Biking through Chicago’s winters

By SpencerRoush

Most year-round bikers would argue that there is nothing more invigorating than traveling down an untouched, snow-covered path with only their single tread marks cutting through the slush. As the temperature starts to cool and winter sets in, bike riders don’t need to store their bikes in the basement this year.

Many organizations and cycling advocates are creating new Chicago winter biking events and providing free maintenance classes to keep interest levels high throughout the winter months. Many bloggers are posting easy tips about how to keep hands and toes warm, such as wearing special biking gloves and coats. They also give riding suggestions to keep beginner cyclists pedaling through the winter.

Harry Wray, a DePaul University professor and year-round biker, said there has been an increase in bike riding in Chicago throughout the past few years, whether it’s to save money, exercise or to be a part of the biking community.

“I think people are seeing more people ride and it just looks like fun and kind of liberating,” said Ben Van Couvering, an avid Chicago winter bike rider. “Maybe they get tired of waiting for the bus and see people ride past them, so they just decide to get their bike out. I think it’s kind of a social contingent.”

Organizations such as Bike Winter, a group that advocates for year-round biking and hosts special events, are informing riders that they don’t need to put their bikes away during the winter months. Joshua Tack, member services/IT assistant from the Adventure Cycling Association, said winter bike riding can be exciting, but can also be more dangerous than in the warmer months because cyclists aren’t as visible.

“The traffic doesn’t expect riders to be on the road as much as they would in the spring and summer, just because there aren’t as many riders out,” Tack said. “And with the landscape being a little more dreary and bland if it’s snow-covered, visibility is more important, so you can stand out a little bit better.”

Tack suggests that beginner cyclists take shorter rides in the winter to get used to the cool temperature because he said it does take more energy to pedal when it’s cold.  He also explained buying thicker tires to help with icy conditions may be a good idea, but each cyclist has their preference.

“If it’s icy, I think studded tires are always a good idea,” Tack said. “Usually if you are out on the main roads, they’re plowed fairly well. The thicker [the tire], the better.”

Tack also said to watch for ice patches. Last year, the city didn’t plow and salt the side streets as often in attempt to save money and this year cyclists may face the same issue.

“I only fell one time last winter and it was because the city decided not to plow the side streets,” said Jami Krause, a cyclist who plans winter bike-riding events in Chicago. “When I did fall, I wasn’t hurt, it was just more embarrassing than anything. You don’t get road rash, you just kind of slide along the ice. I think it’s better than walking in the winter time because people don’t shovel [the sidewalks].”

Krause sold her car once she bought her bike more than two years ago. She said biking is the best way to get around the city if you don’t want to ride the train.

“[Winter bike riding] takes more of a commitment, but if you want to avoid the germs on the train, it’s a lot cleaner out on the roads than when you’re on the train full of hacking people,” Krause said. “So if you are really worried about germs, I would say bike.”

Krause said it takes more preparation to ride in the winter. She takes extra clothes in case she gets wet and she has to wear more layers than she does during warmer months. She also said winter biking can take a toll on the bike’s chain and cog because the salt corrodes the metal.

“I actually just bought another bike for riding in the winter time, so my nice bike doesn’t get messed up,” Krause said. “I got an old $50 bike from Craigslist.”

Krause plans on riding all winter and is planning her own cycling event called Horrible Sweater, Hot Drink Hunt on Dec. 4.

Bike riders will gather at the downtown Christkindlmarket, a popular Chicago Christmas festival, for a drink wearing their best, horrible Christmas sweater. Then the riders will travel to the North Side and end at the Lincoln Square Christkindl Christmas Market, a traditional German festival.

“I’ve been to a couple of horrible sweater Christmas parties, and I feel like any party that you’d go to on a normal basis is better on a bike,” Krause said.