Bike at snowy bike rack

Staying Safe in the Snow

Brooking photo

John Brooking,
February 2, 2015

I commute by bicycle year-round in Maine. When I first started, I didn’t ride in the snow, but over the years, I have challenged myself more and more until, these days, I’m willing to ride through almost anything. When you do this, one of the first things you learn is that people think you’re crazy. They offer you rides. I sometimes get the distinct impression, though they never say so, that they think I’m being irresponsible by choosing to ride in the cold on slippery roads. (Maybe you, dear reader, think the same!)

Recently, someone at my office confided in me that she was behind me during part of my commute, saw me fishtail, and worried that I might slip right under her wheels. (She was giving me plenty of room.) She also mentioned that other people had expressed concern about me to her, asking if I didn’t have any other options, and could they help out somehow?

I don’t want to minimize their concern. Whether I agree it is warranted or not, given that I’ve been doing this for over 10 years now and don’t feel that I’m taking inappropriate risk, I appreciate their letting me know. So I wrote this essay hopefully help put their minds more at ease about me, and to explain further why it’s important to me to do this.

Things I do to mitigate risk on snowy days

  1. Sometimes I do work from home. I have the technology, but it is not really encouraged at my company, and I don’t want to treat myself any differently than if I drove a car. It depends on the storm, and part of my decision is if everyone else on my team says they are going to work from home, I usually “join them”. For example, I worked from home during the major blizzard last Tuesday 1/27 (over 2 feet of blowing snow in one day). It helped that I was only doing online training that week, so there wasn’t much reason to come into the office just to sit by myself in a conference room all day when I could just as easily do that from home. On that day, I really did feel like I was doing everyone else a favor by staying home. (And that would have been true for driving a car, too.)
  2. I have a bike with studded tires which I use when the roads are bad. As I write this, I’ve been using it continuously for two weeks. Although I might still fishtail in loose brown slush, because even studs have a hard time getting traction in that stuff, I have never gone down using those tires.

    SnowyStreet

    Can you find the cleanest path down this street in front of my house? (Click to enlarge)

  3. I ride more slowly when the roads are bad, just as when driving a car in such conditions. I’m aware of the need to take turns carefully, without leaning, and to begin braking sooner than usual. I start up from a stop more slowly, to avoid fishtailing caused by spinning my back wheel.
  4. I “ride big“, further into the lane for better vantage around piles of snow on the corners, and to give myself room to move around to find the smoothest position in the travel lane. That is usually a car tire track; shoulders are usually completely unusable during a snowstorm. I make it clear by my lane position and sometimes with a “stay back” motion when I feel passing would be unsafe. I also communicate turns, slowing, and “thank you”.
  5. When there is a lot of traffic behind me on a narrow two-lane road, I will sometimes pull off the road and let them pass before continuing. This is especially the case when the road surface is bad, and there is oncoming traffic that would prevent passers giving me enough room. If you don’t bike, you may not realize that cars tend to bunch up, with gaps between them. By letting a bunch of cars pass, I can then have the road to myself for a while afterwards. It also averages out the inconvenience between me and those around me. I’ve done this on average once per trip for the last week or so. I often do it before I start up a hill where my friend saw me fishtail, but then traffic sometimes catches up with me before I get to the top anyway.

    SnowyCorner

    Can you tell if a car is about to pull out of this parking lot? (Click to enlarge)

  6. Of course I use lights at night, including a headlamp this winter, and I always wear a fluorescent yellow jacket on my commute. There are reflective bits on my jacket, side bags, and boots, in addition to the bike reflectors. I also turn on the lights when it is snowing or raining. I’ve never had any evidence that I was difficult to see. To the contrary, almost all who pass me give me plenty of room (partially because if they can’t, I actively hold them back until they can).
  7. My route is only about 5 miles each way, with opportunities along the way to stop and go inside somewhere to warm up if I need to. (And sometimes I do, if I haven’t gotten the clothing quite right that day, although usually I’m fine. Even at sub-zero temperatures, I can be fine with the right clothing. And remember, I am exercising.) The route is also well-traveled, especially during rush hour when I am there, so if anything were to happen, there would be plenty of people to stop and offer assistance.
  8. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, I wear a helmet too.

On a recent frigid day after a snowstorm, I utilized all of the above precautions except #1 at least once!

Other options, and why I (usually) don’t take them

I gave away my personal car in 2006. My family does still have one car, and I know my wife would give me a ride anytime I asked her. In fact, in the past she has asked, but I almost always refuse, so I think she’s learned to stop asking. 🙂

To go home, I have multiple co-workers who dependably offer me a ride on bad days, so that would not be a problem either.

So why don’t I take advantage of getting rides?

Contrary to what I suspect most people assume, my primary motivation for bike commuting is not fitness or recreation. Those are both nice benefits, but if they were my primary motivation, it would probably not be worth stubbornly riding in a snowstorm! So, why?

Personality profiles I have taken, notably the Myers-Briggs test, type me as someone who places a lot of emphasis on ideas, and on working out solutions to problems. I think this personality has a lot to do with why I have taken to bike commuting in such a dedicated way.

I’ve never liked the idea of commuting by myself in a car. I did it for years, but it has always seemed inefficient (a car engine is only about 30% efficient to begin with, and most of the rest is dedicated to moving the car itself), and unsustainable in the long term due to the climatological, political, and supply problems associated with petroleum use. I previously had some association with bicycle commuters in Cleveland, Ohio, and always wished I could do that. Now that I can, I am thrilled with the ability to get around under my own power, instead of being dependent on petroleum. Not only have I found a personal solution for petroleum-free transportation, there are many other advantages to bicycling for transportation, such as its being way cheaper than owning and operating a car, and not worrying about getting stuck in a snowbank (unlike many motorists recently). There are even more issues in bicycle transportation which engage me in other ways, such as engineering (road design), sociology, and history, but there is not space to get into all of that here.

On a high level, I see my bike commuting as gaining experience which I can then use to promote bicycle transportation from the viewpoint of a knowledgeable participant, which I do by my involvement with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and various municipal committees and officials, and by teaching cyclists how to be safe in traffic through this CyclingSavvy curriculum.

At the day-to-day level, many travel conditions which would cause most people to give up on the idea of using a bicycle that day, to me are challenges to figure out how to overcome. And over the years, I have. I have learned a lot about how to dress for different conditions, how to be visible, and how to navigate challenging traffic and road surface conditions. When I am offered a ride home on a snowy or rainy day, part of my stubbornness in refusing is that I have in fact prepared for riding that day (well, usually), and who wants to waste good preparation?

I know the number of us who will do this is will always be small, but I believe it is nonetheless viable for those of us who are willing, and I wish to treat myself and be treated by others no differently than if I drove a car. That’s what I’m always striving for.

If you ride in the winter and know people who are concerned about you, or you are one of those people concerned about a friend, family member, or co-worker, I hope this helps address your concerns. Please drive safely, and know that I am too. 🙂

Bike at snowy bike rack

Safe at work!

7 replies
  1. Tim Potter
    Tim Potter says:

    Excellent post John. I appreciate you writing that up; most of your observations apply to me as well and I’m guessing to many of our fellow winter bicyclists out here. Looking fwd to reading more of your thoughts about cycling.

  2. John Brooking
    John Brooking says:

    Thanks, Tim! Your name is familiar; I’ve probably seen it on Facebook, where I converse a lot more frequently than I post here. “Cyclists Are Drivers!” or “Bicycles Belong in the Travel Lane” groups? Feel free to Friend me, https://www.facebook.com/john.brooking.4 .

    All, here’s a related post, regarding the reaction of others to cycling safety, that just came across my feed this morning:

    http://www.spokesmama.com/2015/02/dont-call-me-brave.html

  3. Sandrine
    Sandrine says:

    Thank you John.
    We do not get snow here in Santa Cruz but I am always wanting to learn and have been talking with a few people about their options about snowy weather, so I thought I’d take a look at your post.
    Great advice. I will make sure to share.
    Sandrine.

  4. Julie Silverman
    Julie Silverman says:

    I appreciate your dedication, determination and teachings to keep all cyclists on the road year round. Thank you John for doing everything to help preserve our planet.

Comments are closed.