Grease Rag’s guide to winter biking in the Twin Cities

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Only the most brutal, ice-encrusted conditions can keep commuter Lee Penn off her bike.

“If my pedals can’t clear the snow pack,” she said Sunday, “then I pull out my skis and ski to work.”

Penn was one of nearly a dozen hardy commuters huddled at Sunrise Cyclery for the second annual Winter Skill Share. The event was hosted by Grease Rag Ride & Wrench, a social, supportive group for women, trans and femme bikers.

During the warmer months, Grease Rag puts on casual group rides and communal wrenching sessions. And now Grease Rag gives us a primer to staying warm, safe and upright on our bikes this winter.

Getting the proper equipment

“Personally, I like a full set of studded tires,” said Kat McCarthy, one of the Cities’ few female bike polo competitors.

Studded tires cost about $60 each, she said, but they’re worth the investment. Their metal studs provide much-needed traction on icy pavement, and they last a long time.
If you don’t have the cash, you can make do with knobby mountain bike tires, she said.

She also favors a full set of fenders for winter riding, because they keep your body dry and prevent slush from mucking up your components.

Which brings us to…

Maintaining your ride

“The most important thing is to keep your bike cleaned, lubed and greased,” said mechanic Shayne Stahlmann, who recommends cleaning your bike after every winter excursion because salt, water and sand can age your steed.

At the minimum, she said, you need to do a thorough cleaning once a week. Pay particular attention to the chain and sprockets.

“Keeping the chain clean is key,” Stahlmann said.

Use an old toothbrush or a Q-tip to get into tight spaces, such as under your fenders. Clean your spokes with chain lube, as it will protect them from the elements, and take off your wheels to get them completely clean.

Go here for more of Shayne’s maintenance tips.

Keeping warm and dry

You don’t necessarily need specialized bike clothes to ride comfortably through the winter, but there are some core guidelines to keep in mind.

“Keep your feet, your hands and your head warm — and keep yourself dry,” apparel designer Carly Schoen said.

Schoen prefers wool layers, but she knows others who rely on silk or polyester. Windproof insulation is key, as is bringing extra base layers with you on your commute.

Avoiding moisture-trapping cotton, Schoen and her fellow Grease Rag ladies said.

“Cotton will kill you,” Schoen warned.

Below, Schoen sports a prototype of fashionable winter biking pants she’s developing.

Schoen

Riding safely

New riders should head to a relatively flat and low-traffic area, such as one of the city’s many parks, lower their saddle and practice riding through the snow.

“You will be shocked what you can ride in,” Penn said.

Be visible with bright clothing, lights and reflectors, and keep these handling tips in mind:

  • Brake slowly and steadily downhill, as “panic braking is usually a disaster.”

  • Corner more slowly than you do in better weather to “maximize contact of your bike with the ground.”

  • Opt for main roads instead of side streets, as they tend be better maintained. Some off-street trails — like the River Road, Light Rail Trail and Midtown Greenway — tend to be kept pretty clear, too.

This guide should get you started. But what to do about motivation, or rather the lack of it, that causes some of us — OK, me — to stick closely to our couches in the dead of winter? How can we maintain our enthusiasm for self-propulsion, when it looks so damn nasty inside?

Just keep this in mind, McCarthy said:

“Biking makes you warm. You build up a core temperature, and just being outside and being active makes outside not suck,” she said. “Just walking out to start your car sucks — but once you get get moving and you’re warm, you can enjoy it out there.”

Grease Rag girls

From left, Grease Rag gals Schoen, Penn and Laura Kling cruise home after the successful skill share.

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