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.


  1. Ghost Rider

    Those are DH tires alright! Only a disc on the front, though? You know what that’s called? A bike mullet!

    Too bad the Green Machine has that brake arch on the fork (so oldschool!)…otherwise, you could put one of those half-fenders that plug into the bottom of the fork steerer and lengthen it with a homemade mudflap. I have a similar setup on my Xtra, and it provides almost as much coverage as a full fender.

  2. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @Ghost – I would like to swap out that fork – possible? – for that very reason.

    Maybe I’ll find a set-up at this Saturday’s Winter Bike Swap out in the northern suburb of Palatine.

  3. Michael La Porte

    Nice prep work! I wimped out yesterday, for once actually BELIEVING the weather forecasters . . . only to be let down again as the roads looked more than adequate for riding.

    I tried some drastic prep work too — putting some tire chains on an old bike that had been sitting unclaimed in our condo’s bike room, but it is too short (the bike) and made riding miserable. I’m back atop my very old Trek 7000 shod with Conti Winter tires.

    If you know anyone who wants to buy some chains, let me know. I cannot mount them on the Trek and clear the fenders.

    Ride Safely!!

  4. Ghost Rider

    @E — a fork swap should be easy…unless that bike has a 1″ headtube. I can’t tell if the headset is threaded or not, either.

    If it’s a threadless 1 1/8″ tube (the ideal setup), just make sure you buy one with canti studs, no arch and a long enough steerer so you can cut it to length. I can talk you through the process if need be.

  5. BluesCat

    Yeah, we been Winter Bike Commuting in Phoenix for a while now: had to put on a sweat shirt underneath my windbreaker.

    (he, he, he, he!)

  6. Bokchoi Cowboy

    You can put a fender on that existing fork on the Green Machine no problem!

    I had a RockShox Judy on an older commuter bike. It is very much like your Quadra, no fender mounts at the bottom and with the same arch. At the bottom of the arch is that hole…

    I wish I had photos for this…never took any….

    I used some Planet Bike Speedez ATB fenders, as they don’t need fender mounts on the fork (once in position, I used zip-ties instead of the rubber-bands to secure them).

    (Speedez fenders:

    The stock Planet Bike method for mounting the top of the fender to the fork is to simply use a zip-tie. That was too shaky, so I ordered an extra mount from the Planet Bike spare parts page. The fender mound is intended for the rear fender (one actually comes in the Speedez kit for the rear), but I figured it would work just fine on the front. It allows for a bit of vertical and horizontal adjustment, so I bolted it on using the hole at the bottom of the fork arch…perfect fit! Very Stable!

    (Extra fender mount:

  7. Sask

    It was -48 C for my morning commute today in Saskatoon and no sign of it getting warmer.
    Gotta Love It!!

  8. Jack "Ghost Rider" Sweeney

    -48 C! Holy cow, that is INSANE! That’s cold enough to do the “boiling water” trick, where you boil water, throw it up into the air and it turns to ice before it hits the ground. Fun winter stuff like that is a novelty for me (a longtime Florida resident and recent transplant to a place that gets an actual winter).

  9. Elizabeth

    Wow is right! Makes these single digit wind chills seem like summer, huh? What are you riding up there in Saskatoon?

  10. Elizabeth

    How Seattle is tackling Bike Winter:

  11. Sask

    I ride a single speed mountain bike with Schwalbe ice spiker pro tires. My coldest commute was 4 years ago, -51C (I’m hoping to beat that record this year). In these temperatures every inch of your skin has to be covered or you will get frost bite in seconds. We also have a bike event each year called Ice Cycle and for a small city like Saskatoon we get a good turn out about 200 cyclists.


  12. Fixed Freak

    Ah someone else who appreciates why mittens are so much better than gloves when the temperature really drops!

    If you want a bit more control on the levers then check out Lobster type motorcycling gloves, basically they are split mittens with 2 parts – one for the index and forefinger and one part for the ring and little finger. Work great, especially with the bar guards that keep the wind off. Alternatively youve got those motorbike all in one fur lined bar attachments which are great unless you need to get your hand out in a hurry or at a funny angle.

    Good riding man.

  13. Elizabeth

    Fellow Chicago bike commuters share their best strategies for coping with single digit commutes on the local biking social network The Chainlink:

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