Bicycling with Mark Parman
Winter riding is better now than when I was a kid
One December Sunday morning when I was a kid delivering the Des Moines Register, my bike slid out on an ice-covered corner. A dusting of new fallen snow hid the ice on the road so when my tires slid across the slippery surface then caught the pavement, I high-sided and tumbled.
The crash dumped over half of the thick Sunday papers in my steel baskets, and when they caught the northwest wind, they scattered down the block. That summer when mowing a lawn for a widow in town, I discovered a front page from one of those Registers entangled in one of her bushes.
My customers, the ones that didn't get that Sunday paper, weren't happy. I remember thinking that my crash probably ruined my chances for Christmas gifts from my route customers. No chocolate-covered peanuts for me. One of my customers was so mad when I came to collect a few days later that he threw the money at me as I stood in his front door. A quarter thrown with enough velocity does indeed sting.
Back then, I had two choices for delivering papers: walk or ride. On Sunday, I usually rode because stuffing the papers in the rear baskets loaded the bike down instead of me. The Sunday papers, with their extra sections plus the thick, glossy Christmas ads, really bit into my shoulder. So I rode, even though my bike – a coaster-brake Sears and Roebuck with skinny bald tires – wasn't much for winter riding.
Today, 30-some years later, I have a much better bike for winter riding, which is good because my body doesn't react as well as a teenager's to a fall on concrete. These days, we have much better technology to combat winter's severe conditions, so much better that I now have little excuse not to ride through the long dark arctic months. The mountain bike, although it wasn't specifically designed with winter riding in mind, has made riding year-round practical. Its wide, knobby tires, along with its longer wheelbase and lower gears, make it a much better bike than the one I crashed on delivering the Sunday paper.
This winter I'm pedaling an old Gary Fisher Mt. Tam, a 29'er I've slowly built over the years into my winter commuter. In the snow and slush, I prefer the bike's bigger wheels. It may just be psychological but the taller tires seem to go through snow and slush more efficiently than a 26-inch wheel. For winter, I mounted 29-by-2.2 knobbies, going with the widest tires in my stash. These tires have no problem with snow, even when I have to bash through the crusted snowbanks piled up along the sides of the road. I have yet to put on studded tires for the one or two days that I need them.
If the roads are particularly icy, like they are after a freezing rain, I drive my four-wheel drive truck, joining the tin can commuters and feel much safer encased in 2 tons of steel and plastic than I do on an exposed bicycle. My wife razzes me about caving and driving on icy days and says I should walk instead.
Since my commute uses some of the busiest roads in Wausau, Wisconsin, I'd rather be safe than stupid on the few really slippery winter days. It's not that I fear falling or sliding into a telephone pole. I simply don't trust the other drivers, some of whom feel that four-wheel drive, ABS brakes and air bags have rendered them invincible. If my bicycle was my only means of transportation, however, I would definitely look into studded tires.
Last year, I simplified my Fisher, installing a rigid fork and a singlespeed crank so I could run 1-by-9 gearing. The salt and crud coming off the roads wreaks havoc on the bike's drivetrain and rusts the chains and cables. So I went with a single chain ring up front and one less derailleur. I considered putting on disk brakes but decided against it since having that much stopping power on ice and snow would perhaps be a liability rather than an asset. My bike also has removable fenders and bright lights, which are imperative for riding in the winter when the dark nights start late afternoon.
But changes in technology haven't applied only to my bikes. Clothing and accessories have evolved dramatically, too. I already mentioned lights. Old-school lights were either the handlebar-mounted kind that ran weakly for a few hours on AA batteries or the generator types that used a drive wheel that rubbed against the front tire, eating away at the sidewall. After a few rides, the cords in the casing might be exposed from all of the friction.
As a kid, I didn't have Gore-Tex boots, flannel-lined jeans, lobster claw mittens and a balaclava. Or, for that matter, a bicycle helmet. I never thought to wear my Cleveland Browns' football helmet when cycling. I rode in the clothes that I had on, which in winter meant a green Army parka and Sorel boots. Because I was usually cold when I rode, I mostly gave up riding and walked. Once in a while when I was late for school in cold weather, I'd hop on my bike and pedal madly to the schoolhouse. I can still hear the crank arm clanking against the kick stand on every revolution and feel the sting of the cold though my jeans and burning my thighs. I have plenty of good memories from those days, but I don't miss the old technology.
With gas prices dropping precipitously in the past month (it's $2.32 a gallon as I write this), some commuters might be tempted to hang up their bikes in the garage for the winter, the cold and ice and darkness looming larger and more menacing than the price of gasoline. When the temperature drops into the single digits or lower, it's seductively easy to jump in the car and drive. No one would blame us.
For me, though, winter bike commuting isn't entirely about saving money or reducing my carbon output, although those are reasons enough to keep riding all year. Winter riding is also about facing the elements and winning, not letting Old Man Winter win. Maybe that's a macho Jack Londonesque way of approaching the world. Regardless, riding at this time of year makes me feel alive. It makes me feel like a kid again. A kid pedaling a much better bike.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. He bought his first serious bike, a Raleigh Competition, in 1982 and hasn't stopped riding since.