Winter biking (sort of) in Portland.

It’s Cold Snap 2013 in Portland! Wait, maybe it’s Arctic Blast 2013? I’ll just have to wait for the media to tag this current below-average temperature event. And we typically get one or two decent cold snaps each winter here, but this one is unusual for its duration and the extremes in the cold.

Portland is a pretty temperate place, and doesn’t see freezing or below-freezing temperatures that often. We generally see zero to two light, gone-in-a-day snowfalls a winter. But there are exceptions.

Since I’ve lived in Portland, there have been only two other significant “real winter” events in town: the cold snap/snow/ice event that lasted over a week during the first week of 2004. It was the coldest I’d seen Portland up until that point, and the cold meant that the six inches of snow followed by a good thick layer of ice lingered for way longer than anyone expected. It caught me unprepared as well, and it wasn’t the most fun experience either, since the house I lived in had no central heat. And the pipes froze. With all that nonsense, I didn’t even entertain thoughts about bicycling in it!

The second, and much more memorable event happened during December 2008. Dubbed “Snowpocalypse” by pretty much everyone, it was two-and-a-half weeks of freezing temperatures, with two snowstorms thrown in, the second one an honest-to-goodness blizzard dumping about 18 inches of snow! I was much more prepared for this one. Besides living in a house with central heat, I had purchased a studded tire/cross tire combo for my bike which allowed me to bike for part of Snowpocalypse. So Snowpocalypse was a lot more fun for me.

This cold snap isn’t as epic as those two events. The only thing epic about it was how cold it got, but we’ll get into that in a bit.

We did see a bit of snow, though. Emphasis on “bit”. When I went to bed on Thursday night (6 Dec), the forecast was very uncertain, but when I woke up on Friday, this is what I found:

25F/-4C and some snow. Not a lot of snow, yep. Barely anything, yep. Enough to make Portland almost grind to a halt, yep. But not for me, I still have to get to work!

I’ll admit, I was a little anxious getting on the bike that morning. It had been years since I had biked in any snow, since we haven’t really gotten a significant snowfall since maybe 2009. (There was that one back in January 2012, but it happened overnight and it was gone by the time I woke up.) And I lacked studded tires, too. Okay, I didn’t actually lack studded tires, I own two. Neither of which were mounted on any of my bikes.* So I opted for the next-best-thing, the “semi-cross” tires mounted on my XO-3: Continental Speed Ride 700x42Cs. These have knobs on the edges and a smoother profile in the middle. Good for pavement riding, and also good for this light dusting of snow as I would find out.

My ride went pretty fine. I just took it easy, didn’t go too fast, made sure I didn’t take corners too tightly, and used the rear brake more than the front. I made it to work in one piece, no falls or slides, and didn’t even get there that late either! (Now getting home was much more treacherous, as the accumulated snow north of the Alameda Ridge had packed down and slicked over.)

Even though it wasn’t a lot of snow, it was still sure pretty in spots.

And I’m sure I had more fun than the folks down on the freeway.

I didn’t see too many other cyclo-commuters, but managed to snap a pic of this hardy soul crossing I-84 at the NE 28th Ave bridge.

The snow teased again on Tuesday morning (10 Dec), but by the time I left the house around noon, it was gone.

So besides the little snow, the biggest deal of this cold snap is the cold. We don’t usually see high temps above freezing that often, and not usually for a week. And the lows have been really low. Sunday 8 December was supposedly the coldest it’s been in Portland since 1972, with a low of 12F/-11C. When I left the house for work it was 15F/-9C. Pretty cold. Not Edmonton cold, but the coldest I had ever biked in up to this point. (Yes, even living in New England I never biked in this cold, basically because back then I would have just drove.) The sunrise was beautiful, though.

And despite it all, I’ve managed to keep warm on the bike. I pulled out the usual suspects: wool baselayers, thick wool socks, wool pants, more wool top layers, sturdy boots, really overdone gloves. The secret in the arsenal this time round was the bright orange windbreaker anorak I just purchased from Rivendell last week. It did a good job of keeping the wind from sapping my heat. And it’s dorktastic to boot! (See photo below.)

When I’m confronted with weeks like this, it makes me wonder how I would fare living in another place, one that had real winter again. As I said, I’ve dealt with cold in the past, but never as a cyclist. Could I move to a place like Minneapolis and bike around all winter long? I can’t say for sure until I do (if I ever did) but I think this little taste gives me the confidence I could pull it off. As the anon biker says: “It amazes me what we get used to… I’ve learned you can dress for any weather. I’ll keep riding right on through it all. The bitter cold mornings are quite beautiful in their own way.”

*My 700C studded tire, used during Snowpocalypse 2008, still sits in April’s basement. My 26″ tire is in my basement.

3 thoughts on “Winter biking (sort of) in Portland.

Add yours

  1. My general feeling on cold weather cycling is that it’s all relative to what you’ve been used to in the preceding weeks. In late autumn, -10C always feels stupidly cold to me. However, after some harsher winter weather arrives, -10C seems awfully comfy. That first light snow is always exciting to ride in, too.

    If, while living in Portland, you’re so well prepared for the occasional cold snap that you actually own own a studded tire, then I bet you’d be equally prepared and kick some winter ass in Minneapolis.

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