Bike commuters brave winter roads and ride to work
HOUGHTON – Winter roads are slippery and narrow, but a hard core of local bicycle commuters are still pedaling to work.
Michigan Tech physics instructor Kris Bunker said this is his fourth winter riding daily from Hancock to MTU’s campus, “and I haven’t had a day the weather has stopped me.”
In fact, it hasn’t even really slowed him down.
“By the time I shovel out the driveway, drive to Tech and park, it’s about the same amount of time,” as the bike ride, he said.
But Bunker admits that his downtown route is short, well-lit and well-plowed when compared to Curt Webb’s trek from Baltic, down M-26 and across the bridge into Hancock to the Keweenaw Co-op.
For the last couple of weeks, Webb has faced unplowed M-26 shoulders, almost daily poor visibility and temperatures hovering just above 0 degrees. He decided not to risk it until conditions improved.
“Just this last little bit of weather forced me into the car for a while,” he said.
Even in better weather, it takes preparation and defensive biking skills to make it through the winter safely.
The most crucial winter biking extras are a good head lamp and tail lamp, which many bikers already have. Then come some serious tires.
“The main thing I add in winter is a studded tire,” Webb said. “I don’t think it’s totally necessary if you have a mountain bike with wide, knobby tires. But mine has narrower tires, and I definitely go studded.”
Bunker uses a ski helmet instead of a bike helmet, “because it’s a little warmer,” he said. Please – if you’re going to try this – use some kind of helmet.
Of course, decent clothes are crucial. In extremely cold weather it’s important to cover your face against the wind, but also to wear breathable layers to wick away sweat. Webb said gloves can be the biggest challenge, as hands need to manage gearshifts and brakes, but also stay warm. He also wears as much reflective clothing as possible and recommends fenders for sloppy weather, as well as a rear-view mirror.
“A mirror is a wonderful thing,” Webb said. “I have one on my helmet.
“It’s great to know what’s going on around you without turning your head. You turn your head, you can turn your arms, and that can be dangerous when it’s slippery.”
Webb said someone with a good mountain bike and winter clothes could probably outfit themselves for winter riding for around $100.
No matter how well outfitted, however, sharing icy roads with cars requires vigilant defensive biking.
“In winter, drivers might not see you out there,” Webb said. “I try to be very cautious where I am, especially in conditions when cars aren’t going to be as in control.”
Houghton County Sheriff Brian McLean said winter bikers and drivers are expected to share the road under the same rules as at any other time of year, but that all parties need to use common sense in adverse conditions.
“Bikes are permitted to use the roadway,” he said. “Give them leeway and don’t push them into the snow bank. Take your time, and give them some space.”
Webb said that there’s no local organization yet specifically for winter bikers, but that many he knows are members of the Bike Initiative Keweenaw, a.k.a. BIKE!, a group dedicated to helping more Copper Country residents take to the roads safely. In the past, BIKE! brought in a certified bicycle traffic safety trainer to teach general safety skills. Webb is hoping to convince the group to bring the instructor back for a winter specific course.