These Pittsburgh bicyclists go even when the cold winds blow
February 15, 2016 12:00 AM
Cyclists ride through a snow-covered street at the 2016 "Frigid Bitch."
Cyclists start at the third annual "Frigid Bitch" alleycat cycling race in Lawrenceville on Saturday.
Danielle Millett, 28, of Regent Square, prepares for the "Frigid Bitch" bicycle race.
Race organizer Anna-Lena Kempen of Pittsburgh Babes on Bikes, gives instructions to riders prior to the third annual "Frigid Bitch" alleycat cycling race in Lawrenceville Saturday.
By Dan Gigler / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On an 11-degree morning, Guillermo Santiago stood on his front porch on the backside of Mount Washington, and despite the bone-rattling, lung-burning cold air, he had sweat on his mind — as in breaking enough of one to stay warm, but not so much that it would cause him to freeze, either.
This is the challenge for a bike messenger in Pittsburgh on winter days when the plunging mercury and the city landscape resemble something beyond the wall on “Game of Thrones,” as has been the case during this recent cold snap.
“The biggest issue is staying properly layered up. You’re going in and out of these buildings, and as soon as you go in you start getting drenched in sweat,” Mr. Santiago, 28, said Sunday. “Finding the balance with just the right layers to stay warm on your bike, but not be unbearably warm indoors.
Bicycles & icicles: A cold ride to work
Elliott Swauger is among a small minority of commuters who choose to get to work by bike -- in the bitter cold. Follow along on his six-mile ride from Millvale to the South Side in sub-20 degree weather.
“You’re approaching speeds of 30 miles an hour at times, and on days like this it can get pretty cold.”
Using the National Weather Service’s online wind chill calculator, that speed would make 11 degrees feel like minus 11.
Mr. Santiago rides his bike in such brutal cold as a requirement for his job, but Elliott Swauger is among a hearty group of commuters who choose to ride daily, regardless of conditions. He makes a 6-mile trip from his home in Millvale to his job at a South Side restaurant.
“I do have a car. I don’t use it for my commute to the South Side because of parking reasons down there, but also because I enjoy cycling. It’s fun. It gets me excited for the day. It kind of gets me kick-started,” Mr. Swauger, 26, said. “It’s an important part of my day.”
“The roads are icy sometimes; they’re snowy. You can slip. So you typically go a little slower, you don’t take turns as quickly as you might,” he said. “And the wind, you gotta cover your face up or you’re going to get frostbite on the really, really cold days. You gotta wrap up.
“It’s always a risk, but it’s also a risk riding my car. Or walking on a snowy day like this, you could slip and fall. There are always risks in everything.”
Ironically, he said his worst crash this winter came not from snow or ice, but rather a pile of rock salt on Herron Avenue that caused him to skid out and left him with a deep purple welt from his waist to his knee on his right haunch.
Some ride in the cold for work, and some to work, while others do it for the thrill.
On Saturday, 41 women gathered at the Lawrenceville home of Anna-Lena Kempen to set out the third annual Frigid Bitch — a ladies-only cold-weather urban street cycling “alleycat” race, covering 21 miles around the East End and on the North Side, with nine checkpoints.
Ms. Kempen, 28, runs Pittsburgh Babes on Bikes, a women’s advocacy group that put the race together.
“People do it because they love cycling,” she said. “These things are generally male-dominated, so a lot very motivated women came out and were a part of it.”
“It’s hard in classic sense,” she said of the race in 9-degree weather. “You ride and your face freezes and your fingers and toes freeze. And then you go up a big hill like South Negley and get all sweaty and then you come down the hill and you freeze again. The snot freezes to your face.”
Bike Pittsburgh’s communications manager, Ngani Ndimbie, has participated in all three of the races.
“It’s a sensory experience,” Ms. Ndimbie, 28, said. “Riding around in the bitter cold with other women who love riding around Pittsburgh. It depends on how you look at it, but you can call it ideal. It was truly beautiful on the Jail Trail with fresh snow.”
Lest winter riding seem like strictly a younger person’s pursuit, Rich Keitel, a theater professor at Point Park University, has hopped on his bike every workday for the past five years to ride 7 miles from Squirrel Hill to Downtown, losing 50 pounds in the process.
“It invigorates me before I teach my classes and relaxes me on way home,” Mr. Keitel, 54, said.
“Plus, I get a little bit of schadenfreude seeing cars stuck on the Parkway or hearing people complain about parking Downtown,” he said, laughing.
“People ask me, how do you ride in this weather? And I ask them, how do you walk in this weather? You heat yourself up more biking. They’re cold walking on the Smithfield Street Bridge and my body heat is pumping,” he said, adding “Even as an outside observer, I used to think, ‘Aren’t they nuts?’ But now, me being the nut — its not that bad at all.”
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @gigs412.
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