The random musings of David Beazley, an independent Chicago-area software developer, teacher, and author.

On Early Morning Biking Through a Chicago Year

January 2, 2015

One of my lifelong passions has been getting outside on a bike and enjoying the scenery. Frankly, I feel that some of my best work has come about while thinking through problems on the bike. Alas, things get tough when you become a real adult and have responsibilities such as family and work. Finding time to ride consistently is a challenge. If you don’t make time for it, it just won’t happen.

To deal with this, I’ve reserved the early morning hours between about 4am-6:30am for riding. It’s a great time in that the rest of the family is sleeping, traffic is virtually non-existent, and it ensures that you get out first thing in the day. However, if you live in the midwest, you also know that this means being stuck inside for months on end as it is too dark, too cold, or too icy for any sane person to go outside. Sure, you can plunk yourself down on a bike trainer and binge watch every episode of The Wire while you spin away, but if your passion for biking is about going outside and seeing the world, you’ll eventually go insane. Admit it, riding an indoor trainer sucks.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You know when you were a kid and you had that Schwinn with the banana seat? When you saw some snow did you think "gee, I guess I’ll just stay inside and work on zone training?" Hell no, you probably went outside and made some snow jumps or went blasting down a hill in some powder before running off to go make a snowman. It was fun then and it’s still fun when you’re 45.

You know what comes after Zone 5? This. That’s what.

Although I’ve lived in the Chicago area about 16 years and biked through most of the summers, I’d never really given serious thought to doing it outdoor year round. I made a bit of an attempt in 2013, but got sick mid-January and ended up spinning inside for most of February and March. It was a dreadful fitness experience. Obviously, this situation had to be corrected for 2014. Yes, 2014 would be THE year for trying to bike outside every month of the year—and it was!

Many people don’t realize how great year-round early morning biking can be. So, in this post, I give some photo highlights from my year outside along with some practical tips on surviving the winter, summer thunderstorms, and other matters. In short, this is one of the most fun and personally satisfying things I’ve ever started doing. So, would I recommend it to others? Absolutely! Just don’t expect too many others to understand.

Prelude: January 6, 2014

First things first… a Chicago winter is a real winter. You need to prepare yourself physically and mentally. Did I go out riding in this? Yes, but for only about 4.5mi. It was insane and worse than anything I could have conceived. Actually, it was crazy fun in retrospect.


Rewind: October 24, 2013

How does one go about jumping into the middle of January bike riding? The real answer is that you ride all summer and you don’t stop. You ride through the fall as the conditions worsen. You’ll spend a lot of time out in the dark where everything looks like this:


This is when you need to experiment with clothing and gear. Figure out what works for you, but the most important thing is to not give in to the weather. I rode more than 100 days outside from September to December 2013. I had a pretty good idea where it was all going and by the time January rolled around, I was already accustomed to riding in the sub-freezing temperatures that had started back in November. I was ready.

January 21, 2014. Evanston. 5:21am

Fresh tracks! I had a lot of days like this as Chicago worked its way towards the third snowiest winter ever recorded. It was tremendous fun.


On the subject of making fresh tracks, 1-4 inches of new snow provide some of the best winter riding conditions. The worst conditions are found in snow that has been trampled by cars and snowplows—especially when it gets mixed up with road salt and turns into a horrible slurry of granulated "grey snow." If you really want to make fresh tracks, you need to get out early. By early, I mean 4:30am or even earlier. It’s basically going to be a race between you, the snowplows, and early morning commuters.

February 26, 2014. Wilmette. 5:52am

Roadside astronomy is better in the cold. Here is a waning crescent moon and Venus over the Baha’i temple at a crispy 0F. Barely visible near the trees over to the left—Mercury (use the star-chart overlay to get an idea). The view was far more humbling than my phone camera can convey.


March 5, 2014. Wilmette. 5:35am

You are not the only insane person. There is one other.


This ride was actually started at 4:36am (see my earlier note about making fresh tracks).


Let’s Talk About Winter

You know who might have been cold? Ernest Shackleton’s men after the loss of the Endurance on a failed Antarctic expedition. Go read the book about it. When you’re done, come back and ask yourself if you can possibly manage to go ride for an hour up to Winnetka and back. You’ll probably survive. Really.

On the subject of winter survival, don’t forget that riding your bike is supposed to be fun. The best way to do that is to be smart about it and to have the proper gear. It’s really no different than skiing or any other winter sport. It can be every bit as fun if you’re properly prepared for it.

Safety Concerns

Solo riding in extremely cold conditions in the dark could potentially get you killed or injured. Read that again and be smart about it. Don’t get the impression that I was out riding across desolate windswept tundra at crazy hours—I wasn’t. Most of my winter rides ran immediately parallel to the UP North Line Metra train route through the suburbs. Train stations are located about every half-mile on this route. Most stations have heated waiting areas and taxis sitting nearby at cab stands. The cabbies will look at you like you are insane, but will nod approvingly as you ride past them in a -30F windchill. The first trains start running at about 4:30am. Carry a cell phone, ID, and a bit of cash.

In extremely harsh conditions, a route might just circle around the neighborhood like this. It’s plenty of fun in the snow and the fresh bike tracks will make your neighbors wonder who the crazy person is. Do it.


Bottom line: if something goes wrong, you need to have a plan. Stuff is going to happen.


Where am I in that picture? I’m at a nearby train station waiting for a ride back. You get the idea. With that out of the way, let’s talk specifics about risks, bikes and gear.

Injury Risk: High

Riding around on snow and ice is fun, but carries a certain injury risk. There are a lot of factors you’ll need to consider including your bike, your riding skills, snow conditions, routes taken, traffic, and so forth. This, you can only assess for yourself. However, it’s always OKAY to ride another day. As much as I tried to ride outside, I also spent about 10 days spinning inside on rollers. Sometimes it was just too icy or the snow was too deep to make it practical. Other times I was recovering from a cold, wanted a bit of exercise, but just didn’t feel like suiting up. So far as I know, there is no "King of Stupid" badge on Strava, so it’s okay to stay in. Really, it’s fine.

There is also a pretty good chance you will fall while riding at some point. I fell once on black ice because the roads were basically clear, I wasn’t paying close attention, and I hit an icy patch while turning. I also had a worse fall where I sprained my ankle taking out the trash at home. Yes, it’s slippery out there. Be careful. On a positive note, if you do fall on the bike, you’re usually so covered up, you won’t have any kind of horrible road-rash. In my case, I mainly just bruised my thigh and my pride.

Winter Bike: Cross bike or single speed

For most of my winter riding, I rode a Cyclocross bike with 700x35 knobby tires. This was perfectly fine most of the time. If roads were clear enough and ice-free, I rode a single speed track bike.

Cross Bike
Single Speed

Please notice the amount of crud on those bikes. Don’t use your racing road bike. I stored these bikes inside and washed off the drive train after every ride involving snow. You simply can’t comprehend the amount of road salt.

Lighting: Moar Lumens!

If you’re going to be cruising around at 5am sharing the roads with snowplows and prancing deer, don’t expect the few motorists out there to be looking around for bikes. I currently use a front/rear light on the bike itself in addition to a helmet light. I’m a big fan of Light & Motion, but their products aren’t cheap. However, these lights can get stupidly bright and the only thing more stupid than that is being dead. So, make sure you’re seen.


As a courtesy to others, realize that these lights are crazy bright. No, I mean really insanely bright. Point them at the ground and not into the eyes of oncoming motorists. Also, if you come across a jogger, point the light away from them entirely. No seriously. I usually run these lights at low-intensity which is more than enough in most settings.

Winter Gear: Only Kind of Cool

If you go shopping, you will find a lot of cycling gear that is advertised for "winter" riding. Be warned that this kind of claim might not mean what you expect. The vast majority of cyclists do not go out biking below 25F and the gear tends to reflect this fact. If you venture out when it’s 0F with this stuff, you’ll probably freeze. Let’s talk about some solutions.

Headgear: Balaclava, facemask, ski helmet

A balaclava and standard biking helmet work great down to about 20F. Below that, add a facemask unless you want to give yourself a persistent respiratory condition for the winter. Below 10F, I often switch over to using a ski-helmet—mainly because I already have one on hand and it’s got some nice insulation for keeping the head and ears a bit warmer. Plus, it looks slightly more badass to any motorists who might see you out there as they make their way to the early morning spin class at the gym.

As a wearer of glasses, fogging is a problem. It was much worse when any kind of extra goggle was used. I tried various goggle ointments that humorously included the word "crap" in their name. For the most part, they were exactly that. In the end, I found that just wearing glasses was usually fine, even at temperatures around 0F. I really only needed goggles when the conditions were unusually harsh.

Ski Goggles (Worst)
Safety Goggles (Meh)
Eyeglasses (Best)

Feet: Winter MTB shoes with shoe covers

Nothing’s worse than coming home from a ride and having a case of frozen toe. This picture was from January, 2013 before I had to give up riding outside for the winter. I was unprepared and hadn’t figured it out yet.


For the coldest parts of 2014, I mostly wore a pair of Sidi Diablo GTX boots along with a set of XXL MTB softshell shoe covers that would entirely enclose the boots in a thermal layer. Combined with with wool socks, this seemed to work adequately well down to about -10F. I messed around with chemical warmers for a bit, but mainly found them to be kind of useless in the end. Your mileage might vary.

Shoes and shoe covers
Inside of shoe covers

Hands: Lobster claw gloves with liners

A pair of Pearl Izumi lobster claw style gloves in combination with a thin glove liner worked fine for temperatures down to 0F. For extremely cold temperatures less than -10F, I sometimes threw a chemical hand warmer in for good measure although I’m not actually sure it did much to help.


Legs: Bib Tights

Get a good pair of thermal bib tights. I used a set of Pearl Izumi AmFIB tights which by themselves work great to 10-20F. If it got much colder than that, I’d put on an extra layer of Patagonia Capilene underneath. That works fine to about 0F. If it gets colder, maybe switch the Capilene out for a base layer of UnderArmour.

A couple of important points. First, you really do want the full bib tights. Bibs are very effective at covering up your midriff. There is nothing that sucks worse than freezing your belly/butt off because it’s being exposed to a -30F windchill rushing into that gap between your tights and your jersey. Also, winter biking is messy with all of the road salt. Be prepared to come back looking like this:


Upper Body: Breathable Layers

For keeping the upper the body warm, it’s all about layering, but not in the way you might normally dress for just going out in the cold. Here is a picture of me after a ride on February 9th. It’s about 12F.


Notice that I am covered with spots of ice. That’s because I have been exerting an effort, breathing hard, and sweating. Sweating a lot. The reason you see the ice is that the sweat has been wicked away from the body to the outside where it has frozen there (as opposed to freezing on my skin).

As for specifics, I use a Sugoi Firewall 180 as an outer layer. Under that, I’m wearing a Nike Sphere Thermal biking jersey. That combination alone is usually good to around 20F. Below that and down to about -10F, I’ll add a layer of Patagonia Capilene that I previously used for skiing (it works great for biking too). The key point is that all of these fabrics are highly breathable and fairly lightweight. I am not wearing a waterproof wind breaker or a bulky ski jacket. You are working hard out there—not standing around. You will be warm enough in a three-layer combination like this. If you overdo it with impermeable layers, you’re going to quickly find yourself drenched in sweat and quite miserable—possibly well on the way to a good case of hypothermia. It’s important to spend some time experimenting with this layering as temperatures fall over the season.

Your Stuff: Take Care of It (or Not)

Riding through the winter is extremely harsh on everything including your bike and all of your other gear. Road salt makes everything terrible. Here is a bike picture after a ride. You’ll notice that under the bike I have a plastic pan—that’s to catch the water used to wash the crud away afterwards. I won’t say that this is perfect, but I’m still riding on that drivetrain now and it works fine because I didn’t let it sit around with a bunch of salt sticking to it.


The conditions aren’t easy on other gear. For example, it didn’t occur to me to lubricate the seatpost of my single speed bike. When it came back from the bike shop after a spring tuneup, it had a brand new post along with a comment about how it took two mechanics about 4 hours to get the old one out. Here’s what’s left of it:


The cleats on my biking shoes had so much corrosion, I had to replace them by drilling them out with a Grabit bit shown here.


Bottom line: You should probably be prepared to sacrifice just about anything you choose to use for winter riding. To extend the life a bit, look after it from time to time.

And with that, let’s get back to the regularly scheduled program…

Wildlife - Green Bay Trail, Lake Forest

I don’t have a photo for April, but early morning riding is a great way to see a lot of wildlife—often closer to the city than you might expect. Common sightings include deer, skunks, raccoons, and rabbits. If you’re lucky, you might cross paths with a lone coyote wandering the bike trail (which I have encountered at a distance less than 10ft away). I once encountered a red fox. The most dangerous creature might be red-winged blackbirds though. I had one swoop down and attack my head just out of the blue—wear a helmet. This photo is from July, but I saw wildlife year-round.


May 25, 2014. Waukegan. 4:37am

Road biking season is in full force now. Here’s more great roadside astronomy with a view of the moon and Venus over a temple of the industrial world. Just don’t ask how I managed to be in Waukegan at this hour or where in Wisconsin I might have been going. The important point is that I managed to make it back home just as the kids were waking up for the day.


July 26, 2014. Illinois Beach State Park. 5:55am

If you leave the house at 3:40am and crank it straight north for 32mi, you might make it in time to catch a great sunrise here. The whole end of July and early August presented amazing sunrises almost everyday. Give a sly wink to all of the other cyclists you encounter on the way back as you think about the amazing view that they just missed.

Let’s Talk Summer Weather

For as much reputation that Chicago has for cold and snow, if you ask me, the most hazardous biking conditions of all are summer thunderstorms. Thunderstorms actually might kill you. They deserve and require respect.

I find two things to be rather indispensible for avoiding storms. First, follow your local national weather service such as @NWSChicago on Twitter. This account is always posting watches, warnings, and forecasts of bad weather—often 12-24 hours in advance. Second, get a weather radar app for your phone and look at it before you go out. Make sure it shows you a time-animation.


I don’t mind riding in wet conditions, but riding in the middle of a lightning storm with hail is a different matter. Even on very sketchy days, I’ve had many enjoyable rides where I have managed to work around extremely bad weather by either leaving earlier (to beat an incoming front) or timing things to coincide with a break between waves of thunderstorms. Doing this can actually be a fun mental game involving rough calculations from the radar image (i.e., how fast are the storms moving? How rapidly are they growing? How fast can you ride? Where are you going?) If the sky opens up with a downpour just as you take your bike inside after a ride, you’ve won! Of course, use your eyes and ears. If you’re out there riding and you’re actually seeing flashes and hearing thunder in the direction of where you’re headed, maybe it’s time to turn around. Oh, and pay attention to the weather service—don’t go out there and play chicken with a storm front if they’ve posted a tornado watch. Be smart.

Despite this advice, don’t be surprised if you get caught in a few severe storms. It’s happened to me many times although more often than not, I was only a mile or two from my house as I was heading back in a hurry. You’ll probably survive riding a mile in a torrential downpour. Actually, it can be a fun way to end a ride.

If you must know though, I’ll usually just sit out storm days and use them for rest. Rest is important. It’s really not practical (or advised) to go out riding every day anyways. Your body needs rest.

August 20, 2014. Ganges Township, Michigan. 5:30am

I realize that this is not near Chicago, but why would you not bike on vacation? Early morning biking on dark rural farmroads is far more intense than anything near the city. However, you can get some really amazing views in the early dawn light.


September 25, 2014. Winnetka. 6:35am

One word: WOW!


October 12, 2014. Fort Sheridan. 6:19am

The spooky glow of October pre-dawn light, the sound of rustling leaves, and solitary bike riding is best experienced in person. It’s even better when elusive Mercury can be seen hanging low over the eastern horizon in similar conditions (something that arrived again a few weeks later). The roads are starting to empty. Bikes are being put away for the season.


Thoughts on solitary riding: An early morning solo ride is really one of the most amazing things in the world. If you really want to do it right, Sunday morning is the day to do it. Although this picture was taken at 6:19am, I’m actually on my way back home from a ride that started at 4:20am. A ride that took me by the quiet calm of the Skokie Lagoons and up the haunting desolation of the Skokie Valley bike trail. If you’re lucky, you can make it up to the Great Lakes Naval Base to hear Reveille echo across the dark erie skies before turning towards home. You might not encounter another cyclist until you’re almost back—little do they know where you’ve been.

Winter Revisited

It’s back!


But you knew it was coming. Some lessons were learned the last time around. First, crashing sucks and riding safely on black ice is nearly impossible. So, studded tires it is—this is a set of Schwalbe Marathon Winters. They are kind of amazing. As an FYI, Peter White Cycles seems to be the definitive source on information related to studded tires.


Next up: finding gear that is actually made for real cold—not 25F "cold." Where do you find such things? By looking at what people are wearing when they take out their fat-bikes in Minnesota. Ah, yes. Something like this: The Wolvhammer boot.


As a note, I’ve now worn those down to about -9F. There was not even the slightest tinge of cold in the feet even after being out for over an hour. Let’s ride!

When to get winter gear?

Finding good quality winter riding gear can be a challenge—especially in the middle of winter! I pre-ordered my new riding boots in early September. When I went to pick them up at the bike shop in mid-October, their entire shipment of boots was already spoken for. So, if you didn’t pre-order, too bad for you. I ordered the studded tires in late September. Again, if you’re looking for this stuff in January, you will be disappointed.

November 16, 2014. Green Bay Trail. Glencoe. 6:23am

Fresh tracks in the first snowfall of the 2014-15 winter. Not shown: the big smile on my face.


December 31, 2014. Wilmette. 6:31am

A nice end to a month of heavy cloud cover and a great year of biking. Happy New Year!


Postscript: A Few Final Thoughts

My 2014 season ended with about 295 days of biking outside in every month of the year—typically about 24-25 days each month. Approximately 100 days were subfreezing and 15 days were below 0F. That might sound kind of harsh (and it was), but I also kept a weather log over the winter. According to that, the average biking temperature was actually closer to 21F. So, that’s something to consider. It’s often not as bad as you might think.

Despite my best efforts to go outside, I still spent about 10 days riding inside on rollers. Sometimes going out just wasn’t in the cards due to road conditions or personal health. Yet, getting a bit of exercise inside was still better than none at all. So, that was fine.

I’d also like to note that although I rode all year, I am not a bike commuter. Year-round commuting has its own set of challenges involving city traffic and other matters. For that, you might check out a forum such as The Chain Link.

On a deeper note, and this might sound kind of corny, but after going the whole year, I’ve never felt more deeply connected to my natural surroundings. Even near the city, there is a rhythm to life, to nature, to the weather, and to the stars. Going out on the bike is one way to connect with that. It’s a really great way to start each day.

So on that note, I hope you enjoyed this. Go out there and ride!

Edit History

  • January 3, 2015. Added a bit about injury risk and using rollers in unrideable conditions. In addition, a section about riding in summer thunderstorms. Finally, when to buy winter gear and a few other minor edits.