Monday morning around 8:30, only a few flakes were falling as I rode my bike to a couple of meetings I had in downtown Milwaukee. I was just thinking about how the storm was later than predicted when a man stopped in his SUV shouted out his driver’s side window “BE CAREFUL OUT THERE!” He was smiling, despite his pleasantly ominous warning, so I smiled back and said “YOU TOO” as I pedaled past him. Remember, at this point the roads were still dry pavement.
By the time left my meetings around 11, it was snowing harder and there were a couple inches of fluff on the ground and salty slush on the roads. It was no big deal riding back to the Bike Fed office. In fact I opted to get on the snow covered Hank Aaron State Trail at Emmber (A in the map above) and rode that all the way to W Milwaukee Road (B). Because that section of the Hank Aaron State Trail is plowed and salted well in the winter, it was easy to pedal through the few inches of fresh snow over the smooth pavement.
At that point I had to get on Canal Street because the section of trail between Milwaukee Rd. and the Menomonee Valley Passage bridge has never been plowed, so the pretty snow covered difficult to ride on icy, packed-down, foot-print rutted snow. While it does make me feel a bit like a second class citizen, it was not a big deal to hop on the road and then get off my bike to climb over the snowbank to ride across the well-maintained Menomonee Valley Passage up to our office at 3618 W. Pierce Street (C in the map).
To circle back to the pleasantly ominous warning I got from my fellow road user earlier that morning, I think the ease with which I made it from points A to C in a snowstorm illustrates the paradigm shift we need to make in the general collective consciousness in the US. I will give this guy the benefit of the doubt and imagine he was caught up in the meteorological media hype and warned people driving cars to be careful too, but I doubt it. I think he warned me because he thinks it is really dangerous to ride a bicycle, particularly in the winter. There is just this pervasive idea in the US that it is really difficult and dangerous to ride a bicycle and only crazy people or extremists do it in the winter.
I don’t know exactly when Americans became such fearful whiners and seekers of comfort over effort when it comes to travel, but we sure seem to have lost our pioneering spirit. Outside the misadventures of the Donner Party, Americans used to take pride in embracing adventure travel and took hardship in stride. We uprooted our families, packed up our belongings in the back of a wagon, and traveled west across vast, unknown territory to find new places to call home. Of course there were no other “easier” travel options, but if you read any of the accounts of these cross-country trips, people did not seem to make a big deal of hardship.
I used to blame automobile advertising that promises people will be hip and happy if they only just purchase a car. The ads always promise comfortable travel repleat with surround sound and heated leather seats to anyone who needs to pick up the mail at the end of their driveway. While I do believe that advertising designed to convince people to buy cars is near the heart of the problem, the well-known Miller ad below lends some defense for the cultural moguls on Madison Avenue. Say what you will about advertising, this one makes my point exactly.
I don’t consider myself cut from the same burlap cloth as our pioneer predecessors just because I ride my bike eight miles through the snow. After all, I am riding in a city where I can seek shelter almost anywhere on my route. That said, I must admit to shaking my head in wonder at people who drive their cars anywhere less than a mile. I honestly know three people in my neighborhood who drive 3-4 BLOCKS to work every day. Heck, you can walk three blocks in the snow in the time it takes to start the car and scrape the windows! Is time really so valuable, and fossil fuel and out environment so unimportant, that personal convenience outweighs taking a even a little personal initiative?
I understand that as someone who rides his bike for transportation in the winter I am in the minority in the US, even among people who like to ride bikes. I know people who drive cars also care about the environment and work hard in other areas, so I am open to any arguments to dispute my claim that when it comes to getting around, we have lost no longer take pride in our pioneering past and personal independence. Our generation won’t be able to tell our grand kids that we “walked a mile through the snow” to get to anywhere.
While the majority of Americans may think people who ride bikes in the winter are crazy, there is an active minority of people who enjoy and take pride in getting around under their own power all winter. My family and many of my closest friends do ride all year. It can feel a bit tribal when we all ride to some common event, but in a good way. If winter bike get togethers are the equivalent of circling the wagons, then my buddy Pete’s Bullitt cargo bike is perhaps the modern version of a Conestoga wagon. Even on a cold winter night, he is able to carry his daughter Deva in comfort and safety with the box and faux fur blanket he has on the front of the Bullitt. While the sight of Pete and Deva rolling down a street on a winter evening may draw a lot of stares in Milwaukee, it remains common place in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam (and many other cities around the world) where people still take pride in getting around under their own power.
I have a bunch of friends from Copenhagen where 50% of all trips are taken by bike. Yes they have better bike networks and they plow the cycletracks first in the snow. And while they do have milder winters than we do in Wisconsin, I believe that part of the reason so many Danes and Dutch ride bikes no matter the weather is because they still take great pride in their Viking heritage. When you are there, you just don’t hear people complaining about the weather or traveling in the snow like you do here.
I encourage you to follow look over the posts from several days of snow storm photos from Copenhagen Cyclechic beginning here. You will see men, women and children dressed in regular clothes, riding bicycles in what looks like blowing snow. It is just not a big deal for Vikings. As a Packer fan, I hate to admit when any Vikings are tougher than us, but it does seem that the sons and daughters of pioneers are not as tough today, at least when it comes to getting around.