Friday, November 25, 2011

Winter Bike - Part 2

I left my last post with a promise that I'd write another winter biking piece; this time, about staying alive on your winter bike-commute.

Now, let me begin with the obvious: This isn't for everybody. I personally love being on my bike and I consider bicycle commuting to be an ethical choice. It just so happens that I prefer riding my bike, to driving to and from work.  But, as I said, this isn't for everybody. Winter biking is harder than spring/summer biking. It requires preparation, motivation and commitment - much of which I covered last time. It also requires some uncomfortable realities and some strategic and tactical thinking, fast reflexes, and often, infinite patience.

Motivation. I will never judge someone for choosing the car over the bike, in the middle of winter. The reality is that we live in a bloody cold country for five months of the year and, here in Red Deer, we have distances to travel. If you live in one of the neighbourhoods - as opposed to downtown - expect commutes that are measured in kilometres, rather than blocks. To take on these commutes in sub-zero temperatures requires you to make a conscious decision to dress in layers, pack a bag with a change of clothes, ensure you have a lunch, leave a little earlier etc... It's much, much easier and more comfortable to throw on a jacket, pour a thermal-mug full of coffee, hit the command start on the car and walk to the garage. I get it. If you're going to winter bike, you've made a real commitment to a more difficult choice. I'll let you in on a secret: As much as I love my bike and love riding to work, there are winter days where I get up and decide "Man, that coffee and heated seats would sure be great today", and I'll choose the easy option. It also makes my kids happy because they get rides to school on those days. It doesn't happen often, maybe once a week.

We talked about the clothing and bike preparation in the previous post. Once you've got your bike ready and you've got a handle on keeping your cycling clothing from becoming a bio-hazard, the next step is your daily preparation. You have two options:

  1. Be a super-early-rising keener who gets up, puts on a pot of coffee, feeds the kids breakfast, has a shower, finds and packs the fresh work-clothes, makes and packs lunches for everybody and skips out the door with time to spare. If this is you, I hate you.

  2. Do the clothes-finding, bag packing, coffee-maker-loading, lunch making the night before so that you can squeeze in the final iota of sleep in the morning and delay the inevitable start to the day as long as possible. 

I'll leave it up to you to figure out which one describes my routine.

What you won't be able to do however, is combine all the jobs from option one, with the late-sleeping, day-break-avoiding sloth of option two. Trust me, I've tried. What you end up with is a panicked dash out of the house, trying to get your own bag secured, while you are strapping on your helmet, only to find that one of your bike gloves is stuck up inside it - making you wonder why the damn thing won't fit. Add in the pushing of two small children out the back door, telling them "start running, Daddy will catch up when he gets his bike", because God-forbid they're late for school. Yeah... choose one option or the other, but don't mix 'em. It just doesn't work.

Now, you're out the door, the house is locked, the kids are walking to school and you can head off to work. Phew...I'm exhausted already and we just started this thing.

Once you're on your way the first thing you'll notice is that you'll often feel like you're riding in pudding. This is due to two things: One, it is a given that no matter what direction you ride in the winter the wind will be in your face. Just accept it. You can't beat the wind. Two, the edges of the road bed, in Red Deer, suuuuuuck. In the spring and summer they're merely rutted and full of holes that threaten to toss you and your bike alternately into traffic or merely up onto the boulevard. In the winter though, those little (and by little I mean massive) ruts and holes fill with slush, ice, snow, pea soup, bacon fat and who knows what else to become bike tire traps. And, you have to ride through them. Unlike the summer, you cannot gently weave around these holes.

"Why," you might be asking yourself. Well, by my careful, scientific estimation there are like a zillion more cars on the road in the winter, effectively creating one long line of moving iron. There are no spaces to dodge into, to get around the hole. To make matters worse, this snake-like iron and plastic leviathan is controlled by humans who - let me be delicate here - turn into cold-lulled, meat sacks unable to see anything beyond the dvd infotainment system in the dash, once the temperature dips down below "chilly".

This brings us nicely to "Strategies and tactics to make sure you don't die".

First, base all your decisions on the following assumptions:

  • Nobody can see you. It doesn't matter how bright the jacket, how loud the bell, how good the lights; in winter you are beyond invisible.
  • Nobody is stopping for you. They're cold, the light is yellow, they're going through. Likely, this is because it's probably safer for them, than stopping would be. Do not be tempted to jump the light or snake a lane in the winter. Nobody is going to hit the brakes in the middle of an intersection and risk sliding into the guy in front of them.
  • All cars are broken-down, barely maintained heaps of junk. It's patently not true. But if you assume that the cars around you have no brakes, bad tires and poorly maintained steering systems, then you'll be mentally ready for things to head south.
  • The winter road will never be as good as you imagine/hope. You will always find glare ice, drifted snow, new potholes, broken car parts, dead kitties, sand piles etc... littering the curb lane and the intersections. Be ready for these obstacles.
  • Eventually, somewhere, somehow you will get hit by a car. It probably won't be serious. But it will happen. More on this, below.

Given these assumptions here then, is how you survive as a winter cyclist.

Plan your route. Red Deer is an easy city to ride in, largely because you can route-plan on the fly. Lots of side streets will take you to the places you want to go, almost as fast as the main arterials. When you leave the house in the morning, make sure you have a couple of optional routes in your mental map so that you can bail out of your main route, if things are getting dicey.

Keep your head on a swivel. More than anything else, you have to be hyper-aware of what's happening around you. You should know roughly how many cars in the in lane behind you (I count them at stop lights), if anybody behind you is planning a right turn at the upcoming intersection - this is a great place and situation in which you can get hit by a car, and what the traffic lights are about to do. You should be aware of the roads and traffic up to a block ahead of you, and you should be scanning the sidewalks for pedestrians who may be feeling adventurous. Are there yards with potentially open gates on your route? Dogs and cats aren't afraid of you and will run out into traffic. Cats will do it just to try and make you swerve into a bus - sadistic little bastards. The more information you can track in your surroundings, the better you can avoid protential problems and the more options you can find for escaping trouble.

Here's the uncomfortable reality I mentioned at the top of this article: Some day, you will eventually have a negative interaction with a car. It doesn't matter how much you've perfected your situational-awareness, how great your studded tires are, how well you've planned... eventually things are going to go bad and you will either hit or get hit by something outweighs you by 2800 lbs or more. It will hurt.

Practice falling off your bike. Go to a frozen school-yard and fall down. Do it at fast speeds and slow speeds. Get someone to push you over as you ride by or simply throw yourself off the bike. You need to know how to hit the ground effectively. Hit with the biggest amount of  body real-estate. It's instinctual to put your hands out to try and catch yourself. This is a great way to break your wrists. Try to land on your shoulders, side, or hips. Let the force of the landing get dispersed across as much of your body as possible.

Once you're on the ground. Roll. If you've broken something (on you, not your bike) your body will instinctively try to protect that part. Rolling does two things. One, it helps to protect the injured part by moving it out of harms way and two, it further dissipates energy. It redirects the energy of the impact over space and distance.

By practicing falling, you're developing muscle memory. If you get hit, your body will just "know" what do. This is important because when bad things happen, they happen with little warning and you simply can't remember fast enough, what you should do to protect yourself in a fall.

In the event that you do have to fall:
  • Once you're down, stay down. Do a self-systems test. Does your neck hurt? Does your back or head hurt? Did you black out? Can you wiggle your fingers and toes? Once you've established that you've not compromised anything critical - and if nobody has stopped to help - you can try to move. Be slow, be deliberate and double check those fingers, toes and neck for sensation, mobility and pain. If there's a negative change, stop what you're doing and wait for help.
  • Do. Not. Let. Anybody. Help. You. Up. If you've hit hard enough that you require assistance, just ask someone to call an ambulance and let the EMTs take care of how and when you move. Don't let passersby remove your backpack or helmet. At this point, those things are stabilizing any injuries and removing them could cause more harm than good.
  • Don't get up fighting. Remain calm, ask for the driver's insurance and registration and leave the scene as calmly as possible. The police and insurance companies will figure out who was wrong and who pays what. Don't assume that just because you're the cyclist that you're in the right. Your own stupidity or bad decision could be to blame. 

So, go forth my winter-biking soul mates. Remember, prepare your bike and gear, plan your routes and rides, assume the worst and prepare for it. With patience, a good long-range route plan and excellent short-range situational-awareness, you'll have a great winter biking season. The winter air is crisp and fresh and the coffee - once you dig your thermal mug out of the depths of your backpack, is the best you've ever had. You'll find that you have more energy throughout the day and that you sleep better at night.

See you on the road


Red said...

You give a million things I never knew. A lot of this stuff would be just as valuable for summer.

jeremy bouw said...

Great stuff, Todd!