by Rachel Brown
I’m not one of the majority who thinks herself an above-average driver. The past week I drove to and from work four times in a row, about 45 mins each way, and each day I breathed a sigh of relief when I got home and wondered when my “lucky streak” would end. Occasionally I’ve puzzled squaring all that with my crash record, which is absolutely zero (other than one dufus who rear-ended me in a parking lot). Then it occurred to me (maybe I’m not too swift): I probably haven’t had any accidents because I really don’t drive much. Four days in a row is almost unheard of for me. That’s because I usually bike.
All year. In Boston.
Now you may have heard that Boston has had a bit of snow recently, and that does make things more challenging. But it’s hardly ever not do-able. So why not seize winter by the tires?
Contrary to popular belief, the bicycle, when mounted in a winter street, is not an inherently skittish steed about to buck you off at whim.
ICE. Ice is the number one reason I hear from commuter cyclists who hang up their tires in the winter. It sometimes seems to me that there is a perception, once the mercury ducks under 32, that the road looks like this:
But it almost never does. (If it does, stay home!) The roads here are salted like the dead sea, and ice doesn’t stick. It’s rarely an issue at least with city riding. There may be small pockets of ice here and there, but don’t turn or brake on it and you’ll be fine. (I admit that is easier to type than it is to believe sometimes, but it’s still true!) Some people feel more comfortable with studs when there might be ice. I don’t have much experience with them as I find they’re not usually necessary (and they’re heavy and slow), but they probably help at least a bit and if they make you feel more comfortable, go for it! (I think icy roads are actually more of an issue in warmer climes where less salt is used, but that’s another story… That picture there is in the UK!)
SLUDGE. Sludge is messy and unpleasant (you will be willing to trade a liver for a rear fender if you don’t have one fitted), but it’s really easy to ride in. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, narrower tires do better. Wide mountain bike tires can pack up the sludge more and you might slide; narrow ones usually cut right through to the pavement. Fortunately—since the riding is easy—sludge makes up a good percentage of winter riding.
PACKED SNOW. With real snow-covered roads a wider tire does better, but … I guess I’d only recommend it if you’re into mountain biking (and know how to do it). Because you WILL fishtail. But, how often do the roads actually stay like that? Not long enough, IMO … as a mountain biker, I admit that I DO find riding right after (or even during if it’s not too gusty) a snow storm super fun – there’s barely any traffic, what traffic there is tends to be proceeding gingerly at about 2 mph (except for the plows — watch out for the crazy plows!), and they will assume you’re insane so they’ll give you a nice wide berth.
TOO NARROW! It’s true, there just isn’t so much space on the road when we have to share it with a motherload of snow. But in general (there are some exceptions) the cars don’t actually pass you more closely than usual. You may have to be willing to assert your space more than you normally do, and the concept of a bike occupying a whole lane can freak car drivers out and make them slowly turn purple, but to date I have not had one actually run me down. In fact most are ok about it, particularly because the need to do this is often most pressing when the traffic—slowed down by winter-related crappiness—isn’t moving any faster than a bike anyway. Another problem with the narrow streets is that you can’t easily sneak around the line of pesky cars waiting at traffic lights. Do as I say, not as I do: be patient and allow extra time. On the flipside, there can be advantages. For example, I ride a two lane road to work; it’s now a 1.5 lane – better for me! Also, a snow bank won’t door you.
SNOW BANKS. Yeah, these are high in Boston right now. And driving round them is sketchy: you nose your car forward (I beep on my horn too because that’s what we do in Britain – all these snow-narrowed streets with the high banks? They’re essentially a regular English road with hedgerows, only colder) and pray nothing is coming. Biking round them is actually much better. Sure, the cars can’t see you (remember that!), but when you’re riding on most commuter bikes you’re pretty high up, much higher than in a car, and you can usually see THEM. So when you get to a corner you can see if a car is heading your way even if they have no idea you’re there. Use that knowledge wisely…
GEAR. This is a legitimate concern. You do need some stuff to make winter biking do-able, and a bit more to make it actually pleasant. I assume you all can more or less dress yourselves, but a few items that I find make everything better… 1) Full face balaclava and googles. Mainly for the cold, but if you ever happen to be riding in hail or ice pellets you will be MUCH more comfortable with the googles than glasses. Also, because they’re enclosed, googles don’t fog up like glasses when you’re stuffing everything up by breathing through your balaclava. 2) Rain pants. See above for sludge. Rain pants add warmth and make everything cozy better. 3) Lobster gloves and handlebar mitts. Some people do well with just lobster gloves, but personally when it’s super cold I like both. Because why not? 4) Fenders. That’s for your bike. See sludge again.
Other than that I don’t think you need anything fancy. Easy concept really: the less exposed skin, the happier you will be.
Of course, other than biking round town/to work, you can expand your winter options by fat biking on reasonably well packed trails or snowmobile trails:
Or maybe by installing a PVC pipe with hose clamps so that you can carry your skis to the trailhead:
Or by installing skis ON your bike:
(Ok, that’s not me. I haven’t done that. Yet.)
So why have I been driving? Well, it’s not really because of the snow (I would be riding if I still worked downtown Boston), it’s because I changed jobs and work got farther away. I’m not pretending I can ride 50 miles to and from work in the dark and snow. But usually I can bike a few miles to the train station, which is acceptable to me. This week the train is in “recovery mode”, and while I COULD wait 60 minutes on a cold platform for a train that may or may not arrive, I am fortunate enough to have a (fairly) reliable car. But I do wish the train a very speedy recovery!
Rachel is a plaintiffs’ class action lawyer in Boston, MA. She was formerly a philosophy professor, and likes to think she remains a philosophical thinker. She rides all sorts of bicycles, but her first love is mountain biking and she races regularly at the amateur level. She is also leader of Team LUNA Chix Boston Mountain Bike, which leads bike rides for women in the Boston area.