Freezing rain vs. 50 degrees: What determines weather you ride?

Plenty of parking spaces at the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office last Friday when the temperatures were in the single digits.

 

I was glad to have my studded tires for my ride to work Monday morning. The temperature was 30 degrees when I pedaled out of my driveway, and the roads and trails were icy from all the sleet we had Sunday. Perhaps the freezing sleet and cold morning put people off biking to work, but only two other people in the Bike Fed’s Milwaukee office of 7 biked in to work.

Similarly, when the temperatures were below zero and in the single digits last week, I was the only Milwaukee staff person who choose two wheels over four. Even Jake, who bikes everywhere he goes, bailed when the windchill was -15 to -25. I guess he is a 363 day a year commuter.

Monday the mercury climbed into the 40s during the day and listened to my studded tires buzz on the bare pavement as I rode to a lunch meeting. I even rode without a hat and bare hands.

 

How much longer will I need these studded sneakers? Any groundhogs out there wanna make a prediction?

By the time I left the office at 6pm, all the snowmelt had frozen again, creating what would have been a treacherous commute home without my Nokian A10 studded tires. Nick Ginster (from Fyxation on the first floor of our Pedal Milwaukee Building) was leaving at the same time as me, and he told me he just ordered a pair of studded tires like mine for his Quiver Road commuter bike (very sweet btw).

 

Nick Ginster rides by one of the Saris bike racks outside our Milwaukee office.

Today, although it was raining a bit in the morning, it was much warmer. I took the opportunity to stop a bunch of times on my way to work to photograph the thaw along the Hank Aaron State Trail and the Menomonee River. As mini icebergs floated past me down the burgeoning Menomonee River, I wondered if  Nick had just jinxed himself by ordering studded tires late in the winter season. Will we see enough icy commutes yet this winter to make his purchase worthwhile?

Ice cubes for a giant cocktail?

Unseasonably warm rain washed all snow (and road salt) into the river.

When I got to the office around 8:30 a.m., Nick sped past me while I was taking the photo of the water drops clinging to the cut-outs of the Bike Fed logo on our branded Saris bike racks. When I got inside, there were only two hooks open on the indoor parking rack at our office. The weather was rainy, but it is supposed to get up to 57 degrees today. That made me wonder how much weather conditions affect people’s choices to bike to work.

I haven’t had the option of driving to work for about 15 years, so I just have the mindset that I ride no matter what the weather is. Snowing? I ride. Wind gusts of  70 mph? Fight the headwind, enjoy the tailwind. Freezing rain? That’s why the Finns invented studded bicycle tires!

I’ll admit it, I am a bit more single-minded that most people who ride bikes for transportation. Even so, I wonder if we can shift the paradigm so more people see biking in all weather conditions as an option. It is harder to drive in bad weather, but unless there is a blizzard, people never consider not driving. I guess we still have work to do to make more people understand that with a little thought and clothing that fits the conditions, a bike ride to work in the winter need not turn into a Shackleton Expedition.

 

Only one parking space available at the office today, and our fearless leader Kevin gets a pass because he has a broken collar bone.

 

While the weather is rarely as severe in Copenhagen as it is in Wisconsin, they do have cold and snow. Certainly more people there take transit when the weather is challenging, but they still make biking in snow and cold look pretty easy. It also helps that they prioritize clearing the snow and ice from the cycletracks. People there always know that their route will be plowed. The video below shows how cycling done no matter the weather and can be done in regular clothes. Regular readers will recognize it as from one of my favorite blogs, Copenhagen Cycle Chic.

 

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

9 thoughts on “Freezing rain vs. 50 degrees: What determines weather you ride?

  1. Hi Dave,

    Great perspective on weather and bicycling. That said, do you think the typical bicycle commuter checks out the mainstream weather forecast when deciding to bicycle?

    • Hey Greg,

      I don’t know if people check the weather. I certainly know the weather report is the most watched portion of any news show. Heck they have a channel dedicated to it so people can watch the weather all day long if they want.

      I think having a good selection of weather tested clothing and knowing what keeps you warm and dry is the other side of that coin. I have thrifted London Fog trench coats and expensive Gore-Tex rain suits with zippered vents. I have clipless and non-clipless footwear for any temperature. Between my Bar Mitts and a zillion pair of gloves and mittens, my fingers are warm 365. I collected all that stuff over the last couple decades, but I think most people who live in Wisconsin have something for all weather.

  2. I don’t have 17 years of not driving to work, just a short 2. But if I need to get to work, it is the bike that takes me. So, you’ll find agreement here.

    I work at home in foul weather when I can (just as when I drove), but tomorrow, with 1-3″ of snow in the forecast? I need to go in, so it will be the mountain bike with studs. Thankfully, the HAST is clear down to the pavement so most of the ride will be off the road.

    Studded tires. Snow tires. Warm clothes. Oddly, the same people who ski are the same people who make comments about riding in the cold. No different, really.

    • Cool Cassandra, it is good to hear you have the studded mtb tires on your bike so you feel comfortable riding in what winter tosses at us in Wisconsin, but working from home is a great option to avoid foul weather if you can.

      It took me several years of sprained wrists and separated shoulders to finally get the studded tires. They are not a requirement, many people prove that biking on regular tires every winter, but I’m so glad I have them now.

  3. It’s great to encourage people to ride in cold weather. But I think it’s got to be an individual decision, with no guilt trip if the decision is to bag the bike and drive. Even in Copenhagen, bike ridership drops off in cold weather. The key is providing infrastructure – giving cyclists safe routes in all weather, preferably with protected bike lanes on major routes. Oh, and lanes that are cleared of snow and ice, the same way roads are.

    • Absolutely, no guilt. My interest in the answer to this question is from an advocacy standpoint. What more can the Bike Fed do to encourage people to ride in all sorts of weather. That is partly why I used the Bike Fed parking rack as an example. If most of our staff does not ride in challenging weather, is it reasonable to expect others to do so? As you mentioned, prioritizing the snow clearing of bikeways, and just having a great network of protected bikeways is key. They already have that in CPH. The other key thing they have, or rather don’t have, is convenient and inexpensive parking for cars. Take the huge amusement park Tivoli in Copenhagen. They don’t have a public parking lot. If you want to go there, and thousands of people a day do, you have to walk, bike or take transit.

      There are lots of things that factor into people driving vs biking. I do think it helps to discuss them and try to identify the factors.

      • about the snow clearing…..I just want to give a big thumbs up to MKE for taking care of the streets and bike ways. Although we haven’t had much snow this year, each time we did I found the raised bike lane plowed along with S. 2nd by the time I left to go to work. When relating this to a coleague in Madison I was jealous that they couldn’t clear the snow as well. We (MKE) might not have as much infrastructure as our Madison friends but what we do have we maintain well…all the paths and trails wont do you any good if they’re covered in 6 inches of snow…so thank you again Milwaukee DPW :)

  4. Yes, no guilt. Sometimes the better part of valor, is just to walk away. But, I think the point is to realize that people do and can bike in all weather. And sometimes encouragement and a “you are not alone” is all people need. There is nothing like riding below zero to make you really appreciate a 50 degree rain. Oh wait. Let me try that again. There is nothing like riding in bad weather to make you really appreciate that perfect early spring day.

    One thought that crossed my mind as I was biking in this AM seeing all the people who walk to the bus stop and stand and wait for the bus. If you can handle that, you can dress to ride…and, quite frankly, if you’re riding, you’ll stay a whole lot warmer.

  5. Thank you, as always for the great posts!
    I’m in my 3rd year of bike commuting, each year driving fewer and fewer days. This was the first winter I was able to bike during. I don’t have any special tires, so I only avoid weather when my not-knobbies are a liability. They handle the slushy roads pretty well, though.
    That said, I’m noticing superficial rusting for the first time on my (likely to need replacing anyways) chain, and running into freezing brake cables sporadically. I am really sorry I wasn’t able to attend the Winter Cycling event that was held a few months ago, because I’m looking for good advice on winter bike maintenance. My LBS (not naming names, but it’s in Tosa, on North Ave) generally advises against riding in the winter due to the toll it takes on bikes. I love my current bike and don’t want to beat it up unduly, but I don’t know if my money is wasted in trying to get my old Huffy mountain bike into working order.
    Dave, you’re a great inspiration to many, and I know you’re doing things right – would you mind sharing some winter bike care tips with us? I’d like to continue riding *and* keep my bike running well. If you do find the time to share, be assured I’ll be reading it.

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