With winter still holding the Northwoods in its icy grip, most of us try to avoid going out in the cold for longer than we have to. So you might be surprised to find that one commuter relies on his bicycle to get to work all winter long, even refusing offers of car rides and choosing instead to brave the icy streets of Stevens Point.
It’s 7 a.m. on a clear morning in March, and 20 degrees below zero outside. Rich Sweet is in his kitchen, in the process of what he calls “gearing up.”
“I have to apply my base layers – the clothes that I wear underneath my jacket to prevent hypothermia, frostbite."
To stay warm on his six mile bike ride to work, Sweet wears multiple layers on every part of his body including his head and hands.
“These gloves have been through 12 years of riding and crashing," Sweet says. "And winter abuse…there are blood stains on this particular glove from about 3 years ago."
His eyes are the only exposed part of his body, so he smears vasoline over them for wind protection. He even has tiny handwarmers that his wife made him…fabric pouches full of rice that he puts in the microwave.
Sweet also packs food for the next ten hours, as well as a full set of clean clothes to change into when he gets to work. The Gearing Up process takes more than an hour – longer than the actual bike ride itself. Sounds like a lot of work, and we haven’t even gotten out the door…so why do this?
"A lot of it is just stubborn independence, quite honestly," he says.
Sweet describes himself as having punk rock roots in his younger days, going to shows and listening to Norwegian black metal. In fact he still listens to new punk and metal bands while on his bike ride. And though he now works a regular office job at an insurance company, his life wasn’t always so stable. Sweet wrote a zine about his colorful past, in which he describes working grueling shifts as a dishwasher, and meanwhile experimenting with drugs, and being cited for multiple DUIs.
“I always found myself in dire straits when I was driving," Sweet explains. "I was not a good driver, I did not always follow the rules of the road as I should have. And there was always a little voice inside me that said, maybe you should just drop out of the driving scene.”
He gave up car ownership more than two decades ago. At first, he relied on public transit in addition to his bike. Until a friend issued a challenge.
“He more or less shamed me into cycling for exercise and for commuting purposes," Sweet says. "And he further shamed me and sort of struck at my ego a little by telling me there’s no good reason why I shouldn’t be riding in the winter.”
So he tried it, just to prove that he could. And soon he was hooked – on the endorphins, and what it did to his state of mind and his body. He even quit smoking.
“I never smoked a lot, but I was a smoker nonetheless," says Sweet. "And I actually have to credit cycling with helping me quit. I wanted to become a better cyclist. July 4th 2004, I smoked my last cigarette. And I continued riding as hard as I could, and that was more than enough incentive to stay nicotine free.”
Now at age 47, his life is pretty different from what it was 25 years ago. He says he’s healthier than he’s ever been. And if biking was one of the things that helped steady his life, it’s also one of the things that keeps it interesting - while working a job that doesn’t always thrill him.
“And that’s where I spend 9 to 10 hours a day, Monday through Friday and many weekends," So the time that I have away – it’s very gratifying to be in control of what I put myself through, and what I test myself with. And usually the ride in winter is a fantastic test.”
Sweet says the right gear is important. His steel-framed Barracuda bike is equipped with studded tires, and modified to just one speed for simplicity. Even so, he embraces the difficulty and occasional misery of his daily commute. That’s part of the reason he doesn’t accept car rides to work, even when it’s freezing, snowing, or raining.
“Because I take it as an additional challenge," he says. "Because I’m offered rides by so many kind-hearted people. Yet I want to demonstrate to them, and I also need to demonstrate to myself that this is still something that I can do, myself. And I can kind of retain some of my old punk-rock sensibilities, that I don’t need a vehicle to get me somewhere even under the most frigid circumstances."
So has he ever not made it to work?
"No. I’ve never not made it. I’ve dragged my bike through three feet of snow until I was able to get back on ride-able blacktop, but I’ve never not made it.”
Well, there was that time when he wiped out after his handlebars snapped in two and he had to get picked up. But that exception seems to prove the rule. Nonetheless, Sweet would like you know that riding in winter is do-able for the average person.
“Anybody can ride all year round," he urges. "Anybody can ride in the dead of winter. You just have to resign yourself to the fact that once you’re out there, you gotta complete the ride. You could have somebody come pick you up, but ultimately that’s not gonna be a longterm answer. The answer is to just keep pedaling.”
And pedal he does, day in and day out. In just a few minutes longer than it takes me to drive across town, Sweet arrives on the Barracuda…beard and scarf fringed with ice in the morning light, and heads into work.
Rich Sweet is the author of two zines about bike commuting and other topics. If you’d like to read them, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.