Does the weather rule whether you ride?

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and even though there isn’t a drop of Irish blood in my Southside Milwaukee lineage, I typically try to get in the spirit and wear a little green. On my bike ride in to work, my green pants typically remind me to look for signs of spring like greening grass. This year Spring seems on hold, but I pedaled to work in my green pants even though I knew before I left that the weather was not particularly festive.

St. Patrick’s Day, 2012: 70 degrees and sunny

Two years ago I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by bare-handing it on my ride to work.

A year ago, I was complaining about the long winter in my post titled Uncle! No more snow please.

Same day, same pants, different bike, different destination – my wife and I on our way to McBob’s for corned beef, and definitely different weather than the year before.

2014, record winter cold and snow, but I resolve not to complain.

Same pants, same coat, same weather – remind me not to complain again next year.

I looked up the average Milwaukee weather for March 17th and it turns out 2012 was a serious anomaly. St. Patrick’s Day revelers in southern Wisconsin are  greeted by a a cloudy day 89% of the time, and the normal high is 43.  This new knowledge put this year in perspective, and left me wondering what effect minor fluctuations in the weather have on how many people ride their bikes.

The weather forecast is very important to me, because I ride no matter what and I need to plan what I am going to wear to bike through whatever nature has in store for the day’s commute. Over the years I have stocked a work wardrobe so I can dress appropriately, but comfortably for every kind of weather. I also have a closet over-flowing with different weight jackets, hats, boots, gloves and scarves. I even have a toolbox of different bikes from which I can pick just the right ride for the conditions, rain, sleet, snow, ice and of course, sunny warm weather (if that ever comes). said I should ride today.

I know I am on the extreme end of the bike commuting spectrum though, and most people don’t ride in crummy weather. Even bicycle meccas like Copenhagen, where 36% of people bike to work, they loose 20%-30% (mostly to transit) in the winter. Even bicycle crazy Portland, OR (6% commute by bike) sees a 23% drop in two-wheeled traffic in heavy rain. The highest bicycle mode share of any major city in the US is in Davis, CA at 19.1% and they do see 20 inches of precipitation per year.

While climates vary and you can argue about climate change all you want, bicycle use is on the rise in communities across the US, in part do to changing preferences, but mostly because of improved facilities. As the use of bicycles for transportation has grown, so has weather forecasting for people who ride, like the aptly titled My current favorite is I learned about this bicycle specific forecasting website when I volunteered at the MORC table next to Kristin Clark at QBP’s Frostbike. Kristin is an avid mountain biker and a professional meteorologist for WheelWeather.cow. She even gives customized long-term future forecasts for bicycle event organizers. See below for a sample forecast for the Cuyuna Lakes Whiteout Fatbike Race.

I get teased because I ride even in blizzard conditions and even 70 mph wind gusts, but I am curious what weather limits “normal people” from riding. I thought it would be fun to hear examples from readers of what extreme weather you have ridden through and what forecast will put the brakes on your commute to work.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

12 thoughts on “Does the weather rule whether you ride?

  1. For me weather is always relative. Anytime I’m biking in unfavorable conditions (hot, cold, wind, rain) I always remind myself that somewhere someone is biking in tougher conditions, so I’m glad I’m not “that guy”.
    Still…..I am very very done with sub zero temps and am chomping on the bit for spring to finally get sprung.

  2. I am willing to ride with temps down to about 25 F, stay off roads with ice. Unfortunately, that’s keep me off of the roads most of this winter. Went out last Friday with temp of about 40 but winds of 25 mph.

  3. With regard to encouraging more people to bike for transportation more often, I feel it is counterproductive to promote a “you should bike in any weather” attitude. This sort of competitive elitist attitude (that isn’t intended as a putdown, but I feel it is accurate) fosters a reaction from many to not even consider biking in ‘good’ weather because of the ‘impracticality’ of biking during the long winter stretch of ‘bad’ weather.

    Instead, it would be better to promote a message that it is OK – perhaps even wise – to bike only when one feels the weather is suitable, whatever that means to each person. Give tips on how to dress for marginal (and worse) conditions. Encourage the wisdom of taking transit home if the afternoon weather turn sour – I read too many apologies from folks who feel bad for not riding home through bad weather. It’s not a religion – it’s just getting from A to B and back.

    Some people will decide over time that they can extend their weather range for biking. And some people won’t. And both are OK.

    This comment may come off as harsh, but my intent is to provide constructive criticism. Bike advocates need to stop reserving praise for people who bike fast or far or in crummy conditions.

    When I meet someone who bikes 3 miles once a month when the weather is between 70 and 85, I tell them that’s terrific! People like this far outnumber all others who bicycle. These are the folks who need encouragement, these are the folks who will benefit most from better bike-friendly infrastructure, and these are the folks we need to show up at city council meetings to ask for better biking. We need to stop treating those folks as second-class bicycle riders if we’re going to make progress on turning cities Platinum and Diamond across the state.

  4. I think Dave called himself “extreme” and insinuated the he is not normal when it comes to all weather riding. My take on this article is that it is OK not to ride, but if you choose to here are some weather options to assist you. I agree with any riding is good riding, and the last paragraph may be looking for other extreme riders and stories. If I had never heard stories on how to survive weather I may never had extended my season to include winter riding.

    I do choose not to ride in pouring rain or deep snow. I feel that in pouring rain I become invisible no matter how many blinkies are going and in deep snow there is not enough room for me on the side and it is too easy for cars and or bikes to slip into each other and the bicycle will lose every time.

    • Thanks Jim,

      I hope this post didn’t come across as sounding like I think everyone should bike no matter what the weather is. I made a point to mention that even in places like Copenhagen and Portland, fewer people ride in crummy weather. And you are correct that I also made the point that I know I am at the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to my tolerance for weather. That said, I have been watching with amazement some of the people on the National Bike Challenge warm-up. There are people averaging more than 70 transportation miles per day for weeks! Just goes to show you that there will always be someone who ride faster, longer, etc., but every ride is a good one, no matter how far we travel or how quickly we get there.

  5. I can dress for the cold but typically draw the line with snow and ice particularly like this past winter where the almost daily snowfalls left the roads continually greasy. And like Dave, I also use the trails as part of my commute but the sporadic plowing leave them unreliable. Now that I’m back at it, I had a pleasant surprise this morning on my main route to work that I hadn’t ridden since the bridge work on Capital Drive and Grantosa made it more dangerous than normal (normal being always dangerous to cross Capital during morning traffic). There is now a pathway under the new bridge that eliminates that obstacle! Is that part of the complete street initiative?

    • Hey Mark,

      That underpass is something I worked to get into the bridge reconstruction plans when I was the Bike/Ped Coordinator at the City of Milwaukee Dept. of Public Works. I worked with WisDOT’s bike coordinator and local elected officials. That is just the sort of thing that bicycle coordinators do when they review plans.

      I have not had the chance to ride it yet, but I’m glad it made your commute a little more pleasant. The plowing of the trails was pretty consistent this winter, much better than previous winters. Hopefully we can make some additional improvements next winter as well.

  6. Great article, Dave. I have an 8 mile round trip commute in Madison, and although I ended up taking the bus probably 10 days this winter (more than the previous 4 winters combined), I still biked most of it. I tend to draw the line at around minus-10 degrees or a wind chill advisory because I’ve had some pretty bad frostbite in the past and am worried about my digits. The city of Madison does a great job on the bike paths, and nearly all of my commute is on the Capital City Trail, so I rarely feel unsafe that way. It’s more the wind chill that gets to me

    • Thanks Matt,

      I think your comment about how well Madison does maintaining paths during the winter is key to getting more people out riding. Many people who like to ride bikes and might ride for transportation are traffic intolerant. Even if we tell them it is safe, they just don’t enjoy riding in traffic. The more we can offer them bike paths, protected bike lanes and bicycle boulevards, the more likely they are to ride. That is even more important in the winter when roads are slippery.

  7. I biked straight through several winters, from 2008 to 2010, biking to work in all conditions. My coldest ride ever was five below air temp, wind at my back, sun in my face, so it wasn’t that bad. But that evening a 25 mph wind was right in my face, the air temp was 7 above, making the “wind chill” about 10 below. Was this crazy? Yes. Was it an adventure? Absolultely. Do I want to do it again? No.

    In January 2011 I came down with a bad case of bronchitis that had me sick for a month. I probably got the bronchitis from biking in the cold air, and, even if I didn’t, the experience made me more senstive to aerobic exercise in extreme cold.

    Since then I pretty much stay off the bike when it’s colder than 20 degrees. I’m kinda paranoid about getting another upper resparatory infection, so I stay off the bike entirely.

    Having bike racks on the bus makes a huge difference. I can bus into the office when it’s 15 above then bike home when it’s 25. Or I can bike in in the morning and bus home if there’s a strong, cold wind and I just don’t feel like riding. That flexibility is nice, and I didn’t have that before.

  8. I bike 6 miles to work all year round. My temperature tolerance is 0 to 100 degrees. Rain and snow don’t deter. The weather that stops me is lightning or temperatures less than about -2 Fahrenheit. This winter has been tough. About three weeks in a row where Monday and Tuesday were below zero.

    • Yes Mara, I have yet to find the appropriate outerwear for lightning. A car antenna on my helmet that drags a ground wire?

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