Is it ever too cold to ride?

January 7, 2017

snowEvery morning as the Mass Ave neighborhood in Indianapolis comes to life, bicycle riders are part of the mix. They join walkers and drivers on their way to 8:00 a.m. destinations. Even as winter’s darkness and falling temperatures settled into place, bikes, most of them with lights, kept appearing

On a Friday morning, I watched from my window with special interest: 7 degrees by the thermometer, minus 2 with the wind chill factored in; frozen slush on the Cultural Trail that cyclists prefer, and salt-treated but damp streets.

Walkers were out, some with dogs on their morning constitutional and others with business-like bags slung over their shoulder. And cyclists? From 7:15 to 7: 35, I saw two, a smaller number than on summer mornings, but there they were. The bikes had straight bars and lights, and the cyclists were bundled up and wearing back packs.

The surprise was that they were riding on the slushy and slick Cultural Trail rather than on the street where traction was probably better. This makes me think they were commuters rather than messengers, because those who ride their bikes to make their living usually pick the streets where they can ride hard and fast.

Twenty-five years ago, when I lived in a traditional Indianapolis neighborhood, I biked three miles each way to my teaching job regardless of temperature. On the coldest morning I remember, the temperature was officially reported to be minus 20, but the roads were dry and I waited until it was light enough to see. “It’s my benign eccentricity to ride regardless of weather,” I told students.

“15 above was my limit,” a book group acquaintance told me, “when I was commuting 10 miles each way to my job in Chicago. No matter how you dress, you have to breathe that super cold air, and I worried what it would do to my lungs.”

My rule for training rides back then was 25 and sunny, and decent roads. Under those conditions, I could manage a fast hour’s ride. During my recent years in the Pacific Northwest, I upped the limits to 35 and sunny, but I also factored in the east wind that on bright winter days could whistle down the Columbia River Gorge, over snow fields, and then chill out all but the most resolute cyclists

As a short distance commuter in Indianapolis, I wore my regular suit and tie, with trench coat, ear muffs, and heavy gloves when the weather turned cold. Training rides called for warm leggings over my cycling shorts, shoe coverings, and alternating layers of short- and long-sleeved shirts and jersey above the waist. A wool scarf and a wind breaker provided added warmth and could easily be removed to avoid over-heating.

A more challenging task for a cold weather cyclist is attitude adjustment. How can you keep going out day after day when temperatures fall?

For a commuter, the secret is to make the daily trip by bike a matter of basic routine, something you do every day as a matter of course. Once I decided that I would travel to campus by bike or by foot, it was easy. The daily question was not if I would head out on my bike (or when the roads were slick, on foot). Instead, the question was how to dress to meet the current conditions.

For training rides, the attitudinal factor was somewhat different. When I didn’t have to keep riding, it was easy not to go out when weather was unfavorable. What pushed me to keep going was a basic desire to stay in shape. I wanted to be in good enough condition that I could do 100 miles any day of the year. This meant that even during the winter I had to do rides that lasted from one to three hours so that during our annual short visit with our Florida son and his family, I could do much longer rides.

Now that I am an octogenarian open road cyclist, I am experiencing a weakening resolve. Short trips to the grocery store, bank, and library and occasional fifteen-mile round trips to the Irvington and Butler-Tarkington neighborhoods are as far as I’m likely to go,  unless the temperature gets into the 40s. That’s enough to keep be in good enough condition for my annual Florida and Arizona winter break when there will be many days with many more miles.

In March, when I get back home, spring will be coming back to Indiana. Hurray!

Bicycling into winter

December 3, 2016


After living in mild climates for twenty-one years, I moved back to Indianapolis where real winter comes every year. In my former life as a Hoosier, I was able to make the seasonal shift, cycling to my teaching job all year ‘round, even on days when the morning temperatures were ten below zero. The guideline for recreational rides was twenty-five and sunny.

One dark morning this week, with a temperature in the twenties, however,  was unnerving. I have clothes that can keep me warm and OK routes on which to ride. What’s missing is the habit, the firmly implanted custom of not asking if it’s too cold to ride and, instead, checking the temperature only to decide how much to bundle up before heading out.

These days in Indianapolis, commuting is well under way an hour before glimmers of daylight brighten the dark sky. From my writing desk, I see them on the street five stories below my window: strong beams of light, some steady, some blinking, as people bicycle to work some place downtown. Not as many as on a summer day, but enough to prove that some riders keep going even as a warm fall morphs into a cold winter.

During the day as I wander around town—sometimes on foot and sometimes by bike—I see other cyclists who are riding, seemingly oblivious to forty degrees and twenty-mph northwest gusts. One day last week, when there were glints of sunshine in the sky, I was doing an errand on my bike. At a traffic signal, a man twenty-five years my junior was on his much-used bike next to me. ”It’s the only way to get around town!” he declared through the scarf that covered his face. And I agreed.

On another day, when my errands were easier on foot than on my bike, I realized that many of the cyclists I saw right then looked like bike messengers. Mostly young men, dressed in black, tight jeans or shorts, on simplified bikes with single gears and some with no brakes, they rode hard and fast; mostly on the street, but sometimes on sidewalks, darting through parking lots, little daunted by red lights or the niceties of urban traffic.

One of them showed up to make a delivery at my apartment tower just as I came home. “How many of you guys are there?” I asked, to which he responded: “Fifteen of us work for Jimmy John’s Sandwiches, and I have no idea how many more there are.”

A quick check on the internet suggests that the number is large, and it certainly must be the case that they’ll be out all winter, doing twenty to sixty miles a day, delivering goods and communications as fast as they can go. Blizzards in the air and thick ice on the streets, I suppose, will keep them in, but then the whole city will likely shut down for a few hours or days.

Since I’m a retired, self-directed writer, there’s no place where I have to go. My church, grocery store, and coffee shop are close enough to walk, and family members can come to dear old dad’s rescue when winter gets him down. But it irks me to let a mere contingency like winter keep me off my bike.

On a cold New Year’s Day in 2011, with temperature in the thirties and a cold east wind blowing down the Columbia River Gorge, I chickened out by driving ten miles to my Friday morning breakfast with the Friendly Old Fellows from my church and coffee with the New York Times at Peets Coffee and Tea. Usually I cycled down but on this morning it seemed too cold.

There at her usual table at Peets was one of the regulars, knitting while she sipped her tea. In a little while, she told me, she would suit up and join friends for a fifty-mile ride including hard climbing in Portland’s west hills.

Shamed and inspired by her example, I changed into cycling clothes as soon as I got home and out I went. Although the route I chose was only forty-seven miles long, that was close enough. The new year started with my sense of self restored.  Later that day I posted a blog entitled “Character vs. the East Wind.”

Today, however, I won’t be heading out into the coldest day of the year so far. I’ll take a nap, write this blog, and wait for the winter storm that’s coming our way. There’ll be plenty of time next week, after the first snow fall of the season, to work on character.