Over the Ice and Through the Snow: Winter Bike Commuting

Inland Northwesterners overwhelmingly adore winter sports. We daydream about hulking piles of the powder many flatlanders dread. When the first flakes fall, we assault mountains and trails in droves on snowboards, snowshoes, and skis. We remake roads and parks into Nordic ski, sledding, and fat biking playgrounds. We find a hundred ways to have fun outside in the cold.

For many of us, one means of merrymaking is to challenge winter’s icy, windy weather atop two wheels, and continue to commute through all but the worst of it. “It’s what I do for fun anyway,” admits Bill Bloom, a year-round Spokane bike commuter for the better part of the last 10 years. “Plus, parking is $120.”

Clouds of foggy breath barely escape the neoprene facemask of a puffy coat-encased, lobster-clawed, faceless rider who waits for a break in traffic on Monroe. The rider then scoots, his studded tires bouncing on icy whoop-de-dos created by snowplows. Winter cycling appears daunting from a heated driver’s seat, but participants attest to the fun inherent in the challenge.

“Everything that is true for bike commuting is doubly true in winter,” Bloom says. This means factors like route planning, traffic timing, and clothing choices become more critical. Additionally, drivers can be distracted by degraded road conditions, and may take little notice of relatively-rare winter bike commuters. “You can’t have too many blinkies,” adds Bloom.

While it is true you may want to add a light or two to your clothing or bike, most of the other required equipment is already in your closet. Mr. Bloom prefers scaled-back Sorel Madson boots, rain gear, and roomy, waterproof mitten shells, under which he wears different pairs of gloves depending on temperature and wind. Sensible layering, especially on your upper body, using warm, wicking underlayers beneath wool or fleece will pull sweat away and prevent uncomfortable clamminess. Add a thin windproof hat or headband that fits under a helmet, and you’ll have extended your riding season comfortably by weeks with minimal investment.

When winter weather worsens, the freeze-thaw cycles intensify, and snowplows push piles of slush and ice into mountainous drifts that bury bike lanes. Cars carve deep ruts in the mix that freeze overnight, making truly treacherous cycling conditions. By this time, all but the most dedicated and fun-loving bike commuters have hung up their bikes for the winter. Those that haven’t—the cold-hardened holdouts who seem to enjoy testing their mettle—ride on studded tires or fat bikes. Several manufacturers make studded tires for road and mountain bikes. While notably heavier than their all-rubber counterparts, they are invaluable in icy conditions, a notch more stable, and a fraction of the cost.

Winter hobbies and clothing are expensive. A decent set of skis with all the trimmings will easily top a grand. Fat bikes are no different. A good used one may cost the same as those skis. But for the dedicated winter commuter, there is no overall rival in traction, stability, and control. “That’s the cool thing about fat biking. It lowers the technical bar,” Bloom explains, allowing even novice riders to handle potentially hazardous conditions confidently. Also, there is the giddiness factor. Many fat bikers agree that simply throwing your leg over a fat bike elicits an immediate smile. Turn the cranks, cue the laughter.

If the fat bike price tag is outside your combined bike commuting and fun budgets, switch to a set of studded tires on your daily rider; don your winter skiing, snowshoeing, or dog-walking gear; and keep turning pedals deep into the worst weather winter can throw your way. It won’t be the easiest thing you’ve done during the cold months, but it will build confidence while inspiring others to extend their own cycling seasons. And it’s guaranteed to be some of the most fun riding you’ll do all year.

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