Biking Through the Winter

A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed by Brion O’Connor of the Boston Globe for an article about winter bicycling.  Aram Boghosian took some great pictures of me a couple of miles from my house on the Neponset Trail in Mattapan, Massachusetts. Only a few sentences from my interview appeared in the article, but we did it via email, so here it is:

Jessica biking from Milton to Mattapan on the Harvest River Bridge
Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Is there weather that you won’t ride in?
My rule is that I don’t ride in rain under 40F for fun, though I’ll ride in pretty much any weather to get somewhere like a play or work or a friend’s house. I used to stop riding when it got below 0F, but one day it got that cold while I was at work after biking in and I couldn’t stop myself from riding. As I’ve gotten older, I’ll sometimes take my bike on the T home after working late or going to an event to which I biked, but that doesn’t happen more than a few times per year. Riding the bike is usually faster in the city.

Jessica and her bike on the Harvest River Bridge.
Jessica dressed for the 30’s on the Harvest River Bridge in Mattapan
Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

What is the worst weather you pedaled in, and how did it go?
About 20 years ago, I biked home to Roslindale from a meeting near Kendall Square during a full-blown blizzard. I talked a friend into riding with me as far as Jamaica Plain. A ride of less than an hour turned into one of over two hours. We pushed our first car out of a snowbank right outside the hotel as we started off. The streets were closed. We cut through the Longwood Medical Area because we thought that the streets would be clearer. Ha! The wind was blowing so strongly across Longwood Ave. that though it kept the street clear, we kept getting pushed toward the curb. We had a tailwind on Huntington Ave. that it was blowing us so fast that all we could do was hold tight onto our handlebars and try to stay away from the trolley tracks. We had to walk up much of South Huntington as the snow had been getting deeper, but we pushed a couple of cars out on the way. I stopped at my friend’s house for some hot chocolate and to call my spouse. When I got home after pushing another car in Roslindale Square and getting warned by the police to get off the closed street, I had to lift my bike over the front fence because the gate was snowed shut. There is a video of that…

What changes do you make to your clothing to adapt to bad
Layers, layers, layers. If I have tights and jeans on my legs and a pair of socks over the tights inside of good boots, I can get by down to 10F with just a top, sweater, scarf, and a heavy, uninsulated windbreaker and a cap and/or the windbreaker hood under my helmet. I add ski goggles and a face mask if it’s much below 20F. I wore an insulated jacket a few times last winter.

Jessica wearing a wool skirt, boots, tights, and leggings
Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

What are the most susceptible parts o the body, and how do you adjust?
It’s hardest to keep my hands warm. I’ve tried all sorts of theoretically warm gloves, but after a few miles on even insulated handlebars, my hands get cold. To put off their freezing, I use neoprene Bar Mitts on my handlebars, which cover my gloved hands with space for brake levers and gear shifts under them. I currently layer two or three pairs of gloves, with wool inside and something waterproof on the outside, but the best thing for hands is to climb hills, which heats up the whole body.

What changes do you make to your bike to adapt to bad weather?
I have one bike outfitted for bad winter weather. It’s a hybrid with 700×35 tires, pretty much the same size as all of my bikes, but with studs. Tires fatter than 700×38 ride up too much on fresh snow for me to keep control in traffic. Riding upright seems more stable, and I would never keep my feet locked to pedals on slippery surfaces. If it’s just cold or rainy, I’ll ride my road or commuting bike. All of my bikes have fenders and medium tires.

Is there a “guilty pleasure” or sense of accomplishment with
biking in weather that forces most people inside?
I like being the first one on a snow-covered street when it’s really silent. I also find that as cars park further from a snow-covered curb, the right lanes of a four-lane street, such as Hyde Park Ave. in Boston, become too narrow for cars and trucks and turn into bike lanes. And the city looks really beautiful when it’s covered by fresh snow.

I must admit that it’s fun to show up places and have people be surprised that I bike, but that happens to me all year, especially if I’m wearing a dress and/or heels.

Jessica dressed for a blizzard
After enjoying a bike ride through a snow storm in in Washington, DC in March 2014

My most pleasurable winter bike ride was a

Jessica dressed for a conference
Under the winter clothing

few years ago in Washington, DC, when I biked to a national bike conference from my cousin’s house on Connecticut Ave., a broad street which has no space on the edges and is usually bumper-to-bumper cars during rush hour. That Monday, an early-morning 4-6-inch snowfall closed the US Government, so the roads were almost totally clear of *any* traffic. With my studded tires, I zipped across NW DC to the meeting in the fastest time I’ve ever made. Not too many other people biked; outside and inside pictures are here.

I’ve been logging the conditions of bike paths and lanes in
Massachusetts since 1999. These 2008 recommendations from four winter bikers in my neighborhood give some idea of the variety of ways in which cyclists survive winter conditions. In a 2004 Harvard Gazette article about me and winter biking in a former life, the author captured my ideas in better words than I told her.