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'Winter Warrior' Bicyclists Share Survival Tips

By Alisa Hauser | January 14, 2015 6:13am
 Folks braving the cold!
Cold Weather Warriors
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CHICAGO — The cold weather has not stopped some of the city's most intrepid folks from doing their regular outdoor jobs or getting around by bike for work or errands.

Active Transportation Alliance, using federal and city data, estimates that 8,000 people use a bike to commute in Chicago during the winter. DNAinfo Chicago asked five such folks for some pro tips on tackling the elements, and chatted with a lawyer who handle bike-related cases.

Alisa Hauser talks about Chicago's winter warriors:

Andrea Newberry, 34, a designer of a breastfeeding-friendly clothing line and mother of two, was loading her groceries into two waterproof bags that she affixed to her Bikfiets cargo bike on Sunday.

Standing outside Stanley's Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, at 1558 N. Elston Ave., in West Town, the Ukrainian Village resident said the late-afternoon snowstorm caught her by surprise. 

"The snow can create visibility and sliding issues with the bike. I don't really want to risk being out with the kids if I don't have to," Newberry said.

Four years ago, when she and her husband Ira Cox had children, they upgraded to the Dutch bike, which they call "the family bike."

Adding a custom motorized hub to the front wheel has helped Newberry to get the bike up to around 15 miles per hour, as compared to the 8 miles per hour she said she'd max out without the motor.

Since their children were as young as one month, Newberry and Cox were putting them into car seats inside of the bike's cargo box, using a plastic hood to protect the young ones from wind chill. 

In below zero weather, Newberry adds blankets and hot water bottles to the cargo box.

Though her children wear helmets, Newberry does not.

"I feel like that is a personal choice and it's one of my last holdouts of not giving in to the safety-obsessed lifestyle of our culture. However, I do always have my children wear theirs," Newberry said.

Newberry's Pro tip: Layers, of course, and good boots and gloves. I love my fleece turtleneck warmer. For those riding cargo bikes, the electric assist is amazing for biking through snow because it creates a two-wheel-drive vehicle. In deep snow, I can pump the throttle and put one foot down to guide the bike, sort of like a dog sled.

Scott Elder, 43, a Streetwise magazine vendor, can usually be found in front of a busy Starbucks at 1588 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park.

A handyman as well as a volunteer snow shoveler for an area church, Elder works outdoors — either shoveling or selling copies of Streetwise — in all weather conditions.

To stay warm, Elder wears overalls, along with a hoodie sweatshirt and a jacket.

Elder's Pro tip: Tuck an extra pair of gloves under your armpits, so when the pair you are wearing gets cold, you can swap them out. Put the cold pair back under your armpits. It will get warm again from your body heat. I learned this trick from a guy who used to be in the army.

Ryan Stahlman, 34, an architectural designer, has been commuting daily to work since his 25th birthday when he made it a goal to get to work by bike.

"Gas prices at that time were surging, plus I had been at a desk job for almost two years and was gaining a lot of weight," Stahlman said.

A recent transplant to Chicago, it is only Stahlman's second winter commuting from Hyde Park to Downtown, about nine miles each way.

During last week's burst of nearly unbearable weather, Stahlman said he saw one other cyclist on his 50-minute ride home Thursday, as compared to about 25 other cyclists during warmer weather.

"My wife worries about me; I have to let her know when I get into the office," Stahlman said.

Stahlman's Pro tip: Keep your core warm with layers of insulation, preferably wool and a good windbreaker. For newer cyclists, start riding in the summer and slowly work up to commuting through the winter.

Hannah Zenke, 23, an administrative assistant for a law firm, commutes 10 miles daily from her home in Logan Square to Downtown.

"It is my sixth winter biking; I'm used to it but it still sucks," said Zenke, who rides a racing bike made for dirt trails that has gears and brakes.

To stay warm, Zenke has a somewhat complicated dressing routine that she described as "a process of layering and un-layering."

Zenke wears a wool onesie underneath her clothes, Pearli Izumi tights, two pairs of gloves and "a face buff," a fabric tube that covers her head and neck.

During snowfalls, she wears goggles that she says are "essential" to keeping the snow out of her eyes.

Married to the owner of a bike courier company, Zenke bikes for mental and physical health.

"It's a way to beat the seasonal depression, it's totally a real thing. ... Exercising in any way shape or form will release serotonin. You get a good feeling afterward. Just the fact you are a winter warrior and you made it to work, it's a high-five, it makes you feel like a badass," Zenke said.

Zenke's Pro tip: Layer up!

Dominic Casey, 48, an Albany Park resident, commutes 14 miles daily to his job in the West Loop.

Commuting by bike since 1998, Casey has been hit by cars "a couple of times" but has not been deterred.

"It's just a habit that I love. The cold is never an issue, but when there is ice you have to be a bit more measured and careful," Casey said.

Casey, after much deliberation, decided not to bike home last Thursday.

"My wife will put the brakes on me once in a while if she knows the weather is bad. Blowing snow is a little dangerous. I am worried people can't see me," Casey said.

Casey's Pro tip: Use hashtag #bikechi on Twitter to talk with other bike commuters. I wanted to see if anyone had gotten home already and to see road conditions last Thursday. Someone replied, "Cold. Icy. Salty. Dark soon. ."

Michael Keating, a lawyer who specializes in bike crashes, said he would be "very happy" if he never handled another bicycle injury case again.

"My biggest concern in the winter months is that drivers don't expect to see cyclists on the road and the road is more narrow from snow removal and cyclists do not have as much room," Keating said.

Keating described cyclists who bike regardless of the weather conditions as "committed."

"It is part of their life, who they are, and they are committed to moving by bike. We have hot summers and cold and snowy winters and those that ride every season reflect just how committed they are," Keating said.

Keating's Pro tip: The Illinois law requires a bike to have a headlight in front and at least a red flashing light on the back [when being used at night]. Use as many lights as possible. Visibility is very poor."

Are you a winter warrior with a long commute?

Active Transportation Alliance's first Roll the Cold week-long challenge kicks off on Sunday. Commuters can log their miles, raise money and compete for prizes such as a wool socks, a light set and a new bike.

Family biking in your future?

There is a panel discussion on Jan. 28 about biking with kids in cargo bikes at Green Machine Cycles, 1634 W. Montrose Ave. in Ravenswood.

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