Four Things I Forgot about Winter Bike Commuting (In Eight Short Months)

Today I did my first official slippery-road, snow-coming-down, winter-is-here, denial-is-no-longer-an-option commute of the season.

I’ve been thinking about winter commuting in the abstract; from a blogging point of view. I’ve been thinking, Yeah, yeah. Every other bike blog is going to do the obligatory series of posts on winter bike commuting; regurgitating the same how-to’s from previous years. I suppose I will have to as well.

In fact, I’ve already published our first post on the subject (“Sucking it up in Winter“) and I was happy to let a guest blogger kick things off, because I had nothing new to say.

I know how to winter commute by bike. And anyone who wants to learn can easily find the information. What’s the point of writing and publishing redundant articles when the old articles are perfectly good, and only a Google away?

Then came yesterday’s snow storm here in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Cyclist in Snow
Photo: Arizona Daily Sun

No, that’s not me. The way you can tell it’s not me is that he was prepared.

Things I Forgot about Winter Bike CommutingThis morning I got my mountain bike out of mothballs. It still had the studded snow tires on it from last winter, which means that I haven’t been on this poor neglected bike in about eight months.

First, let me list the few things that I got right:

  1. I pumped up the tires to less than their full PSI limit, to about 45 PSI, so that they’d have a little extra grip and squish to them.
  2. I lubed the chain and derailleur, and knocked off the cobwebs.
  3. I wore gloves, and a couple of layers under my Showers Pass jacket — but just enough layers that I felt a little chilly standing still, knowing that cycling would warm me up.
  4. Thick wool socks.

The ride to work was fine. It wasn’t snowing, but there was a blanket of snow on the ground and the roads were a little icy.

All day, sitting on my butt at a desk I was thinking, This winter stuff doesn’t even phase me. I’m the editor of Commute by Goddamn Bike — not that that makes me hero or anything.

About 5:00 PM, my wife called an offered me a ride home. The bike carrier rack was on our car. I turned her down. You drive in your climate-controlled coffin, woman! I have no need for such things!

Things I Forgot about Winter Bike Commuting
Snow: 1, Blinky Light: 0

Finally, it was time to   go. It was snowing again. And it was getting dark — which is a great segue to the list of things I’ve forgotten since last winter.

  1. It gets dark early, stupid.
    For all my talk of lighty-light-light, Bike Tech Shop, and so on, I didn’t think to transfer any lights to my bike in the morning. Furthermore, given where I work, I have bike lights stacked up all around me. Nah. I’ll be fine. I turned on the anemic little blinky lights that are built into my Lazer helmet, and headed into the night.
  2. My tires are studded, but my shoes are not.
    In less than a block, I found myself slowing to a stop at a red light. The studded tires were doing fine. I put down my right foot and, Whoah! Who would have expected ice on the road! And the shoes I was wearing? Skateboard shoes. Nice flat, non-treaded soles. Not what you want on your foot when you need to stabilize yourself on ice. (Why does a man in his 40s wear skateboarding shoes? Another time.)
  3. Water ceases to be frozen above 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
    This handy science fact explained the cold, wet sensation on my legs and feet. I was wearing jeans and the aforementioned non-waterproof shoes. Both were soaked before I’d gone a quarter of a mile.
  4. Snow is made of tiny little razor sharp ice crystals.
    Exactly the kind of stuff you don’t want flying into your eyes and face at any speed. I have a nice balaclava and some racquetball goggles for keeping these ice knives from stabbing my corneas. Those items were left at home this morning.
Four Things I Forgot about Winter Bike Commuting (In Eight Short Months)
Home safe — in spite of everything

So I only forgot four things. Not bad, right?

I suppose the lesson here is that it’s good to use a checklist when you haven’t done something in awhile — even if you fancy yourself an expert.

Put another way: Just because it was covered last year, doesn’t mean it’s remembered, fool.

So until we publish our next shiny, new, not-at-all-redundant article on winter bike commuting, allow me to regurgitate:

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14 thoughts on “Four Things I Forgot about Winter Bike Commuting (In Eight Short Months)”

  1. Dr. M says:

    Commical but very true. I can’t stress how important lights are in winter. Even without snow, darker shorter days mean you need to step up your visibility game. I try to place lights everywhere. On the bike frame, yes but also on my Panniers and messenger bags. Great article and hats (or helmets) off to you!

  2. Graham says:

    Great post, thanks for the reminders! A little crazy that you’ve got your first winter riding before your fellow cyclists here in southern ontario!

  3. Jesse says:

    Thanks for the reminders there Ted –

    Here in the Great Damp Northwest we mostly deal with frigid temps and soaking downpours this time of year. You quickly learn a couple of important lessons:

    – Wool is your friend
    – Water runs down arms just as well as down hills, therefore gloves with high gauntlets that you can tighten down (under the jacket sleeve, he reminded himself halfway home) are also your friend
    – $10 amber lensed work glasses from the hardware store work just as well as expensive riding glasses, and you don’t cry when you forget them…somewhere
    – There’s nothing dorky about GoreTex socks

    Oh, and waterproof lights are more expensive but so are ambulance rides – so really it’s your call…

  4. BluesCat says:

    Yeah, boy howdy, Ted, I know exactly where you’re coming from. That’s why I have the …

    Official BluesCat Checklist for Winter Bicycling in Phoenix, Arizona

    1. Zip up your windbreaker.


  5. Cyclelogical says:

    Really funny post and very easy to relate. We are just waiting on the frozen tundra here in Milwaukee, WI.

  6. ray says:

    All us commuters seem to always have 1 type of ride like this in us. We somehow TOTALLY forget what full-winter riding is and what it requires.

    Been there, done that. Glad to see I’m not the only one! 🙂

  7. mombrakesforbikes says:

    Riding in falling snow is difficult, but what scared me the most about riding a bicycle during winters in Minnesota was the tendency for snow to partially melt on sunny days, then freeze overnight and turn into a shiny glaze of frozen-hard ice all over the streets and sidewalks. It was hard just driving a car over the stuff, but on a bicycle it was downright treacherous. St. Paul, where I spent my last two years in the state, is built on river bluffs, so I often had to ride on hilly roads which were impossible to climb when iced over, and screaming scary to go downhill on. Even with studded tires I had a tough time staying upright, and forget about braking on those slippery intersections. There’s this one street I still have nightmares about, after I almost skidded into the path of a delivery truck one relatively mild February day.

    Then there was the time I drove my neighbor to the emergency room after he got third-degree frostbite on his face riding his bike to work in subzero windchill…. But anyway, I’m so glad I live in California now, where the worst thing I have to worry about in the winter is tule fog. Bright safety lights, reflective clothing and avoiding heavily trafficked roads are the best way to deal with that hazard.

  8. bharat says:

    Hi Ted,
    This article makes for a wonderful reading. Its funny and condescending at the same time. I agree with almost everything you have written. For people worried about visibility on a winter day have a look at this post:

    I saw one of these lights a few days ago in Rotterdam. They stand out (and in a good way), believe me.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Its funny and condescending at the same time.

      I hope that it was clear that, “It gets dark early, stupid” and “…doesn’t mean it’s remembered, fool” were both from my internal dialog — and not directed at our readers.

  9. Jack says:

    Well played Sir!

    Thanks for the chuckle.

  10. Bob says:

    Great, humerous post. While a little “anal” the checklist is actually a great idea. I put it on my list of things to have for first snowy ride.

  11. Dixey3 says:

    Living in Boston, MA I’ve been considering a year round bike commute to work. It’s 13 miles round trip but the ice has always been a fear. Well, the ice and the drivers around me. Thanks for this post. It helps. Favorite term that made me laugh: “climate-controlled coffin”

  12. Matthew says:

    This summer was my first attempt at commuting to work. I did pretty well. Well enough I was able to complete the crazy 100 mile Tour De Prarie. Cheyenne to Larimie. Did I say there was wind? This site has been my favorite asset. I’m contemplating the winter commute… even if I could just do it a few times. My biggest problem is I have to be at work by 6am and its a 12.5 mile ride one way. Happy New Year everyone!

  13. Chace says:

    Sell the vehicle! Why isn’t your wife bycycling with you? Hobby cyclists…

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