Today was a perfect day for winter cycling. The morning was relatively warm, dry, with hazy sunshine, and, a little after rush hour, traffic was sparse on the stretches of Bryn Mawr, Central Park and Elston I traveled, thinking about how different the riding was just two days ago.
If my husband's face registered surprise, when I agreed to ride over to West Rogers Park for a party, I didn't notice. I'm thinking he must have been surprised, because, while cold temperatures don't generally stop me from riding, precipitation of any kind usually does. You know, snow accumulation, falling snow, snow mixed with rain, sleet, ice, ice covered by snow, black ice, slush frozen into a bumpy ridge right in the bicycle lane, etc, etc... all those things I personally consider to be serious obstacles to winter riding.
But the day had seemed so cold and dry, and there had been relatively little light, fluffy, drifty snow in the days past, that surely, any trace of it would be gone by now. The streets would be bone dry, and, as long as we were properly dressed, we'd be invincible.
There may be places in this country where it never snows, and then there are undoubtedly places where snow is on the ground most of winter. Chicago is neither of those. Our winters are marked by sporadic, often abundant, precipitation of every conceivable type, fierce winds that blow the stuff all over the place, and temperatures fluctuating from mild, spring-like ones to positively arctic. This is coupled with somewhat unpredictable snow management strategy on the part of our city officials, who sometimes plow and salt without restraint, and other times not at all, and, in any case, focus most of their attention on major arteries, while neighborhood streets suffer from neglect, and develop treacherous patches of nearly invisible ice at every stop sign.
My first sense that things were not as I expected came as soon as I pulled out onto our own street. There were a good couple of inches of packed snow on the ground. But traction was OK, and I assumed that the city simply forgot about us again, what, with the Cook County woods facing our street, they probably lost track of who had jurisdiction. Surely, other streets would be OK. And they were, for a while. We deliberated for a few minutes at the corner of Cicero and Peterson, deciding what route to take. At my request, we decided to stick to the side streets, and avoid Devon at any cost. After all, there would be less traffic, and if we just went slowly, it wouldn't be too bad.
Well, where our street was packed snow, these side streets were covered by loose snow concealing patches of compacted stuff that had turned to ice. Well-heeled residents in their SUV's were making their way out of their homes to holiday parties, with little regard for intrepid cyclists. Chris began to note that his new windfront tights were not keeping him as warm as he had hoped. I was glad he talked me into windproof over-pants before we left the house. On the other hand, his knobby Conti Vertical tires were digging admirably through the snow, while my Double-Fighters were pushing through and gripping the snow, but they were no match for the ice underneath. After about two blocks of this, I got off and headed for the sidewalk. You know Streets and Sanitation has some work to do when residential sidewalks are better than the street.
"I don't feel safe riding." I proclaimed.
"OK, suit yourself. Let's go and get the car," agreed Chris "but we still have to bike home."
"Don't tell me what I already know." I responded huffily, and got back on my bike to pedal home.
But we had not gotten to the end of the block, when the going suddenly got easier again. The snow was deeper, more crunchy, and there was no sign of ice.
"I think it'll be OK if we just make a straight shot down Devon." I said, completely contradicting what we had just decided, and also my usual instinct about that street.
Devon turned out to be more or less of a nightmare. Although it appeared to have been plowed, patches of suspicious slush lurked around the edges. We decided to take the right lane, but just as we were making some headway, we came to a section where the streetlights were completely out. My blinkers were no help in searching out potential hazards in the road, and Chris' more powerful light had to do the work for both of us. East of Lincoln, the streetlights resumed, but traffic got worse, with cars pulling in and out of parking lots, and depositing ridges of black snow as they went. Further east still, where the Indian neighborhood begins, snow remained on the ground, and the safest place to ride was in the tracks left by cars. We got off Devon with relief, and traveled the remaining few blocks on side streets of the type I already described.
Interestingly, the trip back, with bellies full of food and warming drinks, was a breeze. Chris borrowed some lightweight track pants from our host to pull over his tights. We made a conscious decision to stay on medium-sized streets, California and Bryn Mawr, which were mostly cleared and relatively free of traffic. We were home in less than half the time it took us to get there.
- Plan your route. On warmer days, it is easy to wing it and improvise your route based on traffic conditions and your mood. In winter, it pays to carefully evaluate where you're going and what is the best way to get there.
- Carry lights capable of illuminating the road, not just blinkers. Don't rely on streetlights. Again, in winter it is not as easy to get off a poorly lit road and choose a different one.
- Dress in windproof layers that will trap warm air and help insulate you if you have to travel slower than your accustomed speed.
- Avoid trying out new items for the first time on a lengthy winter ride. Test them before you head out.
- Realize that the effects of winter weather in Chicago are very unpredictable, and even with well designed equipment and planning, you may not be fully prepared for what you encounter. If that happens, chalk that up as a lesson learned for next time.