The shorter days of winter relegate most cyclists to stationary workouts on indoor trainers. Most, but not all.
A hardy cadre of local bicycle commuters keeps pedaling right through the dark months, taking on bone-chilling temperatures, elusive sunshine, and roadways that are often slick or littered with potholes.
"I like being asked on really lousy days if I rode, and saying yes, nonchalantly," said Daniel Tieger, 63, a physicist from Manchester-by-the-Sea. "I spent a lot of time in the last 20 years as a bike advocate working to improve infrastructure for cycling, so for me riding to work is also a political statement.
"When I ride it, means one less car, and I've averaged about the same number of miles a year on my cars as on my bikes, about 5,000," said Tieger, who pedals to work in Gloucester. "That saves money too. And the health benefits are undeniable. Plus, riding a bike to work like a kid when you are Social Security-eligible gives me a mental edge."
Richard Fries, 54, is a Pittsburgh native now living in Lexington. He's been a cyclist for 35 years, and a bike commuter just as long. Recently appointed executive director of the advocacy group Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, or MassBike, Fries said pedaling to work is more than just part of the job.
"It's fun, it's fast, and it's free," said Fries. "Just about every bike commuter will report that their commute is the best part of their day. When's the last time a motorist said that? I go door-to-desk in 40 minutes, and never have to worry about parking. Even during this past winter, I never had a problem, while the trains, planes, and automobiles all shut down."
Still, when Mother Nature deposits more than nine feet of snow on the region, the obstacles can be daunting. "Inertia is the biggest challenge," said Tieger. "I can handle bad roads by riding fatter tires, lights for darkness, bunny-hopping for the bridge seams and a chasm or two that appear."
"The inertia comes from getting out of the habit of riding to work," he said. "Excuses such as it's too cold, too dark, too icy, or I'm too busy, are easy. It takes serious work and commitment to ride most of the time."
Beverly native Matthew Roy, 42, who lives in Arlington and commutes into Cambridge, agreed that commuting requires a little extra effort. He'll flex his schedule to avoid rush-hour traffic.
"I adapt my commute in many ways based on time of year, time of day, weather, etc.,'" said Roy, a research scientist. "During this never-ending winter I've still commuted every day, but I've removed roads from the equation almost completely.
"Thanks in part to my fatbike – a mountain bike with 4.5-inch-wide tires – I've been able to ride exclusively on bike paths from Arlington to Cambridge," he said. "It nearly doubles my commute in terms of mileage, but I am not on the narrow roads, or waiting on a crowded T platform."
Tieger installs special studded tires for added grip with snow and ice that can cover pavement. Fries lowers the air pressure in his tires to combat the snow. David Loutzenheiser, 48, a transportation planner for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, actually keeps several bikes at the ready.
“I’ve never driven to work,” said Loutzenheiser. “In the winter I use a bike with Kevlar belt drive and internal hub. So there’s no metal chain to rust or require oil. Also, dirt and such doesn’t stick to the belt, like it does a chain. It’s a great solution.”
However, some of the biggest concerns facing bike commuters are the same year-round, said Fries.
"Distracted drivers pose the biggest threat to all of us – motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists alike,'' he said. "When you ride through traffic you get to look into a lot of cars. I saw a lady not long ago on Congress Street – I kid you not – who had a Yorkshire terrier on her left shoulder, a phone wedged between her right shoulder and ear, and a Greek salad on her lap. Do you think that person can then operate her turn signals or check her mirrors?"
In addition to making sure their bikes can handle the uneven road condition, bike commuters also need to make certain they can keep comfortable.
“As the Norwegians say, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather; only bad clothing,’ ” said Fries. “I see a lot of people make a lot of mistakes with clothing, the most common of which is over-dressing in cold weather, which actually makes one colder because they end up getting wet with sweat. The secret is to have a bureau close to your door that has all of your gear organized.”
The shorter days mean that lights and reflectors are mandatory equipment.
"Between November and April, I modify my bike slightly with a generator hub on the front to power a headlight and fenders," said Fries. "I roll with six lights and a reflective vest in the offseason, too."
The most important thing is to keep pedaling.
"Personally, commuting by bike is a lifestyle decision," said Roy. "I'll never work anywhere that requires being trapped in a metal box for hours at a time. That's time you never get back."
Brion O'Connor can be reached at email@example.com.