What better thing to do on the coldest day of the winter than to jump on a bicycle and tour the city's indoor swimming pools? That was precisely what a group of nine did on Saturday, January 22. This blog will document how we prepared for and carried out such a ride, at least from my perspective. While this blog post is rather long, the short version is that we did all that, and had a trouble-free afternoon of fun. Not only did nobody get frostbite, we didn't even get seriously cold. We winter cyclists know how to ride in cold, and this blog post will detail how we did that.
That morning, when dawn broke over Pittsburgh, the outside temperature was a frigid zero Fahrenheit. By noon it had warmed up to about 10ºF. The plan was to meet at Kiva Han coffeeshop in Oakland at 1:45 p.m., leave at 2 for the Oliver Bath House on the South Side, then visit the Sarah Heinz House on the North Side, which we understood was having an open house.
Preparing the Bike. Aside from normal preparations for riding anywhere, there was not much that needed to be done. I would have preferred to have a rack or basket to carry a small bag of clothing and a towel, but made do with a small backpack.
Preparing Clothing. Riding in the cold is not that difficult, but on a day this cold does require paying closer attention to the subject. Any exposed skin could be frostbitten, since cyclists move fast enough to induce their own wind chill without any help from a natural breeze. Face, ears, fingers, toes -- each requires special attention. For my fingers, I had two pairs of gloves on, covered by plastic newspaper bags. The plastic protected my fingers from wind chill through the porous gloves, as well as any snow or splash. For toes, the key is good circulation, as well as good covering, especially keeping skin dry, so nothing really tight-fitting. I started with a pair of wool socks to wick away any perspiration. These socks were covered by tall, thick socks, to eliminate skin exposure at my shins.
To a great extent, this setup worked quite well, though my pinky toes got very white by the time I got to the first pool. I also discovered that I was underdressed for my face. In particular, my chin suffered some. Obtaining a balaclava would be a good idea. For my ears, I at least had a thick head band that covered my ears and forehead well. Had I needed to bike the entire 12 miles from McCandless to Oakland, typically a one-hour trip, I might have had trouble with chin and toes sooner. But this in itself is instructional. Should I need to actually bike for a full hour in such conditions, with the knowledge gained from this experience, I will be more ready.
For my lower body, in addition to the swim trunks, I wore long johns covered by a pair of denim work pants. I made sure the LJs overlapped my socks. For my upper body, I had three T-shirts, one with long sleeves, as well as thermal undies. Note that all of this had to be taken off and stowed during the swims, then put back on afterward. All nine of us got pretty quick at getting this done, both places, both on and off.
Leg #1: Getting there. My trip there was done mainly by bus. First I biked about two miles to the Northway Mall bus stop, where I waited about five minutes for a bus. Being warm from the house carried me most of this distance, so I had little chance to get cold before boarding a warm bus for a half hour. Less than five minutes between buses Downtown also meant I did not get cold before Oakland. If anything, being dressed for zero but spending most of the time at 50 or better, I got too warm. Pulling off the helmet and unzipping the topside layers eased this problem.
The logistics of getting off a bus requires some preparation. Getting off Downtown, all I really needed to do was make sure I was re-zipped, re-helmeted and re-gloved, as I paid my fare upon boarding. In Pittsburgh, though, outbound fare payment is (usually) made upon exiting, which poses a problem in getting money out and wallet re-stowed and hands re-gloved in a hurry. To compensate for this, I made sure to let the driver know on the Oakland leg, two stops early, that I would be getting off shortly. I paid fare then, thus allowing me to get helmet, gloves, bags, etc. on before getting off. Getting off the bus and getting the bike off the bus rack itself was no different from warm weather travel. (Specifically, for natives, I had paid fare just after Bigelow even though I wasn't getting off until Craig.)
Leg #2: To the first pool. At Kiva Han, when we had gathered all we thought would be joining us, we rode as a pack on Forbes to Bellefield, then Fifth to the Birmingham Bridge. Of the nine of us, we had five guys and four gals, ranging in age from about 20 to about 60, a nice mix. Riding as a group, we took the lane since we were on multi-lane streets, as it is safer that way. Note also that with the recent snowfall (about 8 inches only two days earlier), the right edge of the right driving lanes were snow covered and very treacherous for cyclists. Thus, state law's "as far to the right as practicable" really did translate to "get left and stay left".
We arrive at the Oliver Bath House, a huge, ancient brick building just off East Carson at South 10th Street. The main problem we encountered was where to tie up nine bicycles. Two of us opted to lock to a utility pole stabilizing cable, while the rest managed to hook to a rail fence in front.
$4 later, we go to our respective changing rooms. Going from dressed for zero to almost naked took much less time than I would have thought, but within 10 minutes, we were changed, showered, and splashing in a warm swimming pool. While I left shoes, coats, helmet and glasses up in the changing room, I packed clothes and wallet in a couple of plastic bags I had the foresight to bring with me, and kept these with my towel on a bench by the pool, as did the others. We threw a small beach ball around, we played with a diving brick and various floaty things, and basically had a good time.
Leg #3: To the second pool. After about a half hour, maybe 45 minutes, we decided we'd had enough fun there and wanted to get to the next pool. Showered, changed back into travel gear, posed for a group picture, then back out onto the street. Standing on the sidewalk, we pondered over the best path to the Sarah Heinz House. 10th St Bridge? Jail trail? Armstrong Tunnel? South Side trail? Smithfield Street Bridge? Which streets through Downtown? Cross the Allegheny on which bridge? Not everyone was familiar with every path. Others were familiar enough but uncomfortable with some of the choices, e.g., the Armstrong Tunnel. We opted for Bingham St to South 4th to McKean St, through a gas station to a parking lot to Station Square, then under and around and up onto the Smithfield Street Bridge, continuing the length of Smithfield Street. A wiggle by the Convention Center put us on Penn, which we rode to 16th Street, where we took the downstream sidewalk to cross the river. From there, it was an easy minute to the Sarah Heinz House, where we found a modern bike rack, capable of holding our bikes and a dozen beyond.
Inside, we indeed found out there was an open house, but encountered a problem: Building yes, pool no, or at least it was restricted to parent-child pairs. Sensing a misunderstanding, the ladies at the sign-in desk said, "This sounds like a Charlie question" and motioned for a gentleman in his 40s or early 50s to talk to us. Sizing us up and hearing about why we came and how we got there (there were only seven of us at this point), I guess he figured he was dealing with serious adults, despite our choice of transportation. He OK'd the pool visit, provided we would take him up on a personal tour of the place. Sure! I know that among our crew were a architect, a couple of software people, a language specialist, and at least one in health care. Professionals of one sort or another, not exactly street folk. It was also getting toward the end of the day (close to 4:30 by this point), so Charlie kept the tour fairly short, yet showing us both the breadth and depth of various programs at SHH: gymnastics, robotics, basketball (with lowerable baskets for young'uns), music, art, and others. If I had $1,000 to hand them, I would. It's a really nice program.
This pool has one truly amazing feature: A climbing wall. I've never seen one in a pool, anywhere. The explanation was that the idea of a diving board was nixed when they were adding the extension to the building, but they knew they needed something, so found this climbing wall. Of course all the kids want to try it (and we did, too! It's awesome!), but in order to do so, each kid needs to demonstrate his/her ability to actually swim in the deep end, which is the whole point of having the pool, encouraging water safety and athleticism. See what you learn when you tour the area's pools?
By 5:45, we called it a day, and the staff wanted to leave soon after 6 anyway. In the locker room, we men were talking among ourselves along the lines of, this place is wonderful, how can we help them? It would be a great place to start or end a ride. We could help kids learn how to safely ride in traffic. We could help kids learn how to maintain and repair their bikes. They actually have some bikes in storage, but don't use them often. The need is there. Meanwhile, my own mental wheels were thinking, if they have kids coming from all over the city, not just nearby, how can I help them use transit to get back and forth? A lot of Pittsburgh City Schools kids have bus passes, so it would be a mere matter of figuring out how to get them there and then on toward home. That transit information thing again.
By 6:15, we were splitting up and heading our separate ways. I was going north, and needed 12A schedule info, which someone was able to look up from a cell phone. This might be the first time I'd ever done that from a cell phone, and the first time she had ever done such a lookup herself. I knew how to make it go once she got connected; she knew how to connect but not what to do. Again, information is everything.
Leg #4: The trip home. After unlocking, I had a five maybe 10 minute ride to Cedar at East North (Allegheny General Hospital), then a five-minute wait for the 12A. Very few people on the bus; in fact, I was the only rider after Ivory Avenue. I got off at Northway Mall, and 10 minutes later was home. It was a tad warmer on this leg of the trip, but not much, maybe 15 to 20ºF. Still cold out, still warm in motion.
Some take-aways from the day:
1) Cold was a factor in planning, but not in operation. It was a beautiful day, if you were prepared for the temperature.
2) Bikes plus transit can get you there and back, with the proper information.
3) Getting across town by bike probably took less time than by car, when factoring in the time and trouble to park.
4) Swarms of cyclists can descend on a place without causing significant trouble.
5) I for one learned how better to dress for seriously cold riding. And now I've told you.
6) Transit works, but all buses need bike racks. I used three of them today.
7) I would have used more money in gasoline and parking than I did in the whole day's other expenses. Bikes save money.
8) We have some amazing things to do around the city, if you bother to find them and try them out.
9) Never underestimate the amount of good clean fun that a bunch of sober adults can have together without spending a lot of money.
10) None of this would have happened if Pittsburgh's cycling community was not so awesome!
Another pool tour is planned for some warm Saturday!