Advocates often consider woman a sort of “indicator species” (lucky us) when it comes to biking: if the conditions are decent, women will bike. I would be hard-pressed to call the winter conditions in Hartford decent, but I will make the case here that winter biking can be less hardcore than you think. New Haven is full of women on bikes—and not just roadies with fancy warm gear, but also women in slacks on their way to work. This isn’t because New Haven is some cycling mecca, though they do have some fine infrastructure. It’s simply that when more people bike, more people bike. (When I moved here two years ago, it was months before I saw another woman on a bike.)
If we could increase trips made on bicycle in Hartford by just a bit, then more and more people would feel comfortable making trips on bicycle. What’s more, you don’t need to be a hardcore cyclist to commute by bike, however frequently or infrequently. You just need to see it as a part of your life.
I am lazy, vain, and generally cold. Winter biking isn’t my favorite activity in the world; I prefer walking this time of year. I refuse to change clothes at work, and I'm picky about those clothes. But sometimes you want to get somewhere fast, or you’re tired of driving, or you don’t have a car, or the sidewalks are a mess, or whatever. It’s nice to have biking as an option in your repertoire. Here's what I've found.
Essentials, according to me:
A thoughtful route
This is true any time of year, but especially in the winter. Think about which way to go before you leave the house. Do you want to go down that narrow, sleepy road that snow has made into a one-laner? Do you want to avoid the parked cars on the major thoroughfare? Do you want to take advantage of some crossing-guards? Remember than an extra half mile feels like nothing on a bike, and go the nice way.
You’ll look like a murderer, but a comfortable murderer. (Bonus: you won't get catcalled as much!) The balaclava I have is thin; a helmet fits right over it, as does a hat. But most of the time, you won’t need an extra hat, nor will you need a neckwarmer, or earwarmers, or anything else on your head.
Since I am vain, I will bring a less terrifying hat with me. That way, if I have to walk somewhere while at work, I can wear the less terrifying hat instead of the balaclava.
Sunglasses or glasses
You go pretty fast on a bike. Even without a headwind, there’s a lot of icy air encountering your eyes during the winter months. If you wear glasses, you’re all set. If you don’t, then put on some sunglasses, even if it isn’t very sunny.
I know—how do you even shift while wearing mittens? I don’t know. It just works. (I’ve had no problems shifting either bar-end levers or STIs in mittens.) You could wear ski gloves, but mittens are warmer. Apparently they also make lobster-claw gloves for biking? But seriously, mittens are great.
Again, I will pack in a less puffy pair of gloves or mittens—perhaps they go with my hat—if I am feeling particularly vain in the morning.
Front and rear lights
These are year round necessities, but in the winter you may have to move your rear light if your jacket is long.
Really nasty-weather essentials:
When it is cold and snowy, my options are waterproof hiking boots or slightly more stylish but still waterproof snow boots. My winter work uniform rotates between slim jeans and dresses with two pairs of tights; it isn’t coincidental that these both go just fine with boots. I will wear the boots all day long, but you can of course bring nicer shoes with you.
Depending on the temperature and the length of your commute, you may want to wear rain pants or long underwear. I prefer rain pants over regular work pants. If you’re wearing a skirt or a dress, you are also probably wearing leggings or tights. So pack the skirt, throw the rain pants over the leggings, and put on the skirt at work. (If you’re wearing a dress, do as a friend in the Bay area advised: hike it up high enough that you can swing your leg over the saddle, then put on the rain pants.)
Though I am deeply against changing clothes once I arrive at work, I will make an exception for skirts, because it’s really easy to put on a skirt if you’ve already done the hard work of putting on the tights.
If you commit everyday to wearing both rain pants and a jacket you don’t mind getting muddy, then you don’t need fenders. But other humans should invest in fenders. It is very civilized to arrive at one’s destination without a rooster’s tail of slush running up one’s spine.
Nice to have:
A decent jacket
Whatever that is. If you have all the gear listed above, then on most days any warmish jacket will do. I’m not a gear-head, and I have not found the perfect commuter jacket. Just wear something, and remember that wool jackets are tight in the shoulders.
If I’m biking at night in the winter, I’ll go full Amish and strap a safety triangle around my waist. When paired with the balaclava it's a lot of look. But like the balaclava, it can be removed immediately on arrival.
Worn over the helmet, the headlamp is particularly good for staring down motorists who need a reminder to behave themselves.
Ladies (and gents): what are your winter biking tactics?
Kate Bergren is on the steering committee for Transport Hartford and lives in Hartford's SouthWest.