The Agony and the Ecstasy of Winter Biking

Jan 26th, 2016

Three winters ago, I became a year-round, all-weather bike commuter: no more taking the bus when it rained, snowed, or polar vortexed. I would wake up, layer up, and roll my bike out the door.

I received lobster claw gloves and knee warmers for Christmas, then bought a cheap balaclava online. With long underwear over knee warmers and cycling shorts, thick socks, and boots, I was ready and away I would go!

None of this has been perfect:

Sometimes, I would take a trail which turned into icy, snowy single track. Sometimes, paved trails would be icy and the bike lanes would be filled with snow from the plowed roads, forcing me to take the lane.

Emma's eyes and nose are the only visible parts of her face. The rest is covered by a helmet and balaclava. Glasses have water droplets.
January 2015, in a parking garage after my snowy ride.
Emma Wimmer

And I remember many frozen toes and fingers, wind biting my face, even through the facemask, and glasses fogging up. Or overdressing in too many layers, sweating once I’d warmed up ten minutes into the ride, and arriving to work a soggy, shivering mess.

Then there was the time when I forgot how to brake on an icy hill. Using both brakes made my front wheel skid. I pitched backwards, hit my head, and busted my glasses in the process. I survived my little jaunt, but had to buy a new helmet.

One nasty morning on the east coast, they didn’t even send out the snowplows. And they didn’t cancel school or other activities. We were expected to go to work! 

Outside we ventured. Many bike commuters decided against riding, thinking the bus would be a safer option. Or, they drove. I rode.

On a hilly part of my commute, the buses couldn’t make it up the hills and slid backward on a 3% grade. I passed a dump truck sliding backwards on another hill. Then I braked wrong again, (it’s hard to not grab that front brake when your nervous) and fell into fluffy snow right by an elementary school. My bike ride was so slow, I showed up an hour late, safe and happy.

A bicycle locked up with a small layer of snow.
First snow in Missoula, November 2015
Emma Wimmer

Now that I’m in Montana, I’ve accumulated even more winter bike gear, including bar mitts and studded tires that I didn’t put on right away. “I’ll put them on after the first snow,” I thought to myself.

It snowed. And on a fateful Wednesday on my way home from the grocery store, studded tires at home, loaded down with beer, cuties (the citrus), and a few other groceries, I slipped on a big patch of ice going through a roundabout.

I fell to the left while my bike went to the right, and landed in a belly flop, knocking the wind out of my chest. The car behind me stopped, luckily. I stood up, picked up my bike, and went to the sidewalk trying to breathe deep. I cautiously rode the sidewalk up to the main street and took a trail the rest of the way home.

photo of a bicycle focused on the bar mitts
Geared up for winter! You can’t see it, but there’s snow on the ground, beyond our sheltered bike parking.
Emma Wimmer

That weekend, I spent a couple hours switching out my winter tires for the studded tires I’d had for a while, but never used! It took long enough (tight tire beads — gah!), but later that day, I went on a nice, two and a half mile cruise around the neighborhood, testing them out, seeing what they did and didn’t do.

Of course, now it’s not going to snow anymore, sorry Montana skiers, but I’m ready, if it does, and proud to be a year-round, all-weather bike commuter.

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