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Divvy Diary: Chicago winter on wheels requires prep work

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg

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Updated: December 10, 2013 3:41PM



Winter’s coming. Only a nip so far, a taste of the low 30s, a kiss of frost, then a scramble back into the arms of the sunny mid-50s, which felt like spring.

But don’t be deceived.

Winter is coming, full-bore, winter in the Midwest, another nasty, brutal, sleet-slinging three months of put on your Vibram-soled boots and your Eddie Bauer Ridgeline Parka, lower your head, lock your gaze at the trough already shuffled in front of you and start trudging Chicago winter.

The question I get asked, again and again, as the human face on the city’s Divvy bike-share program, is this: What’s going to happen to the Divvy bikes in the winter?

You might guess that they’d be put away until spring, along with the sailboats, sidewalk cafes, sleeveless dresses and all the other harbingers of Chicago the eight months a year when its livable outside.

But no need to guess.

I put the question to Elliot Greenberger, Divvy’s deputy general manager.

“In terms of the winter, all our stations will remain open, but we’ll reduce our bike fleet on the street to match ridership,” he wrote via email.

How is that going to work? If there are problems with newbie Divvy bicyclists blundering the wrong way down one-way streets and along Lake Shore Drive, playing the role of Sweet Pea on wheels at a Popeye cartoon construction site, what’s going to happen once it snows? I figure we’ll need guidance, and for that I turned to that hearty, tattooed, pierced tribe of bike-in-the-winter free spirits known as bicycle messengers.

What’s the secret to surviving cold-weather cycling?

“For me, it’s staying warm,” said Mike Morell, of the 4 Star Courier Collective, a delivery service formed by six messengers in 2005.

That doesn’t mean bundling up in coats.

“You generate your own heat,” he said. “Your core tends to warm up quickly.”

So light layers on the body, concentrating instead on your exposed digits.

“Toes and fingers are really hard to keep warm,” he said. For that, he recommends “a good pair of gloves that keep your fingers next to each other.”

You mean mittens? I asked.

No, he said. Those pose a problem.

“You can’t shift as easily.” The solution? “Lobster gloves,” he said, sort of a compromise between gloves and mittens with a split between the ring and middle fingers, forming the hand into a Vulcan salute.

“Live long and prosper,” Morell said. “It works well for biking, and you still have the range of motion.”

For your feet?

“Extra socks help,” he said. Plus waterproof footwear. Don’t delude yourself that just because it isn’t at the moment actively snowing, raining, sleeting or all three, Chicago city biking won’t be wet.

“The ground’s always kind of wet and you’re getting sprayed,” he said.

Now that you’ve outfitted yourself, how does biking in the winter differ from biking in the eight months that aren’t winter?

“Just watch out for ice,” he said. “The city salts the heck out of the street, still, especially on side streets.”

Pay particular attention to the streets under bridges. “Riding under viaducts, there always seem to be icy spots,” Morell said. “It’s really icy under the Metra tracks.”

If you find yourself hurtling across ice, don’t panic.

“When you realize you’re on a patch of ice, try not to brake or turn,” he said. “Try to glide on. Don’t do anything sudden: When you freak out, that’s when you fall.”

When you freak out.” I liked his certainty.

Since winter is still a ways away, if you sincerely plan to commute on your Divvy, now is the time to equip yourself. Not only lobster gloves, but consider a thin biking balaclava to keep your face warm if you brave the worst weather. They’re thin to fit under a helmet, which you’ll need even more than ever. In the winter, you fall. Even experienced bicyclists expect to fall.

“I’ll wipe out a couple times a winter,” Morell said.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, when you fall, it won’t hurt so much.

“Generally in winter, you’re wearing so much gear, falling off isn’t big a deal anyway,” he said. “I’m usually pretty padded.”

But it’s not winter yet. Not yet. I biked Monday, and it was pleasant wearing fingerless wool gloves and a leather jacket. Winter doesn’t start until Dec. 21. But the average temperature in Chicago in November is 40 degrees. And November starts Friday.

Email: nsteinberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @NeilSteinberg



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