Thursday, November 4, 2010

Cold weather bicycle commuting

I had mentioned on my facebook page earlier this week that my ride into my office in the morning was in temperatures in the mid 20s, the coldest since back in March or April.  I mentioned yesterday that my ride home might be in rain with temps in the low 40s.  Someone commented that his own "couch potato lifestyle" (his words) was looking good to him now.  Two thoughts occurred to me almost immediately, and they are complementary to each other.  The first is that you do not become an avid bicycle commuter in a day or a season.  The second is that you do not become a couch potato in a day or a season.

I have been bicycle commuting for about 30 years.  Even eight years before that, before I had a drivers license, I used my bicycle to get around.  I lived in a rural area, ten miles to the nearest small town.  It was a mile and a half to the lake where I'd go fishing, two miles to a corner store where I could return bottles I'd find along the side of the road for deposits to buy candy and ice cream, ten miles to girls I was interested in.  We, my dad and mom and us seven kids, were poor (never hungry poor), had one car which dad used to take to work.  Usually he had a motorcycle which he could take in good weather so mom could have the car.  Good weather meant anything but snow, ice, and bitter cold.

It was when I was in graduate school that I became more serious about bicycle commuting.  My wife and I had one car, which she used to get to work.  I would ride my bike the two to eight miles (depending on where we found the cheap apartment) to campus.  It was in Nashville, so there were few winter days too miserable to ride.  When I got my first faculty position after graduate school, we purposely found housing within a mile of my office so that I could ride a bicycle most of the time, and walk in bad weather.  There I was for 21 years, a mile from my office.

My second faculty position was in St. Paul, MN.  Our home was over four miles from campus.  The Twin Cities area is well-designed for bicycle commuting (lots of wide paved shoulders, lots of bicyclists).  I bicycled to my office into November.  Usually my Thanksgiving, it was getting tough, partly from the snow (which would be plowed into but not out of the shoulder) and the cold.  The Twin Cities, contrary to many folks' assumption, does not get a lot of snow; it gets about the same amount as Detroit.  But the snow the Twin Cities gets the end of November is usually still on the ground the end of January.  It does not get back above 32 degrees much, if at all, between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day.  I could walk to my office in just over an hour at a brisk pace.  I'd start bicycle commuting again in mid-March.

My most recent job has me in Lansing, MI, with my home less than eight miles from my office.  Over the years I have acquired clothing that enables me to ride my bicycle in a wide range of weather, not just fair weather.  I have also acquired bicycle handling skills, and road savvy, to enable me to be reasonably safe in a wide range of conditions, including heavy traffic, low-light and night-time riding, rain, and snow (as long as it is not a heavy snowfall with accumulations).  Norwegians say "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing."  I had an elderly cycling friend who often reminded us that the rain won't hurt, "you do have a water-tight asshole" he'd say.

How my facebook friend became a couch potato probably has a parallel story.  How did he move from a 6'1" 150 pound senior in high school three dozen years ago to a 220 pound couch potato now?  Not in a day or a season.

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