There’s no such thing as bad weather: Why winter biking isn’t just possible, it’s fun
by Troy Pieper
Living in a northern climate makes riding a bicycle a challenge when that defining element of our geography suddenly rears its chill head. And still, Twin Citians can be seen puffing through January weather on bicycles.
Polypropylene socks, extra warm socks, warm shoes/boots, neoprene shoe covers, polypropylene long underwear, windproof underwear, shirt(s), sweater, windproof jacket, lobster gloves, balaclava (ski mask), goggles and helmet: what you’d need for a walk in exurban Novosibirsk, Siberia? Nope, this getup, or most of it, is the standard for Twin Cities bicycle commuters during this season.
love watching the looks I get from people in cars who think I’m crazy,”
says Joshua Snater, a bartender at the Turf Club and the Dubliner in his 12th
year of year-round biking. He’s been hit by cars seven times, three in
winter, but the only time he drove a car himself is when he had a broken arm
(from getting hit by a car while biking). There are many reasons to bike any
time of the year, Snater says. “It’s the most efficient form of
human transportation, fuel-to-power-wise.” So we can get around faster
on a bike than on foot. For many bikers, that’s just it: a bike is the
most efficient option. “I don’t have a car, so in a way, I’m
forced to bike or ride the bus,” says John Langley of Spokes
Pizza Collective, a pizza joint that delivers year-round by bicycle.
But why get all bundled up to risk your life on slippery roads during rush-hour
traffic? A lot of people who commute by bike in the summer don’t in winter,
according to Kevin Krizek, the director of Active Communities/Transportation
Research Group at the University of Minnesota and the author of several studies
on the habits of urban bicylists. But whether it’s cold outside doesn’t
even enter into the equation for people like Langley. For him, the logistical
problems of biking are how to get his groceries home or how to move a couch.
There are also things that he doesn’t have to worry about. “When
I go downtown,” he says, “I never need to worry about finding parking,
much less about when my meter is going to run out, and I don’t have to
pay for insurance or car maintenance.” Just as he accepts the risks of
biking in cold weather, drivers accept the risk of a $30 parking ticket or of
having to walk several blocks from the car to the office braving the same freezing
temperatures and losing time.
And there are a host of measures we can take to make riding in the cold of winter
less of a struggle—and sometimes kind of fun. In the first winter forays
on a bike, there are a few essentials one learns right away. The most apparent
is the degree of pure freezing suffered by any skin left exposed (and some not—undies
sometimes aren’t enough insulation—more on that later). Most winter
bikers would agree with Krizek that “there’s no such thing as bad
weather; just bad gear.” The most difficult to keep warm? Hands and head,
according to Langley. While he’s delivering pizzas in the winter, he wears
big, snowboarding-type mittens and he protects his face with a polypropylene
mask. Even better, says Jon Van Zee, a member of the Hub
Bike Co-Op, are balaclavas, which cover the head and the face. They’re
warmer and less bulky than stocking caps, important for bikers who wear helmets.
Although still uncool in some circles, Snater says helmets are a must, especially
in winter. He sent his last one back to Bell Bike in several pieces, along with
a thank-you note, after a car hit him, ahem, head-on last year. A helmet doesn’t
have to mean the difference between life and death like it did for Snater, but
in the snow and ice of winter, it’s inevitable that every biker takes
a spill or two. Helmets modeled after the kind snowboarders use, with fewer
vents and cute little earflaps, are a winter option.
should take special care on really cold, windy days to shield their delicate
genitals, where cold is a surprisingly painful sensation. “Wind brief”
underwear, like the ones used for cross-country skiing, are helpful in that
regard. In a pinch, or on a low budget, a little sheet of newspaper can make
all the difference.
Winter biking can be a weird bodily experience. When you break a sweat, and
wind hits the sweat, you’ll freeze, of course. So it’s best to wear
something that blocks the wind on the outside, and things made of wool or one
of those shmancy synthetic fibers underneath. Synthetics are expensive, but
very worth the money, and they last for years. But wear them against your skin
so that they wick the moisture away from it, and prevent overheating (yes, even
in winter). It usually only takes a few blocks of solid riding before you warm
up, so dress in layers that you can easily remove if you have to.
If you can’t afford neoprene shoe covers, you can keep your feet warm
and dry when it’s raining (or the road is slushy enough to warrant it)
by putting plastic bags over your socks, inside of your shoes. You should also
make sure your gloves or mittens aren’t so bulky that braking or shifting
becomes difficult. Thick downhill ski gloves from the local thrift store can
be enough. There are several winter-proof hand coverings available at local
bike shops, most of which feature a handy cloth strip on the back of each thumb
for nose wiping on the fly. Van Zee recommends using lobster gloves that are
warmer than gloves but allow for more dexterity than mittens.
Knowing where and when to bike in the winter can be as important as having the
right equipment, when it comes to safety. The
Midtown Greenway, an abandoned railway redeveloped last summer as a bicycle
expressway, is plowed before some major streets in Minneapolis, according to
Matthew Lang, community organizer for the Midtown Greenway Coalition. The almost
totally barrier-free path extends from Hiawatha Avenue west to the Lakes, and
there are plans for its expansion to the Mississippi next summer. Minneapolis
also received a federal grant this year to help build a “bike center,”
where Freewheel Bike will have a small
shop, Lang says. Already installed in larger cities around the world—even
a couple in the United States.—the stations include bicycle parking facilities,
showers, lockers, bike shops, restaurants and connections to transit. Incidentally,
Minneapolis’ recently-passed budget for 2006 includes money to study the
Greenway and other transport corridors in Minneapolis as potential sites for
transit, and the Coalition is pushing a streetcar line for the Greenway.
Sadly, most bikeways in Minneapolis aren’t plowed as quickly as the Greenway,
and many are in worse condition than the streets adjacent to them. So, after
a heavy snow, Van Zee recommends sticking to roads that are heavily traveled
(by cars), because they’re more likely to be plowed. And even if they
haven’t been, the heavier auto traffic makes them likely to be clearer.
When the snow is too deep, ride in the wheel ruts, he says. Former Pittsburgh
bike messenger Spencer Haugh recommends winter bikers “take that space.
You have to be a bit aggressive.” Tim Franz, a downtown accountant who
commutes by bicycle, says, “If there’s not enough room for a you
and a car, just take up a whole lane, so that cars have to change lanes to pass
you or follow behind you.” It’s your right as a cyclist. Don’t
let drivers think that buzzing by six inches from your face like they normally
do is OK when the roads are snowy and icy. Plus, state law allows bikers to
avoid surface hazards on the road by riding as far toward the center of the
road as necessary. And even the thin slush on road shoulders can get into the
moving parts of a bicycle and damage it.
Yes, that nasty, black winter road goulash that’s so ubiquitous it seems
like a plot, and which so many automobile owners struggle against in futility,
even as they exit the car wash. But it can do a lot more to bicycles than make
them look shabby. Snater rides his bicycle every day and washes it each night,
because when that grit and grime get into the bottom bracket (the part of the
frame that holds the pedals) and other parts, it can corrode extremely quickly
and hardware can be ruined for good in a short time. However, regular cleaning
and “relubeing” will keep a bike in top condition, in spite of slushy
road stew, Snater says—“unless you have a bike just for winter,
and you don’t care if you run it into the ground.”
isn’t a bad idea. Van Zee recommends, if you really like your bike, that
you don’t ride it in the winter. There is no shortage of cheap, used or
old bicycles in the Twin Cities, and you can keep a shitty bike running just
fine all winter long with simple but effective maintenance.
If the frame is steel, and you’re worried about rust, put touch-up paint
on all its little scrapes. You can keep gunk out of the brake and derailleur
cables by putting pieces of duct tape or electrical tape over the ends of the
casings. Smear an extra layer of grease on all the bearings to keep salt and
other winter droppings out of them. Clean them out and put new grease on them
every month, if you’ve got the time. When there is a lot of snow and salt
on the ground, you may need to lube the chain and derailleurs about once a week.
Use motor oil, because it’s cheaper than anything else, and the chain
sometimes gets dirty so fast in the winter that it’s not worth using a
good lubricant. Keep in mind these measures are for winter bikes only, and it
would be a bad idea to use things like motor oil on any bike worth keeping.
If you’re using a good bike in the winter, Van Zee recommends wiping it
down daily and applying new, high performance lube every three days.
Van Zee uses an early ’90s mountain bike in the winter, and while not
exactly an inferior machine, it has the capacity for full fenders, a feature
lacking on most road bikes. Partial fenders and the snap-on variety that fit
road bikes don’t keep bikes or riders as clean. Van Zee also likes the
wider, knobby tires of mountain bikes for their added traction on snow. Haugh,
however, rides the same bike all year, and says the skinny tires of his road
bike cut through snow to grip the tarmac beneath.
Vorsicht! An oft-forgotten problem encountered by winter bikers is frozen
bike locks. Don’t get on your bike in the winter without a cigarette lighter
and a tube of lock de-icer.
When it’s too late to skirt an ice patch you encounter, it’s best
to just coast over it. Don’t pedal, brake or try to make a turn on the
ice itself, because you’ll fall. Those storied falls, the ones when bikers’
end times nearly came, occur when riders hit the brakes on a patch of ice. Van
Zee’s bike has tires studded with carbide steel tips that last a couple
of years, he says. “They’re not really necessary, but they’ve
saved my ass on black ice.” In places where winter brings a lot of snow,
like Canada, some cyclists make their own studded tires using screws. The Edmonton
Bicycle Commuters’ website, EdmontonBicycleCommuters.ca,
has an easily understandable how-to, complete with diagrams. If you hit ice,
and you know you’re going to fall, or won’t be able to stop fast
enough to avoid hitting something, there is a last ditch option: lock the rear
brake and throw your bike sideways. It’ll make you fall on your side,
and it’ll hurt, but it will be your bike that slides into the car instead
of your body.
brakes on bikes can freeze or get sticky when there’s enough snow on the
road, or snow on your tires can lubricate the brakes, rendering them ineffective
when you need them. Scary. To prevent this, slightly squeeze the brakes on occasion
to squeegee your rims and keep your brakes clearer.
It’s a good idea to simply take more time when you’re riding in
the winter. Bundling up against the cold limits peripheral vision, so make more
of an effort to be aware of your surroundings than you do in the summer. Pedestrians
dress for winter weather, too, so they might not see you, and they probably
aren’t looking out for cyclists in the winter. People on foot also get
chilly when they’re outside, and they probably want to get to the warmth
of the office as soon as possible, so they’re more likely to dash across
the street unexpectedly.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to biking in the winter, however, isn’t meteorological,
physiological or logistical. It’s psychological. Langley says people think
it’s simply too difficult, and having a car in the driveway makes it seem
like it isn’t an option. Haugh is coordinating the ninth annual Stupor
Bowl, an event to help counteract those psychological barriers to winter biking.
The Stupor Bowl is a sort of combination scavenger hunt, bike messenger race
and party. It’s held on the Saturday before the Super Bowl (on Feb. 4
this year) and helps to raise awareness of winter biking. It is possible; bike
messengers do it every day, Haugh says. Because it’s more difficult to
have fun on your bike in the winter, he says, the point of the Stupor Bowl is
to have a good time. The history of the event lies in the tradition of Alley
Cat races, started by bike messengers in Toronto. Those races were to prove
who the best messenger was, but Haugh says the Stupor Bowl is for everyone dedicated
to biking, “It’s grown over the years from messengers to everybody,
because bike culture isn’t comprised just of messengers.”
Although messengers came from as far away as Toronto to participate in last
year’s Bowl, many Twin Cities’ bike commuters and purveyors of bike
culture were also in attendance. And it was most certainly fun right from the
start. As the one hundred-or-so participants gathered at the start on the east
bank of the river, under the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, they listened to rocksteady
and reggae on a homemade sidecar sound system and watched another guy collect
a $50 pot from spectators willing to pay to see him jump naked into the Mississippi
in February. The messenger from Chicago was hoping to pay for his trip back
home. He only raised $46, but took the dive anyway.
Participants went to different points on their maps—like Behind
Bars Bicycle Shop, where they had to perform stunts like removing their
rear wheels, taking the tube out and putting it all back together to earn a
stamp. Another stop was at an ice fishing shack on Lake Calhoun, and several
points on the map were local bars and restaurants, which gave an extra stamp
if participants had a drink. The more stamps at the end, the higher the score.
Everyone met at Grumpy’s downtown to collect their prizes, or just to
use the free beer tickets every participant received. Expensive messenger bags
and bicycle parts were among the prizes, and winners received awards ranging
from Fastest Civilian, i.e. non-messenger, to the D.F.L. award, for the person
who was Dead Fucking Last.
year’s theme is Prince, and Haugh hopes to have participants sing Karaoke
for stamps at one stop. There will also be a scavenger hunt for Prince-related
items and playing cards (whoever has the best hand at the end wins), a race
for “kids who want to go fast” and a medallion hunt á la
the St. Paul Winter Carnival, says Haugh. To get involved in the Bowl, visit
Bike Messenger Association's website.
Events like the Stupor Bowl, and other bike events may indeed be raising awareness
that winter biking isn’t just for crazy people. Snater says he’s
noticed a surge in the number of winter bikers in the Twin Cities during the
last few years, and people in their cars don’t give him as many funny
looks as they used to. A recent study done by professors at Portland State University
ranked Minneapolis as the city with the highest percentage of bicycle commuters,
2.63 percent. The city was fourth, behind Tucson, San Francisco and Seattle,
according to a different study by Carfree City, U.S.A., a Berkeley-based group
that promotes carfree urban development. And the Minnesota Department of Transportation
has put hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last four years into Krizek’s
studies on the different ways different bikers respond to different features
of the urban infrastructure, ostensibly to decide where to build bikeways in
the future. Joel Cahalan, Van Zee’s coworker at the Hub, says customers
often tell him they see more and more winter bikers every year. “It gets
warmer and warmer every year, too,” he says with an anti-fossil fuel sneer.
Saving money on gas is one reason Tim Franz commutes by bicycle year-round.
He saves $6 every day that he would have spent on the bus, and he would still
have to drive from his suburban home to a park-and-ride facility. And he likes
not contributing to air pollution. So does Matt McKinney, a reporter for the
Star Tribune. “It’s worth whatever tiny effect my choice not to
burn more gas has.” There can also be an undeniable feeling of superiority
over drivers, especially when seeing cars during rush hour from one of the bridges
over Interstate 94 or 35W. Franz says the time he saves during rush hour on
his 18-mile round trip is one of the biggest factors in his decision to bike.
Most of his commute is on bikeways, but even biking downtown is better than
many places, he says, “because there are more witnesses if someone runs
sees his daily commute as a way to multitask: “I get a workout twice a
day.” Van Zee feels more awake when he gets to work, he says. When John
Langley realized he was just using his YWCA membership for the sauna, he got
rid of it, because he was already getting exercise every day on his bike. “It
was funny watching people drive there and then use the stationary bikes,”
Make no mistake; winter biking isn’t always a chore. It’s often
truly enjoyable and can even be sublime. The Cedar
Lake Trail at night makes for a great ride home from work, McKinney says,
“I drop out of the urban landscape into what feels like wilderness, the
moon plays off the fog over the lake, and by the time I get home, I wish I could
go another mile.” Snater doesn’t get off work until 3 a.m., when
it’s dead quiet and there’s no one on the road. Sometimes, instead
of going home, he goes for a nice long winter ride. Van Zee calls winter biking
an adventure, “The landscape is always changing, I feel more aware of
the world around me, and depending on the snow, it’s pretty.” ||