No matter what the weather, Billy Joe Hunt happily rolls out the door before 5 a.m. and bikes nine miles from White City to his job at Rogue Creamery in Central Point.
Not long afterward, Nathan Broom gets in gear to pedal seven miles from Jacksonville to Medford, where he coordinates Rogue Valley Transportation District's alternative transit programs.
While Broom and Hunt are at work, there's a good chance octogenarian Dot Fisher-Smith is two-wheeling it to her activities in Ashland.
They're among the hundreds of Southern Oregon residents who depend on bicycles as their primary means of transportation year-round.
"I feel like I'm telling a secret, but winter commuting is fun," says Broom. "It feels good to beat the weather, and it builds outdoor time into a season dominated by indoor time."
"I'm a fervent believer in using the bicycle," says Fisher-Smith. "It provides free transportation, free gas, good exercise and no pollution. And I love being outdoors."
The key to staying safe and comfortable — even in the dark and cold of winter — is to have proper clothing, equipment, maintenance and know-how.
"Once you get the hang of it, it's not that difficult," says Fisher-Smith. "Figure out the right clothing to keep you warm and comfortable and have good, warm gloves."
Broom concurs. "With the exception of hands and feet, which require special care, it's easy to stay warm, even in temperatures below freezing. If it's raining, keep your core dry. There's no end to the gear that's available. It can make riding safe and comfortable in the cold, dark, rain, snow and ice. Key items for Southern Oregon winters are a waterproof jacket and warm gloves. Many cyclists wear rain pants and waterproof boots."
Dressing in layers allows riders to modulate body temperature and perspiration. Broom suggests leaving extra clothes and shoes at work — or carry them — if you're likely to encounter significant mud or water.
Hunt is one of 21 employees in Rogue Creamery's "Nellie Green Pedal Power" bike-commuting program, in which employees who have worked at least 1,000 hours and agree to bike to work at least 45 times within a year receive a free commuter bike. More than two-thirds of the creamery's employees have signed up for the program.
Hunt says he experimented to determine what works best for his daily commute.
"I purchased rain gear and wear thermal clothing under my normal clothing," says Hunt. "I've found that heavy gloves limit freedom of hand movement. I use lighter, insulated gloves with vinyl gloves underneath for moisture protection."
In order to stay safe, bike commuters have to make sure drivers and others can see them, and bikers have to be able to see things like potholes, road debris, seams in the asphalt, curbs and, of course, snow and ice.
"I use two red taillights, one on my helmet and one on my bike," says Broom. "I often set one steady and one to blink. For headlights, I have one white light on my helmet and one on my handlebars."
Hunt complements smart lighting with eye-catching outerwear, using "a good headlamp, a taillight with a 'distracting' sequence to the blinking that's more apt to get drivers to notice you from behind," as well as a good, reflective vest.
Broom and Fisher-Smith recommend using fenders to keep water and mud at bay. Savvy riders also pack extra batteries for lights and basic tools, such as a spare inner tube, patch kit and pump, and learn how to make minor repairs.
Rain is a fact of life that winter bike commuters learn to accept, but sometimes nature has other tricks up her sleeve — such as snow and ice.
"Bicycles generally handle well in an inch or two of snow," says Broom. "Ice is rare enough that most cyclists don't invest in studded tires, but they exist."
"Stay off of the driven track in snow and on the driven track on ice," advises Hunt. "If you're careful, you'll be OK."
Sometimes, however, even great bike-handling skills and protective gear aren't going to be enough, and bikers need to go to plan B.
"Most people have an emergency plan, whether it's a spouse, a co-worker, the bus or walking," says Broom. "For commuters whose trips are served by RVTD, get acquainted with the system. All buses are equipped with a bike rack."
Once you've got your equipment in order and work out the logistics of your commute, biking to work brings a lot of benefits, the riders say.
"Better health is the biggest (benefit), with extra cash in your pocket or gas in your rig, and the thought that this helps the environment," says Hunt. "Most days that I ride, it's to conserve resources, but there are days where I just want to ride — cold, wet or not."
"I figure I'm earning $10 every time I bike to work," says Broom, noting that bike commuting is an investment with great returns. "A modest investment can make riding very comfortable and safe. Because I ride regularly and use my bicycle to replace a car, I've probably invested $500 in gear and clothing the last few winters. A casual rider should be able to get started for less than $100."
"Some people think I'm a little crazy, though they can see the benefits," admits Hunt. "I just chuckle at them when they gripe about being overweight and tell them to get a bike or get theirs out of the shed."
"It's so easy, yet people seem to think it's a big deal that I bike," says Fisher-Smith. "I get a lot of compliments, especially if the weather's bad; they're so impressed.
"There are times when I think it's a hassle bundling up and going out in terrible weather, but I never regret it," she adds. "Once I'm out there, I'm so relieved and grateful. Get a bike. It will change your life. It's wonderful."