By Peter Burns
To be seen by motorists run front and backlights, day and night. If your front light is very powerful, turn it off when you are on a bike path to avoid disconcerting oncoming bike riders and pedestrians. I prefer rechargeable lights to ones run on batteries. You can also get battery-free lights charged by the motion of the bicycle. If you choose not to ride with lights during the day consider wearing bright reflective wear. A lightweight reflective vest is a good option. I think my black and yellow one is rather stylish. I have had a headlight stolen from my bike. Now if I am going to park in one spot for any length of time I take my lights off the bike and put them into my pannier. So far they have been safe there.
On November 17th, late in the afternoon, I set off from my house in Winooski heading for Old Spokes Home in Burlington. Because I don’t have a car, if I leave my bike overnight at the shop, I walk home after dropping off the bike and then walk to the shop the next day when the bike is ready so I can ride it home. Luckily I like walking and Winooski is not far from Burlington. I walked through Winooski and over the bridge and then took the trail along the Winooski River. I was working on memorizing Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Acquainted with the Night.’ I repeated this line to myself — “Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.” There is another line in the poem that goes “One luminary clock against the sky.” There is an illuminated clock on top of a building on the traffic circle in Winooski. I usually look at it to check the time on my way into town or on my way home. The luminary clock in the poem proclaims the time was neither wrong nor right, but the clock on the traffic circle is wrong half of the year because nobody changes it when daylight savings time begins or ends. Right now the clock is correct but when daylight savings time ends it will be an hour off.
It was a cloudy day but not too cold. I only met one person on the trail along the river. I picked up my bike and started home on Riverside Avenue. The sun dipped below the clouds and clear golden late afternoon light poured from the sun, illuminating a band of Winooski while leaving the rest in shadow. It was an effect that I have only seen a few times, mostly in November. It made Winooski look like a magical city on a hill. The brick buildings took on a deep red glow. Every detail sprung to life. I wanted to take a photograph but my iPhone camera is not good at taking distance shots and part of the magic was seeing this view from afar. Distance lends magic just as it does to the landscapes in the background of Italian Renaissance paintings. Instead, I recorded the scene in my memory and now I am putting it into writing. When I got to Winooski much of the effect was gone.
As the weather gets colder and my rides get shorter it becomes necessary to appreciate the intensely local. I think I once saw a book at the Fletcher Free Library about a man who stayed within a square mile of his house for a whole year. I have not been able to find it in the library catalog or on-line. Sometimes I imagine books that I would like to read. Even gray days in November have their beauty. Later in the year, when the mountains are covered in snow, late afternoon sunlight makes the Green Mountains look as if they are only a couple of miles away.
When riding in the winter, make sure you leave your house with warm extremities and a cool core. If possible, keep your bicycle inside so you don’t have to unlock it outside before you leave. Even a few minutes of exposure can make your hands cold and they usually won’t get warm as you ride. My hands and feet are particularly vulnerable to cold especially after I have been swimming. In very cold weather I use a hairdryer to warm my feet, shoes, hands, and gloves before I leave my house. I find that hand and feet warmers are of limited use on longer rides. I also have battery charged socks but they have their limitations as well. I try to avoid anything that makes my ride more complicated. When you start pedaling your core will warm up but not your extremities. Even in single-digit weather, it is possible to sweat and have cold hands and feet at the same time. If you feel even a hint of frostbite gets inside as soon as possible. Frostbite is serious and its effects are permanent. It is well worth the expense to invest in high-quality gear. Wind and waterproof coats, pants, boots, and gloves make all the difference. When the temperature is hovering around the freezing mark, and the sleet is falling, getting wet means getting cold.
There are a few people who will ride no matter how cold or snowy it is. The rest of us have limits. Because I have a fat bike with studded tires and cold weather gear, the only thing that stops me is fresh deep snow. The coldest temperature I have experienced is -18 degrees. That was on a ride from Winooski to Burlington.
Winter is not monolithic. Even in January, there are sunny days when the roads are clear and the temperature is in the ’20s. On a day like that, if you bundle up, you will be fine for a short ride. Many people make the mistake of storing away their bikes away in November and then regretting it on pleasant winter days. I suggest you ride a little later into the winter and a little sooner in the spring.
Even if you don’t ride it is essential for mental and physical health to get outside in the winter. Any winter activity that gets you out is positive. Winter riding can be deeply satisfying. It provides an adventure even if you don’t go far from home.
As COVID continues I wear a mask anytime I am riding or walking within six feet of someone else. When I am riding in the street, most people on the sidewalk are more than six feet away, but I have to stay vigilant because some people wait for busses right next to the curb. As the weather cools wearing a mask is more comfortable. It even serves as a layer of warmth. When it gets even colder I will be wearing a neck warmer or a balaclava over my face most of the time. As I am wearing more stuff on my head and face, things get complicated. I have to figure out my helmet, neck warmer, hat, glasses, and mask.
A Little Bit More
In October, I gradually stopped doing long rides. This happened because the weather got cooler, I started getting busier, the number of daylight hours shrank and I started swimming more at the YMCA. My desire for long rides diminished. In the summer when the weather is nice I get a physical hunger to get out on the road. This pattern of reduced riding as it gets colder has been repeated for many years. Now, instead of long rides, I look to expand my daily ride.
I work in Burlington and live in Winooski. On October 14th I finished work at around 2 pm, picked up a couple of items at City Market, and headed down to the waterfront bike path. There was light rain and I knew that there would be few people on the path. I was wearing waterproof rain pants, a rain jacket, waterproof gloves, and waterproof bike shoes. In spite of my gear, I had cold hands and feet for much of the ride. I don’t mind a little discomfort. I rode to Starr Farm Road, then cut over to the 127 bike path, which got me to Riverside Avenue. Then I took the Riverside Avenue bike path into the Winooski. The ride was about an hour and a half long, far short of the six-hour rides I take in the summer, but it was still time out on my bike and it felt good. If you are a commuter it is nearly always possible to extend your route a little bit and add some more riding to your day!
About the author:
Peter Burns is a long-time bike enthusiast, and one of the original year-round bike riders in Burlington. He writes amazing monthly blogs and teaches a variety of Everyday Biking workshops. In addition to his work at Local Motion, he also works at a group home for people with Psychiatric disabilities, teaches classes for the Vermont Humanities Council, teaches swimming at the Burlington YMCA, and is a regular host of Storytelling VT.