How I learned to bike in snow

DSCN0019[1]My bike handling style, can be summed up in a single word, “tentative”. Going into the last winter, I  had never been a risk taker, never pushed the boundaries, never attempted to ride off-road, no-handed or anything of that nature.  My bike handling skills were at a basic, beginning level.

But then snow started taking over the road and suddenly, I had to learn how to ride on something other than pavement or a hard-packed dirt road. Biking in deep fresh snow was a blast but it was also terrifying.

White-knuckled, I rode, trying to force my bike to keep a straight line in the light and fluffy snow. My rear wheel was a traitor though, constantly twisting around like it was an independent entity. Then I learned the trick of lowering my tire pressure to the lowest recommended psi. Take that little traitor! Fishtailing was still a common occurrence, but it felt slower and gentler, so much easier to handle.

Lowering the psi did give me increased traction but the extra rolling resistance slowed my average speed way down. So I would pump my tires up when the road were clear and then release that pressure when I was biking during or after a snowstorm.

Coming into the month of January, I was starting to gain confidence in the snow. After all, even though my bike twisted around like mad when it couldn’t contact the pavement or ice (which my studs would bite into) the only time I had fallen off my bike was when I misjudged the shoulder’s edge and tumbled into a ditch.

Then, one day when I was biking home from work someone stopped to ask if I needed a ride. I uttered my standard, “I’m good, thank you!” and they drove off. I smiled to myself, so thankful that I discovered the world of winter biking. I didn’t want to be in a car when I could be pedaling through snow! I felt happy and free and as I was biking through the brilliantly sparking white snow, somehow the skill that had evaded me all winter, began to click into place. Which was weird because I didn’t even know that this was the skill I had been looking for all along.

It wasn’t really a skill, it was more a mindset shift. I had started to trust my bike. My iron grip on the handlebars was loosened and I let the front wheel guide the bike and I through the snow. When the bike shifted under me, instead of fighting it,  I let it move underneath me. I was no longer a dictator trying to force my bike in a rigidly straight line-we started working together.

That was the missing puzzle piece. Once I started working with my little pink mountain bike, riding in the snow became increasingly easier and more fun. I could pump my tires to their max psi and not suffer for it. The last few months of winter sped by fast and before I knew it the days of snowy commutes were over.

I miss the sheer joy of plunging into deep snow on my bike. But winter will soon be here and I can’t wait to learn more about how to bike in snow.

Over the summer, I found a video that would have really helped me at the start of my snowy travels. But it wasn’t in existence yet and it has a rather misleading title.

Every main tip can be applied to biking through snow although there are a few differences. First, the video makes biking through sand (or snow) out to be tougher than it really is, probably because they are coming from the standpoint of using this skill in a race. The skinny tires probably make it trickier as well. When I am out biking there is no pressure to get through the snow as fast as possible. Second, when there is ice on the road and there are rocks and chunks of ice littering that road but hidden under a layer of snow, big studded tires are always the way to go.

This post is the second post of the 5 day story challenge. Gary, from PedalWORKS was kind enough to nominate me for this challenge and he wanted to read more about cycling in snow and cold.

In lieu of nominating someone everyday of this challenge, I am inviting anyone to post about a weird or funny bike ride that for some reason hasn’t made it on your blog yet. I would love to read them. Let me know about it and I will link you in my successive story challenge posts.

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Making friends with winter’s most dangerous creature.

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Gary, from PedalWORKS was kind enough to nominate me for the 5 day story challenge. He wants to hear more about my experience cycling in cold and snow and because he has cool bikes, he gets what he wants. So here we go.

Last year, around this time I was preparing for my first ever attempt to bike through winter. Not only was I gathering the gear that would keep me safe and warm through the winter, I was gathering information in how to use that gear to keep me safe and warm through the winter. But try as I might, my safety plan had a few gaps in it. The biggest, scariest blank area was how to deal with snow plows.

Snow plows are no joke. They are massive machines weighing somewhere around thirty tons with the power to clear whatever stands in their way. It is common for snow plows take down mailboxes and damage fences, street signs and whatever happens to be in their path. And I was about to willingly place myself in their path.

Online, I couldn’t find any helpful information. The general consensus seemed to be that snow plows were the most dangerous thing about winter biking and your best bet was to make sure you stayed out of their way. But how, exactly? I pictured myself trying to drag my bike up onto a towering snow bank as huge snow plows barreled toward me at lightning speed. Scary stuff.

It got even more scary. My family and friends, in a desperate attempt to get me off of my bike and into a car for the winter, were constantly warning me how I was going to die if I carried out my foolish plan. And the number one way they predicted I would die, was, you guessed it, by snow plow. They made convincing arguments, and though I tried my best not to show it, I was scared stiff.

Then winter arrived. On the very night we got our first serious snowfall I finally found a helpful nugget of information. When you hear a snow plow coming, you cross to the other side of the road. Wow, I should have thought of that. But what if a snow plow sneaks up on me?

Haha. Snow plows don’t sneak. Ever. Scraping the road clean, they create a roar of frightening intensity. Hearing them was never a problem. Since I live in a rural area, traffic is light and I always was able to cross the road and wait on the opposite shoulder long before the snow plow’s rumbling arrival.

It didn’t take me long to recognize the awesomeness of snow plows. I would be biking to work, constantly evaluating where I should position myself on the road. The far right of the shoulder was safest from cars, but also had the deepest snow and was littered with chunks of ice and other debris. The left half of the shoulder had slightly less snow, but also closer proximity to cars. Then, of course, I could follow the rut created by cars, the easiest and fastest path, but did I really trust them to see me? It all came down to how good the visibility was.

So there I would be, out biking, in the dark of night, trying to maintain the optimum position when I would pull over to the side of the road to let a snow plow pass. I would return to find the road and shoulder completely clear. Awesome. No more evaluation necessary.

There was one glitch, however. My ears became a little too honed for the distant noise of a plow at work. Especially in the dark and especially when I hadn’t slept well, I would hear phantom snow plows that never materialized. I must admit, it kept me on edge. I would keep glancing behind me to see only open, lonely road.

As winter progressed so did my skills and winter biking savvy. I enjoyed biking in snow from the start, but as I gained confidence, I started to relax and notice more of what was going on around me, instead of focusing solely on the essentials. One of the things I noticed was that after I pulled off on the opposite shoulder, the guys in the passing snow plow would sometimes wave. So I started waving back.

Within a few weeks, they were all waving and grinning at me. One day I was walking home in the cold, dressed in the same coat and pants I use for biking. Two guys, high up in an orange snow plow, recognized me and gave me a friendly wave. I waved back, a huge smile on my face.

I had the privilege of making friends with my greatest winter fear, the snow plow.

In lieu of nominating someone everyday of this challenge, I am inviting anyone to post about a weird or funny bike ride that for some reason hasn’t made it on your blog yet. I would love to read them. Let me know about it and I will link you in my successive story challenge posts.

Blustery Spring Day

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The wind made the water seethe with mini whitecaps.

Going to work was fun this morning. A strong wind blew me over to the restaurant and I arrived ten to fifteen minutes earlier than I expected to!

But what was a lovely tailwind coming into work became a raging headwind on the return trip home. (Funny how that works.)  During the work day, I had a good idea of what I was in for on the ride home so I started mentally preparing myself.

“It might be tough, but it will be good for you. Build those muscles, kid!”

(I often call myself “kid” during internal dialogues.) Thinking back on some of my seemingly endless windy spring rides from last year, I hopped on my bike at the end of the day with some measure of dread. As a bike commuter, headwinds are to me what rush hour traffic is to a motorist. They guarantee a long commute home, the stronger and more persistent the wind is the more frustrating and impatient I can become to arrive home and “get stuff done”.

But I think winter biking has messed with my physiological makeup, somehow. No matter how hard the wind blew (36 mph with gusts nearing 50 mph) and how hard I had to fight against it, I could not find any shred of impatience or frustration to latch onto. I was fighting the wind physically but I didn’t need to battle it mentally. When there was an occasional crosswind, I found myself leaning and against it and grinning.

Winter biking taught me to accept the weather. To accept the road. To accept the time it takes to get home, no matter how long that may be. To make the journey an enjoyable thing, something worth remembering.

Rushing home, just getting those ten miles over and done with so that I can move on to the next thing isn’t my default anymore.

Have I ever told you that I love winter?

Helpful Winter Biking Links

I would never have been brave enough to attempt biking through the ice and snow without the helpful information I found on the internet. That coupled with the knowledge that real, normal people were out there doing it gave me the courage to give it a try.

These links were the ones that have been key in making my winter of biking doable and fun.

Winter Biking 101
This is one of the first websites I found and the one that made me start to believe that biking through the winter was possible.

Bike Forum – Winter Biking
I spent a few afternoons reading through this forum and there is tons of great info to be found. Being an open forum, however, there is some advice that seems a bit off to me, so I do take it with a grain of salt.

All Seasons Cyclist
Jim introduced me to this website and I am not sure whether to thank him (because it has a ridiculous amount of great info) or never listen to him again (because I spent an afternoon reading through all of the posts about bike lights  and now I want all of those cool lights for myself).

Bike Winter
This website has some cool DIY tips which I was going to take a stab at…until I realized my sewing machine was broken.

Winter Bicycling: How to Enjoy It
A nice article with an overview of many aspects of winter biking.

Icebike
So much great information from clothing to bike handling tips. There are some epic winter biking stories to read as well.

Peter White Cycles
Great descriptions of different models of Nokian and Schwalbe Studded Tires and advice on how to use them properly.

I am sure I am forgetting a few of the websites I have been to and learned from and I am sure there are more out there, so if you know of a great winter biking website that should be listed, let me know!

The Tide is Turning


Photo credit: revwarheart from morguefile.com

Yesterday in my post I mentioned that my family and friends were strongly opposed to the idea of me continuing to bike through the winter.

But the truth is I had made my mind up before they voiced their disapproval. During the summer I had been dropping hints that winter biking might be in my future, but I think that everyone was fairly optimistic that I would come around before winter arrived.

One late August day I was driving with my dad when I decided that the right moment had come. I told him that I was going to bike through the winter. It was frightening for me to voice my plan out loud because at that point I knew I needed to be 100% committed to it.

And 100% committed to defending my plan in the debates that were sure to follow.

Then I asked him if he would help me get my bike ready for winter and to my surprise he agreed. I didn’t know if he would or not, considering the fact that he wasn’t totally on board with my winter transportation scheme.

But now? He is totally on board with my winter transportation scheme. This week, he told me that a guy a his work had said that he needed to buy his crazy daughter a car and my dad apparently bragged on the fact that I didn’t need a car.

I live in a small community and word travels fast. Several people have come up to me and it has been obvious that my dad told them about my biking adventures. He has definitely moved from the “winter biking is dangerous” camp to the “winter biking is cool” camp.

As the winter has progressed, everyone (including me) has realized winter biking is not a one way ticket to injury. The tide is turning and my friends and family are becoming supportive as I share the joy of plowing through snow. I give them props though, even when they were opposing my winter biking plan, I still felt like they were supportive of me as a person.

I have to admit that having their support (or at least neutrality) on the subject feels great. I respect the opinions of my family and friends; so blatantly going against their wishes and advice was rough.  Now that they are slowly getting behind me, I feel even better pursuing a car-free lifestyle.

But they should be prepared, the next step in my master plan is getting them out biking with me!

Saturday Commute

I have become a controversial figure.

Just before jumping into bed last night I called my boss to see what she was thinking about opening in the morning, since the weather was supposed to be severe overnight. She told me to come into work at 6:30 am.

I woke up at 4:00, ready for anything, which was good because we got another 18 inches of snow overnight. Usually, I take the dogs on a walk before leaving but there was no way their little legs could carry them through several feet of snow. Instead I shoveled out an area of yard for them to walk around in, like a snow exercise pen. At 5:00 I headed out the door.

The roads were decently clear, at least they seemed that way in comparison to yesterday! Just out of town I saw a van stuck in a snow bank, so I pulled over to ask if they needed to use a cellphone or if they wanted help pushing the vehicle out of the snow. Not to brag or anything but my brothers and I are pro vehicle rescuers. I think the combo of a 15 passenger van, circular driveway and bad plowing we experienced in childhood has something to do with that.

But the people assured me they were fine, their brother was coming to help them, so I biked on. The shoulders were still not well plowed so when visibility was good I took the lane. The good thing about lowering the pressure in my tires is increased stability, the bad thing is soft tires make biking slower and more strenuous, so it took me forever to get to work. I am going to play around with tire pressure this coming week to find a good balance between speed and safety.

I caused an uproar at work today. Many of our early morning customers are regulars and they know and frequently discuss my odd biking habits. They knew that I was biking through the winter, but now that the weather has turned wintery for real, they don’t think it is appropriate for me to be out on the roads. I am in the kitchen, of course, but the waitress told me that they were saying that every car that passes me should offer me a ride. Please don’t wish that on me! If I need a ride I have a cellphone and I will call one of the dozens of people that have offered to help me out when necessary. Although I totally appreciate any car that stops to see if I am okay, if every car did it I think I would go insane.

One guy is so concerned that he offered me an apartment close to the restaurant so I wouldn’t have to bike anymore. Even though they don’t approve of my mode of transportation it is nice to know that these guys care about my safety.

By the time I left work the skies were clear. I love cold and sunny winter afternoons right after a snowstorm, the landscape gilded with shimmering white magic. It still took me a thousand years to get home, definitely overdid lowering the pressure. A few people were out walking taking advantage of beautiful afternoon. So I earned a “Good luck”, “You’re brave” and my favorite, a snort of incredulous laughter.

Wow, what a week!

To work (10 miles)
5:00 am to 6:25 am

Weather
10F, 5 mph Southwest wind, snow

I wore
Head: balaclava, ski goggles,
Torso: two thermal undershirts, rain jacket
Hands: new winter gloves
Legs: yoga pants, thermal pants, rain pants
Feet: three pairs of socks, boots
Comments: Got a little warm, vented jacket. In spite of my torso being toasty warm, my legs grew cold, silly legs.

From work (10 miles)
2:00pm to 3:20pm

Weather
10F, 14 mph Southwest wind, 23 mph gusts

I wore
Head: balaclava, ski goggles
Torso: thermal undershirt, rain jacket
Hands: two pairs of knit gloves
Legs: yoga pants, rain pants
Feet: three pairs of socks, boots
Comments: Stayed warm except my nose found the wind chilly.