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Winter commuting in Ottawa comes with a hefty price tag

A recent article from the Ottawa Citizen caught our eye:

Plowing bike lanes and paths to make winter commuting by bicycle more appealing is a priority for the city, but at a cost it’s not quite ready to pay.

The $200,000-a-year price tag to scrape clean an additional 16 kilometres of pavement all winter puts the city government in a Catch-22: Winter biking is difficult on snowy, slushy, icy roads, so not all that many people do it. But because not all that many people do it, it’s hard to justify the expense of making it easier.

Read the full article by clicking here.

they even plow the bike paths and pedestrian walkways ;)
(photo by Brian Kusler)

I have heard tales that Minneapolis plows some of their bike paths BEFORE the roads…I don’t know if this is true, but I’d sure love to hear from folks who live in areas where it is really snowy: What does YOUR city do to keep bicyclists on the roads once the icy curtain comes down?

I imagine it is a large expense everywhere, not just in Ottawa, to keep the lanes and paths cleared of snow…and I do know that where I live, which has over 330 miles of connected paved bike trails, those trails are at the mercy of Mother Nature and do NOT get plowed.

Winter riding – suicidal? Just bring on the mittens and snow goggles!

We’ve hardly had much “winter riding” lately in Chicago. Just this Monday and Tuesday, temps hovered in the 50s and 60s! But the rollercoaster, topsy turvy weather ride has plunged us back down to real winter temps and now our Chicago temps only hover at or below 0-degrees with windchill… bringing back the need to properly layer for the daily bike commute.

For me – the cold, sub-zero windchills mean it’s a snow goggles and mittens kind of “BRRRR!” (BRRR as in BRRRRING IT ON!)

No skin exposed on the “BRRR”-est of days


My body is cozy – covered in layers of a wool base layer and a thick cashmere or wool turtleneck sweater. My legs also get a nice wool base layer and then just khakis (sometimes I add a wind pants layer – especially in wet/messy condition) and thick wool hiking socks under my BOGS boots. My head = no skin exposed; I use a double-layer balaclava system (one thinner one pulled up over my nose), plus goggles, plus helmet on top! Over all that is my hi-vis yellow commuter jacket to block the wind. Wool gloves covered by big primaloft mitts and I’m ready to roll.

I’m more bundled than the average pedestrian, plus I’m generating body heat – more than the mere walker.. and I’m definitely warmer than the person just standing there waiting for the bus or train.

So – when I saw a post by “He Who Knows” on local Chicago suburban social site entitled “Bicyclists are insane riding in winter’s deep freeze!” and claiming that winter riding is suicidal, I had to chuckle. Seriously? He Who Knows certainly doesn’t know much about cold weather activity outdoors. On the other hand, we who know layer appropriately and reap the benefits of year-round cycling in any weather.

Should we be surprised by such a general posting by someone who is clearly not a cyclist? Isn’t this what happens when anyone and everyone can post their opinion online? “He Who Knows” likely has no authority on the topic. Though I do find his take humorous… since it is just so ridiculous! But just to clarify and set the record straight for would-be winter bike commuters, do not take his statements seriously… Based on this guy’s opinion, I would have killed myself cycling through winter years ago.

Take it from this guy in New York who bikes (even in winter) 40 miles to work in Manhattan!

I’m alive and well to let you know that – even on the harshest of days – cycling brings me sanity.

Ride on…

Let the winter bike commuting begin

So much going on in Chicago lately… namely, it seems that winter has (finally) arrived. (Note: you will hear no complaints from this bike commuter about the mild weather and temperatures in the 40s and 50s these past few weeks…) From a few headline searches, Chicago isn’t alone in bracing for winter’s impact.

First snowy bike commute of the season

Now apparently Chicago is just gearing itself up for a true Winter Bike to Work Day this coming Friday.

As noted on the Active Transportation Alliance‘s event webpage:
Enjoy coffee and tea from Caribou and Cheesecake from Eli’s 6:30 to 9 a.m.

The first 50 bike commuters who come by the event can choose from either a free bike light or a free balaclava. Everyone who stops by can enter a raffle for a folding bike.

Winter Bike to Work Day takes place on Jan. 20, the 27th anniversary of Chicago’s coldest day, when the official temperature at O’Hare International Airport was 27 degrees below zero.

Last Thursday the city of Chicago experienced the first significant snowfall of this winter cycling season and today flurries lingered but did not accumulate. For the next few days, more so than snow, Chicagoans face the bitter cold temperatures with “real feel” temps hovering in the single digits! If you’re lucky, the windchill will just barely keep the temperatures above freezing for your commutes in on Wednesday morning.

Snow Bike - Fat Tires and Disc Brake


In anticipation of winter’s arrival, I have been lent a snow bike to test out. Last Thursday I put the snow bike to the test and she performed, especially for the ride home on Thursday over the snow covered streets.

Double-wide "fat" tires + braking power


The double-wide fat tires on this puppy – though not studded – did keep me feeling more stable on two wheels. Unfortunately such a downhill bike does not come with fender mounts, so I popped on a mudguard for spray from the underside and a rear clip-on fender to the seatpost. This bike’s front disc brakes assured me that I would have stopping power when I needed it. Neither the tires nor the brakes let me down. Unfortunately, I think the brakes need adjustment as I could notably feel resistance in the wheel that kept it from spinning freely. Still – in the wintry bike commuting conditions of last Thursday night’s ride, I certainly wasn’t riding anywhere fast.

The bike cops that were out patrolling acknowledged me with a smile and a nod; I think we were equally impressed to see each other out on the roads that evening.

The roads in Chicago are usually pretty well plowed and salted, as was the main east-west street I take leaving work. Salt riddled its damp pavement. But then I turned northbound; the rest of the way home I navigated my way north on mostly snow-packed roads. This type of snow was the slippery kind that makes it hard to gain traction and the roads were such that all of the road had already been driven over and packed down; these roads were some of the worst road conditions I’ve ever encountered on a commute for that much of my route. Luckily, there were few cars on the roads. I just tried to steer clear of the fish-tailing cabs.

The snow bike plowed through and I stayed upright til the end. The end of my journey through a couple blocks of side streets really tested my bike handling skills. I even had a cab following me and worried that much more about falling over into his path. To my surprise, he never honked and kept a safe distance, giving me room to navigate and fishtail now too. (What goes around comes around – from following a fishtailing cab, to a cab following me as I fishtailed.)

At long last I made it home and had to haul up the bike to my apartment. At that moment I realized the heft a front disc brake adds to the bike; I like to think that the added front-end weight helped in my snowy journey. For the final trip up my steps, however, it added to the inconvenience factor of using such a bike on a regular basis.

Today weather forecasters predicted possible snow accumulations of 1″-2″ but only a dusting of flurries stuck to the pavement. For today’s adventure, I put the Green Machine back to work, more than a full month later than it was called into action last winter season.

The Green Machine

With no knobby tires (yet), the Green Machine offers much less rolling resistance, with all the stability of a mountain bike for anticipated snowy commutes. The biggest drawback so far to the Green Machine remains her lack of a full front end fender (due to the full suspension fork):

No full front fender mounts on the Green Machine

Tomorrow I may add MTB Barmitts to the Green Machine to add further buffering from the windchills. Up until now, my REI mittens have served me well, but do not allow full dexterity for grip and brake controls.

Mittens protect my hands on the harshest of days

(On a side note: last Thursday I had carried a secondary glove set-up in the rear pocket of my cycling jacket. In that pocket I had stashed my wind barrier lobster cover gloves, just in case my big mitts proved to be too much for the conditions. I also had my camera in my back pocket for easy access. During one of my reaches into the pocket for my camera, I must have caused one of my gloves to fall out of my pocket. I arrived at work and was cleaning off my jacket and discovered I was missing a glove. Also in the ordeal, I got my camera wet and it is now at the camera “doctor” so my photos may be sparse for a while. On my commute home I tried to find my glove, but too much snow and darkness made the search difficult. Friday morning I followed my same route and paused at the same locations where I’d taken photos the previous morning. The plows had clearly passed through overnight. Lo and behold – along the curb at my second stop there it was – my lost glove! It lay there in a crumpled up heap of soppy slush and suffered only a couple of knicks from the plows but it survived! Sorry, folks, no photo of the discovery.)

Tonight’s commute home wasn’t so bad. The challenge was mainly in breathing; in the cold temps I pull up a buff over my nose and mouth which keeps the air warm and moist but still doesn’t solve the runny nose dilemma. I had pulled down the buff entirely by the end of my commute.

Still I arrived home refreshed and breathed a hefty “Ah..” in the crisp night air. I glanced up and to my amazement saw clear skies and a sky above full of twinkling stars and some visible constellations. For a city gal, seeing stars from my place is a treat.. and it’s one reason I do enjoy the crisp and clean (dare I say refreshing?) cold winter air. I love the clear wintry night skies!
(I’m still not much of a fan of snow!). 🙂

A special thanks to my coworker for snapping the photos of the Green Machine you see in this post.

Layering: as easy as 1, 2, or 3

I tend to over-think things a lot! This quality of mine can be both good and bad. What I like about fall/winter riding is that dressing for it really is easy – you just need to know the purpose of each layer and best fabric for that task. Aside from those days when I start pondering other gear, layering is really quite easy – and leaves me feeling always prepared.

From fall through springtime in Chicago I either always carry with me in my commuting arsenal (water resistant pannier) OR am already wearing on my body (esp on the colder winter days) the following items: extra glove liners + extra gloves or mitts, wool knee warmers, a Warmfront, extra wool socks (in case one pair gets wet), rain or wind pants to block wind and keep the road spray off my clothes, silk or wool long underwear for top and bottom (I especially like SmartWool and L.L. Bean wool), beanie cap that covers my ears, Hedz headwear, and wool/fleece balaclava – topped off by my most visible layer…. a hi-vis wind- and waterproof jacket. I rarely have a need for any more than 3 layers worth of clothing – base, mid and outer suffice in any weather; so while our skin may consist of 7 layers, for me, the gear only needs to be 3 layers deep at most … most of the time. (If you live in a much warmer or colder climate, I realize your needs for layering may vary; please adjust your technique accordingly and share with us what works for you in the comments.)

When I first started to bike through the colder, yuckier weather months in Chicago, I did a lot of my own research for what to wear and soon learned about the fine art of layering. (My go-to resource at that time was a blog authored by a woman in Alaska living a bike adventure life and recording it in her blog – I think it was called Up In Alaska; she has since moved and renamed the blog to Jill Outside.) A few of her posts detailed her layering technique and gear. Another site that has also helped me over the years is the Icebike website, brimming with strategies and gear designed to keep you warm (without overheating) while out bike riding or enjoying other winter activities for long periods of time. Last, but not least in deserving credit, is Chicago’s Bike Winter — a grass roots effort that has supplied me with how-to knowledge and an awesome DIY fleece balaclava designed to keep as many Chicago cyclists pedaling through the winter as possible.

If Jill could make it work for rides in Alaska and these Icebikers and fellow Bike Winter-ers could do it, I knew I could apply the layering strategy to my Chicago commutes; below I provide you with the layering technique that works for my urban bike commutes and the importance of each layer.

Chicago’s recent bout with chilly, windy and damp fall days reminds me that I really do have all I need already in my wardrobe (even though I’m always thinking of the next best gear or tip most of my winter “gear” is not really cycling specific gear). Take a photo gallery tour of these layers I recently wore during a damp fall commute (temps in the high 40s/low 50-degrees):
Base layer: long sleeve microfiber shirt (easily substituted for wool or silk on chillier days). A good base layer will wick the sweat away from your skin so that you don’t overheat OR get chilled from damp skin. Wool and silk are also naturally odor-resistant = bonus! I’ve learned to avoid cotton next to my skin at all costs, since it tends to keep the perspiration close to your skin.
Mid layer: vest (or wool or cashmere sweater in winter). A mid-layer helps insulate. This layer continues to challenge me during the fluctuating temperatures we get during the spring and fall, but in winter I usually turn to a cashmere or wool turtleneck sweater. During warmer months, I may forego this layer or opt for just a vest or stick to a cardigan sweater that can be zipped or unzipped as needed.
Bottom: REI cargo pants (with long underwear when the mercury dips below freezing). Depending on the level of chill in the air, I adjust my wardrobe – from jeans to lighter weight khakis to stretchier fitness style pants. As a female, I also have opted for wool tights and a skirt – and have found this combo to be just as warm as pants. I also keep a pair of wool knee warmers (or leg warmers in you prefer) around just in case I need a little more buffer.
Feet: midweight wicking socks (I live in wool hiking socks come winter), Vasque waterproof hiking shoes (and NEOS overshoes in the worst of it!). Just the other day I wore mid-calf Bogs boots with a neoprene liner. Once it’s freezing and below, my feet prefer the thicker socks and waterproof shoe. For commuting I don’t usually ride with clipless pedals, and in the chill I prefer the added warmth of regular hiking/winter boots – just make sure they allow your foot/ankle enough mobility for pedaling. You may even want to ride on wider BMX-style pedals to accommodate the clunkier footwear.
Hands: Gore bike gloves (new this year!); Headsweats lobster shell gloves (mittens and hand warmers on standby for temps below freezing). Up til this year I used a pair of wool gloves I acquired at the Army-Navy Surplus store and paired those with the shell gloves or with a pair of REI mittens. Mittens keep my hands warmest on the sub-freezing days. Hand warmers helps when it drops below zero.
Outer layer: Loeka (or other waterproof) commuter jacket with pit zips, Marmot rain pants. A jacket -even on the coldest of days – need not be thick and heavy. The best outer layer provides maximum wind resistance so as not to allow the chill in and is also waterproof; a sports-oriented jacket will have pit zips to allow added ventilation and help prevent your body from overheating. Given the lack of daylight during winter, I stick with hi-vis and reflective jackets to keep me as visible as possible to fellow road users.
Head: HAD microfiber tube to cover my neck, REI Novara cap (new to my arsenal this year… and I wonder how I lived without it all these years!) to cover my head and ears, helmet. In winter my layer below the helmet is a wool/fleece balaclava; sometimes I use the microfiber tube like a neck gaiter beneath the balaclava and will pull it up over my nose so I’m not breathing in the bitter cold air. My mom always stressed keeping my head warm; to this day, I cannot argue with my mom’s advice. For me, if my head and neck are warm, the rest of my body seems to naturally be warmer.
And last but not least Eyewear: Sunglasses with an amber tint in daylight AND clear or yellow tint glasses in darkness suffice for me most of the time (all my sunglasses have come from Solar Eyes (an online retailer)); in the winter I switch to ski goggles (rose tint works day and night even navigating the well-lit urban roads at night).

As I mentioned above, as a female I love having the option to wear wool tights and flashy rubber boots to spice up my winter cycling wardrobe, too, when I feel so inclined.
IMG_8869

One final note: it’s best to feel slightly chilled during the first few minutes on your bike. If you start out already warm, you could easily overheat. I find that less is more to avoid overheating. Folks at work think I must be so cold given my thin layers, but I assure them that by the time I reach the bus stop at the corner, I’m already warm from generating my own body heat; those folks waiting for the bus are the ones who look so cold just standing there. Rather than overdress, it’s best to carry an extra layer, so you can always stop and put it on if you need it or if it turns chillier for the bike commute home later that day. My commute is about a half hour each way and in the stop-and-go traffic of the city, so I’ve adjusted my layering accordingly. Those of you with a shorter or much longer commute may have other tips and tricks to share. Noah shared a few of his tips last year, including starting a log of weather conditions and your clothing choices.

Since my gear – most of it not cycle specific – seems to be accounted for, it gives me time to ponder getting a bike with disc brakes this upcoming bad weather season…. to at least improve my stopping power in the dampness. Then again…. I could finally try adding a more full coverage helmet (like a Nutcase or Bern)… options….

Chris’s Big Dumb Pug

Longtime friend of Bikecommuters.com Chris Follmer of Planet Bike sent in the following photo…and we HAD to share it!

big dumb pug

Is this some sort of one-off Surly creation…a Big Dummy made to accept Pugsley wheels? Not exactly. Chris was kind enough to offer the following explanation:

This is a custom built bike by Banjo Cycles here in Madison. It has been dubbed the Big Dumb Pug. It is what happens when you leave a Pugsley and Big Dummy in a closet overnight alone! I just got it built up yesterday and rode it downtown…For Wisconsin winters, this bike will get me to the store where my others will stop dead in their tracks!

Folks in Madison (well, at least Chris) are already thinking about winter commuting. That’s hardcore! Chris also told me about Madison’s Bike to Work Week:

This is Madison and Milwaukee’s bike to work week and we did our 3rd annual “Bacon on the Bike path!” Planet Bike just sits on the side of a bike path downtown and we fry up bacon and have donuts and fruit and coffee. This year we had the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin and a local bike shop next to us, fixing bikes and talking to people.

Mmm…bacon. Sure beats those stale bagels the commuter rest stops usually have!