The first time Jim Bertram hopped on his bicycle to commute to work in the dead of winter, he didn’t have any anti-frosting goggles, polypropylene leggings or extra-wide tires.
They didn’t exist.
That’s because the St. Cloud man started biking year-round 30 years ago.
“The equipment was primitive,” Bertram said. He used a road bike with its ultrathin tires and bundled up against the cold as best he could. “The first time I did it, I wore a snowmobile suit.”
It was 1985 — before the Internet, when how-to advice was difficult to come by. And it was before there was a community of hard-core, all-weather bikers he could ask for tips.
“I never saw another winter biker,” he said.
There also were no paved and plowed bike trails, no designated bike lanes. There were no knobby tires to aid with traction, no Day-Glo reflective vests to announce his presence to drivers, no high-intensity headlights to penetrate the darkness that shrouded his late afternoon rides home.
But Bertram, who describes himself as a “seat-of-the-pants kind of guy,” figured out how to make it work on his own.
He learned to carry a toothbrush to clean the icy gunk out of the gears and derailleur. He developed his own recipe for waterproof grease (it involves adding Vaseline), and he started applying latex to the sides of his tires. (“The tread doesn’t wear out, because you’re riding on snow, but the sidewalls will rot” from the chemicals on the roads, he explained.)
His learning curve also involved falling. Lots of it.
“At the beginning, it was fall and fall again,” said Bertram, who exudes the energetic, upbeat attitude that three decades of exercise-induced serotonin highs can produce. He can even make falling sound fun.
“I’ve had some spectacular falls,” he said. “I’ve had some where I went down so fast that I didn’t even realize I was falling until I hit the ground.”
It’s been a long ride
Bertram, an IT and media specialist at St. Cloud State University, has been biking all his life. Although his wife, Maribel Torres-Bertram, will try to talk him into skipping the bike commute on bitterly cold mornings, she isn’t surprised when he ignores her advice.
“On our honeymoon, we went on a two-week bike tour of England and Wales,” Bertram said. “She knew what she was getting into.”
At first, his biking was done in the summer. Then he took a sabbatical to get a master’s degree at Iowa State University and, of course, brought his bike with him.
“Even though Ames isn’t that far south of here, you’d be surprised how much milder the winters are,” he said. “I was able to ride all year.”
When he returned to St. Cloud, he decided to give winter biking a try in Minnesota.
Even people who promote bike commuting are impressed by that.
“We’ve got people who have been doing this for a long time, but I don’t know anyone who’s been doing it that long,” said Hilary Reeves, strategic advancement and communications director at St. Paul-based Transit for Livable Communities. “A lot of the things we rely on now weren’t around then. Thirty years — that’s pretty rare.”
Back then, winter biking required a new skill set, especially on a skinny-wheeled road bike.
“You have to keep the front wheel moving and connected to the ground,” Bertram said. “You can’t make any sudden moves or you’ll go down. And you never use the front brakes; you use the back brakes only.”
In 1986, he read about newfangled bikes that adventure enthusiasts in California were using to ride on trails through the woods. The bikes had fat tires with oversized tread and rugged gearing that was designed to withstand debris. They were called mountain bikes.
He tracked down a manufacturer who would ship him one.
“I had one of the first ones in Minnesota,” he said. “They had those big, knobby tires that made noise. People would hear me coming and turn around and stare at me.”
The bike’s extra stability was a game-changer for winter bike commuting. Bertram was hooked. “The mountain bike — that’s what did it for me,” he said.
Freezing out the cold
Bertram isn’t one of those macho athletes who claim never to feel the cold.
“There are times when you’re going to be cold,” he said. “When it happens, you just have to accept it: ‘Yes, I’m uncomfortable, but I’m not going to dwell on it.’ It’s like there’s a switch in your head, and you turn it on when you ride.”
Plus, there’s an upside to the cold, he noted. He has an endurance athlete’s body, slender but strong: Between the calories consumed by biking and those burned off for body warmth, “I can eat just about anything I want to,” he said. “At the start of winter, when my body is adjusting to the cold, sometimes I’ll eat 4,000 calories a day.”
A self-taught mechanic, Bertram enjoys working on bikes almost as much as riding them. His current commuting bike is a DIY project that he found abandoned along a bike trail. He has replaced just about everything except the frame, building it for durability, not speed.
“It rides like a Cadillac,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “and it’s almost as heavy as one.”
His bike ride is one of his favorite times of the day. He has an avid cartooning hobby — he has sold drawings to Reader’s Digest and the Wall Street Journal, among others — and he uses his commute to ponder his projects.
“Riding is the best time to be creative,” he said. “You can let your mind flow. I get my best ideas while sitting on a bicycle seat.”
Have any of those ideas involved turning around, pedaling home as fast as he can and giving up the notion of winter biking? Surprisingly, perhaps, the answer is “yes.” Or, at least, “sort of.”
“When I hit the 20-year mark, I said, ‘That’s it. I’m done,’ ” he said. “But that summer we didn’t buy another car, and I didn’t apply for a [campus] parking permit, and all of sudden it’s snowing and I realize that I’m doing it for one more year. I did that for three or four years before it finally became apparent that this is the way I’ll be getting to work for the rest of my career.”