It was a good thing I only had one hour to get to the bank, or I might have given up before I got to the end of my own south Minneapolis street that first snowy day in November.
My bike slipped one way and I braced my core, convinced I was going down. Instead, I slipped the other way, and then back again, until I managed to get through the snow that had compacted into something resembling mashed potatoes. I didn’t go down as I expected, and I didn’t worry about staying warm. I was sweating, and not from exertion.
This is my first winter riding a bike for transportation. I sold my car three years ago to pay for school, spent some time in cities with excellent transit and bike-sharing systems, and since I’ve returned to an ever-more-bike-friendly Minneapolis, I’ve been content to continue my same mobile ways.
Somewhere an expert just exclaimed, “A millennial!” Am I representative of my generation’s eco-awareness, economic constraints or twee tastes? I am not sure, but I do know my bike gives me the most freedom at the lowest cost. I prefer cycling whenever possible, and I’m not the only one. An estimated 20 percent of Twin Cities cyclists keep riding year-round, according to bike count data collected by Transit for Livable Communities, a nonprofit focused on reforming Minnesota’s transportation system.
In my first hours as a winter cyclist — after I had established a tentative trust in the strangely innate balance of my bike and body — I counted 30 people, including five on fat bikes. I passed a guy with five-inch tires, wearing a helmet and goggles. Shortly after, his antithesis pedaled by on a rickety 10-speed wearing a hooded sweatshirt and no gloves. Winter cycling may still be a fringe activity in the Twin Cities, but cyclists are not uniform.
I’ve found my own personal comfort zone riding an old cruiser with fenders and a chain guard. Thanks to panniers, back rack and bungee cord, I’ve successfully transported most everything I want or need in daily life from cupcakes to toilet paper. I am not the fastest, but I can wear whatever I want, including a long coat, dresses and most any type of footwear. The big plastic pedals are easy work. In fact, riding a bike in winter has proven just enough work that I stay warm with a light down coat. Still, there are a few occasions when the winter wind has numbed my cheeks into a state I can imagine resembles Botox. I can see why some cyclists wear balaclavas. I’ve invested about $100 in wool tights, socks and a pair of wool liner gloves. I’m searching for the perfect boots.
More difficult than keeping my extremities warm has been convincing my grandfather — who spent the past 20 years in Florida — I am not going to freeze to death in the streets. I appreciate the concern, but since I started spending more time outdoors in winter, I’ve realized the temperature on this godforsaken piece of tundra is often more manageable than extreme.
It’s easy to appreciate winter when you are skiing through a blanket of fresh snow. But when you are fumbling with your keys and trying to keep your mittens from dropping into a puddle of dirty parking lot water on a Tuesday night, the season is a lot less lovely. Riding a bike doesn’t change the bare trees and dirty snow and milky sky. But changing the way I move has changed the way I think. Instead of a long, crushing, homebound imprisonment, winter now is a season whose light reveals my world differently.
I got a behind-the-scenes view of the craggy bluffs upon which our city is built, after the trees dropped their leaves. Against winter’s muted palate, I now can appreciate how brightly the sun burns at day’s end, and the equally intense twilight of deep blue left in its wake. Recognizing the nuances helps me recognize the passage of time. Perhaps this sounds like the endorphin-induced ramblings of a bike fetishist, but it’s not really about the bike. Rather it is about the bike’s utility in meeting human needs for movement, and contact with nature and each other.
Encountering those stomach-turning swerves on my first day of winter cycling made me nervous but didn’t bring me down. Though, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can. Maybe if a doctor prescribed daily walking and biking to the general population, we could count improved mental health as a return on an investment in walking and cycling facilities. My experience in the past four months has persuaded me that inviting more people to make it down the street in their boots or on their bikes could increase gross happiness throughout the sunlight-starved Minnesota winter.
Annie Van Cleve is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer covering cycling and other topics.