Winter Commuting in Alaska: Learning to Ride In the Wind — Real Wind

Editor’s Note: Ever since her first contribution, “Blizzards and Meth Labs and Bears. Oh my!,” Shanna Ladd has sent me a wealth of information on her experiences winter bike commuting 10 miles into Wasilla, Alaska. It’s way too good to publish in one long post, but I will give away the ending:

To us wussies in milder climates, it may almost seem as though Shanna is performing an extreme stunt — surely she’s sponsored by Red Bull. No. In spite of a harsh learning curve, Shanna concludes that bike commuting has had a net positive impact on her budget, time, health and quality of life. "”Ted

This is my first year of commuting by bike full-time, and as such, I am having to learn how to ride my bike in winter weather. The months of October 2012 and November 2012 were a mix of training days followed by beautiful riding days under the clear sky with bright stars and moon.

While this winter has proven to be a very dry, with relatively little snow, my 10-mile commute to work still presents plenty of challenges. I can leave home at -10℉ and end up in Wasilla at 20℉; I can go from a relatively calm home stretch to a category 1 hurricane wind, and all of this in the dark.

This has forced me to evaluate what gear I need to take with me, how to organize and pack, and which routes are best for each condition and how to evaluate trail conditions. Although it has been extremely challenging for a beginner, it is worth the effort.

One major rule: never ask yourself why you are commuting by bike in a winter storm; always ask that after you get home and are sipping a homemade cup of hot cocoa! It can be fun, but it is also a lot of work.

Learning to Ride In the Wind

The view from Shanna's Pugsley
Icy trails re-frozen after a thaw

When our first winter windstorm hit, I left home unprepared. Snow and dirt hammered me. My eyes ran. Dirt stuck and dried on my face. Gusts hit from the side, pushing me off the trail causing me to crash. It was dark and cold. I wondered how I could have possibly been this unprepared.

I knew the forecast but I failed to bring my goggles and balaclava! I tried to keep my scarf around my face but it kept blowing out of place. On the trail I was reminded of the fact that I am human and the weather is one thing I can't control. I may not be able to control the weather, but I can do my best to be prepared.

Because I am commuting by bike, I have to make it to my destination on time. I can't scratch. So I made myself a mandatory winter check list for my pack. That way, I wouldn’t end up on the trail without the gear I need.

After making my check list, my commute went much better.

When the wind started howling I wore my balaclava and covered my entire face, put on my goggles and then helmet. It took a little bit to get used to wearing so much, but once I got used to the change, I felt good. My goggles didn't fog up, I was able to breathe easy and it kept the dirt off my face, out of my mouth and eyes. I didn't have to deal with a flapping scarf trying to keep it in place.

In fact, with that set up, I was really quite comfortable. Using a balaclava is nice because if it is warm, I can turn it up and use it as a hat; if it is cold or windy, I can pull it over my face for protection. I now do not go anywhere without it. I even take an extra one with me so that when I stop for breakfast I can put a fresh dry one on when I leave.

Often, when I am going to work there is a headwind, while coming home there is a tailwind. So, on the way home the wind is at my back and I fly. I don’t even have to pedal all the way across the parking lot and down the road to the first stop light because the wind blows me there!

However, as the trail winds its way home, I am hit from the side by the strong gusts. As a beginner, I have found that I am not as coordinated as I could be, and have on multiple occasions been blown off the trail, causing me to crash and fall on my knees.

During these stretches where the wind is hitting from the side, I had my crate break off and had to abandon the crate as it blew down the trail at a high speed, my taillight still flashing. I also found myself chasing my pogies down the trail. I’ve had to put my stuff in my pack and throw it on my back.

Shanna Ladd's Custom Pogies
Custom Pogies made from a North Face down jacket from the Salvation Army

Honestly, it was a rough start.

The good new is that with time, it is possible to learn how to ride in challenging weather, whether that is cold, subzero temperatures or hurricane category 1 wind.

I have learned to lean into the wind, to ride on the far side of the trail and allow myself at least five feet of room to blow across the trail, so I avoid ruts or ditches; this in turn prevents crashes.

I’ve also learned that it’s okay to get off and just hold onto the bike until the really strong gusts pass, then get back on and ride.

When I rode home one particular day, I didn’t have to pedal home, I just blew all the way — with brakes on. Truthfully, this was very scary for me because it was very dark and I am not normally speedy. It was fun in a ridiculous kind of way.

How strong was the wind? I only have the word from the weatherman, who spoke of, “wind gusts of up to 80 mph.” I think if the wind truly was 70-80 mph, that must have been when I had to just lay down and hold on.

Palmer, Alaska
Where’s the snow? Blown away by high winds.

I started out commuting by bike just for myself. But when I realized the potential that commuting by bike has for the public with whom I work, and for people I know in my community, my commute became even more important to me.

If I want to be able to recommend commuting by bike as a real solution — a real alternative for people in my community — I need to have a very clear path of what it takes to get there. I can’t suggest to someone that this as a real transportation option or tell them to try something that I do not do nor fully understand. I have to know what my limits are before I can feel right about offering this as a realistic transportation option.

I need to know how many legitimate “calls for help” (i.e. a taxi) I need in one years time. At this point I can say I have needed two days in six months. Those days were the days the wind reached gusts of 60 to 80 miles per hour, and are too extreme for commuting. I think this is reasonable.

A taxi from home to work cost $35 one way; $70 round trip, tip included. This is a huge savings considering I have no vehicle registration, gas, etc.

I used one-and-a-half of those calls for help because I listened to people warning me about weather — and then missed out on what became nice riding days.

Next: “Things don’t always work out as we plan

Shanna Ladd is a car-free bike commuter in Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Valley (a.k.a. "The Mat-Su"), north of Anchorage.

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