Bike the Frozen 'Banks [From BA 43-400]

Fairbanks Minus 55.jpg

"Special polar phenomenon like sun dogs (that replicate the sun to either side) occasionally made for three suns. At night, the aurora could usually be found. Then it occurred  to me that one could bike in Fairbanks for the beauty of it."

Fairbanks is not as the name suggests, at least not for much of the year. Lying 103 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks and its greater metropolitan area (population 100,000), is the northernmost city in the Western Hemisphere with more than 20,000 residents. Because it is south of the Arctic Circle, the sun still does come up for Fairbanks on the Winter Solstice, even as the High Arctic is in the middle of months of darkness. But by ‘up’ I mean a small arc that skirts across the horizon for 3 hours and 43 minutes, providing little warmth to a land that historically has seen temperatures of -50 on that date. And this low sun feels very fickle, like it rises then changes its mind. Or maybe it pops up to say ‘hi’ but then has to go. Gone to keep some other land that's thawed, growing crops, and setting diurnal rhythms for other people.

I moved to Fairbanks in September 2007 to go to school at the University of Alaska. Considering the extreme reputation of Fairbanks winters, I was awestruck when I learned that some people there commute by bike throughout the entire winter. How could people do this day-in and day-out, in such extremes of darkness and cold? Not to mention the mechanical challenge—how could the bike still be pedaled in sub-zero temperatures?

September starts off great, like a storybook fall with golden aspen, and crisp and clear air. That first year, I didn’t appreciate what was in store. By September 21st snow arrived and by mid-October the sun’s strength had diminished so much that I experienced sun withdrawal in the form of headaches. My on-a-dime naturopathic treatment was to buy Cheez-Its from a vending machine near my office and eat them while sitting outside midday, facing the low, feckless sun. I came to realize that, as with a lot of things, you don’t really appreciate the sun until you don’t have it. Although I grew up in Minnesota, life in Fairbanks redefined my relationship with sunlight. By my second descent into winter, I was lucky enough to have moved in with a longer-time Alaska resident who owned a ‘happy light.’

It’s ‘happy’ because it’s the antidote for SAD— Seasonal Affective Disorder. The light is ‘full- spectrum’ to mimic the type of light we get from the sun. I’m not sure what the scientifically proven effects are, and I’m not sure it matters. It was my impression that most modern people in the far north use happy lights. Standard practice is to use them in the morning at breakfast to get a dose of light and help wake up. But, some keep them on throughout the day at their desks, like they’re a plant receiving direct nourishment from the artificial glow. For others, leaving it on too long keeps them from falling asleep at bedtime. My only experimentation with the happy light was—and this in the first occasion I used it—to stare directly into it for fifteen minutes. It was an unknowing experiment as the instructions state not to do this (I later learned). But that day I had moments of feeling superb. I remember telling people that I, a skeptic, used a happy light for the first time, and really felt a difference. For the rest of the time, I kept my usage in check. As I saw it, I needed just enough to get myself out of bed to get myself out of the house to have some recognizable semblance of a day (e.g. work, activity, meals), and a little happy light, just in the morning, accomplished this and warded off the headaches.

Maybe it’s because I have more real sun where I live now, but I don’t miss the happy lights. No, I miss that darn 2-mile winter bicycle commute. Never since have I felt so righteously deranged and mentally challenged all in one smartly-layered, reflective and blinking exterior. Even the routine was special. It went like this: alarm goes off. Evaluate options, then non-energetically get up. Greet the darkness at the few windows in my little cabin and eye the frost collected along the edges and corners. Grab headlamp, down jacket, and make first foray—this to the outhouse (many students live in dry cabins; i.e. with no plumbing). Back in warmth and light, make coffee and cereal and sit at table in front of happy light. Then get dressed. Long underwear, pants and shirt, rain pants, fleece jacket, and heavy-duty shell-type jacket. Add backpack. Then, reflective construction vest. Although normally I am an x-small, the vest was an x-large to get around all of the bulked-up me. For the thinking, breathing, seeing parts, a special treatment: a neck gaiter, pulled all the way up to my eyes, a thin-knitted hat, then helmet. For the other end, wool socks and winter boots. The last thing to receive cover? Those primate digits, de-evolved into lobster finger mittens. Snap, snap, I was covered and ready to roll. Grab bike, which was kept inside, and turn on front headlight and back blinky.

Year-round biking in Fairbanks entails seven months of biking in winter conditions, and a few of those months entail biking in extreme winter conditions. The average low for the coldest month, January, is minus 20 Fahrenheit and most winters dip down to at least minus 45. Plenty of Fairbanksans are fair-weather bikers. But a number persist throughout the year, through the coldest, darkest days, cranking those gears to diminishing lubrication. Why do they do this? Winter bikers cite the adventure, the outdoor exercise, the money savings, and ideological reasons.

Finally out of the house, I was underway. Although the bike became stiff and slow, and the air was cold and harsh on the back of my throat, there was so much more going on. Sparkling snow, frosted trees, stiff smoke rising in unison across the cityscape from so many smokestacks. During the prolonged sunrises and sunsets, brilliant orange and pink covered the horizon. Special polar phenomenon like sun dogs that replicate the sun to either side, occasionally made for three suns. And, at night, the aurora could usually be found. Then it occurred to me, one could bike commute in Fairbanks for the beauty of it as well.

Mechanically, extremely cold biking is a surmountable challenge. As the temperature falls, many bicycles from fairer lands hit the temperature at which the freewheel locks open and does not engage the rear wheel when pedaled. This is a seeming temperature limit because, other than for coasting downhill, the bike is now useless. It first happened to me at 20 degrees above zero, because I moved to Fairbanks with an older bike. But, it more commonly happens around 0 or below. The solution is to use a special lubricant called Lubriplate Mag 1. This, right here, is the mechanical hero of the frozen world. Other bike part items—plastic casings that sometimes crack and disintegrate—these are annoyances, but generally tolerable. The spinning parts, though, they must spin.

I talked to friends about their experiences. One spoke of frozen balls after a poor choice of clothing and an unexpectedly long ride on an exceptionally cold night. He almost had it worse when his neighbor discovered him in her cabin unthawing with her blow drier in his pants. Another had a close call after taking a joy ride down a frozen river that turned-out to be less than frozen in one spot. He fell in, got wet, and barely made it home. Another, who commuted on a wooded trail, had an occasional close encounter with moose. Moose are common boogeymen on dark Fairbanks trails. They’re so tall, a single headlight focused down often misses them and can result in a startling collision.

But, we all kept on biking. Maybe it just was for that ‘happy’ to get through a long, dark, cold winter.

The author would like to thank Kaarle Strailey, Steffen Oppel, and Emily Weiser for sharing their experiences and thoughts on Fairbanks winter biking. She would also like to thank Beaver Sports bike mechanic Chris Dauel who, on a beautiful July day, patiently explained how to ready a bike for the extreme cold of northern winter. 

Evan P. Schneider