lessons from a frozen cyclist

I am not a cyclist by drive, nature, nor habit. This past year, I began biking to work, which is only about 3 miles away. But

Screen capture of Boston's current weather, 17 degrees Fahrenheit with a Real Feel temperature of 14 degrees.

Today ‘s Real Feel is 18 degrees warmer than yesterday…

truthfully, I preferred driving in my new car – a sporty red hatchback with comfy seats and a great pick-up. So, mostly I drove. Occasionally, I rode.

Yesterday, after returning from a ten-day trip to Israel (I’ll blog about that later this week, I’m sure), I wasn’t sure how to get to work. With Boston’s MBTA still under-the-weather, our cars needing shoveled out of our neighbor’s driveway, and the beginnings of some serious jet lag, I decided to bike to work. Yes, bicycle to work. Now, keep in mind, that the temperature mid-morning was a “Real Feel” of -4 degrees Fahrenheit. This was “warmer” as earlier that morning the “Real Feel” temperature was -18.

I’ve got a decent road bike that I bought from a friend for $100 (it’s a $800-1000 bike). She took great care of it, and I’ve had her tuned up, replaced tires, and had the brakes done in the five years since I’ve had her.She is not a snow bicycle, however. No thick snow tires. No history of snow excursions.

I am also not a snow cyclist. I have no real athletic snow gear save two pairs of long zipped-leg athletic spandex tights that I use for walking the dog or (in a previous life) running. I have sports bras and one or two wicking long-sleeved wicking shirts (short and long-sleeved pieces). But, I’ve no outerwear; neither lightweight cycling jackets or neon yellow “here I am” indicators. Also, the only lights I have are from my hubby (a former Chicago-winter cyclist) and a headlamp that I used for camping. My gloves are regular winter gloves. My shoes are running sneakers (complete with mesh to let me runner’s feet “breathe”). My socks are regular running or thick hiking socks. No sleek, warming silk undersocks.

So yeah… I headed out underprepared yesterday.

I did pull on two pairs of lycra tights, a thick pair of smartwool hiking socks, two wicking underlayers and a hiking anorak, gloves and a wool hat.

During my commute my fingers, toes and head turned blue.

  • First lesson: Get better gear for your fingers, toes, and head. Ideally, you need a balaclava for your face.
  • Second lesson: Wearing a heat will confuse your brain and you’ll forget you need to wear a helmet. Don’t forget your helmet.

I went my usual route; JP roads to the Columbus Avenue biking/walking path, past Northeastern, and onto the Melnea Cass biking/walking path to South End roads to work. Bad idea. Well, at least the Melnea Cass piece.

The ride was going well until Northeastern. I was more aggressive on the roads- taking up space (like a car) when the roads narrowed so i wouldn’t get squished by cars trying to pass on two-lane-turned-into-snow-packed-one-lane roads. The Columbus Avenue bike path was fairly clear and the one or two icy spots had enough dry space for a bike to pass through.

Just before Northeastern I was joined by a serious cyclist. Yes, this person was kitted out with proper cycling wear (down to the goggles on their face no less). Whereas I continued towards the bike path on Columbus, they hung a right to go onto Melnea Cass proper (the road). Now, this isn’t normal for bicycles. Melnea Cass is a busy, car-packed, aggressive road. For a hot second I wondered, “Do they know something I don’t know?” and then I thought, “Oh, they’re probably going to a different destination.”

  • Third lesson: Listen to the initial voices in your head.

I popped across the street and onto the bike path, which was clear…for the first 100 feet. The path soon turned into a rutted icy mess. Clearly Boston DPW didn’t care about this bike path (which is coincidentally – or not – closer to lower income neighborhoods and affordable housing). I tried to glide it out, and soon realized that was a bad idea as my bike hit an icy patch and toppled. I toppled with it, banging my knee in the process.

For the next two blocks (because I was snowed into the path by this point), I alternately walked and rode through icy and clear spots until I could hop onto Washington Street and navigate back roads.

  • Fourth lesson: If common sense tells you to get off your bike. Get off your bike.
  • Fifth lesson: Again, if you see a more experienced cyclist NOT heading to the bike path, follow them.

I arrived at work within thirty minutes, which was only ten minutes slower than what it took me in good weather the previous

Screenshot of Boston's current weather forcast; reading 17 degrees with a "Real Feel" of 14 degrees.

Today’s “Real Feel” temperature is 18 degrees warmer than when I biked yesterday morning.

year and 90 minutes faster than my MBTA commutes two weeks prior. I was simultaneously sweating and cold, which is not a great feeling. But, after changing in the bathroom at work into clean tights, a dress, seater, and warm shoes, I felt okay. My fingers and toes were cold, but warming. My head warmed up pretty quickly. And then, for the next hour, i floated on the glow of biking in winter weather and the small shot of endorphins it provided.

Biking home was a similar experience (sans the icy bike path). I took a few back roads that I didn’t know through a low-income housing neighborhood, which ended up getting me lost and adding time to the commute. I did have to be consistently more aggressive on the roads and utilized traffic lights over stop signs to make left turns onto larger roads. I did freeze again on the way home (this time biking into a headwind). So, yes, more head, feet, and hand gear will be necessary to continue this pattern. By 5pm my knee was sore from the fall (should’ve iced it at work after the fall, but I couldn’t bear the thought of purposefully inflicting myself with more cold).

Overall, biking in the winter wasn’t so bad. It’s an all-sense-on-alert affair. It’s cold and slightly painful. But, it’s efficient. And, it gives you a “I can do it” sense of yourself. I won’t be doing it in falling snow,sleet or rain, as my tires will just wipe out. But for those sunny yet cold winter days, it’s definitely going to have to become a go-to option while Boston melts away from these 20 foot snow banks, minimal street parking, and icy pathways.

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