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Cyclists keep biking through Chicago winters

  • A pair of bicycles are covered in a heavy layer of snow on Madison Street.
A pair of bicycles are covered in a heavy layer of snow on Madison Street. (Chuck Berman / Chicago Tribune )
January 13, 2014|By Rachel Cromidas, @rachelcromidas | RedEye

Plunging temperatures and piles of snow don't deter a dedicated group of cyclists who ride through the Chicago winter.

Bicyclists, it's cold outside.

But the plunging temperatures and piles of snow aren't about to deter a dedicated group of city riders who plan to ride through the colder months. Since this is the first winter for Divvy, Chicago's bike sharing program, there could be more cyclists on the road this season than ever before.

Jason Jenkins, education specialist for the Active Transportation Alliance, a local advocacy group, said riding in the winter is no less safe than at any other time of year, as long as riders are willing to bundle up and walk their bikes or change routes if they come upon an unplowed street.

"Riding in the winter doesn't require any special equipment; it doesn't require special tires or chains or types of bikes, just a little willingness to give it a try," he said.

What about subzero wind chills, ice and slush? Jenkins says they are less of a concern than a novice rider might imagine.

"Thankfully in Chicago, due to all the plowing and salting that's done, the main streets people use for commuting are typically clear and free of ice and well-salted at least 24 to 48 hours after any sort of heavy snowfall," he said.

As with many outdoor activities, the key to comfort is layers. For commutes between 3 miles and 10 miles, Jenkins recommends cyclists wear a "base layer" made of a non-natural fiber that wicks away sweat, with at least two more layers on top. For fingers and toes, cyclists should make sure gloves and socks aren't too tight, or else warm air will have trouble circulating between them.

"The rule of thumb is you should be a little chilly when you start out, or else you're going to be overheated," he said.

Elliot Greenberger, the deputy general manager for Divvy, said Divvy allows Chicagoans more flexibility for winter commuting than they had in the past.

"If you're at work, you can Divvy one way, and not be committed to riding it home," he said. "It's not like, 'I do bike [in the] winter' or, 'I don't bike in the winter.' We ask people to figure out for themselves what they're comfortable with."

Snow and salt can cause some wear and tear on bikes, he added, so some bike owners are choosing Divvy over their personal bikes in part so they don't have to worry about maintaining their bikes through the worst weather. Divvy stations will be open throughout the season, but the city may choose to shut them down during extreme weather conditions, which happened the day after New Year's when more than 10 inches of snow wreaked havoc on commuters. Greenberger said closings would be defined on a case-by-case basis.

To encourage ridership over the holidays and spread Divvy's brand, the bike-share program released a special candy cane-striped bike in December. Similar to the notorious red Divvy bike, the striped bike was docked at a different station each day, and people who shared a photo of the bike on social media were eligible to win various promotions. The bike was taken out of circulation earlier this month.

Justin Haugens, 31, of Rogers Park, rides his bike year-round, and he encourages others to do so—as long as they know their limits, he said. "If you go out there and think it's some sort of competition, you're not only putting yourself in danger, but potentially putting other people in danger."

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