Commuting by Bike – A Reflection

Just over a year ago, I bought my first bike. Last time I was on a bike was like 4th grade. The steed has been proven to be a sturdy one, taking the hellish pounding of asphalt cracks and the ever-annoying and ever-changing condition of the Georgetown Branch Trail that connects Silver Spring and Bethesda, Md.

I have a love-hate relationship with this trail (but that can be a whole ‘nother post of its own).

prepping for my morning commute Although I bought my bike in the summer of last year, I didn’t really start riding it until about late September, early October, when I took the plunge to commute by bike.

It started out rocky. I biked once a week here and there. Then upped it to two days. Three. On a roll with four. For a first-time bike commuter, starting at the fall/winter transition was probably not the smartest thing, but I took notes and learned quickly what I definitely didn’t need in terms of apparel, and what I need (still need) for the upcoming colder months.

Sadly, my regular commute waned post-Thanksgiving last year, after I returned from a family-reunion/Thanksgiving trip in Wisconsin.

I ventured out some days in December and January, when the mornings were in the low teens. My butt cheeks were cold, and my toes were itchy.

I started to pick up the bike commute again around spring, getting better at mentally preparing for the next day’s commute to work and picking up some prep habits (like packing the pannier the night before).

It’s that time of year again, and although I’m not going anywhere for Thanksgiving, I’m wondering if I might slip back into the habit of not biking during the cold months like I did last year.

I’ve biked much more during the past two months, consistently biking at least four days a week. Now that the weekly CSA is over, and I don’t have to figure out how to lug vegetables home from the office, I’m trying to push the four days to the full fledged five days a week, with a few weekend rides thrown into the mix.

So far, I haven’t had any lingering doubts about not biking because the wind or the temperatures or the rain. That’s good right?

But as the winter months move in, I’m wondering what other gear I need or whether certain days are definitely off limits. I know I can use some wool products like base layers and socks, but as for bike accessories, what options are out there?

There’s no guarantee that the DC area will get snow this year (though one can be hopeful), and I’m wondering what kind of tires or accessories I should get so that I can still bike in the snow, in less-than-favorable conditions, should my crazy ass decide to do such a thing.

Anyone have any thoughts? I’m pretty determined to go forth in this crazy year-round bike commuting thing.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Bike to Work says:

    Writing from Minneapolis, where our winters are waaaay different. Some of my knowledge transfers, some of it doesn’t.

    Dressing: protect your extremities (fingers, toes, nose, ears) in the cold. Your core will warm itself up and it’s easy to overdress. Wool socks, waterproof boots and gloves are awesome. I wear a windproof, fleece balaclava, but a good hat and a well-wrapped wool scarf can be just as good. Layers are awesome and let you change things if you’re too hot/cold. I love wearing knit wool gloves inside of mittens. Looks like you’ve got integrated shifters – lobster mittens will let you shift but keep your hands warmer than gloves. I carry chemical handwarmers in case I get into trouble but never end up using them. Wiggle those fingers! Wiggle those toes! If you get cold, bike faster. If you like skirts, a knee-length, stretchy wool skirt over whatever else you’re wearing will help keep those butt cheeks warm, or find 3/4 length long underwear.

    I would recommend fenders, especially if rainy/slushy is a likely winter forecast in your area. They make a big difference!

    I ride with studded tires in Minneapolis, but they’re slow, loud and expensive so I wouldn’t use them if I didn’t live in an area where I feel like I need them (riding them on hard pavement wears them down faster). My roommate had some non-studded “winter” tires last year, but she didn’t think they were very helpful. I think I’m going to invest in another studded tire for this winter, but the last two I’ve ridden with just one – put it in front unless you’ve got a fixie. With just one stud, you might fishtail some, but you’re unlikely to just bite it and it’s not that hard to catch yourself on a fishtail if you’re going slow. If you think you want studs, this could be a good option – just swap either one tire or one wheel. I feel pretty good riding in Minneapolis with just one stud in everything but glare ice and deep slush (which there is no good setup for).

    A lot of people here have a second (third, fourth, whatever) bike just for winter, partly because so much salt gets put on our roads that it ruins everything nice. A lot of people here like a more upright stance for a winter bike, but setups vary quite a bit.

    If it’s slippery, you should be going slow. Turn slow, brake slow. Take the lane, riding in the right tire track. Bright lights, lots of reflectors.

    But mostly, it sounds like you’re already figuring out what works for you, which is the most important thing. Happy winter riding!

    1. Gina says:

      It’s been an interesting experiment in terms of figuring how much to wear, and how to wear my clothes, but I’m learning and it’s exciting. Maybe even funny. One day I’ll wear barrier pants, the next day I’ll wear my Levis commuter pants, the next day I’ll wear thermal tights. I can only imagine what I look like if I were to observe myself from the outside. HAHA

      I’ve considered getting a second bike for recreational purposes, and then using the bike I currently have specifically for commuting/running errands, but I don’t think I’m at a point financially where I can throw down some cash on a new bike. (For now, I just dream.)

      I’m guessing studded tires won’t be necessary, but maybe I should talk to some bike shop folk. DC’s winter is just weird so maybe I’ll just settle for non-studded, but better tires… This is a somewhat frustrating endeavor, but I really want to bike as much as I can throughout the winter.

      1. Bike to Work says:

        No matter how much you pick people’s brains, it’s always part trial-and-error. I would love to read about what you figure out this winter. I’m going to try to do more winter biking outfit blogging this winter, too.

  2. Gina says:

    Thanks for the response! Those are some pretty helpful tips.

    Last year, when I first started biking in cold temps, I made the mistake of overdressing. But this year I’ve ventured out with just a long sleeve, t-shirt and wind/rain proof jacket, and was surprised to find that I wasn’t actually cold. It’s just the toes and fingertips that I’m still figuring out.

    Good to know about the socks. I might have to look into some shoe covers or something it looks like, and liners + glove combos.

    I only have the one bike, but I was looking into winter tires, but not sure where to go. I was looking at studded tires, but I don’t know if I want to keep switching them out throughout the season on bad days, or if I should invest in a whole new wheel set specifically for winter tires…

    Are there non-studded tires that work just as well in terms of grippiness during not-so-bad but not perfect weather days?

    My commute is mostly on a paved trail, so it’s not too bad. But not sure how the winter will play out in good ol’ DC metro area this year either. *sigh

    1. Paul says:

      I use Bontrager Hard case, which come in a nice knobby style in the wider sizes, on my (POS) mountain bike. 26″ x 2″ wheels (IIRC)
      For studded tires I have heard good things about Schwalbe.
      If I were going to go there I’d use a completely separate bike.
      Taiga Dry-Foot Gaiters can’t be beat I have had mine for years. The elastic in the toe cap wore out but they still function fine.
      You have to wash them with Nik-whatever it is for Gortex every so often. The zipper becomes clogged with salt & grit over time.

      1. Gina says:

        Thanks for those specifics. I probably won’t do studded tires, but I could use some new tires in general. I’ll definitely check out those sources though. Thanks!

  3. Paul says:

    I live in Rhode Island. My commute is about 14.5 miles round trip.
    For me days when it is actively snowing or when the streets are seriously icy are off limits. When that crusty stuff is scattered around or if the roads are otherwise marginal I break out my “knobbly tire” bike.
    If you dress for it you can ride any degree of cold. My winter gear includes waterproof jacket, (55F & under), “Lobster Claw” gloves [Pearl Izumi] (40F & under), rain pants (35F & under), gaiters [Taiga] (35F & under) , balaclava (40F & under) battery-warmed glove liners (30F & under), and ski mask (25F or 30F, depends on how I’m feeling).
    I have a Take-a-Look mirror attached to the ski mask. I couldn’t do without my Take-a-Look!
    It’s a bit of a pain to get the Pearl Izumi’s on over the liners but well worth it: My fingers are often the warmest part of me. They used to feel like icicles!
    I have found that extra wool socks will not help. You need to stop the wind-chill factor from the wind you create by riding. The rain gaiters do that. This is a new thing I’m trying this year. It’s been under 30F and with those on over my shoes and corporate-weight black socks and I am fine.
    The rain pants keep the wind from whistling through my Dockers.
    I don’t put on layers under my jacket just a T-shirt & button-down. In 10 minutes I have filled it with body heat. IMHO if your upper body is not cold when you set out you are overdressed & will be sweltering by the time you get where you are going.
    The ski mask is a pain to put on & have the balaclava all tucked into it also but below 25F it is very helpful, keeps my eyes from tearing over. Below 20F well I don’t know if I could ride without it. Below 15F no way, and you at that point you really gotta make sure everything is tucked in, with no facial skin showing.

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