Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bike Commuting - End of Year Wrapup

It's the end of another school year and time to tally up my bike commuting numbers for the year.

For those who aren't regular readers, I'm a full-time teacher so when I talk about a year, I'm referring to a "school year," or the time from late August through May. That time frame obviously includes the winter months, which here in Northeast Ohio can often be pretty miserable for cycling, and does not include the summer months. This past year we had another relatively mild winter and although I didn't have the record-breaking numbers I had last year, I did get close. Last year I set a new personal record of 111 days, for an average of nearly 63%. This year I rode 107 days for an average of 61%. As of right now, there are still a couple of days left, so there's always the possibility of adding a couple more to my total.

Keeping my average over 60% means that I exceeded my primary goal for the year (to bike to work at least 50% or more). But by exceeding it by so much, I also improved on my long-term average and met my secondary goal. Since I began bike commuting in earnest, I've had a couple of years where I made it to 50%, and a couple of years where I fell short. (Actually, the winter of 2014-15 was so miserable that I only finished that year at 35%). Until just recently, my multi-year average was still trailing the 50% mark, but once I passed 100 days for this year, I moved my long-term average up to 50% over the course of the past five years.

A sunny morning in May
All totalled up, my commuting miles work out to more than 3000 miles over 9 months. Over the past five years, that number is more than 12,600 miles that I did not put on my car. Based on my car's 30 mpg average fuel economy, I figure that I've used about 420 fewer gallons of gasoline and probably saved roughly $1000. I don't even know how much my carbon footprint has been reduced, but it feels pretty significant.

Sunrise through layers of mist on a morning in August.
Type II Fun: That's the kind of fun that's only fun afterwards. Being determined to ride even in the winter means putting up with some frigid temperatures. As long as the roads are clear, I try not to let it stop me. I have my limits, but the coldest morning I rode this year was somewhere around 13° F. That said, I had what might charitably be called some "Type II fun" one morning in January. Since I'm recapping my year, allow me to share the story of my craziest commute from the past 9 months.

On this particular morning, it was cold, but there was no snow on the ground, and the roads were clear. The weather forecast said we had a chance of some snow early in the morning (around 35% chance if I recall), but clearing and a little warmer by afternoon. I decided to ride. Even if it did start to snow before I'd arrive at work, I remember thinking "how bad can it get?" In hindsight, that's a question that never has a good answer.

About 15 minutes into my nearly hour-long ride, a very light flurry started to fall -- so light that it was barely noticeable, and I thought "this is not too bad" and I kept riding.

OK - obviously NOT me (and if you don't recognize Andy
Hampsten from the '88 Giro d'Italia, then shame on you!) but
there were many similarities on that January morning.
About 30 minutes in, the light flurry had turned into a full snow shower. Snow began sticking to my glasses and fogging them up, so I removed them. Then I had snow going straight into my eyes and I realized I was going to end up being blinded with or without. At this point, I was already half-way to work, so turning back would have been pointless -- I'd have still been riding through the same blinding snow for just as long, and I wouldn't have been getting any closer to work. I kept riding.

Another 10 minutes, and the snow shower became a full-out blizzard. Snow was covering the road, accumulating everywhere, and sticking to every surface. I was starting to lose traction, especially on the hills, but I just kept plugging along, albeit slowly. Even though I could sometimes feel my tires slip, somehow I managed to stay upright.

At this point, I knew I only had a few more miles to go, but it just got worse and worse with every pedal stroke. Gradually, so much snow was sticking to my bike and my wheels, clogging up my derailleurs and brakes, and packing in around my tires and fenders that I felt like I was dragging an extra ten pounds. Turning the pedals kept getting harder, and shifting gears became impossible. I wasn't even sure if my brakes would work, and if they did, I probably would have ended up wiping out and hitting the deck anyhow. At this point, stopping didn't even feel like an option. What else could I do? I kept riding.

Though it felt incredibly slow, I finally pulled in at work, still 25 minutes before first bell. Surprisingly, the ordeal had added no more than about 10 minutes to my commute, and I was still there well before most of my colleagues in their cars, and long before most buses, too. Every inch of my bike was covered with snow, especially packed in around the wheels and fenders. I had so much snow covering my body that I looked like some kind of snowman. That freakish storm dumped almost 6 inches of snow in about an hour, then stopped. Just as predicted, the day cleared, and by afternoon most roads were plowed and I had a completely uneventful ride home. I was miserable through the ride that morning, but after it was over, I couldn't help looking back at on it and laughing. I still don't know if I earned people's respect or their ridicule, but that's what Type II fun is all about.

Tailwinds to all.


  1. I've had a few rides like that over the years. I remember one ride home a couple of years ago that was during a full-on blizzard. MY office let everyone go home early that day, right when the storm really started dumping snow across the area. Riding home was slow even with studded winter tires as the snow had, by that point, piled up to about 50-60 mm. About halfway home my rear derailler simply stopped working. I glanced back and found it completely packed in with snow. Fortunately, I was in a good gear, and made it the rest of the way home.

  2. Type II fun, indeed. I have had commutes (and other rides) that started in sunshine but ended in torrential rainstorms as well as snowstorms. You do get a sense of satisfaction, even victory, when you arrive to work in such conditions, especially when you arrive before your colleagues who drive.

    Andy Hampsten was great. But those glasses look just as ridiculous on him as they look on anyone else. I confess: I rode with a pair, back in the day!

    1. I had a pair of those goggles too. What was I thinking? Actually, I KNOW what I was thinking: Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten wore them, so I wore them.

  3. IGH for winter work commuting rules! Only twice worried, side wind on sheet ice does not compute and being passed by slowly spinning car did give me pause for thought.

    I often cycled to events trough snow and was confused by eerie silence when nobody else turned up with their cars...

    1. Even better: fixed gear!

      We here in high desert ABQ, NM get only the occasional snowfall that accumulates to any noticeable degree, but I recall a couple of bike trips in snow 2 to 4 inches deep; rather fun, actually, as it wasn't very cold nor was the wind blowing. Still, I recall one cross-town trip when my (fixed cog, no rear brake caliper) rear wheel binded with snow packed up against the rear fender -- 32 mm tires; I had to stop and dig it out before proceeding.

      But rain: I recall another commute when I got off the express bus for the 5 mile final leg home along the bike path by bike. Just as I embarked, a real southwester broke loose, dumping enough rain in just 20 minutes that my access road was 2 feet deep in water (we get a citywide average of 9" a year, and less than that on the westside where I live). I was wearing a rain cape, which worked well, except that every 200 yards I had to dump the puddle that formed in the depression between my arms.

  4. I enjoyed reading about your snowstorm story. Here in the Los Angeles foothills, my worst winter commutes involve soaking rain with much milder temperatures.

    But the summers here, oh the heat! Possibly just as extreme as the Ohio cold.

  5. "Type II Fun" is still way better than "Type II Diabetes". Good on ya!

  6. I was going to suggest an Internal Gear Hub for snowy commutes but I see someone else already has. Those who recommend fixed wheel live in less hilly places. I live on an island with a mountain range down its spine so from sea level to 5,000 ft is only 30 km., less than twenty miles. Gearing is very useful here. Great post of a good cycling adventure.

  7. Thanks for this post. I, too, am a full time teacher and I ride to work as often as I can. I have never kept a tally, however, and that's a great idea that I'm planning to steal from you next school year. Have a great summer!

  8. Congrats on a successful commuting year!

    I am not a regular bike commuter now but was a few years ago in a more bike friendly community. My commute had a few hills, I rode a single speed with a 40 tooth chainring but as I got stronger, put the original 42 back on. I rode the bike for 95% of my days as I decided not to pay for a parking spot at work!

    My coldest day was 1 degree and rode in the snow on a few occasions. The ride wasn't that long so generally enjoyed the challenge except for one memorable day when the bike went out from under me in the snow for a second or third time and I snapped and yelled and cursed for a minute or so in the early AM dark before climbing back on and soldiering ahead....

  9. My Type II fun was riding home in freezing rain a few years ago. It seemed to be light rain when I left work but then I noticed ice building up on the brake hoods, handlebar and frame. Luckily, I was riding studded tires.