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Braving Winter Weather by Bike

Don't let snow and ice put an end to bike commuting

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Let no one accuse staffers at Boise Bicycle Project of being wussies.

According to Executive Director Jimmy Hallyburton, the entire staff has continued to cycle to work throughout the arctic bluster and grit of the winter months, the only exception being the day of the ice storm.

"The roughest part was trying to pull the dog trailer," Hallyburton said.

That's right: "the dog trailer." Not only did Hallyburton commute through the Hoth-like landscape of Boise in January, he did so pulling his best pal Stanley behind him.

And Hallyburton says anyone can do it.

"It's not so much the roads as it is what type of clothes to wear," Hallyburton said. "It's no more difficult than going skiing."

Of course, Hallyburton has a special winter bike decked out with a fixed gear for increased stability and studded tires for traction. And he is one of the Boise area's most dedicated cyclists.

The average Joe or Josephine Boisean who poked their heads outside to see January's arctic hellscape would probably disagree and say that Hallyburton and crew are nutjobs.

But for those folks, the BBP is hosting a free foul-weather riding workshop Friday, Feb. 22, at 6 p.m. at the BBP headquarters that will go a few steps beyond the motherly sounding and seemingly useless advice of "wear a sweater." The class will cover wet spring conditions, as well as winter ice, many of which involve similar strategies.

But even the instructor of that class admits this winter has been a doozy.

"I've rode seven winters and this one has by far been the hardest because the ice was so packed in," said Marcus Orton, Safe Routes to School coordinator at the YMCA and class instructor. "But usually, it's relatively easy."

Orton plans to cover basic safe-riding techniques, as well as how to outfit your bike for winter riding with one of two strategies: buy your way out of it or be savvy. Buy fenders or make them from recycled materials. Pick up a pair of studded tires cheap in the summer, make them using nails and tire liners, or wrap tires with zip-ties to serve as tire chains.

One of the biggest safety measures winter cyclists can take is to lay off the front brakes.

"If your back brake locks up, you skid," Hallyburton said. "But your front brake can pitch you."

"A lot of people are trying to wrap their head around getting from Point A to Point B without getting hit, let alone in low light and bad weather," said Orton. "But usually, it's relatively easy."

The problem winter cyclists face more than any other is the same problem they have to worry about in summer: cars.

In February 2012, Boise Weekly examined the general ineffectiveness of Boise's 3 Feet to Pass law and the struggles of sharing a road system.

Remi McManus, the owner and general manager at Team Exergy, a local road-cycling team that trains year round, said the issue of safe passing distance is especially important in the winter when the sand on roads for traction piles up in bike lanes, forcing cyclists into the road.

Hallyburton added that bike lanes aren't plowed or treated the way streets are.

"There are a lot of people in Boise who choose to bike commute or don't have a choice, and it's not really fair that they don't get serviced," Hallyburton said.

Boise Weekly asked the Boise Police Department if the winter has seen an increase in reported violations of 3 Feet to Pass. BPD Public Information Officer Lynn Hightower was unable to find any information by press time. However, considering the difficulties of reporting and enforcing the law, that isn't much of a surprise.

Anecdotally, Hallyburton said that while the risk of drivers sliding into a cyclist is greater than the risk of winter cycling itself, it's a crapshoot how drivers would react.

"It was an odd mix of people that I would interact with," he said. "People would really cheer [me] on, or get pissed."

Hallyburton said the closest call he had was with a driver-education vehicle. He caught up with it at an intersection to offer some education of his own. The effort was not appreciated.

Hallyburton also considered mounting a Go-Pro camera on his helmet to document close calls, a growing trend in urban areas.

One thing did seem to get drivers on his side--pulling his dog, Stanley.

"People love the dog trailer," he said.

Normally, an easy strategy to deal with cars is to ride on the Greenbelt. But Hallyburton said that in winter, that can be the worst choice because of the buildup of packed and black ice and inconsistent treatment.

Amy Stahl, community relations director for the Boise Parks and Recreation Department, said the day of the ice storm was "an extraordinary event," but normally Parks and Rec plows if there is an inch or more of snow, seven days a week, except for Christmas, New Year's Day and, hopefully, the Fourth of July.

"If there's two inches of snow, it takes five or six hours," she said.

However, Stahl said Parks and Rec doesn't sand the Greenbelt since that's prohibited by the River Ordinance.

"We do use a de-icer in some sections that are downhill, or bridge approaches," Stahl said. "We don't de-ice the entire Greenbelt, though."

Even without the Greenbelt, Hallyburton pointed out that the No. 1 city for cycling in the nation is Minneapolis, Minn., which is far colder and wetter than Boise.

"People think they need fancy gear," Hallyburton said. "But unless there's an ice storm, all you really need is an extra jacket."

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