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
, 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 Brooklyn Bridge 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
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
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
River and notice how professionally the city’s people wrap up for such
|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
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.