She called just after 5, as I was walking out of the office. We met for a beer on Halsted and caught up. Before I could stop it, I found myself whining about wanting to ride my bike but not finding the time.
"The easiest way is to just do it," she said. "Start immediately."
Good advice, I guess. One week later I was ready in my "bike gear" — sweat pants, a re-purposed nylon jacket, an assemblage of blinkies, and a pair of garden gloves. And a 10-speed I've ridden a few times, but never more than 3 or 4 miles.
It's easy to think about "just do it" when you have a mind full of beer and belly full of nacho chips. But when it's 6:30am, a balmy 21 degrees and the sun is just about to rise, it's harder to think about biking. But I did do it, and my biggest problem wasn't being out of breath or being cold — it was the sun in my eyes as I headed towards the Loop.
As I pedaled along, I noticed I wasn't alone. At all. Lots of Chicagoans were commuting to work on two wheels despite the cold. Biking in Chicago has gone from a hobby of a few to a passion for many. The city has made a conscious effort to increase cycling, and measured by the number of bike lanes and people using them, I'd say they're having some success.
And not just in the summer — a dedicated and growing contingent of cyclists are biking through the winter, too. Here are three easy tips for getting started with winter cycling now instead of waiting til May Day to bring your bike out again.
First, just do it. You don't need much more than you already have to get started. In my case, I did bike to and from the train station to train myself a little before going the distance, but a 10 minute ride to the El wasn't quite the same as the 50 minute trip downtown. A few additions to your bike help — fenders and rack or milk crate — but don't let a lack of those items prevent you from riding.
Second, dress appropriately. A quick rule of thumb is that if you're hot in your house before you leave, you're going to be hot when riding. Yes, it's true — a huge concern when winter biking is overheating, not being too cold. You'll probably be cold for the first minute or so, but after you get going, you'll feel the welcome sensation of sweat on your face despite the cool temperature. On my first day, I decided to layer a sweatshirt underneath my outer nylon jacket when I rode in. This was a mistake, and I had to de-layer about halfway through the ride because of the heat.
Keeping your body's core warm isn't too difficult, but your toes and fingers are a totally different story. Picking the right gloves could be an essay unto itself, but there are two things that are critical: enough insulation to keep your hands warm but not too much to prevent you from braking, and an outer shell to block the wind. I've found that a pair of cheap leather work gloves from the hardware store is a nice combination of cheap and warm: at $5 a pair, I don't get too bent out of shape when I lose one. Wool socks and sneakers is a combination that works for me, but you'll have to listen to your toes to pick the right shoes.
Finally, winter commuting isn't just colder than summer, it's darker. A lot darker. Since most cyclists have to share streets with cars and pedestrians, making yourself seen is key to personal safety. At a minimum, you need a white front light and a red rear light, and having more than one can't hurt. These are best purchased a bike store, since they come with hardware to mount on your bike but can be clicked out to prevent theft. (Tip: you can buy lights that strap to your helmet so you never forget to bring it with you.)
But there's no reason to stop there: having additional blinkies doesn't hurt, and won't slow you down. Also, covering your bike in reflective tape helps to catch someone's eye, but it's not a replacement for a blinkie. Some city cyclists wear a reflective vest over their regular jacket, and I've even seen a few people make stylish use of blaze orange while biking.
So the list of things to do to keep the bike love going year-round is short: dress right, stay well lit, and just get out and try it. And if that still isn't enough, the city has lots of events happening through the winter to help you find others who are sharing the bicycle fun: Bike Winter.
Bike Winter started in 1999 as an outgrowth of Bike Summer, a festival of cycling hosted for the season in San Francisco. Some Chicagoans visited San Francisco and said "Hey, we can do this too" and Bike Winter was born.
It's hard to define exactly what Bike Winter is: is it a festival? A movement? A bunch of events that happens between October and April? Bike Winter is probably all of that and more: there's a ride in December where people dress as Santa and travel to different bars; there's a trip to Milwaukee and back on the same weekend; there's a ride to protest the Auto Show; and there's a trip out the far edges of the city to hear some rockin' polka. Winter Bike-To-Work day, and social rides for fun or dinner thrown in as well.
There're plenty more events that happen during Bike Winter, but the best way to sum them up might be this: even if it's cold, you don't have to ride alone.
Unless you want to, which I often do. On that first cold day of cycling this year, I decided to take the lakefront path home instead of my usual route. I had just cut through the Loop during rush hour traffic on Friday and was grumpy after a long day at work. I finally hit the path and was zipping along when I looked out: the full moon was reflecting in the still water, and the only sound was me breathing as I raced along. It was a priceless reward for cycling, one I'm looking forward to all winter long.
Links To Other Info:
• Bike Winter in Chicago has tons of great information. The calendar has a list of all the events (check frequently since events are sometimes cancelled) as well as tips for how to dress right, dress cheaply, be seen and handle the sometimes slippery conditions of winter weather.
• If you just want to get lost in the crowd and see how others do it, Chicago Critical Mass is a great opportunity to learn about bike events in Chicago as well as meet other cyclists.
• If you want to keep your expensive bike nice and fit for the summer but are jonesin' for a ride, you might try picking up a used bike at Working Bikes. Their inventory is usually higher in the winter, and the bikes are even more affordable than walking home with a Huffy Special from Target.
• If you need help picking a route, most of the groups I've listed above have a mailing list where you can ask questions. But the city also has plenty of free bike maps, including a copy online. (If your destination is outside the city limits, the $7 for a copy of the regional bike map is well worth the money. You can order it from the Chicagoland Bike Federation.)
• Just do it!