Cold Riders 

Winter doesn't mean an end to bike commutes

For years, the eco-minded have been championing the joys of commuting via bicycle: the exercise, the lower gas bills, the reduced traffic. But in winter, the con list grows to include little things like dealing with slush and the challenge of staying balanced on ice while avoiding sliding cars.

It may not be the wonderful world of summer biking (or spring or fall biking for that matter) but a growing number of commuters are taking to their bikes year round, making a snow-covered bike ride just another part of their morning routine.

Kurt Ziegler has been bike commuting through the winter for eight years, braving slick streets and cold temperatures nearly every day.

When he started, the streets were pretty lonely for bikers, but in recent years, Ziegler has seen an increasing number of kindred souls. This year, he's expecting to see even more as those who turned to their bikes to battle rising gas costs stick with the program.

Of course, winter bike commuting has its own challenges, and is not for everyone. But Ziegler and others are trying to share their knowledge and experience through a series of lectures co-sponsored by the Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance and the Boise Public Library.

"The concerns are basic," Ziegler said. "Cars sliding on the ice, and staying upright. You have to put all the odds in your favor," he said.

The first and most important step in stacking the odds is for bikers to consider themselves just another vehicle on the road and follow the traffic rules, even if technically, they are not required to do so by Idaho state law.

In Idaho, bikers do not have to stop at stop signs, nor do they have to remain stopped at a red light. However, while it may be more of a convenience, "it's not in your best interest from a safety standpoint," Ziegler said, adding that it's something cyclists should never do, regardless of the weather. "It's legal, but it's not wise."

Not only do motorists have a harder time reacting quickly on slick winter roads, but many don't know the difference in the law for bicyclists, a fact that can lead to accidents and flared tempers.

Ziegler said the two most important things bicyclists can do is to be seen and to behave as predictably as possible. Just a little further down his list is being assertive—but not aggressive—and being alert.

"As a cyclist, it's up to you to watch out for your own safety," he said.

Bicyclists always have to be aware of the road conditions, but it's even more important in the winter. When snow falls in the valley, it's not the top priority of road crews to clear the bike lanes across the city, creating narrower lanes for everyone trying to get around. When there's no snow on the ground, ice and even wet leaves can create sizable hazards for bikers.

Ziegler suggests looking for alternative routes for the winter months, choosing less busy streets whenever possible even if it's a slightly longer route.

It's an approach shared by Craig Quintana, communications manager for the Ada County Highway District. Quintana rides his bike as often as possible, although he admits he prefers his car on the worst weather days. Still, he finds adjusting his route off the major roadways allows him to continue using his bike as often as possible.

"When it's bad and slippery, I only feel comfortable on the side streets," he said. "You don't want to be out there [with] high-speed traffic that is having a hard time holding a straight line."

While the Greenbelt is not plowed when it snows, Quintana still recommends it as a year-round bike corridor. He warns riders to use caution throughout the winter months, though, since black ice can form on the path.

"People still go down hard," he said.

A sidewalk may seem like an attractive alternative route to riding precariously close to moving cars (and is legal in the City of Boise), but Ziegler strongly warns against it because it is not only unsafe for pedestrians, but also for bikers since they have to jump out into the road at times, making their behavior unpredictable for drivers.

Additionally, Ziegler cautions to always ride with the flow of traffic. He has witnessed many bikers in the area not only riding the wrong way down the road, but riding the wrong way down a bike lane, creating a dangerous situation for everyone involved. Not only does it startle drivers, but it can also lead to collisions with other bikers, forcing someone out into the flow of vehicle traffic.

"It's one of the biggest ways to get hurt," he said. "And most are probably avoidable."

Beyond knowing where to ride, winterizing a bike can also help with a successful commute. Traction is the top priority on slick roads, and Ziegler advises avoiding narrow road tires. Instead, stick with a wider tire. A knobby tread is useful in snow, but on ice, the key is creating as much area of contact between the tire and the road as possible. Quintana recommends running the tires a little soft to create more surface area and better grip.

Studded snow tires for bikes are available, and some creative cyclists have been known to make their own, but thanks to Boise's relatively mild winter climate, they are rarely necessary. Rather than spending the money on studded tires, try taking the car or the bus on the worst winter days.

Ziegler also recommends installing fenders to keep slush and water from soaking cyclists, and to make sure there are reflectors and lights attached to the bike. He said a rear reflector is the minimum, but recommends a rear flashing light, a front headlight and a secondary front light—possibly a headlamp—to illuminate the path. Additional reflective material on clothing also helps, and Ziegler also recommends an LED flasher on the helmet.

Whenever possible, keep bikes dry and out of the rain. But when this isn't an option, be ready to lubricate the chain, brake levers, brake cables and gear shift far more often than other times of the year. Since parts can freeze overnight if they get wet, Ziegler recommends making sure brakes and gears are working before heading out.

Also, be sure to carry a spare bike tire tube and be comfortable changing it. "The time to practice is ... not on a dark, cold winter morning," Ziegler said.

Valley Regional Transit is doing its part to make bike commuting easier as well. After seeing a massive increase in the number of riders during the last fiscal year, the transit organization is in the process of adding more bike-carrying capacity to its largest buses and taking a closer look at the needs of the biking community.

"We want to work with the biking community," said Mark Carnopis, community relations manger for VRT.

Many buses already carry racks capable of holding up to two bikes, but cyclists often find those racks already full. VRT has begun installing three-bike racks on some larger buses to meet the demand, especially in the Boise area.

Carnopis said VRT is also looking at which stops could benefit from some kind of bike locker—either a rack or an actual shed—where cyclists could lock up their bikes before jumping on the bus.

VRT has seen a marked increase in ridership, up 14.9 percent in fiscal year 2008, which ended on Sept. 30. Ridership was up by 13 percent in Boise, but the intercounty routes saw the largest jump, up 64.1 percent in the last year. Even with the increased popularity of public transit, a one-way trip is still just $1, or $2 for all-day.

Ziegler and other members of the TVCA will share more detailed wisdom on winter biking at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 19, at the Library! at Collister. The program is free. For more information, visit boisepubliclibrary.org.

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