It’s Thanksgiving. This means the end of fall and the beginning of winter. Here come the pale days of December and January, the 4 p.m. sunsets, and the first time I have to decide: am I a winter cyclist?
I’m relatively new to the world of cycling. This is my first cold season as a commuter. So am I for real, or was this a flash in the pan? Will cycling get dusty, go the way of ukulele, trapeze, and formal poetry? If I don’t keep it up when the going gets tough, can I call myself a commuter?
Here are some of the steps I am taking to become a winter rider.
STEP ONE: Talk to everyone you know.
This means non-cyclists and cyclists alike. Ask the cyclists when it gets too cold for them to ride. Grill them for strategies. They may say: “When the snow is 5 feet deep, I just change my tires.” Everyone has a different breaking point. My friend (we’ll call her Anabel) just stops after Thanksgiving, no matter what. But then there’s the three guys at the Co-op who insisted that they cycle through the deep, dark cold. (Were they lying to a cute girl? Possibly.)
If you are talking to a non-cyclist, of course, you say: “When the snow is 5 feet deep, I just change my tires.” You’re practicing.
STEP TWO: Get some layers.
Everyone I know who rides, really rides, in the winter, takes the layering very seriously. You need a wicking layer at your core (cotton gets sweaty) and lots of things you can zip and unzip. SmartWool socks, an ear-protector and full fingered gloves are also really good. You should start your ride a little cool—since you’re going to warm up quickly.
I tend to wear everything.
If you are riding in subzero temperatures you break out the face masks and head protectors. Also, if you are actually riding in subzero temperatures you don’t need an amateur like me to tell you what to wear.
STEP THREE: Know your breaking point.
I really don’t know that I’ll be getting out there in a snowstorm or on the frozen pavement. My tires are too slick, and besides, my dad reads this column. If you do ride in the storms, you know to have a mountain bike and a bunch of lights– like the kind they put on the roll bars of Jeeps.
These guys are adventure cyclists. They biked in Siberia. You could do that too, if you wanted.
STEP FOUR: Get inspired.
Before you begin your romance with winter cycling, try reading “Ode to the West Wind” by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It’s nice and dramatic. I know it will help as you struggle nobly against the elements. Just memorize several stanzas and yell them like a battle cry as the dusk’s cold cuts you on the Manhattan Bridge. Alternately, here’s a sonnet I wrote in honor of the winter commute.
On summer rides, the wind would flirt and stare,
Admire my bike and compliment my gloves.
I liked its sass, the way it touched my hair.
On downhill coasts we breezed and called it love.
Then fall began to fall. The mornings paled.
I layered pants like pastry– flaky, bright.
The wind, so gentle once, was distant, cold
And in the mornings seemed to pick a fight.
I hoped he was distracted. “It’s a phase,”
I thought, “My SmartWool will inspire a different tune.”
But now I’m bundled, gloved and scarved, and dazed
By rage in him I never knew in June.
O pain! I’ll fight to bike through winter’s dread–
Or buy a monthly MetroCard instead.
Micaela Blei is a teacher, writer, and a regular contributor to Frontier Cyclist. Her last piece reviewed the bike-friendly video for Sun Airway’s “Put the Days Away.” She rides a KHS Flite 220 Flatbar. Those who cycle in the cold are her heroes and her loves.