How it Works: Winter Biking

Even though we’re in the Northeast, the Vineyard may be better suited to biking in the winter than many places on the mainland. The weather tends to be somewhat milder here, and traffic is significantly less in the off-season months. Plus, bikers often have a choice of on-road and off-road routes that will take them to their destination; depending upon the weather, some are better than others.

All year long, Nancy Weaver of Vineyard Haven commutes on her bike to work at Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury. Her favorite quote is: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” In Nancy’s case, dressing for winter biking begins with a good pair of windproof gloves and a wool neck gaiter. “My husband bought me a face mask,” explains Nancy, “but I feel like a bank robber when I wear it so I don’t use it that much.”

Chris Fried of Vineyard Haven has been bike riding year-round since he came to the Island around twenty-five years ago. Chris dresses for winter biking the same way he dresses for cross-country skiing. He wears long underwear and clothes that will break the wind; the only difference is that he wears a helmet when he bikes. (Wearing a ski helmet might be a good way to go on bitter cold days.)

Some winter bikers say keeping their feet warm can be a challenge. I found one blogger who says cutting up a plastic bag and wearing it between two layers of socks can keep the toes from freezing up. And it’s a lot cheaper than some high-tech foot warmers.

Both Nancy and Chris ride hybrid bikes year-round. Chris claims that if the tires are inflated properly they provide almost as much performance as thinner road-bike tires but afford more stability and traction, especially on dirt roads or trails. “In winter there can be a lot of sliding around,” explains Chris, “especially if there’s sheet ice with snow over it – that’s the worst. On those days, the dirt roads are a lot safer and I try to take them as much as possible.” Chris also points out that he’s not a total diehard: If it’s raining in the winter, he’ll take his car. Biking in the freezing rain is just not worth it.

Nancy remembers being on the paved bike trails in the state forest one winter and nearly wiping out on black ice. “You have to know when it’s time to walk the bike,” she explains. “Walking and biking – think of it as multi-sporting.” The weather influences the route she takes. “I live near Norton Farm in Vineyard Haven, and I actually have about five different routes I can take to get to Polly Hill, ranging from totally on-road to totally off-road to a combination of the two. I choose my route depending upon my mood and the weather.”

She also cautions against pushing yourself too hard on frigid days. “I have a friend who hurt her lungs by overexerting herself on a very cold day, so especially on those days, I like to take it slow.”

Both riders agree that having a properly equipped bike is of paramount importance, regardless of the season but especially in the winter when it gets dark earlier. Both Chris and Nancy have reflectors on their bikes and strong headlamps. Chris also wears a yellow reflective vest with a blinking LED light that he bought at Shirley’s Hardware in Vineyard Haven. “But my number-one safety device,” says Chris, “is a rearview mirror. Being able to see overtaking cars is essential.”

Nancy and Chris stress most of all the importance of driving defensively. Often motorists just don’t know (or don’t care) about the rules of the road and will crowd or cut off bikers. When you’re on a bike, don’t assume anyone will be looking out for you other than yourself.

Finally, I would like to leave you with a little story of my own: When I was nine years old, I thought it would be smart to wrap clothesline around my bike tires – like chains, I figured – and ride my bike across a frozen pond.

That’s not an idea I’d recommend today.