Every weekday morning, no matter how cold it is, how much snow is falling or how slippery the slush on the streets has become, Tom Lais climbs on his bicycle and pedals 18 miles from his home in Maplewood to his job in south Minneapolis.
When he gets to the office and his co-workers are comparing notes about the difficulties of their morning commutes, he's never included in the conversation.
"It's an unspoken rule," he said of the fact that no one ever asks him about his bike ride. "I think there's still a stigma [about the sanity of biking in winter] attached to it, although it has become a little less."
Lais doesn't have to ride a bike to work. He wants to. Give him a couple minutes to wash the sand and salt from his bike, and he'll repay you with an enthusiastic overview of why biking is better than driving, no matter what the weather.
He's far from alone in that opinion. Minneapolis is second only to Portland, Ore., in the number of bicyclists, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and those numbers are rising.
Bike Walk Twin Cities, which monitors local activity, confirms that the number of winter bikers is rising.
The group doesn't break its figures into categories for commuters vs. pleasure riders, but it has found that 20 percent of cyclists will ride in even the worst conditions, with the number reaching as high as 36 percent on warmer winter days.
A tangible product of the growth in biking is Freewheel Midtown Bike Center, a one-of-its-kind, one-stop "bike transportation center" that offers commuters everything from showers (for both them and their bikes), to inside parking bays, to breakfast.
With a front door accessible only from the Midtown Greenway bike path (it's halfway between 10th and Chicago Avenues S.), the center, which opened in the summer of 2008, was a joint effort of Allina Health System and the city of Minneapolis. Bikers can use its facilities by the day or month. In winter, there are about a dozen full-time commuters who park there and walk to their nearby office jobs, said Mario Macaruso, one of the managers. In the summer, that number triples.
Winter riding poses some unique challenges, running from the obvious (frigid temperatures), to the subtle (the finesse needed to maintain balance in snow), to some things only bike commuters are likely to think of (because of shorter daylight hours, winter commuters do most of their riding in the dark.)
At 56, Lais breaks the mold of the typical winter commuter, most of whom are men under 35. He started four years ago to lose weight but quickly discovered other benefits.
"I've talked with other bikers, with runners and walkers" in addition to drivers who strike up conversations when he pulls up next to them at red lights, he said. "I know where every coffee shop is between home and work. It's the way things used to be" before people got wrapped up in their private electronic worlds.
Winter bikers also report getting to the office feeling mentally and physically sharper.
Daniel Kutschied sees his 5-mile commute through Minneapolis as an alternative to joining a health club. Although biking takes him about 20 minutes longer each way than driving, he still figures that he comes out ahead because "now I don't have to find an hour in the day to go work out."
Time is relative, anyway. When gridlock sets in, bicyclists find themselves zipping past frustrated motorists.
"On snowy days, I move faster than the cars," said Ben Lagerquist, who bikes from northeast Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. On one particularly slow traffic day, a desperate motorist who was trying to make it to an appointment offered to buy Lais' bike. He declined.
Crazy about biking
Some people think that bikers have to be a little crazy to be out in the winter. The bikers respond that if they're crazy, so are the skiers, snowmobilers, dog-walkers and everyone else who refuses to spend winter cooped up inside.
"I'm just getting over a cold," said Steve McCluskey, who is in his second winter of commuting through south Minneapolis. "But I'd still rather be out here than sitting inside all day."
Like their fellow outdoor lovers, they come prepared, with bikes and clothing specially designed for winter riding. The equipment is so good that the cold becomes irrelevant.
"This clothing traps so much heat that sometimes I'm boiling by the time I get to work," said McCluskey.
Bikers vary widely on how much they adapt their bikes. Most commuters will at least use studded tires to increase their traction, but some switch to bikes with balloon tires designed to ride atop the snow and use lower gear ratios to maintain a steady pedaling pace.
"Momentum is everything in the winter," Macaruso said. "You want to keep going, even if it's just 3 miles per hour. Torque isn't important; it's all about keeping the pedals spinning."
Co-existing as commuters
Snowbanks have forced parked cars farther out into the street, and that, in turn, has forced bikers into traffic lanes. Their presence makes some drivers nervous, the bikers acknowledge. But bikers are just as nervous about cars with snow-covered or frosted windows.
"I always just assume that I'm invisible, that no one [driving a car] can see me," Lagerquist said. "I try to stay as far to the right as I can, but there are places where I'm forced almost out into the middle of the road."
Road rage is not unheard of. The most common thing screamed at the bikers is an order for them to ride on the sidewalk. Screamers, please note: That's illegal.
There's a kindred spirit among winter bikers that includes a sense of competition, even if it's usually anonymous.
"You can tell who the strong riders are from the tire tracks in the snow," Lais said. "And then it's like: 'I can keep up with this guy.' It becomes a secret competition."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392