All week long the weather forecasters had been talking about the big snowstorm that was to blow across the Great Plains on Friday. You'd hear it so much, and you'd begin to tune out. After all, the weather man or woman is often wrong just as much as he or she is right. (I'd love to have a job where I could be right half the time and considered a success)
Friday morning was just like any other mild winter morning that we've had recently. Dry, light wind, almost springlike. It was even in the 60s earlier in the week. By mid morning, we were reminded, without a doubt, that winter is not yet over. Almost without warning, snow began to fall and blow, at a rapid rate, all over Omaha. By evening, we had six inches of snow on the ground.
I was prepared for riding home in the snow, during an active snowstorm. At least, I thought I was. I put on the studded tires last night, packed my goggles, and I was already familiar with the sidewalk, trail, and back roads snow route to ride the five miles home without having to mix with road traffic. The cars were having a hard enough time on this slippery snow on roads largely unplowed without having to go around me.
Around 11:30am we got word at the office that we were being released for safety reasons. Around that time, I got a text message from Rafal (thanks, man!), who works nearby at the riverfront, saying that he was leaving, too, and he offered to give me a ride home in his car using his bike rack. I was looking forward to the bike ride, so I thanked him and declined, heading downstairs to get some lunch.
After lunch I got a call from the guard desk informing me that I had a delivery that I needed to come pick up. Surprise! My sweet wife had sent me flowers. You'll note that I have no way to bring these home, so I sure hope they look as nice after the extended holiday weekend.
After letting lunch digest a bit and catching up on some email, I changed into my winter riding clothes and headed off. The ride home was slow. It took me about an hour and 15 minutes to go five miles. Absolutely none of the streets I encountered had been plowed, perhaps with the exception of crossing 36th Street at Pacific. The Turner Boulevard and Field Club Trails were not brushed, and most of the sidewalks hadn't been touched, either. I found myself using "The Force" to try to stay on the trail where it winds around Dewey Park. Aiming for sidewalk cutouts was also a bit of a challenge. I had to try to get the ramps, but also play it loose if I hit a curb instead.
I'm sure I entertained the motorists at 28th and Douglas when I hit something that made my bike stop and fall over, while I went over the bars and off to the side, landing on my feet, running. It was similar to this, but without the roll.
I got all the way to the big hill going down Pacific Street toward the Field Club Trail when I realized that I had no brakes. The pads were so packed with snow that they did virtually nothing for many rotations when I pulled the levers. Note to self: next bike will have disk, roller, or hub brakes.
Riding on the Field Club Trail was magical. The snowy canopy of trees was worthy of a postcard. I wish I had taken a photo with my phone, but it was packed too deep in my bag. I found that as long as I parted virgin snow, and avoided the foot prints, the ride was smoother.
About a half mile from home, I stopped at a convenience store and grabbed sodas for the family. I knew they hadn't been out all day, and were probably wanting something tasty to drink. I felt funny going into the store with my balaclava on, but with my helmet and hi-viz jacket, I think it was pretty obvious that I wasn't there to rob the place during a snowstorm.
So after an hour and a quarter of low-gear riding, with lots of handlebar wagging and dead stops into drifts and the occasional curb, I was finally heading up my street. The unplowed hill is steep, so after all that riding, I had to dismount and push the bike for the last 30 yards or so.
The Lessons Learned
- Use the platform side of the pedal and/or wear regular shoes rather than being clipped on to the pedals. I need to be able to put a foot down or hop off the bike in a hurry when slipping around.
- Wear a balaclava when the snow is falling wet and sloppy. The snow melts on the face and a wet face is a cold face in February. Alternatively, grow a beard.
- Studded tires are great for ice and packed snow, but don't help so much in six inches.
- Consider a bike with something other than rim brakes for riding in deep snow. When rim brakes pads get iced over, it's like riding with no brakes.
- Allow a lot of time. I rode less than half as fast as my normal commuting pace.
- Keep a camera ready. It's beautiful out there. Cover it with snow and it's even prettier.
- Consider riding the bus when it's this bad. Though it was a lot of fun, accidents can happen, and sometimes it may be better safe than sorry. However, bring the bike just in case. Last year I rode the bus due to a predicted winter storm, and when my employer dismissed early, so did the transit authority, stranding me downtown until I got a ride home with a friend.