When I was 11, I went to a middle school that didn’t have busing. Both my parents worked and my little sister needed help to get on the bus for grade school so my only way to school was by bike. The school was only about 2 miles from our house and we lived in a rural area so traffic was light. At the time I never thought much about it, I rode my fathers 10 speed that was more upright, had a mustache handle bar and baskets on back, perfect for my book bag. It was a European bike with a beautiful leather saddle and down tube shifters. I loved the way it rode and it always seemed effortless, hard to say if that was youth or just the way I choose to remember it but I did love that bike. There was no “gear” or helmets or shoe covers or studded tires. Just some jeans, my favorite CB coat, a knit hat and whatever gloves or mittens I had. If the weather was really bad, I’d get a ride but most days I rode regardless of the temperature.
At the time I didn’t mind it and just did it because it was what I had to do to get to school. I had no idea that some 35 years later I’d still be doing the same thing and how those early years of riding fostered the love of cycling in my soul. Looking back I’ve always loved riding and can barely remember a time that I didn’t ride my bike. Sure there were times after I got my license to drive that I rode less, and not every day, but I’d still find myself riding places instead of driving. Something about it calls to me, the freedom, the lightness, the warmth or just the feeling of getting the blood moving beckons to me and off I go.
For me, commuting by bike is different then riding for training or fun or fitness. While all of those factor in to commuting at some level, and I do love to ride for those reasons too, it’s still not the same. If you asked me to join you for a spin on the road when it was -9, or in the summer during a heavy down pour, or the fall during a biting wind storm, or mid winter with whipping wind and snow squalls, I’d very likely tell you no way. But for the commute, not a second thought just grab my stuff, hop on my bike and spin off to the station in all those conditions.
My favorite time to commute by bike is oddly the late fall through the winter and in to the early spring. When I’m riding to the train and it’s 9 below zero, as I did several times this year, I get more thumbs up and waves from drivers than you’d ever imagine. Roads are narrow with snow and ice and commuters give me room and pause before passing. Seems crazy I know but they do. In the summer on the same commute when it’s 80 and sunny, I barely get the shoulder and folks can’t pass me fast enough. Not sure what it is other than they must think I’ve got a screw loose in the winter and I might need a break. Or maybe it’s that they see me every day in the snow or rain or slush or cold and think I could use a thumbs up. Whatever it is I appreciate it, wave back and we’re commuting friends.
I have had a variety of different bikes over the years with an array of gearing. I have ridden everything from a fixed gear track bike to a mountain bike. Now I ride a retro Schwinn Coffee with full metal fenders, a rack and nice big mustache handlebar. It’s a single speed which has just about the right gear for the commute, though the last hill up to my house is pretty rough right near the end. I love the ride and upright position, it’s very comfortable with my back pack and easy to spin along. The full metal fenders with buddy flaps are key and a large part of why the bike works so well in the bad weather, they keep all the road grime and slush off me. I have been riding this bike for about 6 years and it’s showing signs of the many many miles it has traveled through salt and slush and rain and might be nearing its useful end. Chris and Randel at the shop have kept it going but I am starting to look around for what might be next. Maybe something with internal gearing and a belt drive? I do like the Cannondale Bad Boy too.
I have heard a lot of complaining about this 10th coldest winter here in New England but I can’t say I minded it. Commuting in the cold is so much better than temps above 50 or 60. I leave my house bundled up, wind pants being the key, and by about a mile, even on the coldest days, I’ve unzipped my jacket. By the only stop light around ½ way I’ve completely unzipped my jacket. At the train station I take my coat off and stand in my t-shirt with only my hat and gloves steaming and trying to cool off before the train comes. I don’t ride hard, just spin along with moderate effort, but it is enough to get me nice and warm. I’m not sweaty hot but very close. Folks at the station look at me with a raised brow from behind their many layers of winter wear trying to stay warm with a look like I’m nuts. And I might just be but as I explain, it is so much warmer to spin on my bike with the blood moving then drive a cold car to the station and then just stand there in the wind waiting.
My commute now is about the same as it was 35 years ago, 2.5 miles from my house to the train station, mostly flat with a couple little rises to get the blood moving. I have a few little alterations to the route I take but I don’t even mind the repetition of the default route. At the beginning of the day, it clears my mind and prepares me for my day and I love the smells of the seasons, especially the crispness of the air on very cold winter day. At the end of the day I am dragging. I’ve been up since 5 AM, done some sort of workout, been jamming at work all day and I go in to a haze on the train ride back to Concord. I drop off the train heavy and not motivated but my only option home is to ride so I mount up and start pedaling. Something happens almost immediately. The tick of bike gets me in a rhythm, the wind on my face wakes me up, blood starts flowing and my mind starts working again. My mood changes and becomes more positive and I am transported to my house.
Spring is hear now and while I love to see it and the signs of nature coming alive, I’ll miss the beautiful crisp winter mornings and friendly commuters. Until next winter I guess. Now I’ll like the commute a little less but love being on my bike training and racing. Not a bad trade off really, just a change that leads to more time on my bike.
I am certainly not the only one on the team who commutes by bike and compared the distances that Kyle Welch and Mike Harris ride in the winter on their way to and from work, my rides barely add up. Nonetheless, I love it and hope to be doing it for another 35 years.