Story and Photos by Jonathan D. Lopez – Photo Editor
Commuter bicyclists compose approximately half of a percent of Michigan’s population, but only a handful persevere through the cold and grit of the winter months. Even with the lowest gas prices in years, bicyclists can be spotted riding down snowy roads.
“I’ve just committed myself to ride everyday,” said Tim Bearup, 32, of Wyoming. “Ever since I bought (my new bike), I have not driven to work.”
This year marks his fourth winter of biking. Each week, Bearup travels around 100 miles just commuting to work. Each way is about 40 to 50 minutes in winter conditions, traveling around 13 mph.
Since last September, when he bought his Surly Krampus, the only consistent use for his car has been driving to the grocery store.
What may surprise onlookers the most is the lack of identifiably warm clothing. On the day Bearup was interviewed by the Collegiate, the windchill was 13 below zero and exposed skin could be frostbitten in 30 minutes.
Despite the arctic blast, what Bearup wore to stay warm was minimal. He had on two pairs of winter biking tights, a windproof jacket, gloves, and a face mask and goggles to protect his face.
“What I found was that I don’t have to stay warm,” Bearup said. “I have to keep the air off of my skin.”
Fortunately, finding windproof outerwear doesn’t need to be expensive according to Nathan Falls, 32, of Grand Rapids. To protect himself against the wind, he wears a rain jacket and windproof pants over his clothes for the two-mile ride to work at Central District Cyclery, located at 52 Monroe Center St NW.
“If I’m working here or I’m going somewhere, I’ll wear anything I would have normally worn underneath a standard winter jacket,” Falls said.
Despite wearing a light amount of clothing, both stay relatively warm on the ride to work from the physical exertion. Becoming too warm is dangerous when biking as it leads to sweating and getting chilled.
While facing cold temperatures can be uncomfortable, riding alongside cars is nerve-racking, especially since drivers are not on the lookout for bicyclists during the winter months.
Bike lanes are nearly non-existent as the roads narrow due to plowing and parked cars, forcing bicyclists to occupy car lanes. A common strategy is sticking to four-lane roads and side streets to avoid conflicts with passing cars.
Despite the dangers of the road, the sidewalks are typically not a better option.
“(Sidewalks will) either be really bumpy…or it’s three-quarters ice,” Bearup said.
Additionally, it is illegal to bike on sidewalks in parts of downtown Grand Rapids.
No matter how strong a bicyclist’s will may be, the weather conditions ultimately dictate his or her ability to ride at all.
“Everyday it’s a new condition,” Bearup said. “There’s a lot of planning that goes into it besides just getting out and riding.”
Bearup keeps a close eye on wind speed and direction on his phone. His thick, three inch tires are significantly affected by wind more than the narrow tires of a road bike. A strong crosswind could quickly push his bicycle into the path of a car or toward an icy shoulder.
The main weather deterrent for Falls is ice.
Some bicyclists resort to installing studded tires. While the studs give significantly more traction, it requires more effort to move forward. Regardless of how well the bicyclist is able to grip, it won’t stop a car from sliding through an intersection.
“Riding on solid ice, the biggest issue (is) that if I can’t keep a straight line, I can’t trust a car to give me enough room,” Falls said.
Given all the dangers of biking in the winter, some might ask the question: Why would anyone do it?
For some, it’s all about the experience.
“I felt that maybe I could shave a few dollars off gas here, and now … I’m to the point where I really don’t like driving and I would rather ride my bike,” Bearup said.
His passion for bikes has gotten the best of him, and has led him to purchase six bicycles, each serving a different purpose. It is a definite loss of savings, but an abundant source of entertainment that could have wound up in the gas tank of his car instead.
For others, it’s about being practical – and loving it.
“(It’s) a mixture of no parking places downtown and just enjoying being outside,” Falls said. “There is some fun, too, to go play in the snow on your way to work.”
Ultimately, both agreed that saving money wasn’t what compelled them to bike in the winter.
“It’s the ability to not be stuck on a trainer in front of my TV in the winter, and I’m still outside going places,” Falls said.
People interested in purchasing a bike suitable for all seasons have a few things to consider
Falls suggested that people interested in using cross bikes or road bikes should invest in a second set of wider rims and tires with grip for the winter.
Those interested in mountain bikes should avoid using models with shocks as salt can ruin the seal in a season or two. Some bicyclists own a second fork without shocks specifically for winter.
Last, people who believe that a fat bike will be able to plow through deep snow will be disappointed.
“You learn at some point that you’re going to have to get off the bike and walk a little bit,” Falls said.
Each bike has it’s disadvantages and advantages. The destination and desired speed will change which bike is best for the occasion.
Winterize your bike:
For individuals looking to winterize their current bikes and stay warm, here are some recommendations by Bearup and Falls:
For your bike:
– Check brakes before each ride
– Check air pressure weekly – under-inflate tires for better traction
– Wash your bike once or more per week
– Clean, then lubricate your chain weekly
– Lubricate brake and gear cables at least once per month
– Consider sealing the inside of your bike frame against rust if you own a steel frame
– Carry de-icer if your derailleur spring or brakes are prone to freezing
– Carry a plastic grocery bag for a makeshift seat cover or wind barrier in a pinch
For your safety:
– Always wear a helmet
– Wear windproof clothing, and cover everything from head to toe
– Wear clothes with high visibility colors
– Use a front and back light during low visibility conditions
– Check weather conditions before each ride
– Listen for cars and check over your shoulder every block
– Don’t ride on the wrong side of the street
– Avoid frequently unplowed roads