My previous piece on winter biking focused primarily on gear and equipment. This time I’m going to highlight a few winter bicyclists. By telling their stories, I hope to demystify winter biking and perhaps encourage some readers to give it a go.
Sara Watson Curry
Sara is the Director of Operations at Great Rides, Inc in Fargo, ND. Among other things, Great Rides manages Fargo’s bike share which has been a rousing success, shattering national records and outperforming much larger cities like Denver and Minneapolis. I met Sara a number of years ago when she was involved with F-M Community Bicycle Workshop.
Sara is an avid bicyclist. She takes a utilitarian approach with her winter biking setup using an old beat up mountain bike that she lovingly describes as a POS. She has a studded tire on the front wheel and has the bike outfitted with fenders and lights - which she says are key.
Her husband, Joe, also bike commutes year round. They bike to work most days, but drive on occasion. Sara and Joe live in a traditional neighborhood and both work downtown providing them with relatively short commutes of about 2 miles. Living in a close-in neighborhood and being only a short bike ride from work and amenities add greatly to their quality of life.
Sara finds that she can bike to work in less time than it takes to drive. She feels a sense of accomplishment biking in the winter, finding it to be very satisfying. As we were discussing the benefits of winter biking, Sara was reminded of a book she recently picked up called Frostbike in which Canadian writer and journalist Tom Babin shares his often humorous and insightful observations on the subject.
Another benefit Sara touched on is how biking and being outside help to offset the winter blues. I’ve noticed this as well. We have very long, cold winters in North Dakota. It really takes a toll on people. Cabin fever and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are fairly common. Yet, I generally don’t find myself getting worn down by winter and attribute it in large part to biking.
Working for a bicycle advocacy organization, Sara is often asked for advice. Here are some of her tips for winter biking:
- Take the simplest route and consider the plowing schedule.
- Ride slower.
- Sidewalks are sometimes a necessity in the winter. While not ideal, don’t be afraid to use them if you have to.
- Find a buddy or mentor with experience winter riding to help you get started.
Growing in popularity
Since Sara's organization is housed at a local bike shop, I was curious to hear if she has noticed an increase in the number of people winter riding. She said there has been an uptick driven in part by more winter commuters, along with a growing cadre of recreational riders getting into fat tire bikes (they’re so much fun!).
A big part of the shift stems from more and more people wanting to incorporate healthy outdoor activity into their daily lives year round. She noted that her organization is sponsoring the B-B-BRRR winter bike race along the Red River in Fargo. This winter bike race has continued to grow in popularity, expecting over 100 riders this year.
Speaking about bike races, Aaron Kennedy also organizes a winter bike race called the Bikecicle in Grand Forks, ND where he lives and works as a professor in atmospheric sciences. Aaron started winter biking while working on his dissertation. He was too busy to make it to the gym, so getting an opportunity to exercise as part of his commute offered a great solution. Plus, after suffering a knee injury, biking was recommended for its low level of impact.
While the the chance to fit exercise into his busy life as a grad student was a nice perk, the ultimate reward was getting out from under his growing pile of parking tickets!
Aaron and his wife, Jimmie, moved into a new subdivision a few years ago making his commute longer. While biking the 4.4 miles to work, he has to take extra care to layer properly and not overdress. He doesn’t want to get too sweaty as there isn’t a shower at work.
I mentioned some of Aaron’s advice on gear and equipment in my previous piece on winter biking. He took an incremental approach, one could say, starting off by adding studded tires to a cheap beater bike before eventually splurging on a fat bike.
Aaron’s Bonus Tip: find out what routes others are taking in your city and compare with the previous year using Strava Labs’ awesome heatmaps.
Lest you think winter biking was solely the domain of 20 and 30-somethings, meet Bret Weber. Bret is 56-years young and has been winter biking for the past four years.
Bret finds bicycling to be a very efficient mode of travel. His home in the historic Near Southside Neighborhood, near downtown Grand Forks is two miles from the University of North Dakota where he and his wife, Carenlee, are professors. Often, by the time Carenlee has warmed up the car, driven to campus, found a parking spot and walked to her office; Bret has already arrived with his bike parked next to the building.
Bret frequently bikes the 3/4 of a mile from campus to city hall to fulfill his duties as a City Councilperson. There again, he is able to get there faster with his bike when parking is taken into account.
The physical and mental benefits stand out for Bret. The past few years he has participated in races such as the Iceman Winter Triathlon. Winter commuting is basically his training as he doesn’t have much spare time for a dedicated training regimen.
He absolutely loves his 2-mile ride home from work, calling it a “mini-vacation.” It's a time to unplug and decompress.
Bret identified some of the challenges inherent in sharing the road with cars. There have been times when cars have splashed sandy, salty road treatment on him while moving over to pass. He also noted that drivers tend to be overly cautious and courteous in the winter which can actually slow him down at times. But, he’ll take that over the alternative of people being mean and aggressive.
Bret echoed the advice of others suggesting studded tires, fenders, and bar mitts. While not wanting to suggest it is essential, Bret has had good luck with a two bike approach for winter riding. He has a hybrid with skinny, studded tires as well as a mountain bike with a studded tire on the front. This provides some added flexibility for dealing with the wide range of conditions winter riding can throw at you.
Finally, Bret is a shining example that the need to dress professionally doesn’t have to stop you from winter biking. He wears a suit or sport coat 3-4 days per week and has found that his overcoat actually works quite well for biking.
Too often conversations around winter biking focus on the perceived danger and discomfort. But let's not forget the many benefits. As Bret noted, even in winter, biking is still an incredibly efficient mode of transportation. Sara and Bret both touched on often overlooked benefits to emotional and mental health. Aaron's relief from parking tickets is a great reminder that bicycling is great for your pocketbook as well.