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Perfectly comfortable

I don't particularly like cars. I don't like the way they smell, on the inside or the outside. I don't like the feeling of being trapped in a sheet metal-and-vinyl box, my body slowly warping to the shape of a bucket seat. I don't enjoy the visually unexciting and inhospitable environment of highways or the boredom of spending hours gazing at asphalt markings and highway signs. I particularly dislike the insect-like behavior that cars provoke in people, reducing their behavioral repertoire to that of ants who follow each other around, their heads in close proximity to the previous insect's rear end. Nor do I enjoy having a mechanical dependent that I have to feed and house all the time, even though I rarely have need of it. I do sometimes need to use a car, and then I rent one or use one from a car-sharing service that charges by the hour. The most enjoyable parts of that exercise is when I pick it up and when I drop it off. Cars end up costing me a few hundred dollars each year, which is a few hundred dollars more than I would like to spend on them.

I do like bicycles. They are about the most ingenious form of transportation humans have been able to invent so far. I especially like mine, which I bought second-hand, from a friend, for something like $150. That was about 20 years ago. It still has a lot of the original parts: frame, fork, chainrings and cranks, bottom bracket and hubs. The spokes and rims were replaced once; the cables twice; the freewheel and chain five or six times; the tires a dozen times or more; I've lost count of the inner tubes, which don't last long thanks to all the broken glass on the road from cars smashing into each other.

Over time, I've upgraded various bits. Nice titanium break levers from a used parts bin at a local bicycle school set me back $10. One of the down-tube shift lever mechanisms fell apart (it was partly made of plastic), and I replaced it with an all-metal one from a nearby bin at the same establishment. The original rear derailleur was by Suntour, which no longer exists, and so I replaced it with a Shimano part, for $60, I recall. Ruinous expense, that! (The front derailleur is still the original Suntour.)

The frame is made of very high quality chrome-molybdenum alloy of a sort rarely encountered today. Chrome and molybdenum prices have gone up by a lot since then, and steelmakers have found new ways to cut corners. It survived a ride up and down the East Coast aboard a sailboat, exposed to the elements, without a problem. It looks like a beat-up, rusty old road bike—not something bicycle thieves normally find interesting—and that's exactly how a bicycle should be made to look even when it is new.

I ride something like 7 km just about every weekday of the year. Sometimes I ride quite a bit farther, spending half a day meandering through the countryside or along the coast. I've ridden as much as 160 km in one day; that was a bit tiring. I rarely take the shortest path, preferring meandering bike paths that go through parks and along the river. I do ride through traffic quite a bit of the time, and have developed a style for keeping safe. I pay minimal attention to traffic signals and lights (they wouldn't be needed if it weren't for cars) and mostly just pay attention to the movements of cars. (Traffic lights are sometimes useful in predicting the behavior of cars, but not reliably, and not so much in Boston.) I also tend to take up a full lane whenever a bicycle lane is not available (cars are not a prioritized form of transportation, to my mind). A person who is in a hurry, here in Boston, would get there sooner by riding a bicycle. I understand that this annoys certain drivers quite a lot, raising their blood pressure. Perhaps the elevated blood pressure will, in due course, get them off the road, along with their cars, freeing up the space for more bicycles.

In the summer, my riding attire consists of a tank-top, shorts, and flip-flops. I've tried various combinations of pedals with toeclips, clipless pedals and bicycle shoes with cleats, and eventually settled on the most basic pedals available and flip-flops. I've also experimented with padded bicycling shorts and jerseys made of Lycra, and found them too confining. Also, I just couldn't get over the feeling that I shouldn't wear such outfits, no more than I should be going around in tights and a tutu, and so I went back to wearing hiking shorts. But it can be a fine show when Balet russe comes rolling through town. When it rains, I put on a Gortex bicycle jacket that evaporates the sweat while keeping the rainwater out. The hood goes under the helmet, keeping my head dry as well.

The bicycling outfit gets more complicated in wintertime. The Gortex jacket is still there, but underneath it is a hoodie, under that a wool shirt and thermal underwear (microfiber works best). The shorts are replaced with jeans, with Gortex zip-on pants over them for messy weather. The flip-flops are replaced with insulated, waterproof half-boots, with two layers of wool socks. Add ski gloves and a ski mask, and the outfit is complete.

Oddly enough, bicycling on a frosty but dry winter day is even more enjoyable than on a balmy summer day. Firstly, in the winter cooling is not an issue, so I can ride as fast as I want without breaking a sweat. If I start feeling too warm, I can unzip the jacket partway and get all the cooling I want. Secondly, there is the realization that bicycling in wintertime is more comfortable than walking, since I can generate as much heat as I need to keep warm simply by going faster. The one somewhat unpleasant part of winter riding is the wind: cold winter air is a lot denser than warm summer air: a 20 km/h headwind is hard to pedal against in the summer, but much harder in the winter. (I recently rode across town in a gale, and it was not unlike a mountain climb, grinding away in the lowest gear. The ride back was all downwind, and I was flying, riding the brakes the entire way.)

Snow and ice present an interesting set of challenges to a two-wheeled vehicle. I've experimented with studded tires, fat cyclocross tires with deep treads and regular road tires. Road tires won. Studded tires on both front and back are a huge performance killer, making a fast road bike into more of a stationary exercise bike. Putting the studded tire just on the front (which is where it is really needed the most, since the rear can fishtail all it wants without compromising stability) helps quite a lot. But overall, studded tires create a false sense of security; it is better, I have found, to keep the regular road tires on and simply learn to recognize and adjust to the conditions.

High-pressure road bicycle tires have tiny contact patches, and apply tremendous pressure to the road surface—enough to indent packed snow, creating side-to-side traction. It's still not possible to bank steeply, but it is quite possible to keep balance by slowing down. Fore-and-aft traction is not quite as good, making rapid acceleration and braking unlikely. On a slippery surface, the game becomes to avoid breaking friction between the road and the tire. Tires with a deep tread seem to work well on mud, but do not seem to help at all on snow, because the tread becomes packed with compacted snow, causing a lot of rolling resistance but not much traction. With regular road tires, the only truly frictionless surfaces I have found so far are smooth ice covered by water and oiled steel plates. When I encounter either of these, I get off and walk, having once wiped out quite badly on an oiled steel plate, in the middle of summer, in fine weather.

If any of this seems strange to you, then there may be something funny going on inside your head and you should get it checked out. Around the world, for over a century, people everywhere have used the bicycle to get around in every kind of climate and weather. There are year-round bicyclists in the Sahara, as well as in Edmonton, Alberta. Bicycling year-round is very much a solved problem everywhere. Here in Boston I know dozens of people who commute by bicycle year-round, and I see hundreds of people out on bicycles, every day, at all times of the year.

And yet with just about any random group of people I encounter the idea of bicycling through winter is regarded as very strange: somewhere between suicidal and heroic. (The fact that driving a car is far more dangerous, and suicidal on multiple levels, does not seem to register with most people.) What can I say? To each his own. As for me, I am perfectly comfortable riding a bicycle year-round.

Editorial Notes: Suggested by EB contributor Amanda Kovattana. -BA

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