Next week, the Twin Cities will become the undisputed world capital of winter bicycling — for about 72 hours.
Then the capital will revert to its actual undisputed location, which is Oulu, Finland.
The Twin Cities’ brief reign runs Tuesday through Thursday with the arrival in Minneapolis of the world Winter Cycling Congress, a four -year-old advocacy and education organization intent on “increasing bicycling and walking among people of all ages and abilities through the winter.” Previous congresses were in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and, of course, Oulu.
Minneapolis is the first U.S. site. Organizers chose it — over Moscow and Madison, Wis. — because the city has (a) winter; (b) lots of bicyclists who ride all winter (up to 15 percent who commute also ride through the season); and (c), according to one of the local organizers, Annie Van Cleve, “very strong community support from the start. We were a perfect fit.”
Indeed, local sponsorship of the congress is a who’s who of the region’s industrial bike and fitness complex — Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Center for Prevention; Nice Ride; Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota; Quality Bicycle Products (via its Surly, Salsa and 45NRTH brands); and the bike path-lane-and-policy people from Hennepin County and the state’s Department of Transportation.
Although most of the group’s schedule is accessible only to about 350 people from across the globe who paid the registration fee, the congress will have an impact beyond its headquarters at the Commons Hotel on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus. Several public events are scheduled (see end of story) and the composition of the attendees — advocates, academics, public officials, and infrastructure managers — means that the seminars and hallway discussions could significantly affect the long-term conditions under which the region’s cyclists will be riding.
For the design, construction, and maintenance of year-round cycling infrastructure — paths, lanes, and intersections — are apparently an emerging and inconsistently practiced discipline around the world. Nice Ride’s Tony Desnick, another of the event’s organizers, said the congress will be a hotbed of best practices that could shape public policies and strategies across the country.
Ultimately, Van Cleve said, the goal is to “normalize biking in the winter.” Many people apparently view winter riding’s logistics, gear, and general challenge as something akin to polar expeditions. “You don’t always need studded tires,” Van Cleve said. Almost a third of Oulu’s cyclists ride year-round.
Another goal is bike equity, as in linking up bikes to people who would not usually have access to (or maybe even think about) them. This, Van Cleve said, is one of the reasons the winter congress chose to come to the Twin Cities. The region has a reputation as an inclusive bike community that “uses bikes as a tool” to create a healthier, more diverse place. The idea, she said only half-jokingly, is: “Bikes will save the world.”
For example, she mentioned Full Cycle, a 10-year-old nonprofit shop on Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis that uses six-month paid bike mechanic internships to help homeless young people stabilize their lives, find work, and find a place to live.
“Bikes are an amazing tool to reach out to people,” said Matt Tennant, Full Cycle’s founder and executive director. “We talk to the kids about how they’re universal; wherever you go on Earth you’ll find people on bikes. That’s powerful.”
Another example is Grease Rag Ride & Wrench, a Minneapolis group that connects a “women/trans/femme” community to cycling through rides, discussions, shop nights and educational seminars. There is also the 15-year-old Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, a recreational club — named for the first black world cycling champion — focused on African-American cyclists of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“A theme of the conference is equity,” Van Cleve said.
Another theme: New ideas from around the world. More than 60 of the presenters and participants in Minneapolis will be from outside the United States. The Dutch will bring strategies on creating bike friendliness. The Canadians have news of street design. The Finns — the people from Oulu, mainly — will be speaking about path and bike lane maintenance in ways that some Minnesotans might find counterintuitive, if not alarming.
For example, in Oulu — which over the last 10 years has averaged 46 snow days each winter (Minneapolis averages 37) — is not that into plowing bike paths. Rather than clear snow down to pavement, Oulu packs down snow on bike paths, sometimes to a depth of five inches, and then spreads gravel over the snow, according to the congress. Timo Perälä, founder of the Winter Cycling Federation, said that layer of packed, graveled snow can be safely navigated without studded tires, although early stages of the spring thaw can be a challenge.
There are several ways to participate in congress-related events:
• The Winter Cycling Congress Bike Parade, starting at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Commons Hotel (615 Washington Av. SE). Open to the public, the parade will be a 5.3-mile ride ending at the campus’ Weisman Art Museum, where a party with bike-themed art will ensue. Riders are encouraged to decorate their bikes with lights.
• Bike Trivia night, in conjunction with the St. Paul Winter Carnival, is at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Amsterdam Bar in downtown St. Paul.
• Congress organizers are hoping that locals with winter-rideable bikes will share (as in, rent) them with out-of-town attendees through Spinlister (spinlister.com), the Uber-like online bicycle rental site.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis.