The sounds of the city recede to a low hum, less present than the bite of winter’s chill as the pale yellow sunlight knifes between the trees and the whir of bicycle wheels breaks the stillness of the suburban bike path.
“When the early evening comes in the fall and it gets cold, it’s actually very solitary and beautiful to just cruise that trail through the woods, even in the dark,” said George Branyan, 49, who plans to pedal 15 miles each way between his Greenbelt home and downtown office in all but the worst conditions this winter.
Along the Northeast Branch Trail, near College Park, riders are scarce during the winter, he says. “Just all the animals — foxes, rabbit and the deer. You don’t want to surprise the deer because, unlike hitting a deer with a car, it’s a little different with a bike.”
Many things are a little different with a bike, Branyan says, and in seven years of commuting on two wheels, he’s experienced most of them. Riding through the winter months — unless it is bitter cold, raining hard or snowing — is one of them, and he enjoys it.
The proliferation of new bike lanes and trails in the District and surrounding counties has encouraged commuting by bicycle and won the city a rating as one of the nation’s most bike-friendly places. Nationwide, the overall number of bike trips has increased by more than 60 percent in the past two decades, and more than half of cyclists reportedly are using bikes for transportation rather than recreation.
Cycling as an integral form of transportation is long established in many European cities where winter is less hospitable than in Washington, and research suggests that half of bike riders in those cities persevere through the coldest months.
“In countries that have a very strong bike culture, they don’t think of it as recreational or a pastime or seasonal — it’s something you do to get from A to B. It’s how you get around,” said Chris Eatough of BikeArlington. “In Copenhagen, one of the top bike cities in the world, they have kind of crummy weather year around, and in winter it snows and it rains and it’s cold, but in Denmark that’s how most people get around. It’s part of your lifestyle.”
Riding right through winter is becoming a lifestyle choice for Washington cyclists, too. Although numbers are hard to come by, it has been evident to the eye of anyone downtown during the first cold days this winter.
The Capital Bikeshare program, which rents bikes for short hops to members in the District and Arlington County, registered more than half as many riders in February as it did in July. Those figures are skewed a bit because this year the program expanded, adding more bikes and docking stations.
“There is a bit of a dip in the winter months, but not that much,” said Eatough, who also works with Bikeshare. “Tourist use generally goes down in the winter, but the morning and afternoon ridership numbers are quite strong for people who use it for commuting.”
Most Bikeshare riders don’t go far enough on the clunky red bikes to get frostbitten. The average Bikeshare ride is 1.4 miles. The average ride on a personal bike is 8 miles.
People like Branyan and Elizabeth MacGregor, 49, who has a 28-mile round trip between her Vienna home and downtown D.C. office, have to dress for the cold weather.
“If I were advising somebody who was just starting out, I’d say, see what you’ve got in your closet and try to use that,” said MacGregor, who began commuting by bike about eight years ago. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money on this. I wear a merino wool base layer. I wear ski sweaters, usually. I have a variety of weights, and then either a cycling jersey or a fleece vest or a wool vest. And then I wear a wind-breaking layer on top. And I have tights that I wear, too.”
In the wintertime, she abandons her bike shoes, which clip onto the pedals, and screws on a pair of platform pedals so she can wear warm “street boots.”
“I wear either a wool cap and a buff around my neck, or I wear a balaclava, like I did today,” she said on a morning when the temperature was in the mid-30s. “I have thick fleece gloves.”
Branyan has more bike-specific gear, in part because after getting into cycling as a commuter, he’s now morphed into a bike racer as well.
“If it's a light rain, I can wear the proper shoe covers and waterproof vest,” he said. “In the winter, if it’s a cold rain, you have to be pretty sure you’re sealed against the elements. You want to cover your feet with a waterproof shoe cover, and then if you have rain pants that come over the shoe covers, you’re pretty sealed up.
“I can stay warm in terms of my body core. One of the most versatile items is a wind vest, so I have that on and tights over my biking shorts. The problem is fingertips, toes and face. When you get below 30, that’s just not comfortable, even if you spend a lot on really good gloves.”
Although they don’t know one another, Branyan and MacGregor have several things in common. It takes each of them less than an hour to bike to work and a little longer to get home, because the evening ride is more uphill.
Both say it takes just about as long to commute on the Metro. They both have secure places in office parking garages to store their bikes.
They also agree that investing in a very good bike lights is a must.
What’s more, they each started commuting by bike for the same reason.
Branyan said it began one day when he looked up his weight on a body-mass-index chart and realized he was a pound or two from being “overweight.”
“I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’ I’ve never been overweight in my life,” he said. “I had two kids by this time. I was not getting up early to go run, which is something I’d been doing most of my life. . . . Biking has been just fabulous for me.”
MacGregor said she embraced the bike commute after “a couple of bad days on the Red Line.”
“My son was young, and I wasn’t getting a lot of chance to exercise. So I thought if I combine the commute with the exercise, that will be a way for me stay in shape,” she said.
Although Branyan collided in June with a driver who turned left in his path, neither he nor MacGregor are fearful of negotiating urban streets.
“People want to talk a lot about the whole war between cyclists and drivers, but honestly I don’t see that,” Branyan said. “I see the vast majority of drivers drive around me safely. On principle, I try to obey all traffic laws. I want drivers to see cycling as a legitimate mode of transportation, and I think the freestyle, scofflaw kind of cycling creates a bad situation for everybody, so I try to do my part to take the rules of the road seriously.”
In the winter, when daylight is short, MacGregor slackens her pace on dark trails where the deer are plentiful and there are moments of solitude to enjoy.
“Even on a day like Monday, when it was really warm, there really wasn’t anybody out there,” she said, referring to the week after Election Day.
“So I really had the place to myself, and it was really peaceful and very relaxing.”