It’s a measure of how well-integrated into the streets bike share has become that I sometimes forget we’re still in a season of firsts. It’s the first Citi Bike winter, with attendant focus on the handling of snow removal around the bikes, on deployment of tall red flags to indicate to snow plows where stations end, and on speculation about what circumstances might prompt shut-down of the system.
Polar Vortex 2, which dumped a foot of snow on New York City streets and drove the mercury into a persistent tailspin this week, yielded a couple of firsts for me – and a few lessons — in riding Citi Bike in winter.
I wasn’t alone in my curiosity. The record shows that bike share has handed already-over-achieving New Yorkers one more arena in which to demonstrate their resilience. Citi Bike reported clocking 6,669 trips on Jan. 7, the day during Polar Vortex 1 (one wonders what the final tally will be) when temperatures dropped to a 118-year low of 4 degrees F for that date: “It turns out that a short ride on a Citi Bike is better than a long walk on one of the coldest days in recent memory,” an e-update to bike share members observed this week.
Still there are limits. While my love of riding bicycles sometimes exceeds reason, I am ultimately a reasonable person when it comes to safety and comfort. My brief forays served as reminders not only of the fun, but also of my personal boundaries, of cycling in cold and snow. Here, a couple of observations and tips:
Winter cycling is a trip: If you like catching snow-flakes on your tongue and feeling like a little kid again, then consider a spin on Citi Bike a 15-minute adventure with the power to banish winter blues.
Check before undocking: In tough conditions, assuring that a bike is in full working order is more essential than ever. Two blocks out from the dock on Tuesday, I noticed the handling of my bike seemed way more sluggish than the still-mushy and easily navigable build-up of snow warranted. When I pulled over, I discovered that the front tire was flat. Sure, a maintenance light should have been on, or the seat should have been turned around to indicate a problem, but in the end, it was up to me to ”kick the tires.”
Frozen extremities are no joke: Within 5 minutes of undocking a bike in the West Village for a ride to University Place on Wednesday, my fingertips ached to the point of pain. My regular snow boots, wool socks, down coat (with extra layers underneath), and wool hat and scarf were up to the task of protecting me. But my everyday leather gloves couldn’t deliver in 10 degree temperatures. With the winter we’ve got, a pair of thermal gloves or mittens that break the wind while allowing dexterity for braking and shifting, is a cycling basic well worth the investment. (I had forgotten mine at a friend’s house over the weekend.)
Take wider turns: In slippery conditions, even with the solid weight of the blue bike beneath me, I found myself needing to slow down and to negotiate a much wider turning arc than usual. (This requires anticipation when approaching an intersection with the light in your favor.) Maintaining as upright a position as possible and steering into the turn more gradually helps prevent wipe-outs. Pro tip: Reduce your Citi Bike seat height a notch to help lower your center of gravity.
Beware of black ice: Black ice is a nearly invisible, transparent glaze that can build up on road surfaces in freezing temperatures. It’s the most pernicious of winter cycling hazards because of its ability to surprise and to cause sudden wipeouts with potentially disastrous consequences. At mid-week, the presence of black ice signaled a cycling a no-go for me.
The streets get narrower: After the plows had done their jobs, I was reminded of how substantially the snow piles shrink the roadways. It’s felt most immediately in the closer proximity of cars on side streets. Thus, it’s critical to maintain focus, scan ahead for obstacles and “take the lane” when piles of snow or other obstructions limit the normal path. If at any time this feels uncomfortable, get off the bike and walk it on the sidewalk.
Very little will keep me off a bike, but nature ultimately has its way of humbling us. At the height of the extreme weather in New York City this week, my own “firsts” on Citi Bike helped me to realize my personal limits. What was your call on biking in the city this week?
For more tips on winter cycling click here to view our comprehensive guide!