Summer is a fine time to go biking, dressed lightly, with a bottle of water mounted on the handlebars. You can feel the balmy air caress your tresses. You can wave gaily to your friends. But it's not real biking. The real bicycle rider - the person for whom a bike is not a toy left over from before he was old enough to drive, but a useful tool to save time and money - rides in the winter.
The real bicyclist scoffs at the weather. He (and the occasional she) is immune to the weather's attempts to force him to get a cab or, worse yet, to walk. The real bicyclist is unimpressed by sleet and ice storms. Mere weather, and he rolls on. Ask a billion Chinese. Ask me.
I biked to work through 12 Boston winters, through snow, driving hail, the aforementioned sleet, and freezing rain, the kind of road surface that makes buses do pirouettes. I had an old Nishiki that I had bought from a starving student, not one of those new knobby-tired 16-gear bikes costing hundreds of dollars. I paid her 50 bucks, and she was happy to get the money. The bike had regular tires, the bald skinny kind, which sliced through slush and drifts. I peddled my way to work through huge puddles of water when the storm sewers backed up with ice. I pumped my way home through whiteout snowfalls, following a plow truck's taillights. I don't know if winter riding is good for you, but it concentrates the mind wonderfully.
I do know, however, that winter riding isn't much good for the bike itself. The rims pick up a black crust of sand and oil, the chain turns red with salt-rust, the derailer corrodes, and the brakes jam. But since the object is to keep moving, rather than to move quickly, all these mechanical problems can be resolved by reducing speed. And the bike takes on a certain nobility of usefulness in this abused state, unlike its summer-soldier colleagues languishing in winter storage somewhere.
One gets laughed at, or at least stared at. After a 10-inch snowfall, the biker may have the entire street to himself when the snow keeps most people home. Automobile drivers skip work, and the morning commute is nothing but busses and snow plows. But a bike can go reasonably well through three or four inches of snow, to the amazement of those standing, freezing, waiting at bus stops. The trick of winter biking is staying warm. You need good gloves and a hooded, down-insulated coat. And the hood should be the kind that tightens around the face, producing a snorkel effect to keep the wind out. And warm pants and good boots. You become a little insulated cocoon on two wheels.
And then there's the wind. For some reason, Boston was built near the Atlantic Ocean, where offshore winds are vicious. Some recurring compulsion made me ride across the Charles River on the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge to visit friends in Cambridge. In the middle of the bridge, the wind neared gale force and threatened to toss me and the bike into the black waters below. The perversity of the situation was the only thing that kept me going. "Oh, I just biked over," I could say, hinting at a superior level of physical endurance.
IN 12 years I never slipped or skidded on snow or ice. Bikes have a certain forward momentum that carries them in a straight line, and the wheels have a gyroscope action that keeps them upright. I tell people this, and they don't believe it. But at all costs, you must resist the temptation to put your feet out as outriggers. Do that, and the bike slips out from under you. In addition, the cold made me go very slowly. The danger is from larger vehicles, but in winter, even Boston drivers go slower.
Gray, soggy, snowy days. Hard to remember in the swelter of mid-August. The expensively appointed summer bicyclists zip by, taking one hand casually off the handlebars to wave to one another. We year-round bikers laugh to ourselves. Ho. Try that six months from now, friends. But we know they won't. They don't have what it takes.