Sunday, 2 February 2014

A frozen water bottle, a crisis of identity - and why winter cycling keeps winning me back

My neighbour looked at me aghast as I wheeled my bike in through the door of our apartment building, accompanied by a sharp blast of the well-below-freezing air outside. “You’re officially crazy,” he said. The guy who sits next to me at work took a similar view another day, “You didn’t bike in today, did you?” He was persuaded I had only when I shook my water bottle – with lumps of ice from the freezing journey - at him. Yet another day, a woman from another department of my company, who never talks to me, approached me to demand, “Bet you didn’t ride in today, did you?”

Snow swirls in SoHo: definitely a "defying
the laws of physics" day as far as I'm concerned
All of my interlocutors shared the view of probably the vast majority of New Yorkers about cycling in the depths of a harsh winter – that it’s not only impractical but a little bit wrong or insane even to try. The sentiment seems all the more dispiriting for being so often expressed with a kind of glee: “Ha! So that’s put a stop to your little cycling experiment, hasn’t it?” Riding to work is only a hobby, go the none-too-subtly expressed subtexts. It’s a lifestyle choice that I can and should reverse at the slightest provocation.

However, the ferocity of the current New York winter – which has seen me cycle to work in temperatures of -13C (9F), with windchill making it feel like -23C (-9F) - has forced me to re-examine my view that I can cycle to work pretty much every day during winter. For a solid week recently, slush lay stubbornly on the roads, unmelted as temperatures remained below freezing, making any attempt at cycle commuting feel foolhardy.

I’m consequently working on a new principle. I’m happy to fight the forces of nature, I’ve decided, but won’t defy the laws of physics. The challenge now is to work out which days fall into which categories.

Piles of snow days after a snowfall. It's not
picturesque, but it's not dangerous either
It’s not all bad, after all, trying to ride a bike in winter in New York City. Last winter, my first as a New York resident, I was delighted to discover some advantages of the city’s winters over the less cold ones through which I’d cycled in London. Because the temperature would stay below freezing for days at a time, snow cleared from the roads generally stayed cleared rather than melting, refreezing and turning into icy slush. Because the air was less damp, on snowless days temperatures could plunge far below freezing without producing the thin coating of black ice customary on London streets in such weather.

Every night for a whole week last winter, I’d ride across the Brooklyn Bridge on the way home, glance at the big thermometer perched atop the Watchtower building by the bridge and see temperatures no higher than -8C (17F). I managed an 18-mile round trip in such temperatures by putting on more layers than normal, I told myself. What winter weather was likely to stop me?

It’s a question to which I’ve had a few clear answers this winter. One morning, for example, I decided that the previous snow was now so well cleared that it was safe to try riding to work. Part way across the Brooklyn Bridge, I discovered the peril of judging conditions by roads already warmed by hundreds of cars. The snow on the bridge, I discovered, had half-melted then frozen again as water on each of the hundreds of wooden boards making up the bridge’s walkway. Even walking the remaining mile or so across the ice sheet to Manhattan was a desperately slow, laborious process. Another morning, relieved to be cycling to work after a few days thwarted by snow and ice-covered roads, I emerged from my apartment to discover freezing rain was falling. The sidewalk below my feet was already slick with ice. Back to the apartment went the bike. Shoulders down and gingerly to the subway station went I. The morning my neighbour told me I was crazy, I was actually returning, crestfallen, from the briefest of attempts at cycle commuting. Finding that, three days after a big snowfall, residual snow on the road felt so slippery I was fearful of going any further, I was returning my bike to my apartment and heading, yet again, for the shelter of the F Train.

A delivery cyclist in the snow: oblivious to his effect
on my self-esteem.
At its worst, this run of weather has left me feeling something not far short of a crisis of identity. I feel like myself when I ride my bike to work and not when I don’t. “Ha, ha, ha!” say my nastiest inner demons. “You present yourself as a tough, bold fearless cyclist and you haven’t been on your bike in a week! You’re probably on the brink of ditching cycling forever and commuting all the time by subway!” The lack of my wonted exercise has certainly left me feeling fidgety and sluggish a lot of the time. I even had a day off sick last week – for the first time in at least two years. I am, I tell myself, just another unfit, middle-aged man resenting a commute in the kind of proximity to strangers that I’d normally consider with no-one but my wife. At lunchtime, I’ve looked mournfully at delivery cyclists, marvelling at their ability to handle their bikes on the snow and ice and cursed myself for not being prepared to do the same. I’m even cursing myself by comparison with my past self. Is this, I ask myself, the same man who rode home from work through a blizzard in London in January 2009? Or is it a mere pale imitation of him?

Two full months of harsh winter gone by, however, and I am, perhaps, finally coming to some kind of radical acceptance. My caution, I keep telling myself, is largely warranted. Men of six foot five on touring bikes have, after all, a high centre of gravity and limited purchase on the road. It’s probably a risk not worth taking.

My readiness to withstand the low temperatures is also, I tell myself, a bit beyond most other people’s. On that coldest morning, when it felt like -23 C, I not only found that my water bottle had frozen solid by the time I arrived but that my gears stopped working properly, as the grease I’d used to lubricate them started to freeze. Mornings such as that have counterbalanced the days I’ve felt a failure for slinking off to the subway. While they wouldn’t seem extraordinary to cyclists from cold-weather cycle-friendly countries such as Finland or Sweden, they give a temperate-climate cyclist such as me the illusion of having achieved something by riding to work. I was delighted in a recent Transportation Alternatives video to find some other cyclists feel the same.

Hoyt-Schermerhorn station's A Train platform one recent,
snowy morning. This was on a morning when the subway
claimed to be offering "good service" on this line.
As for the feeling that I might be tempted to switch permanently to the subway, I’m always surprised by how quickly it evaporates. Certainly, the subway itself has done its part in that direction. On Friday, minor problems on the A Train produced vast crowds at the station where I needed to change trains. On the worst of the recent snow-affected nights, I found myself trapped for 40 minutes on a train stopped on a viaduct 50 yards from my house but unable to get off. The entire journey home – at most 45 minutes by bike – took two hours.

Yet being on my bike is a still bigger factor in changing my outlook. There remains a skill to riding in the cold even on the days when it’s not prohibitively dangerous. I’ll glide over this ice patch then swerve round the next one, I tell myself. I try to distinguish leftover snow from gritting salt. I devise strategies to get my gears moving again when they’re gumming up. Most of all, I enjoy how extreme cold brings out yet another face of the city. I see ice floes packed by the banks of the Hudson River and notice how professionally the city’s people wrap up for such weather.

Brooklyn in winter: sure, I took this picture from the subway
station. But days when I ride in winter I see far more
of this crisp, beautiful light.
It may, I suppose, seem a little crazy to far more people than just my neighbour and my gloating colleagues. There are mornings when I certainly feel less stressed to be letting the subway worry about the weather conditions for me. But there are other mornings. They’re mornings where I negotiate the ice patches at the start of the Manhattan Bridge bike path, ride out over the river and am confronted with New York in one of her most beautiful moods. Thin whisps of steam spiral up from chimneys into a clear blue sky and the low sun shines the crispest, clearest light imaginable on the city, casting buildings half into bright sunlight and half into deep shadow.

I ride over the crest of the bridge such mornings and down towards the star anise smell of Chinatown’s restaurants and tell myself: if this is crazy I barely really want to be sane.

36 comments:

  1. I don't think of it as a commitment to cycling, but rather as a commitment to good decision making. Usually, generally, most of the time the good decision is: ride the bike. Occasionally, the good decision is: don't ride the bike today. It's the adaptability that separates the well-considered life from the rigid absolutes.

    And while I am loath to generalize, most of those folks in cars haven't made any decisions at all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Vannevar,

      That's very well put. I guess I'm trying to be adaptable - but nearly always end up feeling sad if I have not to ride.

      As for motorists' decision-making, I'm shocked at how fast and aggressively people continue to drive even in white-out conditions.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. I've lowered my threshold for cold beyond which I won't ride this year, from 20 F to 10 F. Even so, we had a whole week this winter when the temperature dipped below 10 F every day and never went above 20, so I felt awful not having ridden an entire week. I also got to know what it's like for all those poor folks taking the subway every day, and it makes me even more confident that I've made the right choice overall by bike commuting whenever feasible. For me, at least, cycling is faster and more convenient than the subway, and definitely more comfortable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Greenway,

      Thanks for the comment.

      It's certainly true that cycling's alternatives are a great advert for cycling.

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. Replies
    1. Rebecca,

      Thanks. I've considered studded tyres. The problem is that, as I understand it, they handle icy surfaces well but most other surfaces not that well. My problem is that there are brief periods with enough snow or ice to make riding tricky but that it then disappears pretty quickly. I'd be worried with studded tyres that I'd be constantly taking them on and off, which seems a hassle.

      Do you have experience of them?

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. The reports of studded tyres being bad on other surfaces are greatly exaggerated.

      I use Schwalbe Winter 30c studded tyres and they handle just fine on anything from dry asphalt to icy mush. Although the mush is the most unpleasant and I would probably have liked to have 35-40c for that, but my previous bike couldn't take wider tyres.

      I generally put on my studded tyres a few days before the first snow comes (based on weather reports) and keep them on until spring. This year we've had very little snow here (first snow appeared in early january!) and riding with studded tyres has been no problem at all even on dry roads.

      The best is to have a dedicated winter bike, the second best is a set of dedicated winter wheels. But in general changing tyres is not really needed during the winter season as they work just fine on dry surfaces. You'll get a little bit of drag and the first time you take a corner it will feel a little weird, that's about it.

      Also, studded tyres aren't that expensive, a pair of aforementioned Schwalbes will set you back about 60 dollars.

      Could be worth a try :)

      Delete
    3. Also, some of them have the studds positioned so if the tyre is fully inflated then the studs do not touch the road, so for clear conditions, but then you lower the pressure on snowy/icy days and the studs start to purchase.
      The best explaination of them I've heard is "Riding on ice is like walking on an ice rink, it isn't too bad if you go in a straight line and you can build up quite a speed without getting into difficulty, it is just stopping or changing direction where things go awry. Riding with studdied tyres is the same, only someone has put some sand down on the ice, yes if you try and turn/brake too hard then you will have issues but you have more leeway."

      Delete
    4. After experiencing, pretty much word-for-word, the feelings you describe above, I decided yesterday to try studded tires (http://www.amazon.com/Schwalbe-700X40-Marathon-Winter/dp/B00AQJ9IRG).

      I'll report my experiences as soon as I can get them on the bike.

      But part of me fears there will be no more snow once I receive and mount them, and I'll have to wait another 10 months.

      From what I've read, the spikes should help with ice, and the thread blocks should provide traction in the snow. And on regular pavement they will just be slower and noisier. (see http://www.peterwhitecycles.com/studdedtires.asp)

      Delete
    5. The best thing about having studded tyres on your bike in the winter season is that you never have to think about whether you should ride or not.
      Looking out the window becomes about choosing what to wear, not whether to ride or not.

      Delete
    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    7. For the fifth year I have been using studded tyres throughout our british Mancunian winter albeit this one is extremely mild, so far. Not a patch of ice. It has been so mild that the studs on my back wheel (second season) have stopped being vertical and the inner circular flat base of the studs have been scratching the innertube so I replaced the worn studded tyre with a new one.

      But apart from that I have no complaints about using studded Schwalbe Marathon Winter tyres. They make a noise similar to a bowl of Rice Krispies but that reminds you that they are there to do the job they are designed for.

      You do not need to take them off and on. They work just as well on regular dry tarmac as they do on sheet ice.

      The reason I have encountered the problem with my back wheel is because of the weight. I use pannier bags to carry my work clothes and I run the tyres at the full 85psi on a hybrid bicycle with 700 or 28" tyres so the pressure is greater than on the mountain bikes 26" tyres I used to cycle upon where I had no issues.

      I secretly wish for ice and snow so I can test them to their fullest. When I needed them they have never let me down.

      Delete
  4. I'm running up against my own cycling limits this year, but it's not really due to the weather. As the old Swedish saying goes, there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices. In the recent cold snap, I wore two pairs of gloves and couldn't figure out why my hands were colder - at first I thought it was my 51 years of age catching up to me, but I finally figured out that the gloves were too tight and either reducing blood flow or reducing the insulation. Either way, it knocked me out of the game, at least mentally: I was left a bit more wary of the cold.

    The other thing affecting me psychologically is that I've run into a bunch of bad drivers recently, which has made me resort to taking the bus a lot more than I usually would.

    With these two things, I've decided to give cycling a bit of a break until the Spring. I'm still cycling part of my commute every weekday, but right now the length of my commute has been cut by 3/4. I just need to recharge my will to cycle.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ian,

      Sorry to hear about your run-ins with the drivers. I came within inches of being taken out on Friday by a city housing authority pick-up truck, so I feel your pain.

      I hope your will to cycle revives on that bus,

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  5. Studded tyres FTW!

    Here in Stockholm I ride every day no matter the weather.
    The busses are immobilized, subways packed like sardine cans, but a bicycle will always get you where you're going :-)

    http://i.imgur.com/I2qyu.jpg

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dmitri,

      I think if I lived in Stockholm (a possibility I have seriously considered at points) I would definitely find studded tyres worthwhile.

      Sadly, this morning, with steady snow falling outside my window, I'm putting myself once again in the hands of the F and C trains.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. This year is actually the first year that bike paths in the city have been properly cleared of snow in a timely fashion.
      Last year most inner city bike infrastructure was useless after a snow storm and you had to ride with cars.
      After a huge shitstorm by cyclists, the city promised and to some extent has delivered snow free infra this year.
      Special equipment was purchased for interborough cycle tracks too.

      Although painted bike lanes are still more or less useless if there is any snow fall.

      The key is to prioritize clearing cycle and pedestrian lanes before car roads, maybe NYC will get there someday :)

      Delete
    3. Speaking of Stockholm, check out some of the photos below, this year is the first year this new snow clearing machine for cycle tracks has been used in Stockholm. Even I'm jealous because that machine is mostly used outside the city limits on larger tracks ;-)

      https://twitter.com/search?q=%23vintercykla&src=typd&mode=photos


      https://twitter.com/velonoir/status/425604017340051456
      https://twitter.com/KristerIsaksson/status/424936573507878912
      https://twitter.com/DrUEriksson/status/423134596897996800
      https://twitter.com/perkovich/status/409959420991635456

      Delete
  6. Icy roads keep me from cycling (I'm skittish after a fall while biking resulted in a shoulder injury), but my other problem in winter is keeping my hands warm. Mittens don't seem to allow the dexterity I need, and gloves let my fingers freeze. I don't like the idea of chemical handwarmers much, but would be interested in other clever ideas. Fortunately, I can do my essential errands on foot (I have some of the ice-grabbing things you put on your shoes for when walking is slippery).

    If you do try studded tires (and I've heard good things about them), remember that icy surfaces will still be slippery to your feet whenever you put them down (I heard this tip from a studded-tire-user).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. QMacrocarpa,

      When people were first suggesting studded tyres this morning, I was slightly dimissive. However, on my subway journey to work this morning I got stuck underground for a good half an hour because of a fire on the track ahead. Then, on the way home, I had a similar delay because someone pulled the emergency brake. So I'm growing desperate. I'll let you know if it leads to purchase of a pair of studded tyres.

      As for the hands problem, I guess my fundamental issue is that I don't mind actual cold all that much. I wear a pair of full-finger Altura gloves. My hands certainly get cold (sometimes numb) but I never find it cripplingly cold.

      I will have a nasty, rasping cough until about March however.

      Maybe others have better ideas to keep those digits warm.

      I hope you find a solution soon.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  7. I only had the water freeze once on my commute in North Texas. It became a point of pride. I imagine it less so in places like Manitoba.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a point of pride here, Steve, to have kept riding even when the air was freeze-drying the water in one's bottle. But I'm sure I'm a relative neophyte compared with anyone riding in Chicago or - though I shudder even to think about it - Manitoba.

      All the best,

      Invsible.

      Delete
  8. Exactly the opposite problem here in Adelaide, Australia. Over 40 C (104 F) nearly every day for the last week. My 8 km return ride home (all uphill) has been of a 'character building' nature.
    What's 'snow', by the way?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nacnud,

      I've ridden a couple of times in temperatures of just about 40C - most recently last (northern hemisphere) summer. I described some of that heatwave's effects here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-heatwave-and-urban-nature-it-lets.html But I generally find hot such as you're experiencing far more unpleasant than cold. I can wrap up warm when it's -15C and guard against it. It's tough to cope with 40C.

      So you have my full sympathy.

      I hope climate change is reversed, Australia becomes a little less prone to such big, extreme heatwaves and sanity generally prevails.

      I'm not sure the Abbott government will be a big contributor to such a process, however.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Only 104F? I have commuted in 110F many times with a full-face BMX helmet on. Worst was coming home from a friend 70 miles away with 145F air temperatures on the roads (substantially cooler 20-30 feet off the road). I had to seek medical attention for that trip before making it home. The water in my bottles was hot enough to brew tea that day...

      Delete
  9. Last spring I made the swap from a cross-country bike to a road bike and having had issues with the ice I this year made a decision to instead of taking my direct route to/from work to instead take a far more busy route where the volume of traffic will have melted any snow/ice/frost. Fortunately for me, aside from two days of heavy frost there has been no issues with ice on the road so it hasn't been a problem. My studded tyres lie impotently on my bike stuff shelf, with my shorts seeing far more action then them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. James,

      You are a lucky man indeed - and, by the sounds of the weather you're experiencing, a lucky man who doesn't live in New York City.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  10. Invisible,
    Have you tried using Citibike on the harsher days? It has the advantage of fat tires, will lower your centre of gravity a bit due to the weight, and gives you the option of only cycling in one direction if the weather turns out worse than expected. It also gives you the option of docking, running a mile or so through any really tough parts, and then cycling again. Plus you avoid ruining your own bike in the salt.
    I've managed to cycle commute each day so far this year, from Park Slope to midtown. I use my road bike on days when there's no ice and little salt around, and Citibike on other days. A couple of the snowstorms have been difficult, but if you find a nice fresh car tyre track to follow then it's generally ok, and traffic is usually very quiet on those days so it's pretty safe.
    If you have the choice, I've found they are more efficient at ploughing the Manhattan bridge than Brooklyn Bridge. Only once did I turn up when it was impassable, and after struggling for 30 seconds I turned round to see a plough approaching to clear the way...
    Safe cycling!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous,

      The problem with Citibike is that the nearest station (at Atlantic Avenue) is a good mile into my five-mile commute. Also, a colleague crashed on one on Thursday in Manhattan, so they're not risk-free in these conditions.

      I rode to work today for the first time since I wrote the piece (and took your advice about using the Manhattan Bridge). It was OK - but I had to take the lane a lot and there are plenty of drivers that think it's their inalienable right to reach the end of the traffic jam in front before I do. The worst was a taxi driver that undertook me on Smith Street to get to a traffic jam. It was mad.

      Anyway, I managed to ride today and will ride to a meeting later on. How things will go during and after the coming weekend's snow I don't know.

      All the best,

      Invisble.

      Delete
  11. Ridung in the presence of snow and ice casts me back into the 70s and early 80s, when cycling in the city in any weather
    was seen as a daredevil act. The current condtions mean more riding in traffic, ss the bike lane signs seem to be code for "Deposit Snow Here."

    ReplyDelete
  12. Try automatic transmission fluid as chain lube. I have been using it and it doesn't freeze up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I cycled all winter (both this winter and last winter, when we had -15C for days at a time) and only applied standard lube to my chain when it got a bit warmer and it started squeaking. Same for my girlfriend who rides 13km to work every day.

      The key is just using a single speed, no gears no problem.

      Freezing chains sounds to me like a bad excuse not to ride ;-)

      Delete
    2. Jonathan and/or Dmitri,

      It wasn't the chain lube that froze up - it was the grease I'd applied inside the cable housing for the rear mech. It wasn't unrideable - it just became very sluggish. The reason to use the grease as the lube in the cable is that it's very good at keeping out water, which is the real, long-term enemy of that bit of equipment. I'm coping. It's definitely not that that's stopping me riding the days I don't. I rode on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. There was lots of fresh snow on the streets on Monday and there was a huge dump of snow on Thursday, so I'm fitting in riding as and when I can.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    3. I've heard stories of people around here having their cables frozen as well.

      Someone suggested vaseline, might be worth a try.

      Personally I just use a coaster brake, front brake and no gears (internal gears can work well too). But of course that depends on what kind of bike you have.

      Delete
    4. Dmitri,

      The coaster brake is a very continental European thing, I think. We don't go in for that kind of thing much here in these United States. As for the vaseline, the grease I use is pretty similar to vaseline, but thinner. Frankly, this is a mechanical problem that appears to kick in below around -10C when there's a severe wind chill, so it' not really a dealbreaker. The lubricant seems to be good at keeping water out of the cable - that's a much bigger issue.

      Anyway, the key thing, I think, is to focus on the joys of being on a bicycle in a great city. The two days I managed to ride this week were superb - light twinkling off the Empire State Building, little whisps of steam rising into the air. I hope it's as nice for you in Stockholm.

      Invisible.

      Delete
    5. I love my coaster brakes. They are becoming less popular here in Sweden lately though, not always easy to find the right components. Super popular Copenhagen and Netherlands though.

      As for the joys of riding, I agree with that. Albeit this winter has seen mostly dreary fall-type weather and I'm not a big fan of that. The few days of "real winter" we've seen have been great though :-)

      But there are indications of spring now, soon one can really start to enjoy every ride :-)

      Delete

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