Living in a northern climate makes riding a bicycle a challenge when that defining element of our geography suddenly rears its chill head. And still, Twin Citians can be seen puffing through January weather on bicycles.
Polypropylene socks, extra warm socks, warm shoes/boots, neoprene shoe covers, polypropylene long underwear, windproof underwear, shirt(s), sweater, windproof jacket, lobster gloves, balaclava (ski mask), goggles and helmet: what you’d need for a walk in exurban Novosibirsk, Siberia? Nope, this getup, or most of it, is the standard for Twin Cities bicycle commuters during this season.
“I love watching the looks I get from people in cars who think I’m crazy,” says Joshua Snater, a bartender at the Turf Club and the Dubliner in his 12th year of year-round biking. He’s been hit by cars seven times, three in winter, but the only time he drove a car himself is when he had a broken arm (from getting hit by a car while biking). There are many reasons to bike any time of the year, Snater says. “It’s the most efficient form of human transportation, fuel-to-power-wise.” So we can get around faster on a bike than on foot. For many bikers, that’s just it: a bike is the most efficient option. “I don’t have a car, so in a way, I’m forced to bike or ride the bus,” says John Langley of Spokes Pizza Collective, a pizza joint that delivers year-round by bicycle.
But why get all bundled up to risk your life on slippery roads during rush-hour traffic? A lot of people who commute by bike in the summer don’t in winter, according to Kevin Krizek, the director of Active Communities/Transportation Research Group at the University of Minnesota and the author of several studies on the habits of urban bicylists. But whether it’s cold outside doesn’t even enter into the equation for people like Langley. For him, the logistical problems of biking are how to get his groceries home or how to move a couch. There are also things that he doesn’t have to worry about. “When I go downtown,” he says, “I never need to worry about finding parking, much less about when my meter is going to run out, and I don’t have to pay for insurance or car maintenance.” Just as he accepts the risks of biking in cold weather, drivers accept the risk of a $30 parking ticket or of having to walk several blocks from the car to the office braving the same freezing temperatures and losing time.
And there are a host of measures we can take to make riding in the cold of winter less of a struggle—and sometimes kind of fun. In the first winter forays on a bike, there are a few essentials one learns right away. The most apparent is the degree of pure freezing suffered by any skin left exposed (and some not—undies sometimes aren’t enough insulation—more on that later). Most winter bikers would agree with Krizek that “there’s no such thing as bad weather; just bad gear.” The most difficult to keep warm? Hands and head, according to Langley. While he’s delivering pizzas in the winter, he wears big, snowboarding-type mittens and he protects his face with a polypropylene mask. Even better, says Jon Van Zee, a member of the Hub Bike Co-Op, are balaclavas, which cover the head and the face. They’re warmer and less bulky than stocking caps, important for bikers who wear helmets.
Although still uncool in some circles, Snater says helmets are a must, especially in winter. He sent his last one back to Bell Bike in several pieces, along with a thank-you note, after a car hit him, ahem, head-on last year. A helmet doesn’t have to mean the difference between life and death like it did for Snater, but in the snow and ice of winter, it’s inevitable that every biker takes a spill or two. Helmets modeled after the kind snowboarders use, with fewer vents and cute little earflaps, are a winter option.
Males should take special care on really cold, windy days to shield their delicate genitals, where cold is a surprisingly painful sensation. “Wind brief” underwear, like the ones used for cross-country skiing, are helpful in that regard. In a pinch, or on a low budget, a little sheet of newspaper can make all the difference.
Winter biking can be a weird bodily experience. When you break a sweat, and wind hits the sweat, you’ll freeze, of course. So it’s best to wear something that blocks the wind on the outside, and things made of wool or one of those shmancy synthetic fibers underneath. Synthetics are expensive, but very worth the money, and they last for years. But wear them against your skin so that they wick the moisture away from it, and prevent overheating (yes, even in winter). It usually only takes a few blocks of solid riding before you warm up, so dress in layers that you can easily remove if you have to.
If you can’t afford neoprene shoe covers, you can keep your feet warm and dry when it’s raining (or the road is slushy enough to warrant it) by putting plastic bags over your socks, inside of your shoes. You should also make sure your gloves or mittens aren’t so bulky that braking or shifting becomes difficult. Thick downhill ski gloves from the local thrift store can be enough. There are several winter-proof hand coverings available at local bike shops, most of which feature a handy cloth strip on the back of each thumb for nose wiping on the fly. Van Zee recommends using lobster gloves that are warmer than gloves but allow for more dexterity than mittens.
Knowing where and when to bike in the winter can be as important as having the right equipment, when it comes to safety. The Midtown Greenway, an abandoned railway redeveloped last summer as a bicycle expressway, is plowed before some major streets in Minneapolis, according to Matthew Lang, community organizer for the Midtown Greenway Coalition. The almost totally barrier-free path extends from Hiawatha Avenue west to the Lakes, and there are plans for its expansion to the Mississippi next summer. Minneapolis also received a federal grant this year to help build a “bike center,” where Freewheel Bike will have a small shop, Lang says. Already installed in larger cities around the world—even a couple in the United States.—the stations include bicycle parking facilities, showers, lockers, bike shops, restaurants and connections to transit. Incidentally, Minneapolis’ recently-passed budget for 2006 includes money to study the Greenway and other transport corridors in Minneapolis as potential sites for transit, and the Coalition is pushing a streetcar line for the Greenway.
Sadly, most bikeways in Minneapolis aren’t plowed as quickly as the Greenway, and many are in worse condition than the streets adjacent to them. So, after a heavy snow, Van Zee recommends sticking to roads that are heavily traveled (by cars), because they’re more likely to be plowed. And even if they haven’t been, the heavier auto traffic makes them likely to be clearer. When the snow is too deep, ride in the wheel ruts, he says. Former Pittsburgh bike messenger Spencer Haugh recommends winter bikers “take that space. You have to be a bit aggressive.” Tim Franz, a downtown accountant who commutes by bicycle, says, “If there’s not enough room for a you and a car, just take up a whole lane, so that cars have to change lanes to pass you or follow behind you.” It’s your right as a cyclist. Don’t let drivers think that buzzing by six inches from your face like they normally do is OK when the roads are snowy and icy. Plus, state law allows bikers to avoid surface hazards on the road by riding as far toward the center of the road as necessary. And even the thin slush on road shoulders can get into the moving parts of a bicycle and damage it.
Yes, that nasty, black winter road goulash that’s so ubiquitous it seems like a plot, and which so many automobile owners struggle against in futility, even as they exit the car wash. But it can do a lot more to bicycles than make them look shabby. Snater rides his bicycle every day and washes it each night, because when that grit and grime get into the bottom bracket (the part of the frame that holds the pedals) and other parts, it can corrode extremely quickly and hardware can be ruined for good in a short time. However, regular cleaning and “relubeing” will keep a bike in top condition, in spite of slushy road stew, Snater says—“unless you have a bike just for winter, and you don’t care if you run it into the ground.”
Which isn’t a bad idea. Van Zee recommends, if you really like your bike, that you don’t ride it in the winter. There is no shortage of cheap, used or old bicycles in the Twin Cities, and you can keep a shitty bike running just fine all winter long with simple but effective maintenance.
If the frame is steel, and you’re worried about rust, put touch-up paint on all its little scrapes. You can keep gunk out of the brake and derailleur cables by putting pieces of duct tape or electrical tape over the ends of the casings. Smear an extra layer of grease on all the bearings to keep salt and other winter droppings out of them. Clean them out and put new grease on them every month, if you’ve got the time. When there is a lot of snow and salt on the ground, you may need to lube the chain and derailleurs about once a week. Use motor oil, because it’s cheaper than anything else, and the chain sometimes gets dirty so fast in the winter that it’s not worth using a good lubricant. Keep in mind these measures are for winter bikes only, and it would be a bad idea to use things like motor oil on any bike worth keeping. If you’re using a good bike in the winter, Van Zee recommends wiping it down daily and applying new, high performance lube every three days.
Van Zee uses an early ’90s mountain bike in the winter, and while not exactly an inferior machine, it has the capacity for full fenders, a feature lacking on most road bikes. Partial fenders and the snap-on variety that fit road bikes don’t keep bikes or riders as clean. Van Zee also likes the wider, knobby tires of mountain bikes for their added traction on snow. Haugh, however, rides the same bike all year, and says the skinny tires of his road bike cut through snow to grip the tarmac beneath.
Vorsicht! An oft-forgotten problem encountered by winter bikers is frozen bike locks. Don’t get on your bike in the winter without a cigarette lighter and a tube of lock de-icer.
When it’s too late to skirt an ice patch you encounter, it’s best to just coast over it. Don’t pedal, brake or try to make a turn on the ice itself, because you’ll fall. Those storied falls, the ones when bikers’ end times nearly came, occur when riders hit the brakes on a patch of ice. Van Zee’s bike has tires studded with carbide steel tips that last a couple of years, he says. “They’re not really necessary, but they’ve saved my ass on black ice.” In places where winter brings a lot of snow, like Canada, some cyclists make their own studded tires using screws. The Edmonton Bicycle Commuters’ website, EdmontonBicycleCommuters.ca, has an easily understandable how-to, complete with diagrams. If you hit ice, and you know you’re going to fall, or won’t be able to stop fast enough to avoid hitting something, there is a last ditch option: lock the rear brake and throw your bike sideways. It’ll make you fall on your side, and it’ll hurt, but it will be your bike that slides into the car instead of your body.
Sometimes, brakes on bikes can freeze or get sticky when there’s enough snow on the road, or snow on your tires can lubricate the brakes, rendering them ineffective when you need them. Scary. To prevent this, slightly squeeze the brakes on occasion to squeegee your rims and keep your brakes clearer.
It’s a good idea to simply take more time when you’re riding in the winter. Bundling up against the cold limits peripheral vision, so make more of an effort to be aware of your surroundings than you do in the summer. Pedestrians dress for winter weather, too, so they might not see you, and they probably aren’t looking out for cyclists in the winter. People on foot also get chilly when they’re outside, and they probably want to get to the warmth of the office as soon as possible, so they’re more likely to dash across the street unexpectedly.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to biking in the winter, however, isn’t meteorological, physiological or logistical. It’s psychological. Langley says people think it’s simply too difficult, and having a car in the driveway makes it seem like it isn’t an option. Haugh is coordinating the ninth annual Stupor Bowl, an event to help counteract those psychological barriers to winter biking.
The Stupor Bowl is a sort of combination scavenger hunt, bike messenger race and party. It’s held on the Saturday before the Super Bowl (on Feb. 4 this year) and helps to raise awareness of winter biking. It is possible; bike messengers do it every day, Haugh says. Because it’s more difficult to have fun on your bike in the winter, he says, the point of the Stupor Bowl is to have a good time. The history of the event lies in the tradition of Alley Cat races, started by bike messengers in Toronto. Those races were to prove who the best messenger was, but Haugh says the Stupor Bowl is for everyone dedicated to biking, “It’s grown over the years from messengers to everybody, because bike culture isn’t comprised just of messengers.”
Although messengers came from as far away as Toronto to participate in last year’s Bowl, many Twin Cities’ bike commuters and purveyors of bike culture were also in attendance. And it was most certainly fun right from the start. As the one hundred-or-so participants gathered at the start on the east bank of the river, under the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, they listened to rocksteady and reggae on a homemade sidecar sound system and watched another guy collect a $50 pot from spectators willing to pay to see him jump naked into the Mississippi in February. The messenger from Chicago was hoping to pay for his trip back home. He only raised $46, but took the dive anyway.
Participants went to different points on their maps—like Behind Bars Bicycle Shop, where they had to perform stunts like removing their rear wheels, taking the tube out and putting it all back together to earn a stamp. Another stop was at an ice fishing shack on Lake Calhoun, and several points on the map were local bars and restaurants, which gave an extra stamp if participants had a drink. The more stamps at the end, the higher the score. Everyone met at Grumpy’s downtown to collect their prizes, or just to use the free beer tickets every participant received. Expensive messenger bags and bicycle parts were among the prizes, and winners received awards ranging from Fastest Civilian, i.e. non-messenger, to the D.F.L. award, for the person who was Dead Fucking Last.
This year’s theme is Prince, and Haugh hopes to have participants sing Karaoke for stamps at one stop. There will also be a scavenger hunt for Prince-related items and playing cards (whoever has the best hand at the end wins), a race for “kids who want to go fast” and a medallion hunt á la the St. Paul Winter Carnival, says Haugh. To get involved in the Bowl, visit the Minneapolis Bike Messenger Association’s website.
Events like the Stupor Bowl, and other bike events may indeed be raising awareness that winter biking isn’t just for crazy people. Snater says he’s noticed a surge in the number of winter bikers in the Twin Cities during the last few years, and people in their cars don’t give him as many funny looks as they used to. A recent study done by professors at Portland State University ranked Minneapolis as the city with the highest percentage of bicycle commuters, 2.63 percent. The city was fourth, behind Tucson, San Francisco and Seattle, according to a different study by Carfree City, U.S.A., a Berkeley-based group that promotes carfree urban development. And the Minnesota Department of Transportation has put hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last four years into Krizek’s studies on the different ways different bikers respond to different features of the urban infrastructure, ostensibly to decide where to build bikeways in the future. Joel Cahalan, Van Zee’s coworker at the Hub, says customers often tell him they see more and more winter bikers every year. “It gets warmer and warmer every year, too,” he says with an anti-fossil fuel sneer.
Saving money on gas is one reason Tim Franz commutes by bicycle year-round. He saves $6 every day that he would have spent on the bus, and he would still have to drive from his suburban home to a park-and-ride facility. And he likes not contributing to air pollution. So does Matt McKinney, a reporter for the Star Tribune. “It’s worth whatever tiny effect my choice not to burn more gas has.” There can also be an undeniable feeling of superiority over drivers, especially when seeing cars during rush hour from one of the bridges over Interstate 94 or 35W. Franz says the time he saves during rush hour on his 18-mile round trip is one of the biggest factors in his decision to bike. Most of his commute is on bikeways, but even biking downtown is better than many places, he says, “because there are more witnesses if someone runs into you.”
McKinney sees his daily commute as a way to multitask: “I get a workout twice a day.” Van Zee feels more awake when he gets to work, he says. When John Langley realized he was just using his YWCA membership for the sauna, he got rid of it, because he was already getting exercise every day on his bike. “It was funny watching people drive there and then use the stationary bikes,” he says.
Make no mistake; winter biking isn’t always a chore. It’s often truly enjoyable and can even be sublime. The Cedar Lake Trail at night makes for a great ride home from work, McKinney says, “I drop out of the urban landscape into what feels like wilderness, the moon plays off the fog over the lake, and by the time I get home, I wish I could go another mile.” Snater doesn’t get off work until 3 a.m., when it’s dead quiet and there’s no one on the road. Sometimes, instead of going home, he goes for a nice long winter ride. Van Zee calls winter biking an adventure, “The landscape is always changing, I feel more aware of the world around me, and depending on the snow, it’s pretty.”