Winter cyclists brave the cold
in search of thrills (and chills)
Dave Glowacz, a.k.a. Mr. Bike, has done just about everything a guy can do on a bike, including commuting, shopping and even dating.
But last winter, the author of Urban Bikers' Tricks and Tips had a revelatory biking experience: He rode onto the surface of Lake Michigan in the dead of winter. The water had frozen, melted and then frozen again, forming a slick, bumpy crust.
"It was like bicycling on waves that were frozen in place," he says. "I've never bicycled like that before or since. It was hysterical."
Riding a bike during winter might seem at best a little odd, and at worst life-threatening. But dedicated winter cyclists insist that they don't ride in the cold to earn extreme-athlete stripes or just because they have no other choice. Instead, they keep riding simply because it offers unique challenges, and, surprisingly enough, because they just plain enjoy it.
"If you like riding bikes at all, it's just as fun to do it in the winter," says Sarah Kaplan, a bicycle delivery driver and part-time instructor at West Town Bikes. "It's going to be cold anyway. You can be cooped up somewhere, or you can ride a bike."
This year, Kaplan is cochair of Bike Winter, a loosely organized collection of winter cycling events found on the website www.bikewinter.org.
The concept of Bike Winter began as a lark among a group of dedicated Critical Mass riders. In 1999, some Chicago cyclists traveled to San Francisco, that year's host of BikeSummer, a roving celebration of bike culture.
Upon returning to Chicago, these cyclists joked about the event being too easy. After all, anyone can ride a bike during the summer—only the intrepid keep going when the frigid wind blows in off the lake.
Eventually, some of the more dedicated members of the cycling community decided this was more than just a joke. Ideas were batted around, a website was created and Bike Winter was born. To help keep each other motivated and attract other riders, organizers put together a calendar of events, including monthly Critical Mass Rides and the jolly consumer-culture protest Santa Rampage, in which cyclists dressed in Santa Claus or elf suits and rode together through North Side shopping districts.
Over the years, the number of events and participants grew. Annual traditions now include snow rides (any time more than two inches of the white stuff falls, a group gets together in a local park to play in the powder); a Bike Winter musical benefit show at the Hideout; and the Frozen Snot Century, a two-day, 200-mile ride to Milwaukee and back.
It might sound miserable, but Glowacz summarizes winter riders' prevailing opinion when he says, "It ain't as hard as it looks."
Glowacz counsels the curious about winter cycling essentials: "People need three things: They need the right clothing," he says. "They should know how to take care of their bike. And they need encouragement."
The best place to get started is at one of many Bike Winter classes or workshops, which teach riders how to dress (in light, synthetic layers that can be removed once your body warms up because of the exertion of riding), how to maintain a bike (lube your chain and other moving parts more frequently than usual, to counteract the corrosive effects of salty slush) and provide lots of support.
"As I learned when I wrote my book, urban bikers are a huge repository of tips and tricks," Glowacz says. "People share their secrets, and you see that they're not spandex-clad Lance Armstrong wanna-bes. They're people just like you. It makes you think, If they can do it, I can do it."
Riders who take the plunge almost always become eager converts to the joy of winter riding. "Everybody who grew up in winter climates probably played in the snow," Glowacz says. "There's no reason you can't do that as an adult."
The first ride of Bike Winter, the Pilsen Circular Mass, takes off from Tenochtitlan Plaza on Friday 18. See listings this week and throughout the winter for event details, or visit www.bikewinter.org.