Malcolm McDowell Woods
Cold Cycle

Yes, you can bike in winter

By - Jan 1st, 2010 10:24 am
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Photo by Ralph J. Nardell

Photo by Ralph J. Nardell

By Allison Kuopus

Gently falling snow. Crisp, cool winds. Slippery, ice-laden roads. For most, this sounds like the perfect time to snuggle up in front of the fireplace. But if it sounds like the perfect conditions for a bike ride through Wisconsin’s wintry landscape, you are one of a growing number of Milwaukee’s adventurous cyclists braving the elements for a taste of the outdoors.

More and more people are biking these days, regardless of season. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the number of Milwaukee workers hopping on their two wheelers to get to work more than doubled from 2006 to 2008, accounting for more than one percent of total commuter traffic. The reasons for riding are as variable as the options for customizing your set of wheels; some people do it because they need an excuse to get off the couch, some do it for the planet and some even do it to stay sane.

At a meeting of bicycle minds on Nov. 19, some of the most avid winter bikers in the city came together at Transfer Pizzeria in Bay View to share ideas. Organized by the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective, Truly Spoken Cycles, the Bella Donnas, and UW-Milwaukee’s U-Bike program, this public discussion outlined the basic principles of getting out and staying safe on your bike in the winter.

The rules are simple, if not always intuitive. Layer for warmth, but don’t over layer, and insulate without forfeiting circulation. Example: you may think the more layers of socks you shove into your shoes the better, but one pair of wool socks is enough. In the long run, too much bulk will cut off the blood flow and you’ll end up colder than you were to begin with, says Jason McDowell, volunteer for the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective, a volunteer-based, nonprofit bike resource center just west of Marquette University on Clybourn Ave. “And always make sure there is space between the shoe and the sock.”

Keep the layers light, advises Cory Gassmann, better known as the east side’s Cory the Bike Fixer. “A good base layer, a light mid layer and a waterproof outer layer are really all you need, since once you get going body heat takes care of itself.” Merino wool works well as a base layer, wicking moisture away from the skin while keeping the body warm and odor free, Gassmann says. Synthetics like polypropylene can also do the trick, although the odor in these fabrics can be hard to wash out, adds Andy Moore, one of Cory’s bike fixers.

Don’t expect to get the formula for dressing appropriately right away. “Be practical,” Moore says. “Take the time to learn what gear’s best for you, and what’s most important to spend your money on.”

Make yourself visible. There are a number of options to shine in the dark. Reflective tape and flashers keep others on the road keen to your movement and location. Make sure to place them wherever a car might see them, on the front and back of your bike, on yourself and on anything else you might not think about, like the underside a backpack.

Cover exposed skin.  Beginners don’t need to go out and spend hundreds of dollars gearing up to bike a few blocks away. Block the wind. Cover every body part, from hands and feet to head and neck. Scarves may sound like a good idea, but can bunch behind your head, causing you to look down and your neck to cramp, Moore says. Gassmann recommends neck gators, which can also be pulled over your mouth, or a balaclava will do the trick. Often times, thrift and resale shops carry winter essentials at a fraction of the original price, Gassmann notes.

Wear a thin hat underneath your helmet, or throw on a headband. Cold weather wreaks havoc on skin, so keep it moisturized, McDowell says.

Many people use the same bike year round, making necessary alterations as the seasons change. Getting your bike winterized and ready to face the elements means protecting it against sand, salt and the cold. Cory the Bike Fixer and Aytan Luck, owner of Riverwest’s Truly Spoken Cycles, offer winter tutorials to show people how to get their bikes prepared for what the cold weather throws at them. To sign up for a lesson, call Coty at 414- 967-9446 or Truly Spoken Cycles at 414-263-2453.

Once you’re all geared up and ready to hit the road, there’s one very important thing to remember: winter cycling is all about attitude. “Biking should be fun,” McDowell says. If you don’t feel like biking one day, don’t. If the outdoor conditions aren’t cooperating, find another mode of transportation. “No one should feel they need to bike every day,” says Shea Schachameyer, encouragement manager for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin (BFW), “but there are a lot of beautiful, clear days in winter.”

And all bikers agree: everyone falls. So go slow and pay attention, since most cars aren’t used to seeing bikes on the roads in the winter.


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0 thoughts on “Cold Cycle: Yes, you can bike in winter”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The biggest problem with this winter so far is the lack of snow! (I know people are gonna hate on me for that). I have some nice fat tires and I have yet to have a commute to use them.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The best and easiest obstacle to overcome is just covering up. A face mask and ski goggles will make more of a difference in making your ride enjoyable than anything else.

    Once the wind is off your body, you’re good to go.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It was a super event. Nice summary! Thanks to all who helped organize it as well as the 60 or so bikers who showed up to share their ideas.

    BTW, I got in 17 days and 175 miles in December and I’ve got a 200 mile goal for January.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This is my second winter commuting by bike, and I find it to be the best cure for the winter blues. Getting outside and doing something active every day, no matter how cold, keeps me sane and well balanced over the long Milwaukee winter. When it’s five below zero and I’m riding into a fierce wind do I wish it was a nice summer day? Of course, but it’s really not that bad, and riding on cold days is better than the alternative: not riding at all.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I love riding in winter.

    the hardest part is the anticipation. Once you’re out there it’s exhilarating and fun! You will feel a sense of accomplishment that you’ve done something most people think is not possible/crazy.

    I was so sad to have to miss this event, but was out of town. Great article! I hope there is another event next year. I will not miss it! 🙂

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