A Clean, Calorie-Burning Commute

with the right attitude and equipment, biking can be a wintertime adventure

Bob Eierman, photos by Andrea Paulseth


My morning preparations are complete so I head out to the garage to mount up for my bicycle commute to work.

I’m wearing long johns, boots, a warm coat, a scarf and my insulated gloves. I open the garage door and inspect my winter bike, adding a bit of oil to the chain. I Velcro on my ankle band, put on my clear plastic glasses and slip on my helmet and cinch it tight. I step out into the brisk, barely double digit temperature and push the button on the clicker in my shoulder bag to close the garage door. It is dusky so I turn on the flashing lights, front and rear and on top of my helmet. As I mount my bicycle and push off, I note the crunching of the snow beneath my studded tires and I’m off on my morning adventure.

My motivations for commuting by bicycle, even in the winter, include an array of issues. Riding is convenient for me because my route is fast and safe and my three-mile door-to-door commute time is almost the same on bike or by car. I can park right next to my workplace for free, every single day. I get some good exercise, and I feel awake and invigorated when I arrive. I also save money by bicycling to work.

“It is also an effective way to incorporate exercise into your daily routine: You can’t really skip your commute, so if you’re riding, you can’t skip your workout, either.”

The street where I live is secondary, so it is covered in ice and snow, making my initial moments of riding a time to focus on balance and direction. As I begin to get a pedaling rhythm going, I am aware of the bumps and small slips of my bike, but the studs do their work, and I move straight ahead through the snow and ice. A few minutes into my ride, my internal heater kicks in and I feel the warmth build underneath my coat. My exposed cheeks begin to sting a bit, but soon the equilibrium of inner heat and outer cool is established and I start to feel good. As my speed picks up, the moving air tries to slip under my glasses to stimulate tears to form in my eyes, but the protective lenses help me blink them away.

Getting the right equipment and apparel has been key to making my commute comfortable. I wear layered clothing depending on the weather and usually shed a layer or two when I get to work. I wear a stocking hat or balaklava under my helmet and wear clear plastic glasses to avoid tears from obscuring my vision. I have thick warm gloves and wear long underwear and/or rain pants on my legs for warmth. I have lights on my bicycle, front and back, and a helmet light, all of which are LEDs and operate in either steady or flashing mode. My winter bicycle is a used mountain bike with fenders and a studded tire on the front. The studded tire keeps the bicycle steady even under snowy and icy conditions; they are remarkable and only cost between $50 and $70 apiece. I keep the chain and shifters oiled and try to wipe off the bike when it is wet and salty. Winter biking is hard on the equipment.

Moving into the more populated streets, I watch every car and truck I encounter, always assuming that I am invisible. I am comfortable today because the traffic is light, but I stay vigilant. My route has several blocks of low-traffic streets then one busy crossing before I get to the bicycle trail. I stay to the right today, but snow and ice build-up pushes me out into the traffic lane for a block or so. There is only one driver who doesn’t see me, and I avoid him by moving into the deeper snow and shouting a bit. I cross Clairemont Avenue with the traffic lights and do so with care, finally arriving on the Clairemont bike trail where I’m out of the vehicular traffic.

Winter biking is more challenging from a safety viewpoint than summer biking. Drivers don’t expect bicycles to be out so you are more invisible in the winter. That makes it imperative to ride defensively. I seek out the eyes of the drivers to make contact to aid their recognition that they are sharing their commute with a two-wheeled traveler. In addition, it is more often dark out during winter commuting times so lights and reflective clothing are important. It is also important to select routes that avoid busy streets and to use streets that are well plowed. The edges of roads are ice and snow covered in winter making it necessary to take a driving lane more often in winter. Routes with lower traffic levels make that more doable. In addition, snow removal for bicycles usually lags a day or so compared to removal for motor vehicles, so that makes it advisable to be prepared to blast through unplowed routes or travel by another mode during or just after snowfalls.

Once on the Clairemont bike trail, I continue my progress “far from the madding crowd.” My solitude is broken by the occasional fellow clean commuter and by the busy cross streets. I move carefully with the traffic lights and always, always fully monitor the left-turning traffic that flies around the corners oblivious of bicyclists. There are snow bumps in the intersections too, from snow left by snow plows that come after the bike trails are cleared. I ride through the snow bumps very slowly and carefully to avoid a crash. The west wind is in my face, but I’m warmed up now and moving swiftly over the trail, which is mostly clear with just a few patches of frozen precipitation. The sky is clear blue and the roar of Clairemont traffic fades from my consciousness as my steady pedaling rhythm rolls me onward.

Once you get into it, winter commuting is rewarding both physically and mentally. With the proper gear it is comfortable, convenient, and enjoyable. It is also an effective way to incorporate exercise into your daily routine: You can’t really skip your commute, so if you’re riding, you can’t skip your workout, either. I burn about 200 calories for every 20 minutes of biking. The first few minutes are a little tough, but the daily ride is invigorating. It’s more fun to ride a bicycle than drive a car, it lets the inner child in you come out. The same spirit that drives people to go skating, skiing, or snowshoeing in the winter weather can be translated to winter bike commuting, with the bonus that it gets your basic transportation done, too. Another bonus is that between gas, parking costs, and car maintenance, I save between $600 and $800 a year by commuting on my bicycle.

I finally near my destination and begin to survey the area for a bicycle rack unburdened by snow and ice. Once I find a spot, I turn off my flashers and lock up my trusty machine, then I begin to remove my protective equipment. By the time I walk to my office, my helmet, glasses, and gloves are off, my coat and scarf are loosened, and my breathing and pulse rate are back to normal. My glowing cheeks and frosty moustache are the main indicators that my commute is something other than a ride on a heated seat through a sea of other cars; mine is a clean commute.