The benefits of bicycling in winter

Experience a multitude of seasonal cues.

On many winter days, bicycling offers a chance to notice subtle seasonal changes. – Photo by Kristofer Rabasca

OK, it’s true that late January is an odd time to write about bicycling on the Vineyard. But there are good reasons why the topic is on my mind.

In addition to my lifelong fascination with nature, I’ve loved bicycling since before the training wheels came off. I’ve raced bikes, cross-trained on them, toured on bikes, ridden them for fun, and now I’m a year-round commuter on two wheels. And as I try to cut back my use of fossil fuels, more and more of my interaction with nature involves two-wheel transport.

From the naturalist’s perspective, biking has three main sources of appeal. The first I just mentioned: If you’re concerned about the ecological health of the planet, finding alternatives to petroleum-powered transport starts to look like an ethical duty. But the other two reasons have a lot more to do with fun.

For one thing, a bike is faster than walking but more flexible than a car. On the Vineyard, some of the most interesting places for a naturalist to visit are out of reach of a car, but large enough so the speed of a bike is a convenience. The state forest, in particular, lends itself to bike-bound naturalizing, with a network of fire lanes that are manageable even on a road bike and easily traversed by a hybrid or mountain bike. At well over 5,000 acres, the state forest is far too large to cover in a day by walking. You won’t cover all the fire lanes on a bike, either, but you can survey a lot more habitat on wheels than on your feet.

But the main advantage of a bike is that it leaves you much more connected to your surroundings than a car does. Released from your sheet-metal cage, traveling at a slower and more civilized velocity, you can see, hear, and smell the natural world from a bike. You can feel subtle changes in microclimate. How much you actually detect, of course, depends on your skill as a naturalist, and it’s a regrettable fact that the ability to read nature, like any other sophisticated ability, takes time and effort to develop. But whatever your skill level, you’ll notice more while biking than driving. I’ve been naturalizing as long as I’ve been biking: with a birder’s ears and a sharp eye for bugs, I have no problem identifying bird songs or spotting, sometimes even identifying, roadside butterflies as I ride.

Which brings me to late January, a point in the year that my naturalist self finds especially stimulating. The days are lengthening, and the rate at which they get longer is accelerating (it peaks at the spring equinox). The air is warming: We’ve passed the statistically coldest date of the winter (around Jan. 20), and while there is plenty of cold yet to come, the trend is irrevocably toward milder air (and better biking weather).

And the natural world responds to these cues — subtly at first, then not so subtly, as birds, plants, insects, and other wild neighbors start to tool up for the season of growth and reproduction. Every season, this process catches me a little bit by surprise, and each little sign of the progress of the season lifts my spirits.

In effect, my daily commute represents a repeated sampling of how the season is progressing along my route. I’ve already heard my first chickadee, titmouse, and house finch songs; soon cardinals will be tuning up; and the sonic landscape will, day by day, grow richer and more interesting. New birds will arrive. Plants will break dormancy. Insects will emerge. As the weather improves, I’ll starting taking the scenic route home sometimes, adding in a few miles of state forest bike path or back roads. A high percentage of my “firsts for the year” will be seen or heard as I spin silently along on my bike.

Honestly, year-round bike commuting is not for everyone. Some winter days can actually be comfortable for a short ride with appropriate clothing on, but many days are not: bicycling in 15 degrees and a strong headwind is unpleasant, period. And riding in rain or snow requires either fortitude that goes beyond even my own, or else the option of driving to work or working from home.

But for anybody who enjoys observing nature and can handle a few miles on a bike, I’d strongly suggest looking for chances to combine the two. And think about starting on a nice late winter day, as the world is waking up. You can bring binoculars, field guides, and a camera in a bag or backpack. You can cover a lot of ground. And you can feel sure that you’re experiencing a multitude of seasonal cues being missed by the folks in the metal boxes.