15 January 2014

Winter Cycling: An Unpopular Opinion or: "We're Not Quite There Yet"

For those of us living life in a northern town (ah-hey-ma-ma-ma), or maybe just a normal town that has been Polar Vortexed™, we are in the throes of a mid-January freeze. It's cold out there. Many of you, defiant and free, grab your helmet and give the thermometer the finger on your way out the door-- rather have sub-zero temperatures than a strong headwind! you think to yourself, or rather out loud as you record your extreme cycling feats on your GoPro. I get it, thou art more devout than they who succumb to the temptations of the automobile. But I think this is a lot more complicated than that. Let me explain:

Recently, there's been some anti-bike sentiment coming from politicans, or maybe just more publicity about it than in years past. Everyone knows about Rob Ford, the somehow-still-mayor of Toronto who believes cycling is akin to swimming with sharks, but now the mayor of Watertown has joined the ranks with his statement that people riding bicycles during the winter should be arrested. Granted, both of these individuals are kind of idiots, but a statement from the latter article quoting a detective from the Watertown Police Dept was interesting: 
While he doesn’t agree with the mayor, Detective Donoghue said bicyclists “should not be in the road...It’s one thing if it’s a bright, sunny day; another if the weather is treacherous". 
Further on, he says:
Ice- and snow-covered roads can make it too hazardous — either a vehicle or the bike can easily veer and collide with one another, he said, noting cyclists also can cause traffic accidents involving two oncoming vehicles.
Typical motorist mindset, right? Well, he's not wrong-- his hypothetical scenario is plausible, but it always feels heavy-handed when someone makes a statement about bicycling that isn't pertaining to how awesome it is, or how it will solve all the worlds problems. Whoa, whoa, hold the phone! you're thinking; this is a bike blog, you're supposed to be on our side!

If you'll allow me to wax philosophic for a minute...
I believe there are two major factors in play: intention and outcome. Intention says that I will keep both of my wheels firmly on the road as I ride from home to the post office. Outcome says, Hooray! You made it! Intention then says, I will do the same from the post office back to my home. Outcome says, Nope! You took that turn a little too sharply; have a seat on the road. You see, the more inclement the weather, the more potential distance you have from Intention to Outcome.

"So get studded tires!" the mob shouts. "You were unprepared!"

What I lack in studs, I make up for in bungee-cord-as-arm-sling ingenuity.

What about the intentions of the motorists and snow plows, though? Do I trust their ability to minimize the distance between their intentions and outcomes sending me hurtling into the snow bank? Hell no.

What I'm saying is, if you live in a city that doesn't really experience winter (Portland, you have zero cycling fatalities and zero inches of snow), or a city that definitely does get snow, but also has a robust bicycling infrastructure (Minneapolis, Anchorage, etc.) then congrats, you don't need to worry all that much. But unfortunately, there are a lot of other cities like Watertown above or my hometown of Syracuse, NY where the snow is abundant and the concern given by motorists to other people isn't. There are days when there's just too much snow to be able to keep the streets clear, or when it does get plowed it only exposes the sheets of ice underneath. Cars can barely keep from crashing into each other, let alone even notice they hit someone on a bicycle.

Maybe someday in the future when everyone is enlightened and bike paths wind majestically through the skies of every city, it will be safe to ride all winter long, but until then I will begrudgingly get in a car when then weather calls for it. I know, such a hypocrite, but you can't ride your bicycle into the future if you don't survive the present.

Happy riding!

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