Featured, Outdoors

Winter Bicycle Commuting

by Bjørn Olson-
A winter bicycle commuter comfortably rides a Kenai Peninsula road on a cold mid-winter day. Photo: Bjørn Olson.

Bright lights from an approaching vehicle cast a long shadow ahead of me. I was riding my bicycle on an icy road; the light grew brighter and my shadow more defined. I felt apprehension as the vehicle advanced from behind, at full speed. With no shoulder to ride in, few options appeared available. My fate was in the hands of the approaching driver. This was my first winter commuting to work on a bicycle, nearly 20 years ago.

I have owned vehicles ever since it has been legal for me to drive. That winter, it was a Subaru, which, for my money, has always seemed to be one of the best year-round cars for Alaskan conditions. However, for one year, I made a pledge to myself not to drive it. I was conducting an experiment on myself. I wanted to see—and not because of a court order—what life was like not driving for an entire calendar year.

Learning to trust often takes time and learning to trust carbide studs on bicycle tires is no exception. I was living in Seward the winter I bought my first pair of good winter bicycle tires and committing to my year of no driving. What the studded tires were capable of was still theoretical to me.

Winter road conditions in Southern Alaska fluctuate weekly, daily, and sometimes hourly. The conditions during my first scary ride with the brand new tires were of a type anyone who lives in Southern Alaska has seen many times: snow, which has melted, compacted, re-frozen and is then hastily plowed. The road surface was exposed but retained a thin film of ice. The shoulder to the right, including the white line, was a jumble of chunky ice, deposited from the first-pass of a DOT road grader.

At the last second, I realized the driver was not making allowance for me. Even though there were no oncoming vehicles, they were not swinging wide, nor were they reducing speed. Anger welled within me. How could someone be in such a hurry that they were willing to compromise my life? My blinking red taillight was flashing on and off, indicating that an actual human being was lawfully using the road, too.

Impact seemed imminent. My survival instinct took charge and without actually thinking, I instantaneously weighed my options. Crashing into the jumble of ice, piled by the grader onto the shoulder, was a better option than being hit by the car. I veered right.

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To my astonishment, the tires bit into the ice. In fact, they seemed to chew it up, spit it out, and ask for seconds. The car passed, my shadow evaporated and, except for the beam of light from my headlamp, I was engulfed again in peaceful winter darkness. I continued to ride over the broken ice, experimenting with this newly discovered traction. Incredible, I thought. Carbide studs are amazing!

Since my one-year of strict no driving rule passed, I have continued to commute by bicycle, a lot. In the intervening years, I have experienced all sorts of winter conditions and have come to the firm conclusion that there are few circumstances modern bicycles—which can include mountain bikes, fat-bikes, touring, and commuter bicycles—properly outfitted for winter, cannot handle.

Winter is coming. With winter comes darkness. For many, with darkness come apathy, depression, gluttony, and dread. Few things, in my experience, defeat depression better than suiting up, regardless of the weather, and riding a bicycle. At first, riding a bicycle in inclement weather may seem like a chore but eventually it becomes a vigorous addiction.

“You poor thing. You must be miserable,” people say to me, as I lock my bicycle outside a store or the movie theatre on a cold January night. If only they knew, even a sliver, of how satisfied, how good, how not depressed I actually felt. “Do you want a ride,” I am often asked. Never!

In the nine years I have lived in Homer, conditions for year-round cycling have improved. Homer Cycling Club developed the Homer Shares The Road education campaign. This campaign makes the obvious case for being aware of all user groups, emphasizes the law, and reminds our citizens of the kindergarten-age ethic of sharing and taking care not to hurt others.  Even though there is no hard data to prove my case, I have noticed improved attitudes between motorized and non-motorized interactions, since this education campaign began.

Besides a good pair of carbide-studded tires, the other things essential for successful and enjoyable winter bicycle commuting are: lights (both front and back), fenders, rain gear, good winter boots, helmet, and a positive mental attitude. It is entirely worth it to splurge, whenever possible. My advice to anyone who asks is: spend money on the best and most appropriate equipment. High quality gear, if you can afford it, will work better, last longer, and improve your experience. The more you ride, the cheaper the investment becomes when you factor how much you are not spending on fuel. The value added to every day of your life is incalculable.

Winter can feel oppressive in Alaska. Beat back against those feelings of dread and gloom by engaging with the natural world on a daily basis. Breathe the cold air. Feel your body generating heat. Show up to work with rosy cheeks full of life, vitality, and oxygenated blood. You won’t regret it.

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