On Potato Omelets and Winter Cycling

amsterdam_winter_bikes.jpg

A Spanish tortilla, unlike the Mexican version, is essentially
a potato omelet. You fry some diced-up onions and potatoes in oil, and then
pour in some beaten egg. Flip it over, and voila, you have a tasty, round
golden thing to cut into slices and eat.

Back when I was living in Spain
some 25 years ago, I made them all the time and my American friends and I
marveled at what a tasty, nutritious and cheap food it was. We vowed, when we
returned to the states, to make them often. When I returned to the states, I
made a Spanish tortilla probably once, maybe twice, and then never again.

Why? I still love Spanish tortillas. The ingredients are
readily abundant. And I love to cook. But something about the context I’m in,
the culture to use the C word, does not induce or encourage me to do so.

I think about Spanish tortillas, and my lack of making them,
when I have repeatedly chosen not to do something else these last few months,
which is ride my bicycle around in the dead of winter. Somehow mounting my
wheeled steed is just too big a hurdle when the air is freezing and the skies
often gray. Very quickly over the winter, I stopped even thinking about riding
my bicycle to work or to drop my son at daycare or to shop. I began walking and
taking the subway more.

But would I make these same choices if my fellow citizens
here in New York were making
different choices?

In December 2004 I spent the holidays in Amsterdam
during an unusually cold spell. I marveled at how Amsterdamers of all ages and
genders cycled through the streets in the bitter cold. Hands on the handlebars,
heads held high, they seemed not only willing to cycle in such weather but
enjoying it. Eventually I joined them, and I have a photo of my wife and I on
bikes, our faces bright red.

What these actions of mine and others lead me to conclude is
that culture matters. I’m not shirking the fact of my own laziness; it’s a real
observation about how the world works. If my friends and family members were
riding off to work in the cold, I likely would to, without complaint. But
alone, when few other people are, it’s easy to decline the invitation my
bicycle offers me, or not even see it.

As we head into spring and the warmer months, this point
will become moot. I’m sure I will once again start riding regularly. But maybe
next winter, or the one after, I may make different choices. Cycling as
transportation is increasingly popular in New York,
and as this popularity grows, I suspect we will reach a tipping point, to use
Malcom Gladwell’s famous phrase. I look forward to a future, perhaps not so
long away, when even the fairest-weather riders like me venture out in even the
worst of weather, doing so as easily as taking a bite of an easily-made potato omelet.

Photo: Nadya Peek / Flickr 

  • Great observation on culture, but riding in the winter, at least for me, is one of the best parts of commuting by bike.

  • MoFo

    Alex – I think you hit it dead-on. I haven’t commuted by bike at all this winter. I had excuses earlier in the winter but none now. On the other hand there aren’t many signs pushing me to get back into it. If I knew or saw more people riding it would help.

  • d

    I think it’s more than just the lack of other riders around us that leads to fewer riders during winter months. This is more of a result, than a cause, albeit one that creates a positive feedback machine. (Seeing fewer riders on the road leads to even fewer riders on the road.)

    Some possible causes:

    – Road conditions. Pot holes get worse during the winter, ice is a very dangerous hazard if you have thin tires, and occasionally road size is decreased due to snow accumulation.

    – Gear issues. Casual riders and even some more regular commuters might not have the extra layers for riding.

    – Daylight. If it starts getting dark at 4:30, that can cause people who might be a little wary of riding when it’s dark to leave the bike at home. (Even with good lights, some people would rather ride with at least some sunlight.)

    – Maintenance. A wet and dirty bike needs to be cleaned almost immediately, lest it succumb to rust and other problems caused by water, salt, and road dust. The thought of cleaning my bike off every day – or even giving it a wipe-down at the office – might lead me to leave the bike at home when the weather is bad. Not so with a car or a good pair of shoes and a jacket.

    – Lack of cycling-friendly infrastructure at one’s destination. Wet and dirty roads lead to wet and dirty riders. With no place to change at an office, this can discourage more riding. (Of course, people get sweaty during the summer, but there’s less clothing to deal with during warm months.) Additionally, if you have to park your bike outside, who wants to leave it out all day in the rain or snow?

    In Amsterdam, the weather and daylight hours are, of course, just as bad if not worse than they are here. But there is better infrastructure for biking (bike lanes, more secure parking in some areas, less of a culture of bike theft) and a different work ethic (shorter hours, a more liberal balance of work and family) that compensates for the weather and other negative factors.

    I think NYC bike culture and infrastructure would need a complete overhaul for riding levels to go up even a little bit during the winter.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I guess I’m new to this, but once I started commuting by bike, it never occured to me to stop. There never was a week where weather prevented me from riding at least three days, and I never got more than sprinkled on.

    I just bought some of the clothing recommended on websites, along with an LED safety vest and lights.

    The previous winter, I had noticed that leaving for work in the dark, arriving home in the dark, and working through lunch, my only outside experience was the walk between my office and the subway twice a day. So at least I spend a couple of hours a day outside.

    One cultural change is the way I think about the weather. The issue is no longer if it is going to rain/sleet/snow on a particular day. It is which three days it will not do so, or not do so much, from 6:45 am to 7:45 am and from 4:15 pm to 5:15 pm.

    So rather than check the forecast, I go right to the National Weather Service website and check the hourly weather graph and radar. If it looks good for the ride in and OK for the ride home, I do it. If the radar shows a rain cell passing in the PM and I have time flexibility, I let it pass and then go home.

    For example, there is a chance of rain today. But there was no chance in the AM. At 5:00 pm, there will be a 20% chance. It jumps to 34% at 6pm and keeps rising. Looks good if I don’t end up staying late to finish as a result of commenting on Streetsblog.

  • Jason A

    90% of the time I find you can cycle in the winter without incident or inconvenience. Provided you have decent gloves, hat and layers for comfort, I find winter cycling in NY to be pretty manageable.

    (Granted, we just had a pretty easy winter…)

    I think most people don’t realize how quickly your body warms up on a bike – which makes it easy to forget you’re pedaling around in 30 degree temps.

    I always feel uneasy when I come into work on a winter day and get a bunch of “you’re crazy!” or “wow, you’re hardcore!” compliments – it really isn’t that big of a deal…

  • Mitch

    I bike all through the winter (and this is in Wisconsin, where it really does get cold) because I need to; if I stay off my bike for a long time, I start to feel sluggish and crabby.

    But that’s just me. If you walk or take the subway instead of riding a bike, I don’t see any need to apologize.

  • Bob

    Alex if you start riding around in the winter, especially on the streets, PLEASE start wearing a helmet and riding gloves. I dont want to come visit you paralyzed from the neck down after you slip on some black ice.

  • Damian

    When I visited Amsterdam, it was almost winter and it was rainy and cold. Still, there were millions of cyclists everywhere. It made it seem a lot more bearable — fun, even. You can feel like you’re making the right choice as you bike in the rain/snow/cold, but it’s hard not to feel like some kind of loner maverick when most everyone else is warm and toasty in a car. When everyone else is biking, there’s a communal “we’re all in this together” feel. Portland, Oregon is the same way. Lots of people bike, and because they do, you feel OK doing it too.

  • Funny you should mention this topic…

    Just sayin’.

  • Gwin

    I totally agree with you, Jason A (and others pointing out the advantages/risks of winter biking).

    I have been riding year-round in NYC for 10 years now. In some ways, I prefer winter biking because those who ride year-round tend to be more respectful of the culture and of other bikers.

    For example: when it’s nice out, the bike rack at my job fills up with inconsiderate folks who park their bike alongside the rack (taking up 5-6 spaces) rather than perpendicular to the rack. It’s like, hello people, use your brains!

  • Another year round cyclist here. The weather is not that bad generally. I find that wool socks and really warm mittens were a requirement, but other than that, I stay pretty warm.

    In many ways, I prefer winter to summer. Nice to not arrive at work all sweaty. Not nearly so crowded on the bridges. Not many cyclists out there, but the ones that are tend to be skilled riders, which when combined w/ less traffic on the bridges, means safer trips. Plus, car drivers have their windows up, so harder for them to cuss at me. 🙂

  • anonoymous

    What’s wrong with walking or taking the subway rather than biking?

    The point is to have good options to choose from. Each one has advantages and disadvantages. You choose according to your convenience, mood, load, etc.

  • Gwin

    #12: there’s nothing wrong with it — it’s just that this happens to be a thread about winter cycling.

  • Jim N

    I cycle year round. I don’t have any special gear. Also, I leave my bike on the street. The bike has fenders. It doesn’t corrode particularly on the winter.

    Looking at #3 (d’s comments), I think that maybe it’s having it there, on the street, and not feeling that I need special clothing, that makes the choice to get on it every day an easy one to make. Almost every one of his or her points can be addressed with the right bike (meaning a simple one with fenders and medium-to-wide tires) and the right lock.

  • Geck

    I also ride year-round. A good pair of gloves and some sort of helmet liner for the colder days and you are set. People put up with much worse skiing. Some of those cool clear but not too cold days are the best riding all year.

  • Komanoff

    Some years back I resolved to never let cold or wet weather or darkness keep me from cycling. Instead of agonizing over whether or not to go by bike, I would just ride, automatically.

    It helps that my main vehicle is a sturdy, road-worthy mountain bike. And that I have a solo office where I can dry wet gear. And that I keep identical (and terrific) rain pants in office and at home, so I don’t have to worry about bad weather sneaking up on me.

    The result is that I’ve already passed the 500-mile mark for the year, with nary a single “recreational” ride. I’m in great shape and I get to be outdoors at least twice a day.

    Braving the elements gives a special buzz. A couple of Saturdays ago I got caught in a heavy, swirling rainstorm — sheets of rain, wild gusts of wind. It felt great to be alive.

    Sure, I can’t wait for warm weather when I can wear pants and peel off all those top layers. But winter cycling beats not winter cycling. It’s as simple as that.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I ride year round as well. My motivation is the fact that I would have to pay for parking at my job/school if I didn’t ride. Plus it’s only 2.25 miles.

    I think one of the things that bug people about riding in the winter in the US is the lack of a warm winter helmet (I’m not a helmet-nazi but I wear one because US streets are much more dangerous to cyclists then those in Amsterdam).

    Anyway, I struggled for years to find a way to keep my head warm and to wear my (summer) cycling helmet. Then about 2 years ago it dawn on me that ski helmets are design to keep ones head warm and are designed for roughly the same level of protection. Ever since my head has been nice and warm and there is even a place on my “winter” helmet for me to use goggles on those really cold days.

  • Mitch

    I don’t have much of a problem staying warm on my bike in winter — actually, the challenge is to dress in a way that keeps you from sweating after a few blocks; I find myself zipping and unzipping my jacket, or removing my gloves and then putting them on again in an attempt to find a balance between heat and cold.

    My big problem is that the bike gets stiff when it’s really cold, and it’s harder to pedal than in warm weather, and sometimes my cables freeze inside their housings, so it’s impossible to shift or apply the brakes. Winter is probably a good time to ride a fixie.

    I could also do without those days when the wind blows ice pellets in my face.

  • Just because culture is f***ed doesn’t mean you should succumb to it. Like the kid who called the Superintendent of Schools to complain that he was endangered because school wasn’t cancelled despite the presence of ice.

    God, we are a nation of wimps. Granted it’s colder in NYC and you tend to get more snow, but it’s ok to not be like everyone else, and ride your bike in the winter.

    Maybe I should stop eating Mexican food too.

  • Gwin

    Andy B: I have a “winter helmet” too — it’s an all-sport helmet with these nifty earflaps. Definitely warmer than my regular helmet…

  • Even when I forget my gloves and its freezing cold . . . I’d still rather bicycle in those conditions than take the bus or the subway. It’s just the best way to start the day, and I can duck out and run errands, attend events at my kids’ schools, do all manner of things during a lunch or even a shorter break from work, in just a few minutes.

    This winter I’ve photographed so many people who seem to feel the same way. Here’s my set from February, which was definitely the coldest month:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclesonly/sets/72157603848862349/

  • Dave H.

    I was in Montreal this winter and was very impressed by the bikers there. Many people out on a -20C night, with ski helmets and ski-googles (and jackets and snowpants too). For French-speakers, here are some tips: http://www.rocler.qc.ca/marc/ (including some on spikes). Montreal’s winter bikers would make a great Streetsfilm (hurry now or wait till next year).

    I actually rather prefer the New York/New Haven winter to the summer for biking – just wear some gloves and a nice pair of glasses to keep the cold wind out of your eyes, and you don’t have to worry about getting sweaty as much.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Hm. Whether I bike or not has more to do with how safe and convenient it is, and not with the temperature. I have one of those ear-bands to keep that part warm; the top of my head generally needs the ventilation.

    Maybe it’s from growing up cycling in the Catskills, where it’s colder, and where I’d never ride anywhere if I waited for a community of bike commuters. I think I would be more likely to ride if there were a lot more cyclists on the road, but that would be because I’d expect there to be safety in numbers and better facilities.

    I think Alex does describe a phenomenon that’s valid for many people, though. It could be a field dependence thing.

  • d

    I just think you have to remember that most people who read this blog — and especially those who post to it — are die-hard riders, at least compared to the average Joe and Jane who don’t read this blog. For them, there would have to be a lot of changes to city cycling before they’d ride their bike during the winter. There’s a perception that cycling in the city at all times of the year, but especially during the winter, is difficult. There’s also a deep-rooted psychology or fear at work that really goes beyond simple logistics, because if all it took was a good lock and a warm jacket, this city would be a biking utopia. The types of riders we’d like to see on the street and that are seen in European cities (older people, children) will never lug a Kryptonite city lock around their waste through the rain.

    What’s needed is better infrastructure on the streets (bike lanes, traffic calming, enforcement of traffic laws) and better facilities at cycling destinations (secure parking, showers, etc.). Without those two things, the weather will be a minor factor keeping people from riding.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (I just think you have to remember that most people who read this blog — and especially those who post to it — are die-hard riders, at least compared to the average Joe and Jane who don’t read this blog. For them, there would have to be a lot of changes to city cycling before they’d ride their bike during the winter.)

    Not necessarily. I just started commuting by bike in August, in middle age. Lots of people go skiing or skating, I read, and this is no different.

    The die hards are those who do it every day, no matter what. Three or four days per week is achievable by non-die hards. I didn’t ride in today, and skipped Monday because of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade (I park the bike on 5th and was worried about it). But Tuesday, Thursday and Friday is three days.

  • d

    Still, I think the casual riders are in the minority here. We have to get to a point where even a person who barely gives a thought to livable streets sees biking as an option that’s as easy as the subway, walking, or driving.

    Really, the problems of winter cycling are the problems of cycling in the city in general: no good place to park your bike, no good place to clean up, and not enough measures taken to protect cyclists when they ride.

  • Larry’s right, no reason for fanatacism. On many days I skip riding with my son to school because its cold and he doesn’t want to bicycle. If I tried to force it, I’m sure he’d end up disliking bicycling altogether. So I take him to school by mass transit and then either return home to get my bike, or just head to work by mass transit or foot. There’s no reason to view bicycle commuting as an all-or-nothing proposition. But for me, once bicycling became a daily thing it became hard to go back to mass transit.

    I often will walk instead of using mass transit when I don’t have my bike, even though it takes longer. I have read that this is a syndrome endemic to motorists–that a slower travel mode without stops feels “faster” and more efficient than one with an overall shorter point-to-point travel time but that incorporates pauses and delays. That’s why motorists will choose detours with less traffic over congested direct routes, even when the direct routes take less time despite the congestion. But in the case of walking over mass transit, it’s simply more pleasant.

  • Ferdinand Cesarano

    I am sure that I do not count as a die-hard by the standards here, but I love riding my bike in the summer. Absolutely love it! The hotter the better. Give me 90 degrees, and I’ll give you 30 miles. I totally thrive in the hot weather.

    I actually take my vacation days on this very basis — at my job they know that, if they see a “9” in the temperature, then they aren’t likely to see me at the office that day.

    But there is absolutely no way I will ride in the winter. No matter who else is doing it.

    So I will admit that, for me, bike-riding is strictly a warm-weather activity. This is because it is always significantly colder when moving on the bike (at least at chest- and head-level) than it is in the normal air.

    As a person who digs the hot weather, I detest wearing layers. I am most comfortable riding in just a single shirt (temps 85 or above). In lower temperatures I wear two t-shirts (temps 80-85), or else a light sweatshirt over a t-shirt (temps 75-80).

    But below that, you start getting into the unfortunate zone where a jacket is necessary over the layers (60-75).

    And I have to realise that that’s about it for me. Therefore, I guess my lower limit for *comfortably* rideable temperature is about 60. I will ride *if necessary* when temperatures are below that — but it won’t be *comfortably* , I’ll tell you that right now!

    But, below 55 or so? Forget it — get yourself another boy. I’d rather walk. Temps in the 50s or below result in breezes that are just too chilling. And, as I mentioned, wearing layers is too uncomfortable. Even worse than that, my nose runs constantly at those temperatures.

    So, if a given activity is an absolute joy to do in the summer, but is a hassle-filled chore to undertake in the winter, then I think that, for me, this activity firmly qualifies as a “summer activity”!

    The last time that I rode in the winter (and I mean “last” in both senses: “most recent” and “final”) was during the transit strike. This could not have been a more different experience from a typical summer ride.

    I always feel very strong during a hot day; as I indicated earlier, riding 30 miles on a summer day is pretty usual for me, and 40 or 50 is not out of the question. But, on that December day, the cold sapped me, and I struggled to do the mere 10 miles to work. I even had to stop to rest on the Williamsburg Bridge — which has never happened to me anywhere before. (And it wasn’t because of not being in shape, because I do much more than 10 miles easily on the first warm day of spring.)

    So, never again. I am an avid warm-weather rider; but riding in the cold just ain’t for me, even if other cyclists are doing it.

  • Jim N

    d – Your points are good ones.

    This last year, I helped a friend get a bike and start commuting to the subway. It’s been an eye-opener. From choosing a bike and a lock, to actually using them, to regular maintenance, none of this is as easy as I thought it was.

    We regular riders would benefit from more cyclists on the road, and should try to learn to help others over the hurdles (that seem like nothing to us).

  • Ben

    Commuting by bike AND ENJOYING IT has nothing to do with weather and everything to do with culture. I commuted for twenty years by bike and I was happy doing it. During this time my fellow workers referred to me and my commute as crazy, odd, dangerous, eccentric, cheap, thrifty, nut-case, ahead of my time, behind the times, environmentalist, and loony to mention a few. They, of course, always described themselves as “happy” driving to work. In America we are only “happy” when commuting, rain or shine, behind the wheel of a car.

  • Ernie

    Personally I’ve biked in the winter in some pretty wild conditions. When I was younger, I used to winter bike in the central interior of British Columbia, where cold snaps could bring the temperature lower than -30 Celsius.

    Mind you, I stopped biking when it got to -15, because the only thing that can keep that kind of cold out of your hands and feet in that kind of wind chill are heavy-duty winter boots that make biking awkward. But that was still most of the winter. Paradoxically, ice wasn’t much of a problem because it never really formed. Most of the snow got plowed off the roads and sidewalks, and sand covered the rest for better traction. Moreover, with that kind of cold weather, the snow never melted enough to *form* ice in the first place. Winter coincidentally also lasts from at least November to the beginning of April, and sometimes longer.

    Now I live in Vancouver, which presents much different challenges. For the most part, it doesn’t snow much here. But the roads will freeze overnight many times in December and January, and that makes a morning commute scary! Thankfully, you can buy studded tires that make your grip on ice as effortless as if the roads were bare and dry.

    The other winter weather issue in Vancouver is the rain. When we have a winter storm here (every week), it doesn’t rain. It RAINS! SIDEWAYS! For 3 days straight! However, I still made the commitment this year to bike through it. So I bought some nylon rain pants with a liner in them to keep me warm, a good gore-tex biker rain jacket, *nice* wool socks, and wet-weather gloves (not especially warm, but dry). And that made the trek tremendously better. Keeping warm was a piece of cake since I was exercising, so it really wasn’t as unpleasant as it looks. That’s the operative phrase though – “as it looks” because when anyone around here looks outside when it’s nasty, well, it looks nasty. And noone wants to go outside if they can help it.

  • Christa

    I deliberately got rid of my vehicle in December to force myself to commute by bike. I do not regret it.

    My city is pretty mild. The lowest temperature I’ve biked in is probably 40 degrees. It’s not bad as long as you’re dressed properly. I think it’s fun to cycle in the rain!

    I would love to bike in the snow sometime.

  • Ben

    I have ridden my bicycle through two winters. I bought some cheap snow tires and the studs have worn down, but they still have great treads. I have only fallen once this winter and that was before I changed to winter tires. Deep snow is interesting because your tires will slide around a bit. I keep to the main roads during heavy snow and follow the tracks that other cars make. The snow and salt will eat your chain and deraillers. I would someday like to have disc brakes and internal gearing on my winter bicycle but these two options are still expensive. Some day…..

  • BrooklynBikerGal

    I love riding in winter in NYC, and do every day I can, work-time-wise, unless there is freezing rain or black ice. It’s really the best time in NYC because the cold keeps the following hazards and jerks off the road and bike paths: (1.) roller bladers wearing iPODS who can’t hear you screaming, “Get out of the way!”; (2.) Obnoxious yuppie parents who think it’s a great idea to shove the stroller right in front of your trajectory; (3.) walkers that think a bike path is for them, even if a pedestrian path is right over there; (4.) tourists; (5.) weekend auto users taking the family out for a spin but not really clear on what cars are supposed to do in bike lanes; (6.) gangs of teens with attitude who are hanging around outdoors, bored, and think you and your bike make a great target for insults, spit and thrown objects of all kinds.

    Yup, if you like to log 100+ miles a week in NYC, best days are the ones where the wind chill drops below 35 degrees, clearing the wimps and obnoxious folks out of the scene! The most frustrating rides in NYC are on gorgeous days, when every 5 yards of bike time pits you against another stroller, frisbee, roller blader, gang, out of control car, cluster of pedestrians or summer-only-incompetent biker that swerves in your way, endangering both of you.

    GIVE ME SLEET!

  • Fendergal

    Glad to read about all the hardcore bike commuters out there. I did that for a few years (barring snow storms). Now if it’s raining or I have to carry a heavy bag or my legs are tired from a weekend of racing, I’ll take the train. But too many consecutive days on the subway makes me cranky. I spent too much time taking the subway over the last couple months, and it was really making me crazy.

    So I got back on the bike, and it’s amazing how much happier I am overall. Sure I’ll probably be on the train a couple days a week, and that’s fine, too. A bad day commuting is almost always better than a bad day on the train. And yeah, wintertime commuting is the best, especially on the greenway.

    Another obstacle is the perceived lack of safety. Even the NYCC message board had a thread on “Is the greenway safe after dark?” I posted that I’ve ridden the greenway in the evening all year round, and it’s fine.

  • J. Mork

    Now I really miss Aaron 😉

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