On occasion, when Rob Kanter was leaving for work on a not-so-nice day, his wife would ask, “You’re not going to ride to campus today, are you?”
Kanter would answer, “Only a lunatic would bike in this weather!”
Then he’d head out the door, hop on his bike and pedal to work.
It became a family joke.
They aren’t crazy. They say a properly prepared cyclist can commute by bike pretty much year-round. Among the benefits: getting exercise on the way to and from work, not having to find a parking space, spending less money on gas and not having to scrape car windows.
“When I started (bike commuting), I was really a fair-weather, summer commuter. It took a couple of years until I figured out how I could ride through the winter and even if I wanted to,” said Rebecca Bird of Champaign, who rides about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on conditions, to her job as a planning director for the city of Urbana.
As she grew to enjoy bike commuting more, Bird began dressing more warmly as the weather cooled, thinking she would keep biking until the weather forced her to stop, “until I realized, ‘Wow, I can go pretty much the whole year.’
“It’s fun. It’s kind of an adventure,” Bird said. “You just have to be prepared.”
Valerie Sivicek rides about 2 1/2 miles from Urbana to her job as a wetland plant ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey in the University of Illinois Research Park. She said her commute is “invigorating.
“I feel good when I get to work. I feel like my blood is moving,” she said. “The winter makes it harder to get exercise because the days are so short, and it’s not pleasant out. (Commuting) gives me a structured way of getting a little exercise. It’s just getting a little bit of sunshine and fresh air.”
Kanter is a birder, and he enjoys spotting different species — or just listening to their songs — as he rides. His favorite part of his commute is biking around the Boneyard Creek detention basin, where he’ll sometimes stop to photograph birds.
“I don’t enjoy being outside any less in winter than any other day,” said Kanter, who rides from his Champaign home to his job on the UI campus as communications coordinator for the School of Earth, Society and Environment.
But as much as he enjoys the outdoors, Kanter wouldn’t bike if it weren’t convenient. It’s quicker for him to get to campus by bike than by car or bus, and he doesn’t have to pay for a parking space that would likely be blocks from his office.
For Rob Kowalski, a city planner for Champaign, biking to work is also a matter of convenience. His family of four has one car, so Kowalski has biked the 3 1/2 miles to work for the last 10 years. He likes the flexibility bike commuting offers, rather than being tied to a bus schedule.
“I am really impressed with the number of people I pass every day, morning and night, riding their bikes, commuting to work, all year long,” he said. “It’s a really cool feeling when I pull up to a stoplight, and I look around, and I’m with four or five other bicyclists. There are those times when I feel there is a critical mass building of people commuting on their bikes.”
The cold doesn’t bother Kowalski.
“I’ve just become so accustomed to riding every day, I don’t even think about it,” he said. “You dress appropriately and figure out what you need to wear for 95 degrees or 10 degrees.”
But he draws the line at riding in pouring rain, and this year he’s vowed not to ride on snow or ice.
Don Hiles doesn’t let much stop him from riding. Hiles, a mill worker at the UI, is a longtime road and mountain biker, and he has a bike for every occasion. In the winter, he’ll ride a mountain bike on clear days; a bike with studded tires for ice; or a fat tire bike if there’s snow.
Before he got the fat tire bike, he would cross-country ski to work on days when it had snowed and he couldn’t ride.
“I love it. It wakes me up in the morning,” Hiles said. “Sometimes coming home at night, I don’t appreciate it if the weather is crummy, but in morning, it doesn’t seem to matter. If it’s pouring down rain, I still love it.
“It just opens my head up. It’s relaxing.”
Tips to ride
The key to commuting by bicycle in the winter is being prepared for the weather.
Among the things to consider when riding in winter, according to local bike commuters:
A cyclist’s hands, feet and face are the areas that get the coldest during winter rides and so need the most protection.
Several bike commuters say they wear two pairs of gloves when it is cold, a warm inner pair and a windproof or waterproof shell on the outside.
A face mask or balaclava, or a scarf that can be pulled up over the face, are good for keeping the face warm. Rebecca Bird has a fleece hood with a drawstring that can be tightened so just her eyes are showing, and she also has a tighter-fitting face mask made of high-tech material.
Bird has a fleece insert she can add to the inside of her helmet in the winter to keep her head warm. Don Hiles and Rob Kowalski opt for cycling-specific hats that are warm but thin enough to go underneath a helmet.
Hiles wears his insulated work boots, while Kowalski opts for two pairs of socks on the coldest days.
Wearing layers is best for the upper body. Valerie Sivicek wears a shell with a light fleece or lightweight wool underneath. She’ll wear two layers beneath the shell on colder days and one if it is above freezing.
“My biggest problem is often overheating, finding the right balance of clothing,” Sivicek said. “You can’t be warm enough when you walk out the door. You’ve got to be a little bit chilly (or you’ll overheat during the ride.)”
Kowalski wears a winter jacket on really cold days and a sweat shirt with a running jacket or windbreaker on milder days.
Bird recommends flannel jeans for cold weather, and Hiles will wear wind pants if it’s very cold.
Bird and Hiles both have studded tires for use on the ice. Bird said they are “unbelievable.” She has them put on her bike right after Thanksgiving and uses them all winter.
Hiles has different bikes and tires for various conditions. He and Bird said the studded tires don’t do well in snow. Hiles has 4-inch fat tires for snow.
Sivicek sticks with her hybrid tires, which are “fatter and treadier” than road tires.
Being visible is especially important in winter, when there is less daylight, and the sun is low in the sky. These riders have front and rear lights on their bicycles. Kowalski said it’s worth the investment to get a higher-quality, brighter light.
He also waits to leave work until after 5 p.m.
“I’ll wait until 5:15, when traffic is considerably less and drivers are less aggressive after the ‘rush minute,’” he said.
Kowalski wears a bright yellow vest, and Rob Kanter wears a hunter orange one. Kanter recommends clothing with reflective material for visibility.
Bird changes her route when weather conditions are poor so she is riding on roads with less traffic. Several local commuters choose quiet streets for their commutes, but they will move to main roads if those roads are plowed of snow and the side streets are not.
Photos: Top: Planning director Rebecca Bird, armed with winter and safety gear, ends her work day at the City of Urbana by biking down Vine Street for her commute home. Middle: Bird commuting on her bicycle. Clothing photos: Bird has a variety of gloves she can use to keep her hands warm in different weather conditions. She keeps her face warm with a high-tech mask. She uses a fleece liner inside her bicycle helmet during the winter. Bottom: Bird uses studded tires on her bicycle during the winter. Photos by Heather Coit/The News-Gazette