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Continued: Ultrafit: A two-wheel winter commute

  • Article by: STEPHEN REGENOLD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 1, 2008 - 7:45 PM
Bike tires hum on snow, and they buzz on ice. But they rarely slip when you’re going straight. Gears click and shift the same in almost any weather. Just remember the lube. And the cold wind? With the right clothing it’s not an issue, according to regular wintertime riders.

In the Twin Cities, thousands of people pedal year-round to work or school, commuting on city streets and plowed trails. New cycling equipment, better apparel and a growing awareness of the feasibility of wintertime riding has caused a jump in participation.

“I used to count bikes as I rode in the winter, as they were so rare,” said Dave Olson, a 57-year-old electrical repairman from Minneapolis who has commuted downtown for 20 years from his home near Lake Nokomis. “Now if there’s new snow, I can see the tracks of at least 50 riders.”

In Minneapolis, Olson is among as many as 3,000 people who commute through the cold months, according to the City of Minneapolis Bicycle Program, a division of the Public Works Department. “In the spring, summer and fall there are close to 15,000 bicyclists traveling throughout the city,” said Don Pflaum, the city’s bicycle coordinator.

“Approximately 25 percent of all bike commuters ride year-round.”

The attraction? Parking is free. High gas prices do not apply. In a storm, two wheels and pedals can be faster for getting around the city than a car struck in a traffic jam.

Winter riding is not without hardship. Evening comes early, forcing workers to pedal home in the dark. Snowdrifts squeeze side streets, eliminating a comfortable side lane for bikes. Frozen fingers and feet are common issues for the unprepared.

But dress right, use fenders and lights on the bike, maybe add studded tires, and commuting in the bleak months can be comfortable and efficient.

“A bike is a lot more stable in the winter than people think,” Olson said.

Not convinced? Here are 10 tips to help you ease into the wintertime cycling scene:

Follow the plow
Unbeknownst to many summertime riders, bike trails are regularly plowed around the Twin Cities. In Minneapolis, more than 50 miles of trail is plowed after a snow, including major corridor routes like the Cedar Lake Trail, Midtown Greenway and the Minneapolis Grand Rounds. Regional trails are cleared when the snow emergency routes are plowed. Major trails are often plowed before local streets, according to Pflaum.

Ride straight
Believe it or not, the medium during most winter commutes is the same dry pavement as in the summer. Sand, salt, sun and snowplows eliminate ice and snow from roads in the days after a storm. But for slippery stretches riders should slow down and stay loose. Brake only on the rear wheel to avoid spinouts on slick surfaces. And be prepared to take your feet off the pedals if the bike starts to tilt.

Watch out
Cars are less aware of bikers in the winter months, according to Olson. “It’s darker, snow makes the roads more narrow, and people aren’t really looking for bikers,” he said. As such, Olson recommends riding more defensively. “Make eye contact with drivers,” he said. “Make sure you know they see you.”

Choose the right ride
Don’t use your $3,000 LeMond or full-suspension mountain bike in the snow. Sand, salt and grit can destroy suspension and gears. Instead, go with an older bike you designate for cold-weather use, adding fenders, bright lights and winter wheels. Cyclists like Josh Klauck, a sales manager at Freewheel Bike in Minneapolis, employ single-speed models in the winter, as they have fewer moving parts and require less maintenance.

Cold and clean
Unless you plan to clean it off, keep your bike cold and store it in the garage. A room-temperature bike in new snow can cause ice to form on brakes and gears more easily. Also, keep your chain and gear cassette lubricated for best operation.

Go Studs
Carbide-studded tires can increase grip on snow and ice, and riders like David Mainguy, a 42-year-old psychotherapist in Minneapolis, swear by them. “Ever since I wiped out on black ice, I don’t ride without them,” Mainguy said of his $50 Nokian brand tires.

Protect your core
Any outdoorsy person knows that layering is the key to staying warm and managing sweat in the cold. According to Klauck, the best configuration for biking includes a wicking base layer on top followed by an insulating fleece or similar mid-layer, then topped with a waterproof and windproof shell jacket. “That’s good to 15 or 20 degrees for most people,” he said. For the legs, Klauck skips the insulating layer on most days, going with long underwear topped off with a shell pant. “Some people wear bike shorts over long underwear, too,” he said.

Heads up
Jacket hoods are a no-no, as air funnels in as you move, inflating a hood like a sail. Instead, riders like Mainguy and Olson wear balaclavas and sunglasses or ski goggles. “My eyes freeze without protection below 20 degrees,” Mainguy said. Tight-fitting (but warm) fleece skull caps are popular. Top it off with a helmet, perhaps sized larger in winter to fit over all the insulation. “The key is to cover up all exposed skin while keeping your goggles from fogging,” Mainguy said.

Warm hands and feet
Switch out gloves for mittens or bifurcated “lobster”-style handwear, which keep fingers close together and warmer. Winter boots, not bike shoes, are best for the coldest days, but use platform pedals with aggressive tread for good grip as you crank. Above 20 degrees, many riders get away with bike shoes, employing neoprene covers to add insulation and buffer warm air. Some companies, notably Lake Cycling, sell winterized (read: insulated) bike shoes compatible with clipless pedals.

Use public transit
Metro Transit buses and trains are equipped with bike racks, letting riders surrender on the worst days and hop a ride home. Bike near a bus route and you have bail-out points should the commute prove too long or laborious in the snow.

Stephen Regenold is a Twin Cities writer and author of the syndicated column www.thegearjunkie.com.
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