Tuesday, 12 Feb 2002

UPPER PENINSULA, Mich.

Snow is flying, the wind is howling, the temperature’s dropping and I’m about to cycle an invigorating 11 miles into town. Once during a visit to our Congress member’s office to urge support for alternatives to cars, I mentioned that I had snow tires on my bike. His jaw dropped about a foot but I think he got a kick out of the concept. A lot of Yoopers (natives of the Upper Peninsula, or U.P.) are proud of how much snow falls here, and feel an affinity for anything associated with the white stuff. So snow tires for bikes are a natural in our region, given the standard winter’s snowfall of 200-inches-plus.

You can buy studded snow tires for bikes, which is what we did. You can also make them, using car studs or sheet metal screws and a good, thick tire liner — that’s what Jim Gregory and Joan Stein of Bikes at Work have done. (They also make a terrific bike trailer that can carry unbelievably big loads.) I don’t really need any other special equipment for cycling in snow — just the right clothes. As my husband’s Norwegian relatives say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” I dress as I would for cross-country skiing and stay plenty warm, often warmer than I’d be if I were sitting in a car.

My bike and its snow tires frequently carry me the few miles to our closest neighbors’ homes. We sometimes ski the neighborhood, too; some of our neighbors throw dynamite dinners and it’s a blast to ski to and from their parties. I’ve also used snowshoes to socialize. Last Christmas, I carpooled 17 miles to one party, snowshoed most of the six miles from that event to another gathering, then carpooled 11 miles home. That’s a U.P. version of intermodal transportation.

This winter, I’ve done more biking than skiing or snowshoeing because, despite today’s storm, the snow’s been sparse overall; we wonder what role climate change might play in this record-setting mild winter. There is still enough snow and ice on the roads, though, to make snow tires helpful, if not absolutely necessary.

My bike-with-snow-tires is a mountain bike which I’ve also retrofitted with a Zap electric-assist motor. The electric assist works great in spring, summer, and fall — you still pedal the bike, but can flick a lever to engage the motor when you need it and get a little burst of extra power. It’s pretty fun, and helps me travel to and from town more easily. Because it’s a friction drive, though (the motor turns a gear against the rear tire), it doesn’t function well in snow. So in winter I disengage the motor and take the heavy lead-acid battery off the bike, reverting to human-powered pedaling.

With the snow tires and electric assist, this bike is my workhorse. I also have a small trailer I use with it. I love bike trailers; they really expand the utility of a bicycle. My own is pretty basic but serves nicely for grocery shopping, hauling books to the library, or doing several errands at a time. I use my bike trailer as you’d use the trunk of a car. I throw in things I need on all my bike trips — spare tubes, bike lock, extra water bottles, etc. — and just leave them there so they’re always ready to go. Bike trailers are astonishingly versatile; I’ve known people who’ve used them to haul canoes for camping trips or move furniture across town. There are services that pick up and haul recyclables with bike trailers — Bikes at Work is one of these — and they can carry hundreds of pounds at a time. Bike trailers can turn your bike into a multi-purpose transport tool that can help with all sorts of tasks.

Today, however, is not a bike trailer day — too windy, and I don’t have much to carry. I’m a little concerned about today’s wind. Once I cycled to town on a high wind day and couldn’t cycle back: the 60-mph gusts reduced my pedaling speed to about 2 mph, so after a brief struggle against the elements I called a taxi. (Having one local taxi service around has been helpful as a transportation back-up.) This talk of wind reminds me of a Danish comedian who ran a mock campaign for a seat in Denmark’s Parliament. He actually won his election race after promising cyclists, “If I win, the wind will always be at your back.” With the wind behind me on the way in, it should be a quick trip to town today. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the wind will shift before I head back.