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Bobby Brown of Minneapolis commutes by bike year-round

Photo by Carlos Gonzalez,

Winter Guide 2010: Riding out the winter

  • Article by: Valerie Vande Panne
  • January 1, 2011 - 10:54 AM

The worst blizzard in nearly 20 years just hit the city. It's 7 a.m., the temperature is hovering near 10 degrees with a windchill of 15 below, and you are about to leave for work.

On your bicycle.

The idea is enough to send shivers through most people. Yet, for hundreds of people in the Twin Cities, that's just what they do: stoically brave the frozen Minnesota winter on the seat of a bicycle. They run errands, do their Christmas shopping, and travel to work and school, all by bike.

Why do they do it? And why do their numbers seem to be growing? Is it the economy? Has environmental consciousness seeped beyond temporary brain freeze? The winter riders we spoke to seem to share at least one genuine motivation: Riding a bike in the winter just feels good.

"[Winter cycling] is looked at by people who haven't done it before as almost an extreme sport," says Bobby Brown, 23, of Minneapolis. "It's not that hard, it's not that crazy. It's something that, for me, gets me outside, gets me moving and makes me happy, just like people ice skate or cross-country ski. For me, I can just go out and ride my bike."

Chelsea Strate, 26, of Minneapolis, does all her running around, all winter long, on her bike. "If I didn't [ride my bike], I would be inside watching movies and gaining weight. It can be really enjoyable. I don't own a car, and I'm pretty impatient, so I don't like being at the mercy of the bus schedule."

Exercise, weight control, fun, avoiding a sparse mass-transit schedule ... all excellent reasons for riding a bike. But isn't it cold out there? Like, really cold?

"People confuse winter riding on a bicycle with winter riding on a motorcycle," Strate explains. "On the bike, your heart is pumping, and you're keeping yourself warm. It's easier to stay warm when you're working to get somewhere."

"Winter riding is just about layering," she adds. "Long underwear. Leg warmers. One to three pairs of socks, depending on how cold it is. Scarf around the face. Hat and a helmet, mittens ..."

"There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing," insists Gene Oberpriller, a partner in One on One Bicycle Studio. "I've lived here my whole life, and I've always lived by that," he says, reminding me that we lose around half of our body heat via the head.

Brown agrees. Dressed appropriately, he assures, "you can really go out and have fun when it's subzero weather." Brown commutes by bike to work at the Hub Bicycle Co-op and to school at Dunwoody College of Technology.

If you're reading this and still thinking, "These people are nuts," think of winter cycling as a cure for cabin fever. "I'm pretty convinced the reason [people get seasonal affective disorder] is because they don't get outside, they don't get exercise," Strate says.

"People confuse being bored with being depressed. When you get bored, you get stuck in your own head. When you're out and moving around, you have all the good stuff that happens, like endorphins."

Then there's the warm feeling of your cheeks thawing out once you get inside.

Evan Reich, a professional bike messenger, spends nine hours a day outside in all kinds of extreme weather conditions. Why does he work outside all winter long?

"I love the freedom of it," he says.

How to bike in winter

Urban cyclists offer their tips for winter riding.

FOR YOUR BODY

There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Layering is essential.

  • Gear: A good hat and helmet. Windproof shell. Long underwear (sometimes, yes, two pairs). Socks (sometimes three pairs). Hand mittens -- lobster mittens allow some needed dexterity. Gloves under the mittens. Face mask. Wool, flannel and Carhartt outerwear. Insulated boots or rubber overshoes. You don't necessarily need all the flashy high-tech wear.
  • Tip from a pro: Messenger Andy Larson explains: "I've worked days when the high is five below zero. Obviously in the morning, it's a lot cooler than that." So Larson waits until the temperature falls below zero to wear a face mask. "That's how you make 20 feel tropical and nice. ... If you're putting on a face mask at 30, you're missing out."

FOR YOUR BIKE

  • It's simple: If you coddle your bike, don't ride it in the winter. Spend $200 and get a beater bike for the season.
  • Single-speed? Consider riding a single-speed bike. You don't want to be shifting gears while your derailleur is full of street slush.
  • Maintenance: Before riding in snow, take apart your bike and put it back together, cleaning and greasing it. Remove the seat post, clean and grease. Or take it to a bike shop like One on One, the Hub or Erik's for a complete winterization. Keep your bike clean all winter -- especially the chain. Wipe off salt and grime at least once a week.
  • Gear: Fenders are recommended. And you may want to consider fatter tires. Studded tires are great for riding glare ice, and can add peace of mind and versatility to an icy commute. But what's more important than the gear is knowing how to use the gear you have in the conditions you are riding.
  • Tip from a pro: The Hub Bicycle Co-op's Bobby Brown recommends putting a drop of oil where the spokes enter the rim. The lube will act as a water and salt repellent.

HOW TO RIDE

  1. Defensively!
  2. Take your time.
  3. Take corners carefully and stay alert to anticipate problems ahead.

Tip from a pro: Randall Dietel, owner of the bike-delivery service VeloVeggies, recommends keeping "a Thermos full of coffee and a Thermos full of soup" with you. "You burn energy just keeping your body warm." Stay hydrated with extra water as well.

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