Clarendon Cycles: Rolling Through the Winter
Ride through the winter? Yes you can. Just be careful about it.
Icy roads and snowy paths. They’re not here yet, but they’re coming. We almost had them this past weekend. While riding in Arlington’s winter conditions does require a bit of extra effort and care, it’s still quite doable.
There are plenty of great resources for learning more about winter riding. A couple of years ago I wrote about dealing with extended darkness, the potential for slick surfaces, and extra debris on the streets. The Washington Area Bike Forum continues to be a great place for Arlington-specific cold weather clothing and equipment advice. There’s plenty of discussion of the question of when to use studded tires (ice) or big knobby tires (snow) for the neophyte at the forums.
I’m done belaboring the plowing issue — well, until the next big snowstorm, anyway. However, even if Arlington County does finally start plowing the trails, it’s important to know that the trails will still require a good bit of extra care when riding them. This will be especially true in the day or two immediately after the clearing, as the potential for refreezing is high. While the trails are generally well drained, a big snow event has a tendency to overcome the planned drainage system, sending water onto the trails, ready to freeze not long after the snow comes down.
This refreezing is one of the reasons it can be a good idea to take to the main streets in bad weather. While the added traffic may be less than enjoyable for some, there are significant benefits. First, they’re plowed before any other roads, and once plowed, they usually stay that way. Car exhaust, for once, has an upside, as it can keep the temperature above freezing. While black ice can happen anywhere, I’ve never encountered it on Arlington’s main roads (Glebe, Wilson, Columbia Pike, etc.). They’re simply so heavily traveled, even in bad weather, that there’s not much of a chance that ice will form or survive very long.
When taking to the streets in bad whether, however, some changes to your usual riding habits may be in order. Visibility is always important, but it is especially so when the weather is bad. Drivers may be concentrating on their own challenges and may not notice you without a bit of extra help from your extra bright lights. You also want to be extra defensive in your riding.
In addition to giving yourself extra time to stop — say, at the bottom of the Rosslyn hill or on Walter Reed Drive — you should watch for drivers who don’t. I’ve never quite understood why most SUV drivers appear to think that their vehicles are all immune to snow and ice, but I’ve seen quite a few slide halfway into an intersection that hasn’t been entirely cleared. Being in the way if you’re in a car is bad, but being there on a bike can be deadly. So keep an eye out and position yourself accordingly.
Speaking of positioning, if you’re on the roads, it’ll probably be prudent to take the lane. You may not even have a choice, if the snow has been plowed against the curb, or if you’re riding in one of the two tracks created by cars. In any event, taking the lane helps give you visibility, likely puts you on the least slick part of the road, and gives you room to maneuver if you have to take evasive action with respect to an out-of-control vehicle.
Finally, sometimes it’s just more prudent to skip riding entirely in the worst of weather. Take the Metro, telework from home. There are, no doubt, riders among us who scoff at such a suggestion, but getting soaked with slush halfway through your commute just isn’t fun. It’s OK to skip a day or two, sometimes. Healthy, even.
The bike can be safe and reliable winter transportation, especially in Arlington’s relatively moderate winters. But be prepared to take a little extra time and care with your winter commutes, making sure you’ll be around to enjoy the easy ones that come with the spring.
A regular CaBi rider? You can definitely use them through the winter. However, you're not going to get very far on one in the snow — they've got fat tires, but are effectively slick. While they're slow and relatively stable — two pluses, when it comes to winter riding — I wouldn't want to encounter ice on one. So be extra careful if there's a possibility of ice out there.
Mark Blacknell is a member of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.