When I lost my job in April, the city of Madison took away the cool little black Honda Fit that I used for official city business. They also had the audacity to take away my income.
In fact, I enjoyed it so much that now, even as I've returned to the work world and have an income again, and even as winter approaches, I want to keep riding. But I also want to do it safely and, frankly, on the cheap.
I knew exactly what I wanted A sturdy bike where I can sit low and upright; studded tires surrounded by fenders; a luggage carrier over the rear wheel; a kickstand; and, ideally, an internal three-speed hub to avoid salt and sand getting into my gears, and disc brakes for surer stopping power. Oh yeah, and I wanted all that in beater bike form for under, say, $200.
Well, that all turns out to be pretty unrealistic, but I did all right. Here's what I got.
I started by searching Craigslist for a good used bike. I was looking for a mountain bike, but for a while I flirted with an old Raleigh internal hub three-speed available for $35 or less. Internal hubs are expensive, so my thought was that I could start with that and the frame, and build the rest of the bike around it.
But, at the end of the day, I decided there was just too much wrong with that old bike, and I was looking for the fatter, meatier tires that come with a mountain bike. So, I paid $125 for a very good, well maintained GT mountain bike. I bought it from a guy in Fitchburg, who told me that his wife was upset with him for selling it, because they had bought matching bikes for each other when they were married back in 1991. Apparently, its sentimental value did not exceed $125. As I wrote the check, I suggested that he might invest the money in something nice for the owner of the now-lonely remaining bike.
From Fitchburg, I did not stop, I did not pass Go, but I did spend $300. I took my new 20-year-old bike straight to Willy Bikes on West Wash where I found bike mechanic Matt looking around for something to do. Matt, a very good mechanic, was also very helpful. He convinced me to go for quality. So, I got the expensive $80 studded tires, because they'll last me for maybe five years instead of one. (It's worth noting studded tires became legal only this fall because of legislation pushed by the Bike Fed.) I got the $100 powerful headlight, because it will actually illuminate the streets and paths for me as opposed to just make me visible. And I got fenders, a new chain, new brake pads and a powerful rear light. I already had an old luggage rack that Matt said would fit.
The next day, I picked up my near perfect winter bike and rode it home. Including the bike itself, I was about $425 lighter for the experience. But I now have safe, reliable winter transportation that will cost me precisely nothing to operate over the next four to five months.
You can do it even cheaper.
I got a good basic bike for $125, but I didn't try to talk down the price (in the interests of maintaining a happy marriage for the seller), and my guess is you could pick up roughly the same thing for about $100 if you were a tougher and more heartless bargainer. Then, if you went with cheaper tires (though they might cost you more in the long run) and a less powerful light (or tried to get a cheaper one use) and did the work yourself, I'll bet you could get yourself pretty much the same package I ended up with for a total cost of maybe $300 or less.
That's less than one month's car payment, never mind insurance, gas and parking. And you'll get to experience the great Wisconsin outdoors in all its winter glory.
My friend and Madison alder Mark Clear has been winter biking from his home on the west side to his business and the City-County Building downtown for about eight years now. His commute is an impressive seven miles one way. Here are tips from the grizzled veteran:
- Studded tires are the way. I got 'em about five years ago and would never go back. I feel safer riding on them than I do walking. Takes me about 30 minutes to swap 'em out each season. Madison does a great job of keeping the bike paths and lanes clear, but you're still going to hit some ice and snow.
- Layers. When it's really cold I wear two layers of leggings plus snow pants, then on top I've got two layers plus my yellow windbreaker. I wear a thin balaclava and a ski helmet instead of a bike helmet. I don't have ski goggles yet, maybe next year.
- I don't ride when it's under 10 F, or actively snowing or icing.
- Don't expect to go fast; between the studs and the extra gear weight my usual 30 minutes is more like 45.
- There's no shame in throwing your bike on the bus rack if it's too cold and windy or if it starts snowing. That can be a good way to get started, too -- do part of your commute on the bus.
- Good lights are really important. Don't forget that it's dark at 4:30 p.m.
- My hands get cold easily, so I wear thin liner gloves, plus heavy mittens (hard to brake and shift, but I manage) and also use rechargeable hand warmers from REI that I stick in my mittens. I have two sets so I can use 'em on the way home too. You boil them for 10 minutes to recharge.
Mark also recommends the IceBike guide to winter bicycling.