Columbus, OH USA

Pedal Pusher
April 2008
by Greg Knepp

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Cranky Climate

Illustration by Greg Knepp

Some weeks ago, on one of the last cold, snowy evenings of a truly miserable February, my friend Kirk Denton and I crossed paths at the corner of 1st Avenue and Highland Street. I was walking to visit some friends who live on 4th Street. Kirk was bicycling home from his job at OSU. Kirk is one of those hard-core cycle commuters who rides no matter the weather. I tend to walk rather than bike when the temperature drops below 35. I worry about slipping on ice, and the breeze created by riding that cools me nicely in the summer only exacerbates Old Man Winter’s chill. Kirk is of a sterner constitution. He’s originally from Canada and thus more endured to the cold than I. As far as the risk of a fall is concerned, Kirk is also a recreational hockey player, so he’s used to a few bumps and bruises. Still, he talked about some of the precautions he takes while cycling in the winter, such as traveling side streets to and from campus rather than using the faster Neil Avenue route, and riding a knobby-tired mountain bike to increase traction on snowy streets. I asked him about hazardous ice patches, and he replied that he tries to avoid them. Good luck!

Many North Americans don’t fully comprehend how bad the weather is in this part of the world – and not simply as a result of climate change; our weather has always been difficult. I lived in Germany for a number of years as a youth and have since visited Europe on a few occasions.

I can report that the climate is far more temperate over there, the living easier. Eighty degrees would be considered a hot day on the continent, and daytime temperatures almost never dip into the twenties. The kind of violent windstorms we take for granted in the Midwest are practically unheard of in Europe.

In fact, there is a theory that this climatic juxtaposition may well have accounted for America’s victory over the British Empire in the War of Independence. The British regulars and their German mercenaries were, in large part, defeated by our tempestuous climate – not by General Washington’s ragtag Continental Army. The Redcoats were shocked by sub-freezing winters; many froze at their posts or, as at the battles of Trenton and Princeton, were simply unable to effectively do combat in frigid temperatures. Additionally, British forces were hampered in their Southern Campaign by temperatures and humidity levels so high that they must have seemed nothing less than hellish. Sweltering in woolen uniforms, thousands died of various swamp diseases, while others simply fell along the way to perish of heat prostration, or to be picked off by American snipers (comfortable in their homespun cotton and hemp garments).

Our intemperate climate and the hostile weather it often breeds are part of the reason we don’t enjoy a café society as do the Europeans. It’s not economically feasible to open an outdoor restaurant that can only function for 80 or 90 days a year. In many European cities a café can function most of the year. Year-round cycling is also routine in Europe. Here, cyclists – myself included – are easily daunted by foul weather that can sometimes last for weeks.

What to do?

First, in the winter walking is a fine form of transportation. Most of my errands are carried out within a mile of my home; a mile walk is nothing. It’s also a terrific tonic for cabin fever – a common winter ailment. The wind is far less bitter at a walker’s pace, and slipping on the ice is potentially less dangerous for a walker than for a cyclist. Taking the bus for distances over a mile is pleasant, efficient and environmentally friendly. Driving is OK too, as long as there are passengers or goods to haul, or if distances preclude any other mode of transport. As always, don’t drive except as a last resort.

If, however, you intend do a good deal of winter cycling, then follow Kirk’s lead and get yourself a mountain-style bicycle with fat knobby tires. Keep those tires on the low end of their pressure parameters to ensure maximum road contact. You will also want to invest in cycle-specific winter apparel. Such specialized garments will keep you warm and dry on your bike while allowing maximum flexibility and incurring minimum wind resistance. Most bike shops carry some clothing inventory, but it might be better to at least scope out the selection on the Web sites such as and would be good places to start.

Spring and autumn are typically windy and rainy. The prevailing winds move from the west to the east (but check the weather reports before every trip just to make sure). Plan to take twice the time to cover a trek westward than the return easterly trip. This may seem an exaggeration but, in a stiff 15 mph wind, this two-to-one speed ratio will be about the difference in pace that can be comfortably sustained. Also, cycle-specific rain apparel would be advisable during these volatile seasons.

Summertime is by far the best time for bicycling. Even in the U.S. it seldom gets too hot for a spin. If you’re in good shape, you should be able to cycle well into the upper 90 degree range (remember, cycling creates its own cooling breeze). Make sure to take along plenty of water, and keep a pocket poncho in your belly bag or pannier. You never know, even on the prettiest summer day, a squall can blow up in an instant turning your casual ride into a soggy and sometimes scary adventure. Such is the fickle nature of the American climate.

How fickle? Decades ago, a Soviet diplomat who had just finished a stint at his country’s embassy in America crossed paths with his replacement at the airport in Moscow. Making small talk the later asked, “And how is the weather in Washington?”

He answered, “Terrible, comrade, terrible.”

True story!

Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist


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