• Despite winter, cyclists still commute
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     | December 03,2012
     

    Time to get those bikes out. For real.

    While most Vermonters are thinking about skiing, snowshoeing and skating this winter, a few central Vermonters remain focused on their bikes and using them to get where they need to go.

    Obviously, such activity in colder months requires training, planning and thought.

    Freeride, a community bike co-op in downtown Montpelier, will host a free Winter Commuting workshop Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. The shop is open most weeknights and offers a variety of resources for people to fix bikes and learn safe riding skills.

    On a dark 29-degree evening in November, Sarah Braun Hamilton wheeled her bike into Freeride’s workshop space. Bundled in layers of clothing, insulated boots and a reflective vest, she resembled a cross between the Michelin Man and a parking attendant. Her plan was to devote the next hour to bike maintenance at the shop and then ride home to Middlesex.

    Braun Hamilton travels this route — roughly 25 miles round-trip — by bicycle about three times a week. “It makes you feel tough,” she said. “After a really hard day, I bike home and I’ve accomplished something.”

    The Winter Commuting workshop will cover a range of gear-related topics from clothing to homemade studded bike tires. Just as important as finding the right equipment, according to course instructor Josh Brown, is to practice safe riding habits year-round. “Cycling in the summer poses a lot of challenges that you want to have taken care of and figured out before you add riding in the cold, ice and dark,” he said.

    Cyclist Sarah Galbraith is no stranger to ice.

    Several years ago in early spring, she went for a bike ride on a warm afternoon when much of the snow and ice in the roadway had thawed. But shortly before dusk, she crossed a barely visible patch of black ice and hit the ground before there was time to react.

    She landed hard on her side and discovered later that she had fractured her shoulder. To make matters worse, a motorist who had witnessed the accident stopped to reprimand her.

    Nancy Schultz, executive director of the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, strives to educate all roadway users about how to behave legally and appropriately.

    “I think it’s wonderful that people are investing in a healthy way of getting around,” she said of bicycle commuters. “Instead of yelling at them, we should applaud their efforts.”

    The coalition led a multiyear campaign that resulted in the passing of Act 114, the “Safe Passing” law, in 2010. Act 114 protects “vulnerable users,” defined by the law as people operating nonmotorized means of transportation, and requires that motorists “exercise due care, which includes increasing clearance, to pass the vulnerable user safely.”

    Still, Schultz cautioned, cyclists are just as responsible as motorists for awareness about weather conditions and sharing the road. “We’ll all be safer and happier if we all add an enhanced degree of respect and courtesy when we’re out there,” she said.

    Sensing that she’d be traumatized by the accident if she didn’t resume riding right away, Galbraith forced herself to get back on her bike. Now she’s comfortable cycling to and f rom work in cold weather and darkness, and said, “Nothing prepares you better for an activity like getting out there. I might not understand how mysterious ice can be if I hadn’t fallen like that.”

    The best way to gain an understanding of ice and adverse road conditions, advised Brown, is to practice falling in a safe place. “Practicing can be fun,” he said. “Take some friends into a snowy field, fall down, skid around, and figure out how long it takes to stop in the snow.”

    Dave Kelley of Plainfield has missed fewer than 10 days in the past year on his 15-mile commute to work in Berlin and has ridden in temperatures as low as negative 40 degrees.

    Although cycling is his favorite sport, there was a time when he put his bike away in the winter. When he finally tried commuting in snow and ice, he said, “It was a revelation. Now I really enjoy it because it makes everything like mountain biking, terrain-wise.”

    Kelley has begun to observe an upsurge in the number of cold-weather cyclists on his regular commute. He attributes this trend to the escalating price of gas and a growing number of snow-friendly bikes on the market.

    Because of the increasing popularity of winter bike travel, Kelley is enthusiastic about programs that promote education for roadway users. “One of our jobs as cyclists is to try and get the word out,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of people out there don’t know the rules.”

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