Icy Ride – no problem on the Hakkapeliittas

Today I road on an icy path, but that wasn’t always the case. When I started bike commuting on June 1, 1994, I was a fair weather commuter. Yup, I am embarrassed to admit it, but I didn’t want to get wet on my then 9.5 mile ride to work in warm weather.

Well, that changed quickly. On days when I bused and metroed to work in the morning due to rain, I would be disappointed when I left work in the afternoon and couldn’t bike home. So I started to ride if it was wet. No problem.

That first commuting summer turned to fall, and I continued to commute by bike as the temps fell. I got lights so that I could commute as the days got shorter and daylight savings time ended. I bundled up in the winter. No problem.

One thing I couldn’t do—ride on ice, or in snow. When winter weather hit, I was back on the bus and metro. This proved somewhat problematic, in that when the weather was bad, so was metro and bus service. Plus I missed commuting by bike.

One winter day, as I was commuting home on my road bike when it was 33 degrees and raining, I went down on ice. I thought the W&OD was wet, but no, it was icy. I managed to finish the ride home, but was hurt so bad I was then off the bike for a week.

That’s when I decided to get a cross bike and studded tires for winter commuting in bad weather. And that’s just what I did that summer, when I bought my first cross bike on eBay—a steel Bianchi, with crowned fork, in celeste, that came with a set of studded tires—Nokian Hakkapeliitta W106, the 35C size—and a set of both cross and road tires. All for just $700.

The cross bike and studded tires did just what I wanted. They enabled me to commute on days I when I couldn’t on the road bike. And on sketchy days—those days when I could commute on road tires, but probably shouldn’t—they allowed me to commute safely. I have had some incredible commutes over the past 10+ years in snow and freezing rain, including some where, really, I probably shouldn’t have been doing it. I do it because I can’t do anything about the weather, or commuting conditions; I can only decide how I am going to get to work. If it’s bad on a bike, think how bad it would be driving, or walking ½ mile to the bus stop, waiting for the bus to go to the metro, etc. (Metro above ground on snowy days is shaky.) Plus, I feel for once like I really do deserve some credit for what is normally a pretty easy 12 mile bike commute. (We cyclists have all had that awkward conversation in the elevator at the office, when someone says, you ride your bike to work? You say, yes. They say, how far, you say, 12 miles. They say, TWELVE MILES! You smile sheepishly.)

I wore through the steel Bianchi (note: I now have frame-saver in my steel road bike) and those tires years ago. In the winter I now ride a C’dale cross bike (with Campy Record shifters and derailleurs! Overkill for my winter/dirt road bike), with a new set of Hakkapeliitta W106’s[1], purchased from Peter White in New Hampshire. He has a great selection of studded tires, and equally good descriptions of same: http://www.peterwhitecycles.com/studdedtires.asp Among his sage advice: “Don’t be a dummy riding on ice. Take it easy. These tires are for getting you back and forth to work, not racing.”

That brings me to today’s ride. The weather during the night called for a “wintry mix.” My driveway wasn’t icy, but the steps were, so I assumed the W&OD would have icy parts, and I took the cross bike. I was glad I did. Not only were the bridges frozen, but much of the W&OD was icy, especially in Falls Church. Even with the studs I skidded a bit at one point. I also got a scare when a pedestrian was just about to step on the path in front of me without looking where there was sheer ice (studded tires are good, but they can’t stop on a dime), but she stopped when I yelled. Amazingly, a couple of guys on road bikes passed me a little further on, where the ice wasn’t so bad, but another guy on a road bike stopped on a bridge yelled he’d fallen twice. (I smiled and said nothing about the studded tires.)

[1] According to Wikipedia, “Hakkapeliitta (Finnish pl. hakkapeliitat) is a historiographical term used for a Finnish light cavalryman in the service of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden during the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648).”

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