For Some Commuters, Winter is Easy Riding

By LIZ F. KAY/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — For some bike commuters, shorter days and colder temperatures are no reason to hang up their helmets. John Powning has pedaled from his Fox Point home to as far away as Attleboro, Mass., year-round.

“To me there’s a lot of misconceptions about bike commuting,” said Powning, 49, who is board chair of Recycle-A-Bike, a nonprofit that refurbishes bicycles.

Weather in Rhode Island rarely gets severe enough to preclude cycling, he said. “If you rode to work every single day you were physically able to do so … the number of days you would get caught in torrential rain would probably be under five times. Maybe it’s raining, but it might be sprinkling.”

Barrett Hazeltine, a professor emeritus at Brown University, agreed. “It’s not nearly as much of an adventure as people seem to think it is,” said the 80-year-old, who has been biking the eight blocks from his home on the East Side for about three decades. “It is certainly much much easier than a car and much much easier than walking.”

Car Free in PVD blogger James Baumgartner enjoys his 5-mile roundtrip commute from Wayland Square to his downtown office. The 37-year-old said cycling is cheaper, more convenient and helps him stay in shape, in addition to its lower impact on the environment.

“It’s more fun for me in an urban setting than it is driving a car,” Baumgartner said.

Smithfield resident Betty Bourret, another Recycle-A-Bike board member, really looks forward to her 4-mile commutes along country roads to and from Alexion Pharmaceuticals.

“It really relaxes me on the way home,” she said. “No matter what happens at work, I can roll down that hill and it makes it all better.”

But the cyclists agreed that preparation definitely makes the ride a lot smoother. Here are some of their tips to get rolling:

Take a test ride. Pull out your bike and test your proposed route on a weekend or off day, when you’re not under pressure to punch in or look presentable. Also get some experience in inclement weather.

“If you want to try riding in the snow, go to a park somewhere where it’s safe to do it,” Powning said.

Baumgartner suggested that newbies could practice riding short segments of their commutes, gradually working up to the full distance.

Modify your route or timing. If hills or heavy traffic would make your bike commute unpleasant, switch it up. Baumgartner adds more than a mile to his one-way trip to avoid scaling College Hill, and he also has recalibrated his routes in the past to avoid steep declines, where a potential fall might occur at a higher speed.

He also said some might choose to stick to streets with less traffic to minimize the chance of falling near a car.

Hazeltine times his commute to avoid crowds around the Wheeler School on Hope Street, which he passes in the morning. On her way home, Bourret takes a detour through the Bryant University campus. It makes the trip longer, but she said it’s more pleasant.

Bundle up. Cyclists should never leave home without a helmet, but the need is particularly pressing on potentially slippery winter roads, Powning said.

Powning wears either a headband or, on colder days, a balaclava to keep warm. He adds a facemask in the coldest or windiest weather.

Baumgartner recommends layers, just as you would wear for other outdoor winter activities. “The risk of overheating is worse than being too cold,” he said.

The blogger slides waterproof pants over his regular pants and wears waterproof shoes on rainy days. He wears a very thin liner under his helmet when temperatures fall to the teens.

Powning and Baumgartner also rely on lobster gloves — three-fingered gloves that provide some of the warmth of mittens without sacrificing the dexterity needed to shift gears.

Bourret keeps her hands warm using bar mitts — covers that fit on her handlebars over the brakes and shifters. “They have saved my hands and have actually allowed me to commute on colder days,” she said.

For commutes less than 5 miles, street clothes would probably be fine, Powning said. But with his longer trips, he would wear full spandex cycling clothes. Powning also recommended keeping changes of clothes at one’s job.

Bourret also adds a waterproof jacket, warm socks and shoes. She packs a different shirt and socks to change into once she reaches the office. Baumgartner leaves his dress shoes at the office and changes into them once he gets there.

Baumgartner said he tries to keep track of the weather forecast, but he also leaves an emergency backup rain jacket at his office in case he needs it for his return trip home.

If you need to transport a laptop or other items, cyclists use panniers. Powning recommends wrapping items in several plastic bags — especially thick, plastic trash compactor bags — to create a waterproof barrier.

Gear up your bike.Install fenders to prevent the “skunk stripe” stain running down your back when riding on wet roads, Baumgartner said. “The fenders keep the water from coming up from the road and splashing up on me,” he said.

He added that he used studded tires to add stability when he was commuting in Edmonton, Alberta, but hasn’t needed them for Rhode Island winters.

Baumgartner relies on an older, more upright Ralley three-speed that he has designated as his “rain bike” for messier winter commutes. “If I were to slip, it’s easier to put a foot down. It’s more stable,” he said.

Powning also recommended a mountain bike, which would have a lower center of gravity and fatter tires with tread that can provide traction in snowy conditions as well as negotiate the potholes of city streets.

Light up the night. Inevitably, you will be leaving for or from work in the dark, so make sure you are visible to drivers and others from all directions.

Powning recommended that cyclists take special care to be seen from the side, with lights that attach to the spokes or screw onto a valve stem. Bright colors are also important. Powning usually selects “something obnoxious … almost painful to look at” for his outer layers.

Bourret uses reflective bands on her legs and feet, which help drivers identify her as a cyclist in the dark.

Be flexible. Even some of the most avid bike commuters avoid riding on a few days.

Bourret said it makes sense to avoid cars when it’s snowy or when road crews have sprayed sand, which makes it difficult to stop.

For Baumgartner, those days are few and far between — only six total last winter, he said. “For the beginning commuter, don’t feel like you have to do it every day,” he said. Riding the bus or driving on the toughest days is fine. However, “the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel doing it in inclement weather,” he added.

Enjoy it. Most of the cyclists said they keep riding through the winter because it’s a pleasure, not a chore.

“Make it part of your day that makes you enjoy your day,” Bourret said. “Don’t make it something that makes you more nervous.”

Bourret, 64, said she loves the feeling of freedom, of being in control that cycling provides. She also enjoys it when coworkers ask, “You biked today?”