First off, let me acknowledge that all people have their limits. Mine is 10 degrees and any snow. I’ve gotten some advice from folks whose lower limit of temperature hasn’t yet been plumbed, and I’ll be upping my game soon with the addition of a balaclava. But not for a while yet: once the snow starts flying, my old retrofitted Peugot takes a berth in the garage and I’m on foot and the T until Mr. Heat Miser comes out of hiding for a while.
But lately I’ve been hearing from the Boston Cyclists Union about serious winter bikers, the kind with fat tires or studs, and the celebration of bicycling through the worst that Mother Nature can dish out (and as we all know, the bar has been raised this winter). Then I discovered that one of Bike Newton’s own, Nathan Phillips, has been on two wheels through most of the last three weeks. To drive away cabin fever just after Winter Storm Neptune has finished, and because I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering whether winter bikers are more crazy or more heroic, I’ve asked him to answer a few questions:
BN: I know you go from Auburndale to BU, but what’s your route, how far is it, and how long does it take you?
NP: I mainly use two routes which I mix up for variety. One parallels the Mass Pike, mostly Washington St. to the multi-path on Nonantum Road, and side roads into BU. The other route wends over to Beacon Street at Zervas School all the way in almost to Kenmore Square. Each route is just over 9 miles and takes about 40-45 minutes one way.
BN: Have you been biking through all weather all year?
NP: Pretty much. I bike in rain or snow. I draw the line at blizzard conditions or when there is lots of ice on the ground – which is not often the case during snow.
BN: Is this your first season of battling the snow?
NP: No, but its definitely one of the biggest. The biggest obstacle is the lack of a shoulder, so I’m sometimes forced into ‘vehicular cycling’, that is, waiting in line with the cars.
BN: What would make you say, “No way. Not today”? Has it happened this year?
NP: Blizzards or conditions favoring black ice.
BN: Any special bicycle equipment, like studded tires?
NP: I’ve just used my regular single speed commuter bike, with its normal tires. They’ve worked fine in the the slush and ground snow, as long as I ride a little more deliberately. But I’ve been eyeing a fat tire Surly over at Harris Cyclery for some time now. They told me that these bikes are popular in Alaska for snow riding.
BN: What about snow and salt buildup on the bike? Do the brakes even work?
NP: This is the part that makes me dream about Hubway coming to Newton some day. The maintenance. I do have salt build up, and while I’ve squirted the bike down with a bottle mister, it really requires more of a pressure wash, which I’m reluctant to do around the house because it will cause a frozen mess.
BN: I know I have trouble below 10 degrees, because my fingers go numb and my eyes tear so much that I can’t see. How do you keep warm?
NP: I’ve had to upgrade my gloves, and by trial and error found that wearing six layers (poly + cotton longsleeve + 3 zippered pullovers + shell) works well no matter how cold it gets. The balaclava is super important. I also having eye tearing issues; I thought about some ski goggles but haven’t done that yet.
NP: Biking is by far the most reliable way to commute on a schedule, under normal conditions and especially during these extraordinary conditions. I have no anxiety about automobile gridlock or the ailing MBTA. I feel very fortunate to have the health to be able to do this.
BN: What else can you tell our reading public about biking in a Boston Winter?
NP: With the snow, it’s better to ‘take the lane’ on narrow streets than to try to stay on the (non-existent) shoulder. I haven’t had any road rage directed at me yet, perhaps because I’m often on the tail of the car in front of me and not holding up car traffic.