Cyclists have endured a winter of mixed blessings here in Minnesota. On the plus side, the mercury has dipped below zero only occasionally and has so far managed to hover above the soul-crushing windchills that keep even the most brazen riders off the streets. At 20-below, my 10-minute commute presents a bracing challenge; at 40-below, it’s a fool’s errand.
An early-season dose of freezing rain, however, turned all but our major thoroughfares into rutted glaciers that defy safe passage. A recent weekend thaw exposed swaths of pavement in my neighborhood just wide enough for a car to occupy, meaning a cyclist has to swerve onto the icy residue near the curb to avoid a collision. Personal experience suggests this is not a prudent option.
Despite the hazards, I continue to enjoy my bicycle commutes, which over the past 40-some years have ranged from six miles to my present one-mile jaunt. It’s an invigorating way to start — and end — the workday, traffic is never an issue, and there’s always a place to park. And, as I told one of my colleagues the other day after pedaling across the river and up the hill amid an 18-below windchill, “You never need to worry about your bike starting in this kind of weather.”
New Zealand researchers suggest commuting cyclists may reap another benefit, as well: They might live longer.
Analyzing data from 3.5 million New Zealanders over a 15-year period, lead study author Caroline Shaw, PhD, and her team found that people who pedaled to work were 13 percent less likely than their nonbiking counterparts to die during the study. Surprisingly, those who walked to work experienced only a 3 percent reduction in their mortality.
Not surprisingly, researchers credited the physical activity of biking as the chief factor in the enhanced longevity. But, as much as I appreciate their validation of my world view, I can’t help thinking their findings may have limited application outside of New Zealand, where a tiny slice (3 percent) of the population pedals to their jobs. And most of these cyclists are young people who, barring some fatal commuting collision or other unforeseen calamity, can generally anticipate a lifespan that extends far beyond the study’s 15-year duration.
For all its salutary benefits, bicycling at any time of year carries some mortality risk, which I am occasionally forced to acknowledge. Years ago, My Lovely Wife begged me to wear a helmet during the six-mile trip to my downtown Minneapolis office. I finally relented, but the headgear ultimately proved inadequate for reasons that had nothing to do with its design.
Cruising along on a lovely summer morning, I clipped an open car door with my rear basket and flew over the handlebars. Rather than face-planting on the pavement, however, I had the presence of mind to tuck my head and roll on my left shoulder. The impact separated the shoe from my right foot, but aside from a sore shoulder, I seemed to have escaped serious injury. As the driver of the car frantically apologized, I pulled on my shoe and crawled over to the curb to get my bearings.
“I’m OK,” I told her, removing my helmet. “I just need to get my bike out of the street.”
I stood up, took three steps away from the curb, and fainted dead away.
By the time I awoke, the blood oozing from my cracked noggin had pooled nicely on the pavement, and a voice among the crowd of people standing over me mentioned that an ambulance was on its way. A police officer kindly offered to deliver my bike and useless helmet to my home while I headed to the hospital. When MLW picked me up later that morning, I showed her the six staples that closed my head wound while noting that a helmet, once removed, offers little protection.
I’m certainly a more cautious cyclist now than I was 20 years ago, especially in the winter. But it takes some pretty bad weather and treacherous road conditions to keep me from pedaling to and from the office these days. It’s just nice to feel like I’ve accomplished something before I get to my desk in the morning. Plus, I can’t help feeling some morbid satisfaction upon my arrival at home after work knowing that I’ve somehow managed to once again dodge the Grim Reaper. Even without a helmet.