Monday, June 7, 2010

Weather immunity

Regular bike commuters enjoy a liberating indifference to weather. Take rain. A pedestrian caught without an umbrella is forced to wait out the storm or dash from awning to awning until they reach the protection of the Metro, bus shelter or parking garage. And even with an umbrella, their clothes below the waist are quickly soaked. The cyclist by contrast doesn’t care. There is only one weather metric on a bike: warmth. If you’re warm, you’re fine. And staying warm on a bike is usually pretty easy. (On perhaps the 15 hottest days of the year, the opposite holds – if you’re cool, you’re fine. Those days, drink a lot of water and ride slowly.)

In summer rainstorms, all you get is wet. And you quickly discover that wet, by itself, isn’t unpleasant at all. (One long day in the rain in 1995 revealed this truth to me.) The warm air, plus the heat you generate by riding, are usually enough to keep any chill at bay. In the cooler air of spring and fall, add a rain jacket or perhaps another insulating layer on rainy days. And of course no matter how wet you may get on the bike, when you get where you’re going, you peel off your wet bike clothes and climb into a dry set of duds. (The ordinary commuter by contrast has little choice but to wear the day’s weather until merciful evaporation completes its work.)

Staying warm in winter is largely a matter of the right clothes. With good layering and proper cold weather selections (like special lobster gloves and a balaclava), you can ride for half an hour or 40 minutes in temperatures down to 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit and honestly pronounce the weather merely “chilly”. Snow is not much of a problem because it doesn’t make you wet. The worst days are rainy ones right at or just above freezing, and I confess that I don’t really look forward to them. But even they aren’t that bad, and I ride in them too.

After a while at this you really do begin to believe you possess a special, personal kind of immunity to the weather. A couple of years ago I had to spend eight weeks in Chicago in October and November on business. I couldn’t ride to work so I deliberately chose a hotel about a mile from the office so I could at least get in a little walk each day. I know what Chicago weather is like that time of year but in packing I completely neglected to pack an umbrella, raincoat or hat. Only later did I realize I had come to believe that weather was just not something that I ever needed to worry about in travelling between home and office - having completely lost sight of the fact that this was thanks only to the bicycle and was not some superhuman trait. Luckily, taxis are abundant in Chicago even in the rain; I spent enough time in them that month.

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