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How Can Biking Stay Joyful in the Midst of Winter?

3:42 PM CST on December 3, 2018

Lynda Lopez

I never considered myself a hard-core winter bike commuter before last year. I still don’t know if I can call myself that, but I’m getting there. Last year I was working at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council on Chicago's Southwest Side and living a few miles away in the Little Village eighborhood. That might not seem like it would lend itself to a challenging commute, but what I’ve learned is that the intensity and strenuous nature of your commute depends on the your environment and how used you are to the elements on a bike.

I don’t come from a community of cyclists who exchange tips about winter riding. I’ve slowly built my knowledge by jumping into it and asking questions as I go. I dare say this is how many winter commuters tackle the challenge. They don’t have fancy gear, but are trying to figure out how to keep their bikes going in the winter. This seems to be the case with the older Latinx folks I see navigating the streets of Little Village and the Pilsen community on two wheels every day.

I first started riding in the winter in 2011, when I was living in the Hyde Park neighborhood and biking to classes at the University of Chicago, but it was a short distance on fairly well-maintained roads, so it wasn’t too much of a struggle. Last year, while trying to commute a longer distance to work, I learned all the layers (pun-intended) of biking in the winter.

First, I had to get used to the seeming contradiction of overheating in the cold. It can be freezing outside, but depending on the amount and kind of layers you wear, it’s all too easy to end up in an uncomfortable sweat. Therefore, I learned to wear fewer layers  for cycling (finding the perfect balance is still a work in progress, though.)

Lynda riding a CTA elevator during a winter bike-and-ride trip.
Lynda riding a CTA elevator during a cold-weather bike-and-ride trip. Photo: Michelle Contreras

Second, I learned that I highly dislike the wind in my face. Since I was riding in the street at a fairly high-speed down California Avenue, the wind chilled me in a way I wasn’t used to, even though I'm a lifelong Chicagoan. I eventually invested in a balaclava, a face mask that fits under a bike helmet. This helped ease the pain in my face.

Third, I discovered how messy my clothes could get when the rain or melting snow would splash on my back. I eventually learned about the benefits of fenders, which solved that problem.

Winter bike commuting is also about trusting that you will feel comfortable after a bit of initial pain. In my experience, the first few minutes of a ride are never quite enjoyable. It’s only after you build some speed that you also start to warm up. On the plus side, it’s easier to stay warm on a bike than it is while walking in the cold, let alone waiting at a bus stop or 'L' train platform.

I do find it harder to endure cold-weather bike commuting on long trips. So if I need to travel many miles, I typically opt for public transit, sometimes taking my bike with me on the CTA to cover the first and last portions of my trip.

This year I’ve kept biking in the cold at least a few times a week, although the recent snow and icy temperatures made me less eager to do so. I did finally invest in a windbreaker on Black Friday, which will hopefully make it easier to maintain a decent warmth as temperatures dip. I can’t say I’m hardcore about gear, but I opt for as much comfort as possible (that stuff is also expensive.) I also don’t want to have to alter my fashion based on riding. I wear jeans and I’m still learning what a good jacket on a bike means.

I’ve learned, however, that I am very much a pleasure bike commuter. I bike partly for convenience, but also for the joy component. My question every year is, “How can biking stay joyful in the midst of winter?”

The last few weeks have been a bit tricky. I’m not a fan of biking in snow, partly because it hinders the vision of drivers and the roads generally just feel more treacherous. I can handle rain a bit more, but it still makes me nervous. Chicago has been both rainy and snowy in the last week, which has added the added difficulty of icy streets and sidewalks. I have definitely fallen while taking my bike out of my apartment and slipping on icy sidewalks before. All of these small things can be major obstacles for people who want to keep biking through the winter.

I’m still learning and have invested in some equipment and clothing to facilitate this process. If you want to keep riding in the winter, I think it’s necessary to decide what kind of rider you want to be. This year, I think I determined I want to be able to keep riding my bike when I want to run local errands and when I want to go somewhere within a few miles and don’t want to take the bus. I’m not as invested in long-distance riding in the cold, and my work and life doesn’t require me to do that on a regular basis. In those cases, I’m fine with public transit.

My goal for this winter is learn more about (intentionally) biking in rain and/or moderate snow. I still don’t have a rain jacket. Has anyone invented an umbrella for my bike yet? Let me know. (Yes! -- Ed.)

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