Winter is the worst time of year to be on a bicycle. It is dark and cold. Road salt eats into your gear. Slippery surfaces call for slower speeds, and blasts of freezing wind can nearly stop you in your tracks.
Still, for many it beats jamming into a subway car or shivering outdoors waiting for the bus. You might think drivers have the right idea for getting around Boston in the winter, but they are the ones shoveling out their cars after every snowstorm, scrambling for parking during snow emergencies, and dealing with a slew of mechanical problems.
Some benefits of biking accrue no matter the weather: free parking, minimal traffic, aerobic exercise, the occasional thrill. Maybe that’s why more cyclists pedal their way through the snowy months.
“Anecdotally we see just more and more ridership every single winter,” said Galen Mook, executive director of MassBike. A survey of its members found 40 percent plan to ride year-round, Mook said.
Winter riding requires some forethought, starting with a fundamental question: Do you want a cheap and disposable winter ride, or do you want to shell out for a little more comfort and safety?
The winter takes its toll, so many people buy a cheap bike that they don’t care much about.
“It might be worth buying a beater bike,” Mook said.
There is another important factor that isn’t for sale at any bike shop: real estate.
“If you don’t have indoor storage, it can definitely do a lot more damage,” said Max Lee, a bike mechanic at Ferris Wheels in Jamaica Plain. Outdoors, moisture and freezing cold can rupture a bike’s frame similar to a burst pipe, according to Lee, who said locks also freeze up, leaving cyclists with few options.
As the winter goes on, the streets become littered with abandoned bikes shackled to sign posts and buried in snow.
“Once a bike gets plowed under, it’s pretty much dead,” Mook said. “I consider it detritus and I think it’s a burden on whoever the landowner is to clear those bikes. And I just think it’s a shame. I think bikers should be more responsible.”
The good news for anyone thinking about outfitting a bike for the winter is bike shops are often empty when it is nasty out, and staff are happy to talk about gear like fenders and outerwear.
Brakes are an important consideration. Rim brakes are common on older bikes, but they will grind salt and sand into your wheels, wearing them out. Disc brakes and other alternatives can help preserve the wheel.
A single-speed fixed-gear can be useful in the winter, because its simple parts prevent some complications caused by snow and ice.
“It’s a pretty popular bike style for the winter,” Lee said.
Riding will warm you up faster than many heating systems, but extremities remain vulnerable to the cold, so heavy-duty gloves and wool socks are useful.
It is possible to ride through a couple inches of snow or over patches of ice, but it is a different feel than dry asphalt. Do not lean into turns and make sure you have extra stopping distance, Mook advised. New riders can practice riding in empty, snow-blanketed lots, he said.
Cambridge resident Colin Durrant carries his 4-year-old daughter to school in the front of his cargo bike—unless there is too much snow, when he starts to worry about drivers skidding.
“She loves it,” Durrant said. “Cold weather is fine. You can always put on more layers.”
When street shoulders are mounded with snow, cyclists should not be shy about taking a traffic lane, and drivers tend to be forgiving in the snow, according to Mook, who said bikers should make themselves extra visible.
Snow clearing of bike lanes varies by municipality. Draft pedestrian recommendations from MassDOT say cities should make a plan to “ensure bikeways are cleared quickly after a snow event,” and MassDOT’s draft bicycle plan calls for a snow-clearing pilot program on MassDOT-owned bike routes.
Many paths in Boston are maintained by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which puts ahigh priority on clearing the Southwest Corridor and aims to clear the Neponset River Greenway within 12 hours of a storm.
Everyone has a limit to where they feel comfortable and safe riding in the winter.
That line was drawn for Cambridge resident Ruthann Rudel by a patch of ice on Mass Ave early one morning a few years ago. Rudel’s bike slid out from under her, and she wound up on the pavement on one of the city’s busiest roadways.
“Since it was so early there wasn’t really any traffic,” said Rudel.
She wasn’t injured, but the fall did have lasting impact. Now Rudel stays off her bike if there is a risk of ice on the roadway.