"Be Careful Out There!" What happened to our pioneer spirit?

Monday morning around 8:30, only a few flakes were falling as I rode my bike to a couple of meetings I had in downtown Milwaukee. I was just thinking about how the storm was later than predicted when a man stopped in his SUV shouted out his driver’s side window “BE CAREFUL OUT THERE!” He was smiling, despite his pleasantly ominous warning, so I smiled back and said “YOU TOO” as I pedaled past him. Remember, at this point the roads were still dry pavement.


My route from A to B was on fresh, powdery snow on the unplowed Hank Aaron State Trail. Click on the image to go to the interactive Google map.

By the time left my meetings around 11, it was snowing harder and there were a couple inches of fluff on the ground and salty slush on the roads. It was no big deal riding back to the Bike Fed office. In fact I opted to get on the snow covered Hank Aaron State Trail at Emmber (A in the map above) and rode that all the way to W Milwaukee Road (B). Because that section of the Hank Aaron State Trail is plowed and salted well in the winter, it was easy to pedal through the few inches of fresh snow over the smooth pavement.


First tracks up the ramp at the Menomonee Valley Passage! And I made these at 11am on a week day. I find it sad that I was the only person to ride a bike through this densely populated neighborhood at mid-morning.


At that point I had to get on Canal Street because the section of trail between Milwaukee Rd. and the Menomonee Valley Passage bridge has never been plowed, so the pretty snow covered difficult to ride on icy, packed-down, foot-print rutted snow. While it does make me feel a bit like a second class citizen, it was not a big deal to hop on the road and then get off my bike to climb over the snowbank to ride across the well-maintained Menomonee Valley Passage up to our office at 3618 W. Pierce Street (C in the map).

To circle back to the pleasantly ominous warning I got from my fellow road user earlier that morning, I think the ease with which I made it from points A to C in a snowstorm illustrates the paradigm shift we need to make in the general collective consciousness in the US. I will give this guy the benefit of the doubt and imagine he was caught up in the meteorological media hype and warned people driving cars to be careful too, but I doubt it. I think he warned me because he thinks it is really dangerous to ride a bicycle, particularly in the winter. There is just this pervasive idea in the US that it is really difficult and dangerous to ride a bicycle and only crazy people or extremists do it in the winter.


Remember when the average American was as tough as square nails?

I don’t know exactly when Americans became such fearful whiners and seekers of comfort over effort when it comes to travel, but we sure seem to have lost our pioneering spirit. Outside the misadventures of the Donner Party, Americans used to take pride in embracing adventure travel and took hardship in stride. We uprooted our families, packed up our belongings in the back of a wagon, and traveled west across vast, unknown territory to find new places to call home. Of course there were no other “easier” travel options, but if you read any of the accounts of these cross-country trips, people did not seem to make a big deal of hardship.

I used to blame automobile advertising that promises people will be hip and happy if they only just purchase a car. The ads always promise comfortable travel repleat with surround sound and heated leather seats to anyone who needs to pick up the mail at the end of their driveway.  While I do believe that advertising designed to convince people to buy cars is near the heart of the problem, the well-known Miller ad below lends some defense for the cultural moguls on Madison Avenue. Say what you will about advertising, this one makes my point exactly.



I don’t consider myself cut from the same burlap cloth as our pioneer predecessors just because I ride my bike eight miles through the snow. After all, I am riding in a city where I can seek shelter almost anywhere on my route. That said, I must admit to shaking my head in wonder at people who drive their cars anywhere less than a mile. I honestly know three people in my neighborhood who drive 3-4 BLOCKS to work every day. Heck, you can walk three blocks in the snow in the time it takes to start the car and scrape the windows! Is time really so valuable, and fossil fuel and out environment so unimportant, that personal convenience outweighs taking a even a little personal initiative?

I understand that as someone who rides his bike for transportation in the winter I am in the minority in the US, even among people who like to ride bikes. I know people who drive cars also care about the environment and work hard in other areas, so I am open to any arguments to dispute my claim that when it comes to getting around, we have lost no longer take pride in our pioneering past and personal independence. Our generation won’t be able to tell our grand kids that we “walked a mile through the snow” to get to anywhere.


Pete, packing up his precious cargo last Saturday night.

While the majority of Americans may think people who ride bikes in the winter are crazy, there is an active minority of people who enjoy and take pride in getting around under their own power all winter. My family and many of my closest friends do ride all year. It can feel a bit tribal when we all ride to some common event, but in a good way. If winter bike get togethers are the equivalent of circling the wagons, then my buddy Pete’s Bullitt cargo bike is perhaps the modern version of a Conestoga wagon. Even on a cold winter night, he is able to carry his daughter Deva in comfort and safety with the box and faux fur blanket he has on the front of the Bullitt. While the sight of Pete and Deva rolling down a street on a winter evening may draw a lot of stares in Milwaukee, it remains common place in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam (and many other cities around the world) where people still take pride in getting around under their own power.


Sure, it is OK to walk your bike once in a while! Photo by Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagen Cyclechic

I have a bunch of friends from Copenhagen where 50% of all trips are taken by bike. Yes they have better bike networks and they plow the cycletracks first in the snow. And while they do have milder winters than we do in Wisconsin, I believe that part of the reason so many Danes and Dutch ride bikes no matter the weather is because they still take great pride in their Viking heritage. When you are there, you just don’t hear people complaining about the weather or traveling in the snow like you do here.

I encourage you to follow look over the posts from several days of snow storm photos from Copenhagen Cyclechic beginning here. You will see men, women and children dressed in regular clothes, riding bicycles in what looks like blowing snow. It is just not a big deal for Vikings. As a Packer fan, I hate to admit when any Vikings are tougher than us, but it does seem that the sons and daughters of pioneers are not as tough today, at least when it comes to getting around.



About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

13 thoughts on “"Be Careful Out There!" What happened to our pioneer spirit?

  1. Dave:
    Maybe we can get Trek to create a high end commercial about how cool
    it is to ride a bike….then we can persuade and change the driving paradigm.

    • Julie,

      Making the commercial is the easy part, as I know a bunch of creative bike folks who do video ;) Finding auto manufacturer budgets to run the thing on TV is a whole different thing.

  2. The majority of US citizens do not hold passports and have never been anywhere outside of North America, and of those, most have been only to Europe or other developed countries.

    I am not calling myself a world traveler by any means, but unlike most US citizens I have been to places where kids have no shoes and are undernourished, where people ride unprotected on the backs of flatbed trucks for hours through the night in order to get to places of temporary employment, where people who have cheap Wal-Mart mountain bikes donated second-hand from the US are the lucky ones because at least they don’t have to walk for miles with cords of firewood piled on their backs.

    I’m not saying that the comforts we enjoy in the US are bad, or that they make us morally inferior. But there’s something wrong when we complain about having to park two blocks away and walk to our destination.

  3. During the 19th Century most Americans stayed in the urban centers of the East Coast and enjoyed new inventions like the sewing machine, the typewriter, the washing machine, the telephone and the electric light bulb. The much-romanticized pioneers were people of grim resolve to be sure, but for every person who was motivated by a sense of bold adventure there must have been thousands for whom there was no other choice. And the pioneers didn’t choose a life of nomadic wandering; they established new communities to mimic those they had left, quickly fitting them with the same modern conveniences.

    But all of human history is a timeline from hardship to ease. Every bicycle advertisement promises advancements in lightweight construction, power transfer, aerodynamics, etc. It’s not about making the rider stronger; it’s about the application of technology to overcome the rider’s weaknesses. (Did those pioneers go west on solid wooden wheels? Like hell they did; spoke count mattered even then!) Asking people to toughen up is a tactic that never endures and a curious departure from the norm for the BFW. What would tough-as-nails pioneers—people who faced arrows, not sharrows—think of the near-constant pleas for separate bicycling infrastructure?

    • Well thought out and stated Dave. I love the mention of spoke count on wagon wheels. That really has me curious about the design of wagon wheels. I am going to reserve a little time to Google that.

      I certainly agree that it is in our human nature to work to ease personal hardship. That is probably at the core of what drives any species survival instinct. And while I used the pioneers and vikings as examples to make the point, I don’t think we need go back that far to see the decline in American culture that valued personal responsibility, frugal use of resources, and thrift. My grandfather was NOT a bike guy, but he was thrifty and despised waste. He purposely choose to live close enough to his place of work so he could walk or take transit, even though he had a car that he loved. Heck, he even named his car. I think those values were much more common a couple generations ago than they are today.

      Again, I’m not saying that people should ride their bikes 20 miles to work through the snow, but the fact that I know three people who drive their cars 3 blocks to work every day is telling.

      As for the Bike Fed advocating for better infrastructure, as the blog post noted, one of the results of the Dutch and Dane’s Viking desire to ride bikes everywhere is they have very complete networks of separated bike facilities (cycle tracks) and put a much higher priority on maintenance of those pedestrian and bicycle facilities. I don’t see a conflict between asking for equitable treatment when it comes to investments in infrastructure and asking people to consider taking more personal responsibility for their travels.

      I find this an interesting discussion. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    • Thanks Roger,

      Like most of my posts in this vein, these are thoughts that occur to me while riding my bike. I then try to get them written down and published soon after. Since these are personal feelings, not facts, I always hope for a robust discussion in which people share opposing viewpoints in these comments.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Dave.

    I’m curious what kind of “common events” have you met up with fellow cycling friends and family members this winter?

    • Hey Cullen,

      In Milwaukee we have monthly group rides, all through the winter. We also have had some events where the vast majority of people ride their bikes to the event. The photo of Pete and Deva was taken as just such an event in the Walkers Point neighborhood. It was a fund raiser for a local courier who was hurt in a crash. About 75 people rode their bikes down to the tavern, we had food, a DJ, tons of really great raffle prizes, and beer of course.

      In warmer weather there are even more events, the Bike-in movie series is a good example, but we also have bike to brunch events, tandem date night, etc. Most of these events are published through existing Facebook and other social media networks, but sometimes they do have posters and websites.

  5. I used to spend a fair amount of time in Frankfurt, Germany,the banking capital of Europe, which has an excellent mass transit system. During one relentless thunderstorm I saw multiple well dressed businessmen, with their briefcases, wearing raincoats over their suits , riding their bikes to the next destination. It blew me away. I couldn’t imagine anyone in my suburban New Berlin community doing this in “NICE” weather. I think some SUVs should get parked and walking and biking brought into lifestyles. American obesity is an epidemic.

    • Annie,

      You get my point exactly, the European attitudes on travel differ immensely. But to be fair to New Berlin bankers, the distance they have to travel to their office probably precludes riding in suits, even in nice weather. The density of Frankfurt means most of those Deutch Bankers only have to ride a couple miles or less to get anywhere they need to go. That does get to the point I made in my reply to Dave H above about choosing to live near your place of employment.

      There are probably other reasons those bankers ride bikes in the rain: Since parking is not as heavily subsidized in Germany as it is in the US, it costs a LOT to park a car. If they did drive, they probably don’t want to move their car to go to meetings. The other factor is that because the free market does not provide as much parking, it is much harder to find a place to park even if you are willing to pay. That means riding a bike or taking transit are the fastest, most convenient ways from point a to b for short trips in Frankfurt.

    • Hey TK,

      I’m not sure we are weak in general, just when it comes to getting around. I know lots of people who work hard, long hours, people who work outside in the cold all winter, people who ride super long distances on gravel for sport, etc. But the vast majority of those people, tough as they are, never even consider walking or biking somewhere they actually need to get to.

      The sad part is that kids have this attitude too. I walked to school every day I went to elementary school, from my first day in kindergarten and it only about 1/2 a mile, but I had lots of friends in school who walked about a mile. None of us even talked about how far it was, or asked for a ride if the weather was bad. In fact, we loved walking to school together, even in the winter.

      Fast forward to a few years ago when I was at a Safe Routes to School mtg, and a parent stood up and said “There is no way my daughter can walk to school, it is 10 blocks away.”

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