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Eyes on the street: Lots of people were biking on Clark Street in 19 degrees

5:42 PM CST on January 22, 2021

One of many photos of people biking on Clark Street I took this afternoon. Photo: John Greenfield

As I type this, it's currently 19 degrees Fahrenheit in Chicago with a chilly wind out of the north. You could argue that it makes sense to huddle inside all day if you can. And if you need to leave the house, this line of thought goes, you're going to want to take a private car or ride-hail (with the windows partly rolled down for ventilation, of course) if possible to minimize your exposure to the elements.

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

But it's also an absolutely gorgeous, cloudless, azure-blue day, offering a blast of mood-elevating sunshine to those who spend time outside. During quarantine, one's top priority should be avoiding exposure to COVID-19, which means spending more time at home. As such, many of us are complaining of cabin fever, or saying we feel physically unhealthy, or like we've aged several years in the last 10 months. Getting outside for some fresh air and physical activity on a regular basis is a good way to address those issues and help maintain a positive mental attitude.

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

As a former bike messenger and current cycling advocate, I'm biased, but I think winter cycling is a the ideal strategy to meet the need to get out of the house and move your body. It's a time-saver, since you can combine physical activity with commuting or running errands, and obviously you're helping the environment and traffic congestion by not traveling in a car.

IMG_7852 2
Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

And cold-weather cycling is a lot easier than it looks. Due to climate change, it doesn't actually snow that much in Chicago nowadays, and when it does the Streets and Sanitation department is zealous about plowing the main roads in a timely manner. It's been that way ever since Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection to Jane Byrne after the great blizzard of 1979 paralyzed our city.

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

So you really don't need much in the way of special bike gear to bike through the Chicago winter. Most of the time any bike with fenders and lights will do. And if you don't feel like even thinking about what kind of bike to ride, just use Divvy bike-share. With fat tires, a covered chain, fenders, skirt guard, and generator lights, they're ideal for winter cycling. Best of all, you won't have to worry about storing or maintaining the cycle after your ride.

Today's weather called for bringing out the "big guns." Photo: John Greenfield
Today's weather called for bringing out the "big guns." Photo: John Greenfield
Today's weather called for bringing out the "big guns." Photo: John Greenfield

Dressing for cold-weather biking is a little trickier, but the basic rules are to wear layers that can be taken off and put on to adjust for changes in temperature and precipitation; pack an extra layer; and gravitate towards materials that won't feel cold and clammy if they get a little damp. Think wool, cotton-poly blends, polypropylene (great for long johns and socks), and silk (if you want to get fancy.) Here's what I wore for my three-mile ride down Clark Street from Uptown to Lincoln Park on my cruiser bike today, in the order I got dressed. I hate being cold, and I was totally comfy.

    • Underwear
    • Thick wool socks
    • Thick polypropylene long johns
    • Cotton t-shirt
    • Cotton flannel shirt
    • Jeans
    • Thick wool sweater
    • Insulated hiking boots
    • Parka (mid-thigh length)
    • Thick wool cap
    • Helmet
    • Thin, stretchy Magic Gloves from the drug store
    • Thick hunter's mittens I bought at an Army Navy store circa 1989

As I predicted, on my ride I saw lots of other people braving the cold on bikes and other micro-mobility devices. During my 20-minute pedal from Montrose to Fullerton I saw:

    • 9 people biking (not including myself)
    • 2 electric scooter riders
    • 2 skateboarders
    • 1 person taking their bike on the #22 bus
Photo: John Greenfield

If that many people are using Clark Street's buffered bike lanes in weather well below freezing, it almost makes you think it would make sense for the city to upgrade the bikeway to a physically protected micro-mobility lane.

Did you bike in Chicago today? Tell us about your experience, including your clothing and gear strategy, in the comments.

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