Something akin to real winter weather has finally hit NYC, and simply commuting to work can feel like an olympic test of fortitude. It sucks, but we do it, and occasionally we'll stop shivering just long enough to break out in sweat on a subway car packed with puffy bodies.
The commute to work breaks you down before you get to work sometimes. Shouldn't be this hard. #NYC
— [TPwn] Mr. Hattz (@Pr0jecT_HaTTa) January 19, 2016
I feel you, Mr.Hattz. It shouldn't be this hard. And that's why I'm here to offer a solution: you all need to buck up and bike to work.
While it's a true cause for celebration that more New Yorkers are biking than ever before, when it comes to cold-weather riding, most of us are wusses. Citywide bike traffic in January 2013 was down 63% from August 2012, and since 2008, winter biking levels have never amounted to more than 57% of "In-Season" ridership [DOT pdf]. Each year, when the mercury dips and the heavens threaten snow, thousands of cyclists across the city hang up their two-wheeled steeds, happy to put another "season" in the books. But I refuse to accept there's such thing as a biking "season," at least not in a region where the average winter temperature never drops below 20˚. If my Minnesotan brethren can keep their bike messenger businesses running year-round then your pampered East Coast ass can surely make it across the Manhattan Bridge. Biking through winter in New York City is a time-saving, money-saving form of self-affirmation. Here's how you do it.
You need to break out long johns, wool socks, sweatshirts, and hoodies to keep yourself toasty as you slice through thin air and harsh wind. Wear a tight-knit hat under your helmet and a double-layer of those little black gloves they sell at bodegas. When the wind chill is especially terrible, put on yet another, thicker layer of gloves. Deerskin is cheap and works extremely well. But most importantly, keep your torso warm with at least four layers. In the cold, our bodies limit circulation to the extremities in order to keep vital organs warm and stave off hypothermia. Keeping your upper body and head warm will keep your fingers and toes warmer, longer, and will make it easier to stay out on the road.
There are plenty of divergent schools of thought when it comes to which materials make for the best winter bike garb, but it's all about finding what works best for your own body. Do you feel especially cold? Wear extra wool. Sweat a lot? Make sure your inner layer is spandex, then use a jacket and hoodie that can easily be zipped open mid-ride, once your body temp has risen.
2. Your Bike
Biking through the winter is a psychological battle, and if you make sure your bike's chain gears, and brakes are in good shape, you'll feel safe, and thus empowered. You'll also be much more motivated to bike through the cold when your 2-wheeled steed is in tip-top shape. Snow, salt, and gravel all build up on winter roads and wreak havoc on your bike's drive train, so take it in for a light tune-up at least once each month. Forget those specialized "Winter Bikes" with wheels the size of inner tubes; unless you're planning to go buckwild and off-road in Pelham Bay Park, or cross-town in a historic blizzard, the bike you already have is surely just fine. If you typically commute with something very expensive, go on Craigslist and get yourself a beater. Or, consider using CitiBike and let winter wear & tear be their problem, not yours.
3. Lights and Ski Goggles
I shouldn't even have to say this, and yet every night I see cyclists who don't use lights. Especially in the wintertime, when the sun sets much earlier and drivers, pedestrians, and other cyclists aren't expecting to come across a biker, you need to have good lights. So get good lights and USE THEM.
And as far as ski goggles go, just trust me on this. Biking through tough winter weather is all about keeping your confidence up, and with a pair of goggles on your face, you will fear nothing. You will wonder how you ever even considered biking without them. You will own the road and confuse your coworkers. You will mean serious business. The second you put them on, you will feel like a golden-eyed god.
4. Know When To Take The Subway
Is the sleet coming down in soggy, satanic clumps? Do you need to travel ten miles, from Bed-Stuy to the Upper West Side? Then you should take the train. No one gives out ribbons for winter biking perfect attendance, and a really terrible day on your bike will sap your enthusiasm for heading back out once conditions improve. My entire goal with this list is to help you find a heightened sense of autonomy through winter biking, and sometimes the best choice you can make for yourself is not to bike. So long as you're biking often enough that it's not worth buying an unlimited monthly Metrocard, you are doing it right and have plenty to feel proud of.
5. Get High Off Sweet, Sweet Freedom
Winter biking isn't about bravery, ego, or moral authority. You are not a better person because you pedaled to work in a 10˚ windchill, while your coworkers were transferring trains at 14th Street. What it is about is autonomy, frugality, and fun. A very real sense of joy sets in once you realize you're properly dressed and have practically every single bike lane in the city to yourself. All the "In-Season" pleasures of biking—the endorphins, fresh air, extra sunlight, and power to come and go as you damn well please—they're all a part of winter biking as well. You will save both time and money, and more importantly prove to yourself that you are capable, physically and mentally of doing something difficult and worthwhile.