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“You don’t have to be crazy” to bike to work year-round in Michigan, just prepared

Mar 16, 2015

Ben Schultz after a winter bike commute in Ann Arbor last month.
Credit Courtesy photo / Ben Schultz

It appears old man winter is finally loosening his grip on Michigan. (Dare I type that sentence?)

With temperatures close to the 50s over the weekend, some folks may have busted out the grill. I dug around my shed and got my bike out.

My office in Grand Rapids is only about a mile and a half away from my house. But it costs $14 a day to park there. It makes sense most days to commute on my bike.

But I don't bike to work in the winter. I’m just not that hardcore. The black ice, the wind chill, it’s daunting. I already hate driving in the snow. I can’t imagine riding my bike in it. I just can’t.

But people do it. Maybe you’ve seen them around your town? They’ve got those weird fat tire bikes and full face masks with icicle mustaches. They’re crazy, right?

Meet that guy on the fat tire bike with the frozen beard

Joshua Duggan is one of those people. I met him at his place one morning a couple of weeks ago. There was still a solid two feet of snow on the ground in Grand Rapids.

“Today is a pretty warm day, being 24,” he said, smiling. “Everything is relative when you’ve just come out of the coldest winter on record right?”

Duggan takes his boots off the heat vent on the floor. He slips on a pair of giant, cream colored mittens, handmade out of old wool sweaters.

In the garage, he shows off his new ride – one of those bikes built for winter commuting.

“It has 4-inch wide tires and actually I have a 5-inch wide tire in the front. It just gives a lot better traction,” he said.

The bike also has these “bar mitts” on the handlebars for even more protection from the wind and cold. Duggan says a couple of those hand warmer packets inside the mitts really keep your hands warm on the coldest days. The worst this winter was -10 degrees, he said.

He fixes a blinking red light on the back of his bike and another on the front. He buckles his bike helmet over a fleece hat and covers his neck with a cowl his mother-in law knit more than a decade ago. Then Duggan closes the garage door, throws a bag over his shoulder, hops on the bike and takes off toward downtown.  

Cars slowly pass Joshua Duggan on his way to work north of Grand Rapids.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Duggan could drive to work in about twenty minutes, tops. On the bike in the winter it takes twice as long. Because of Duggan’s commitment to bike commuting, he's been part of a one car family for a while now.

Duggan grew up in Nebraska, where he says he faced harsher winds and cold than in Michigan. He’s been regularly bike commuting for more than ten years. He’s a pro. He biked across the country once. I can’t keep up with that.

Eric Bouwens started riding his bike in January, once he got this new bike built for winter conditions.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Then I met Eric Bouwens, who just started winter bike commuting this year.

“In the past I was concerned about ice and snow and getting hit by cars in narrow streets,” Bouwens said.

But in January, Bouwens got himself a late Christmas present of sorts; one of those fat tire bikes I saw Duggan riding. Bouwens loves it.

Bouwens says the cold got him a little the first time he rode this winter. He bought thicker gloves and a full fleece face mask, which helped a lot. He compares winter biking to cross country skiing or any other winter sport.

“If you cover your skin and you exercise, you warm up,” Bouwens said, “I actually find I’m less cold on my bike than if I get into a cold car and I have to wait four miles for the heater to kick on.”

I got the same sentiment from Ben Schultz, who rides his bike in the winter in Ann Arbor.

“I think the most common reaction I get is people wondering why I do it – the same people that spend 10 minutes outside every morning scraping the ice off their cars and people that dance around all bundled up waiting for the bus,” Schultz said.

Ha. I am that person bundled up and waiting for the bus, calling you crazy. Point taken.

Here’s the case for riding your bike in the winter

There are some times it is inconvenient. But truly not that often, they say.

All say having some exercise already built into the day is a big plus.

“I feel like my mind is sharper when I exercise in the morning,” Bouwens said.

“Also, I’m not in a steel box, so I see people. I say hello to people. I’m connected to people,” he added.

Others told me they enjoy the snowy views some winter bike commutes offer. Duggan says it gives him time to think.

Bouwens feels safer cruising at a low speed on a bike than racing around on slippery highways. He’ll take a longer route if he feels unsafe on a certain stretch of street.

All three say it’s important to have the right gear to stay warm and safe on the road.

"Bicycle commuting in the winter is invigorating when done right and pretty miserable when done wrong. It's of course the first few miserable experiences that keep a lot of people away," Schultz said.

“It takes a bit to figure out what clothes you want for what conditions, but once you've got it down, there's really no more fun way to get around town,” Schultz said.

"Winter commuting isn't a competition and no one is going to give you a medal if you ride through an ice storm," he added.

Joshua Duggan, after riding 7 miles to work in near single digit temperatures.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

“I think it’s really just a mental barrier that it seems too crazy,” Bouwens told me, “Once you do it, you solve problems individually and they’re all solvable.”

“I don’t feel like you have to be crazy to bike commute in the winter,” Duggan said when I met him at his office that February morning.

“It’s not that hard and once it becomes normal it doesn’t seem weird at all,” he said.

He thinks it’s weirder that a reporter followed him around with a microphone during his morning routine.

I’m coming around to the idea. Maybe next winter I'll get the courage to winter bike commute, maybe next year.