Pedaling through winter on a bicycle built for one

Now, some might say, biking in this city in winter may not be the most logical, or sensible, activity. Or, it's plain stupid.

Published January 13, 2008 by Boston Globe  
By Ethan Gilsdorf

In summertime, biking makes sense – sunshine, warmth, the body's direct contact with the elements. I love the feel of wind on my face and arms, sweat cooling my brow, and sensing the thinness of me and my vehicle compared with the hulks of cars closing in around me. I love the rapidly changing sensory amalgamation of city sights, sounds, and smells that pass as the motion of my legs propels me to where I want to go.

Now, some might say, biking in this city in winter may not be the most logical, or sensible, activity. Or, it's plain stupid. But for someone like me who chooses not to own a car, it's a necessary part of my daily transportation mix. I'm not a biker for sport; I don't race. My bike gets me around Boston. When I'm not walking or taking the T (or mooching rides off friends), I'm pedaling my black Gary Fisher mountain bike from Tufts to Porter Square, from Harvard to Kendall, or from the Common back to Somerville. Even when it's 20 degrees out, in an inch of snow, or worse.

I've managed to maintain a car-free lifestyle during the three years since moving here – even if the most recent Bicycling magazine survey ranked our city as one of the nation's three worst for bicycling. Biking does save on expenses, but for me, it's less a practical issue than a physical expression of who I want to be on this planet – low impact, small carbon footprint, and alive to the world.

The last time I owned a car was nine years ago in rural Vermont, where being carless can mean no work and no social life. Here in Boston, biking is part of my social life. Why shouldn't that include winter?

Getting out, except on those rare warm winter days, simply requires a little more fortitude, or foolhardiness, and the right gear – mainly a windbreak shell and waterproof pants for wet conditions. I don't go for hardcore gear like a neoprene skiing face mask or neck gator, but some winter bikers swear by them. For me, the experience isn't about staying perfectly warm in a Gore-Tex bubble. I like to face the elements – literally.

For urban dwellers, January, February, and March rarely inspire us to rise from our couches and absorb nature's sting. I don't mind if my hands get cold. To feel brisk air biting my face is to be alive in this deadening season. The first sloppy snow storm of December, I was biking from Ball to Union squares through 3 inches of slush, getting ridiculously and blissfully soaked.

I love pulling next to fellow bikers at stoplights (when they stop at all, that is), and having 10-second conversations about the inclement weather we happen to be slogging through.

"Hey," I say, "cold enough?"

"Naw," the other biker says, "I like this weather." Her breath puffs from behind a scarf that barely conceals her smile. I smile back. And off she goes. I love that instant camaraderie.

In the warmer months, car drivers glance over at me from inside their glass and metal boxes, as if to say, 'Oh, look, how cute. He's trying to race me down Mass. Ave." (Car owners: I am, and I often smoke you.) Not to say that all drivers are pleased with sharing the road – and given the Boston biking community's tendency to ignore traffic laws, I can hardly say I blame them. But I tend to get mostly kind nods from those whose eyes I manage to meet.

Winter's another story. The driver's begrudging tolerance of bikers or mild annoyance with them turns to admiration or outright disbelief.

"That guy must be crazy," I can read in drivers' faces as they see me doing 20 down Beacon Street in a stiff headwind, weaving around patches of black ice.

For bikers, our passion transforms to near zealotry. We're self-propelled extremists.

My New Year's resolution: Be less judgmental of car owners, and check my self-righteousness at my basement door before I strap on my helmet, snap up my jacket, and carry my bike through the snow.

My resolution for my fellow bikers: Buy a bike light, wear a helmet, and please stop running red lights. Respect the rules of the road and drivers will respect us.

The bicycle is a clever invention. It's both a transportation machine and a way of interacting with the world. Pumping madly over the Longfellow Bridge, I feel part of the urban hum. In winter, biking brings me closer to the city.

Plus, I desperately need the exercise.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.