Winter Biking

It's been cold out.  

Chicago has had a relatively mild winter, especially compared to last year, but, coming from Alabama, it has been harsh enough to me.  The last two years, I lived in a place where it rarely dipped below freezing, frost was rare, and it never snowed.  This year, I managed to escape to San Francisco during the worst month of winter, but came back to some snow and damp cold.  We've had a number of days over forty, even flirting with fifty, but wind and clouds and the lake distill the chill into the bones.  

Through it all, I've struggled to keep biking.  I have two jobs; three days a week at the ReBuild Foundation, about five miles from home, and two days a week at ReBuilding Exchange, about a mile and a half from my apartment.  Both require a good bit of physical work, and topping the day off with a bike ride can take the last bit of energy out of me.  However, it is faster, more satisfying, and reasonably better for the environment for me to ride the bike instead of fight through traffic in the 'rolla.  

In a nod to the weather, I did pick up some new gear back in November.  I got a neoprene face mask, good for robbing banks in a pinch; neoprene gloves, warm and waterproof but also clammy and weird; and a thin merino-wool hat that fits under the helmet.  The hat and face mask are key, because the sub-freezing wind will drill into your brain, creating an ice-cream-headache-like effect that can be quite distracting.  For Christmas, I got a sweet hoodie -- it appears to be plain cotton, but the fibers are treated somehow, so water beads up on the surface.  This has been fantastic on the bike, as it blocks the wind and damp while staying breathable.  Lastly, glasses of some kind are essential, be it sunglasses or goggles, to keep the wind out of the eyes -- it dries out my contact lenses and makes them prone to blinking out, which is dangerous.  

Geared up!

I've ridden once or twice in actual snow, but, as I said, this winter hasn't been too bad as far as snow sticking around on the ground.  The issue isn't the snow, per se, as dry powder crunches well under the tires and provides reasonable traction.  The dangerous stuff is the slush, a miserable, icy no-go zone formed on the margin between parked cars and cleared lanes.  Coincidentally, that is where the bike lane is.  There is usually enough salt on the road that nothing is going to freeze there, but the plows keep piling new material on top of old, forming a continuous danger belt.  I did find a clever fix by a fella in the Northwest, especially given my fascination with zipties.  It also may pay to have my old beater bike collecting salt and wet and crap instead of a nice semi-custom ride.  

All the gear, helmet included, ran about sixty bucks, which isn't bad at all.
The other issue with wet or snowy-road biking is my brakes, which don't grab real well once the rims are wet.  I hope, one day, to get a bike with at least one disc brake, which seems to be the only way to be completely immune wet weather.  A hub gearbox would also be nice, as it would do away with the messy derailleur and keep things lighter and simpler.  The gears are sealed away from the weather, which would be beneficial in the snow.  Last, I need to invest in a fender to keep that stripe of road grime off my back.

Winter riding entails a lot of riding in the dark.  I leave for work around 7:30, when it's just getting light this time of year, and come home after five, when it's already black out.  I have a little flashing light on the back of my helmet, a red taillight, and two headlights.  Altogether, they cost me about fifteen bucks, batteries included.  They are mostly cheapo flashlights, electrical-taped and zip-tied together -- crappy enough no one would want to steal them, and, if something should happen, easily replaceable.  Again, on the wish list, I'd like to get some snappier lights with rechargeable batteries.  That said, the ones I have have lasted a season on the batteries they have, rarely running for more than about two hours or so a week.  

Old Blue, hanging up, lights on.  Wicked bright, at least in the little apartment.
Well, now it's March, and while Chicago has been known to catch some snow well into April, I'm looking forward to some warmer riding.  Even as I write this, it is flurrying furiously outside, wind-whipped and thick.  I biked my errands today, struggling to stay upright in the wind, but toasty enough . . .