Detroit Winter Cyclists Take The Path Less Traveled

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series on winter biking.

DETROIT—While many Detroiters may be busy putting their bicycles in storage right now, a hardy few are sticking with their bikes and bracing themselves for the coming chill.

Sure, these winter cyclists know it'll be cold out and that the streets will no doubt be icy, but that doesn't discourage them. Why do they travel this way? Some do it out of commitment to a bicycling ethic, others out of necessity.

The Mechanic

Winter riding isn't that bad. The hard part is to find that inner fortitude to decide to go out there in 20 degree weather and get on your bicycle. ~ Mike Torres

Mike Torres, a 41-year-old resident of Detroit's Cass Corridor neighborhood, is one of the latter. He's a bike mechanic with the Downtown Detroit Bike Shop who had to stop driving a motor vehicle about four years back when he started having seizures.

"I'm tired of taking cabs and I hate walking, so I ride a bike," he says. "If public transportation improves in a couple years, I may think about using other options. But at this point in time, being where we're at, biking is the way I choose to go."

Surprisingly, he tells Mode Shift winter bicycling isn't as unpleasant as it might sound.

"Once you're moving, it's generally not that bad," he explains. "The hard part is to find that inner fortitude to decide to go out there in 20 degree weather and get on your bicycle.”

As one might expect, bicyclists are relatively rare sight on Detroit roads in the wintertime. Torres says he only sees about a tenth of the two-wheeled traffic he encounters during the warmer months.

Over the past few years, he's biked in all kinds of weather: flurries, sleet, ice, even snowstorms. If he really needs to get somewhere, Torres will pedal through just about anything.

He’ll even go out when the roads haven't been plowed, provided that there are enough tire tracks in through snow to make a path.

As mechanic, Torres recommends people pay special attention to their rides in the wintertime. He suggests wiping down a bicycle once a week and keeping chains and gears properly lubricated in addition to regular maintenance.

After all, it may not always be slippery ice that causes an accident. Last winter he took a hard fall due to a mechanical malfunction. Thankfully, he was wearing proper head protection at the time.

"Even though it's winter time you should definitely wear a helmet," he says, "Just because you have a hat on won't do you any good."

The Analyst

Eliot Williams, 24, is another Detroiter who isn't afraid to do some pedaling when the thermometer drops. He's a business analyst who drives to work in the suburbs but takes winter bike trips from his home in Woodbridge to other places around the city.

"It just felt very silly driving everywhere in a car when it was very bikeable distances," he tells Mode Shift, "and you know theres a little bit of outdoor experience to it, being in touch that it's winter.”

Williams will bike in all but the most extreme weather. Before going out he usually checks the temperature and dresses appropriately. In general, he tends to avoid major streets to reduce the chance of a vehicular collision.

He warns prospective winter riders to take extra caution with cars and trucks, since it takes them longer to slow down. When in doubt, he says, it's always better to stop for motorists then to have faith they'll stop in time.

Winter riders also get to enjoy feeling really healthy and happy when everyone else starts to get bummed out about their lack of exercise ~ Leslie Wacker

As for slippery conditions, he tries to remain alert and keeps his feet ready so he can plant them on the ground at a moment's notice to avert a fall.

Luckily, Williams hasn't had any accidents yet, just fond memories from last year.

"It's very peaceful,” he says. “I've found, if you're riding solo, it's just you and your thoughts. You're outside, and it can be quite beautiful."

The Freelancer

Unlike Torres and Williams, Southwest Detroit resident Leslie Wacker has experienced winter biking far beyond city’s boundaries.

She's a relatively recent arrival to Detroit, having lived before in New York City and Chicago. Together with her boyfriend Kyle Wiswall, Wacker owns and runs Freighty Cat, a small company that manufactures hand-made cargo bikes and bicycle trailers. As they build their business, she supplements her income by doing a variety of freelance jobs.

At 31, Wacker doesn’t have a car and has relied on bikes (and public transit) every winter of her adult life.

How does winter biking in Detroit compare with other places? The wind isn't as vicious as it is in Chicago, Wacker says, and she appreciates having more space on the road. Also, public transit isn't as accessible as it is in the Big Apple or the Windy City, making bicycling a more appealing option.

Having spent so many winters behind a set of handlebars, Wacker thinks that a lot of resistance to winter riding is misplaced.

"It's always hardest the first day after the winter [begins,] because it's cold so you think you don't want to," she tells Mode Shift, "but as soon as I'm finally out on my bike for the season I never wanted to walk again, because your feet are off the ground, your feet are less cold, you're moving so your body is warmer, your core is warmer, and generally I would feel a lot less cold biking somewhere than standing in line for a bus or standing on a train platform."

Winter riders also get to enjoy "feeling really healthy and happy when everyone else starts to get bummed out about their lack of exercise," she says.

Her advice to budding winter cyclists is to take care of their bodies. She recommends not traveling on an empty stomach and going to the bathroom before starting a trip. It’s also important to use lights at night, since it gets darker earlier in the winter, she adds.

In preparation for some of the more difficult days ahead, Wacker and her boyfriend are putting together some special bikes with thick tires and coaster brakes to make their rides a little more manageable.

Although this more extreme winter biking might not appeal to everyone, Wacker encourages casual cyclists to give a winter spin a try this season and hints that it comes with some perks.

"I really recommend it, because you're part of a little club," she says. "You see people biking on the street all year round and you might not recognize each other [in the warmer months,] but in the winter everyone who bikes around knows each other and is friends."

Part two of Mode Shift's series will explore how to dress for winter biking.


Will you be riding this winter? Tell us why or why not in the comments below.

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