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How I Came to Love Winter Biking—and Tolerate Chicago Winters

One way to live with the slow slog of the coldest months is to ride in it, and through it.

Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

I was sad to hear that Streetsblog Chicago, the active/public transportation advocacy blog that’s long been a great resource for me, is suspending publication. It was particularly poignant because the last post before their announcement was a moving post by Olatunji Oboi Reed, the president of Slow Roll Chicago, on “Why I Fight: How Biking Saved My Life and Can Help Other Black Chicagoans”:

One day, as I sat on my couch in Chatham, crying in the dark, I summoned the will to explore an alternative to taking my own life.

A few years before, when I was living in Champaign, my dear friend Ogunsola Hammond Carter sold me a green Diamondback mountain bike for about $50. After I moved back to Chicago, I hardly ever rode the bike. However, during my moment of crisis, I felt my final option was to try bicycling as a healthy escape from my pain.

[snip]

Soon, I noticed the tranquil beach and the waves rhythmically crashing on the sand. I started to play hide and seek with the sun, as I pedaled by the trees along the trail. The rustling leaves sang a song to me, drowning out the negativity in my head. I was smiling for the first time in months.

My problems with depression have never been as severe, but they’re ever-present, no more so than in the depthless Chicago winters of the past two years. Last winter was notably awful, but this one has been bad in its own grim way, pushing historic records for the lack of sunshine. Save for the past week, it’s not been the kind of winter that seeps into your bones, but into your mood.

After biking for most of the year, I came back from a vacation in the Southwest to the endless gray and started trudging out to the bus, headphones in ears, book in my hands, building a physical and mental seal from the environment.

It didn’t work. The gray found a way in.

So I got back on the bike, as an experiment. If the sun was just going to peter out through the clouds, I’d just stay out longer to absorb it. By the time the bitter cold hit and froze off the clouds, I was grateful to be outside. (And, when I arrived at my destination, grateful to be indoors as well.)

There’s science to this—to being outdoors, to seeing nature, to cycling itself, as it relates to mental state. Cycling happened to be the most convenient way for me to combine all three into about an hour a day; it’s faster than the bus, at least for me, and warmer than walking.

But there was also something less quantifiable, less grounded in research, about meeting the winter on its own terms, living with the cold rather than against it. I was reminded of this when I read a blog post by Saya Hillman that’s been making the rounds, including in the Tribune and WBEZ. 42 of her friends left Chicago in the span of 14 months, as she was considering the same. So she did a survey. And the survey says:

We had the winter from hell. I’m not one to complain about the cold months. It’s a fact, something you know is going to happen every year. But 2013/2014 was a doozy. It never ended. The picturesque winter of fresh flakes, snowsuit sledding, and hot cocoa lasted for about a day. The rest of it was digging out dirty-snowed cars, temperature lows you were sure couldn’t be reached, and a haze of grumpiness that enveloped the city.

The weather was number one. Not coincidentally, 16 of the 22 people she asked moved to California.

This was the first winter I understood the desire, but I’m not in a position to move, even if I wanted to. So I had to do what I could. After riding four days this week, I only regretted one leg of my commute—last night, when the temperature rose but fresh snow and rush-hour traffic made the Hubbard Street bike lane impassibly slick. (To CDOT’s credit, it was in good shape this morning, and the Kinzie lane was heavily salted.)

It’s not as perverse as it looks. Properly attired, cycling keeps me warmer than walking. There are tons of good guides to how to make that happen; I especially like this one, written after a winter of biking through the polar vortex. This one’s good too, with some notes on the practicalities of riding when the bike lane is under slush.

But even that one is more elaborate than what’s gotten me through this winter, with specialized equipment like winter-biking boots and bibs, neither of which I own. I’ve cobbled together a kludgier but still effective outfit:

Feet: Rubber boots with a fleece lining; wool and liner socks underneath.

Legs: One good pair of long underwear (wool or synthetic), one budget pair of long underwear, wool dress pants.

Torso: Same long underwear combination, with a wool or fleece sweater and a mid-weight cycling jacket.

Hands: Fleece Sean John fingerless mittens left behind by a prior tenant, with those cheap ubiquitous touch-screen drug-store gloves underneath. I don’t specifically recommend Sean John mittens and actually feel ridiculous wearing them, but I haven’t managed to lose them in a decade, so it was meant to be.

Head: Balaclava topped off by a cycling hat with earflaps; ski goggles for the absolute worst days.

It’s imperfect; the boots are immense, and I haven’t licked the problem of my goggles and glasses fogging and freezing. If the guide above is any indication, there’s no good solution. The current plan is to keep them on my forehead and deploy them when necessary, and hope that necessary is equivalent to a few days per year.

Next week I’ll be riding in a fancy Italian-made Velocio jacket, the most expensive piece of clothing I’ve ever owned. It’s bittersweet, though, because I won it after donating to a Streetsblog campaign, and it’s arriving the day after the local version goes into hibernation. But I’m grateful for their work, and grateful that they went out on a post that’s a reminder of the value of biking.

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