your neighbors, local businesses and management company are awake to shovel sidewalks (if they even make the effort). First time riders should note that while the bike lanes are not cleared separately, the outside of bike lanes is usually clear from the regular path of the plows and salted.

You have every much as a right to that road as a car, so if you do not feel safe with snow in the bike lane, ride in the part of the street that is clear. Cars will wait for you. Do not put yourself in a space where you do not feel safe and help teach drivers to share the road.

Riding through the winter requires no substantial changes to your any other time of the year commute. Since the winters here are so rough, many riders will have a winter bike, a used, cheap one that you won't care if it gets rusty and beat up. Rather than spend the extra money to do this, ensure you are kinder to your ride, carry it up the stairs to store it inside overnight, keep it inside the office, use covered parking.

A common thought is that winter riding requires new tires; this is not always the case. I also thought this and after the first few snows realized that main roads are in good enough shape to not make this necessary. Though if your daily commute is side streets or those less plowed you may want to consider thicker ties or a DIY solution, zip tie bicycle snow chains.

Just as summer late night rides home on empty streets are some of the most enjoyable ones Chicago bicyclists experience, add snow flakes and a gusty tail wind to the mix and those moments will make up for less than ideal moments riding through a disgustingly awful blizzard in sub-zero temperatures.

Keep these points in mind:
  • Layer
  • Take turns and stops slowly.
  • Wear your helmet.
  • Give your bike extra love, lube and cleaning.
  • A ride to work in 15 degree weather is a better wake up than any cup of coffee.
  • Drivers are nicer and more respectful in the winter & people are more aware of other users of the road due to the conditions.

Bike Winter has this very true disclaimer on its site.

"You will get cold. You will get frustrated. You might have close calls or even fall. Just know that all-weather cycling does get easier with experience. Let the freedom, convenience and other benefits of two-wheeled living motivate you to roll up the learning curve. And when all else fails to lift your spirits after a particularly bruising commute, boil up some tea or grab a flask, pound your chest (might help the feeling come back to your fingers) and take pride in your sense of adventure."

Personally, I know why I ride through the winter. My main motivation is warmth. The best way to overcome the Midwest winter temperatures is riding. Self-generated heat is more sustainable and warmer than waiting for buses, trains, or for the car to warm up. Those first five minutes out, you will be chilly and there is no denying that, but make it past five minutes and that time on your bike will be the warmest you are all winter. Ride long enough and feel hot, even in freezing weather. There is no need to wait outside in the cold, lock your bike right beside the door or inside to avoid the cold.

I had one bad wipe-out last winter, on Lincoln southbound by the Paulina station. There was a large patch of black ice and I did not see it in time to avoid it and attempted to keep my handlebars straight and ride over it. I wiped out as soon as my back wheel hit the ice. As soon as I wiped out a lady in a van pulled over going the opposite direction to check to make sure I was fine. Luckily, there were no cars on my side of the street. The next day the city had put up cones marking the ice. It was not a good experience but Chicago does some brutal things to its residents in the winter and but even with its drawbacks, the fullest way to experience this city is via bike.