It’s officially daylight savings time in Chicago, otherwise known as the four months out of the year when both segments of your commute are done in darkness (and cold). The coldness can be overcome with lots-o-layers, a decent pair of lobster gloves, and a fair amount of internal dialogue revolving around the mantra: “It’s faster than the CTA. It’s faster than the CTA.” Unfortunately, the darkness and the elements require a bit more savvy and preparedness.
In terms of gear, bright lights (both front AND rear) are an absolute must. A pack that’s reflective (or egregiously fluro) is also a fairly good idea. A lot of folks think that a training jacket that’s reflective or bright is sufficient, but if you’re commuting and you’ve (most likely) got a large bag on, the jacket material is pretty obscured to most drivers from behind; best to cover your bases. Lastly, get a pair of clear lenses for your glasses. It may not be sunny out for your ride, but with salt, snow, wind shear, and an ice pellet or two, it’s always a good idea to protect the ol’ eyeballs.
The other tricky part about winter commuting comes down to picking your routes. Chicago traffic is a joy even in the best of seasons, when the only things obscuring the bike lanes are cabbies, oblivious cars, and delivery trucks. However, when snow, black ice, and standing frigid water get added to the mix, it might be time to rethink your favorite summertime and autumn routes. Of course, there’s always the option of trial and error. Damen seems treacherous? Well, why not try Ashland! (JK – DON’T DO THAT.) I’m all for urban exploring, but randomly picking streets and routes can be time consuming, inefficient, and depending on the street or intersection, dangerous. Luckily for Chicagoans there are two online route planners and maps to help guide your way during the dreary months.
The most well-known option is a built in feature of Strava; a lot of people know Strava as the KOM/QOM forum of the Chicago cycling community. However, it has some great features to tinker with outside of the competitive, segment-stealing applications. As it relates to safe winter route planning, absolutely check out the heatmaps (a visualization of the most often traveled streets) in Strava Routes. Once you’re logged in and you’ve searched for a map of Chicago, go to the menu on left of the map and click the first icon. Here, select/check ‘On’ for ‘Global Heatmap.’ The map should immediately populate with routes that are coded by both color and linewidth.
Dark/bright right and wide translates to the most traveled; blue and thin means ‘taken’ but not as popular; and just like a color wheel, purple-ish falls somewhere in-between. No lines means not traveled—either because these tend not to be through streets, or it’s an expressway. When plotting your winter routes, focus on side streets with bike lanes and stay away from thoroughfares if you’re concerned about heaps of snow, ice, and navigating speeding traffic. Strava heatmaps are a great way to see what’s tried and tested by others.
In Chicago, we also have another fantastic commute mapping resource: John Greenfield, Streetsblog editor of the Chicago Reader, put together the Mellow Chicago Bike Map. Greenfield’s map is a “stealthy” cycling map of the entire city. Dive into this resource and you’ll discover hidden favorite routes of people who have been commuting on them for years. It’s a perfect solution for alternate commutes during winter. The map is also frequently updated (people share new favorite routes by tweeting them), so keep an eye on it—or share your favorite new winter route back with the community once you find one!