Becoming a winter biker: Six lessons learned

Categories: Cycling, Winter
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Eric__I_E
One evening not so long ago, I was struggling over a hazardous bike path into downtown Minneapolis. Witnessing my work, a fatbiker shouted across the path's poorly plowed expanse.

"How's it going?"

"Great!" I said back, and meant it, though I'd almost fallen in front of him. I smiled then rode on. I wasn't going to stick around to see how his enviable fatbike handled the terrain that had worked me and my single-speed. With only a mile to go, I was in animal mode, my eyeballs almost frozen, my body clad in Merino. Lovin' it.

This past November, I got a new job that meant, after a year-plus break from bike commuting, I'd finally have a good route again. Twelve miles across the Twin Cities. Years ago, biking to work -- 17 miles a day, every day -- had formed a cornerstone of my soul.

Now, during the toughest winter in years, I've once again gained a bike commute. Here, during my haphazard return to winter biking, is what I've re-learned.

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Eric__I_E
1. You'll love it.

Bike commuting in the winter is pure and beautiful. It puts you in touch with nature and the childlike freedom of your first bike. Pedaling wherever you wish, stopping here for a coffee or there for a waffle, at your leisure. It's often a solo experience. Even now, during a boom time for winter biking, you're usually alone on the path. But that's okay. Biking is the ultimate in self-reliance. Everything you need -- layers, snacks, tools -- is on your back or your bike's rack. There's something soul-pleasing about carrying your life around. What's especially cool is finding a route that works for you, and exploring until you find the right fit.

2. You'll hate it.

There's no avoiding it. Winter is cold, painfully so sometimes. This has been an especially nipple-twerking one, what with the Polar Vortex and the wind chills deep below zero. Your nose will run like Minnehaha Falls in summer. Your feet and hands might start to ache. Your eyeballs might very well freeze. As your eyesight gets weird, you'll wonder what the hell is going on, then realize you need goggles. The good news is that, with the right clothing, you can surmount just about any deep freeze. Modern clothing is wonderful. Wool (socks, base layers) is your savior. Experiment with layering until you discover what works for you. Find good boots and warm gloves.

3. It's all about the routine.

Pile your bicycling clothes together so you can snap them on within 15 minutes of waking. The more time you spend searching for your long-johns, the more likely it is that you'll give up and take the bus. In addition, pack your bag before you go to bed, preferably with a change of clothes, the next day's lunch, and an extra layer, and leave it by the door. The key is to get yourself out and onto your bike before your body has realized you're awake. Hesitation may lead to bike avoidance. Get to pedaling.

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perwinklekog
4. Ready your bike.

That means, for starters, finding the right tires. Skinny road tires fail during a winter this brutal. You'll slip all over. That also means ensuring your bike fits you well and that you can comfortably ride it for miles and miles every day. If a part of your body aches more than it should, your bike fit is probably off, and you need to adjust it. Next, get some really good, bright lights. It gets darker earlier during the winter, and you'll definitely be riding in pitch-black conditions. Spending $80 on a front light won't disappoint you, but you'll be good with $15 snap-ons, too. Just ensure you're visible.

5. Allow yourself to fuck up.

It's okay to fall. It's okay to overlayer. It's okay if you have to walk the last few blocks. It's okay if your bike's freewheel freezes and you ride the bus into work. Perfectionism is a hindrance. Just do it. The more you expect perfection from yourself, the less likely it is that you'll ride. Don't fear that other cyclists are judging you. Ninety-five percent of them aren't. We're all just happy you're out here, just like we're happy we're out here. Winter biking brings out the best from the Twin Cities bike community, and truly, the best from drivers, too. You'll be surprised by how kind and patient most cars are with you.

If you fall, get back on and pedal some more.

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Mulad
6. The bus is your ally -- and your enemy.

MetroTransit is a beautiful Minneapolis-St. Paul bonus when your bike fails, or when you get up late. It rocks to include the bus in your bike commute, especially if the whole journey is too long for you. If your commute's between the downtowns, for instance, you could take the 94 express to the Snelling Avenue exit and bike the remainder, or vice versa. HOWEVER, relying too much on the bus can make you lazy about your bike. Be serious about this. Don't let the bus prevent bicycling. Let it aid you.

Bonus Lesson: Take at least one selfie.

Glory in your accomplishment. Get some Facebook high-fives. This is particularly important if you're a guy whose beard gets frosty.

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130 comments
Jesse Meyer
Jesse Meyer

The worst thing about winter biking are the cars. And I know it's not everyone, but it's amazing how many people will drive at speeds unappropriate for the conditions. Last week, on a relatively short commute, I'd average seeing a vehicle slide though a stop sign about once a day. This week is a lot better - I'm seeing a lot of people doing the typical rolling through stop signs, but the pavement is clear enough that they can come to a complete stop easily.

Mary Aho
Mary Aho

Just please don't be the guy riding in a recumbant on cedar lake road (not the bike path), blocking traffic after a snow storm in both am and the dark pm commute. Unless you have a death wish.

Ken Merwin
Ken Merwin

The article spoke some of the obviousities of the commuter; prepare and conquer etc, etc... But I think fat tire bikes are the newbs and people with a ton of jing. Studs and wool. Get some.

Christy Salmonson
Christy Salmonson

Saw one of those winter bikers on Monday! They had a head lamp on their head and fat winter tires :)

Christopher Wlaschin
Christopher Wlaschin

I also don't understand all the aggression from car drivers, really? I am sorry if I delayed your day by two seconds. Slow down! and be carful with that death machine.

Christopher Wlaschin
Christopher Wlaschin

I have biked in the winter for 25 years, I view the fat tire guys as newbies who want to spend more than they need too and show off. The article had little substance, ask some seasoned winter bikers what they do. I am sure most don't ride a fat tire bike.

Kirk Burback
Kirk Burback

Lesson #1: In MN, this mode of transportation sucks six months of the year.

Adrienne E. Reed
Adrienne E. Reed

of all the damn days today takes the cake on summit street of ice, either up or down the steep hill and i got to compete w/a biker w/gigantic tires..let alone folks who don't know how to drive..like really..wth are u tryin' to prove..that ur an idiot..okay u win!

Charlie Quimby
Charlie Quimby

Some of my best biking experiences have been in the winter.

Danny McCusker
Danny McCusker

I'd definitely try it just for fun that's for sure

Patrick Stephenson
Patrick Stephenson

I don't think that's true. I'm just a normal guy and I've made it work for me. If it's important to you, you can make it work. I recommend that EVERYBODY give it a shot. You don't necessarily have to commute. How about just a ride around the block? A ride through fresh snow? If you can snowboard, or ski, or sled, or walk in the snow, you can make it work on a bike.

Patrick Stephenson
Patrick Stephenson

That said, if you want advice on tires and frames and stuff, I ride steel-framed Surly bikes. My first winter, I rode a single-speed Surly Steamroller; this winter, I'm riding a Surly Krampus, with studded 45NRTH Nicotines. I wear SmartWool gloves and a Giro snowboarding helmet. If you're trying winter biking out for the first time, I'd recommend getting a beater mountain bike that you don't mind destroying.

Patrick Stephenson
Patrick Stephenson

(I posted this on the City Pages website, too, but I'll post here as well.) That's a good point, but there are plenty of stories out there about that. They're essentially itemized shopping lists for what you should buy. I wanted to go for more of the intangibles, the spirit of the experience, to be motivational: "It's hard, but easier than you'd think, and you should try it!"

Catherine Roddy
Catherine Roddy

Totz thought of you when I saw your insta this morning!

James Bracken
James Bracken

I love bike riding in the winter time. Goggles and a mask is a must if you truly would like to enjoy your experience. Might be able to get away with getting some bigger tires on without having to retrofit Forks.

Elena Noel
Elena Noel

Is there a reason this article was 95% opinion and hyperbole, and 5% actual advice for being prepared to start biking in the snow? No info on tires, bike frame styles, etc. Just "your bike might not fit well. Adjust it so it fits." ?

Danny McCusker
Danny McCusker

It sounds fun...but it is pretty unrealistic for most people.

epachuta
epachuta

Thanks for the article. Another lesson learned: Biking with traffic! Traffic has been the hardest adjustment for me between winter and summer biking: sharing the (narrower and slicker) road with drivers who seem more impatient during winter days than summer days affects my confidence, safety, and vulnerability. Rather than fight with traffic on main roads on my city bike, I invested in a sturdier, cruiser bike with snow tires that handles worse conditions, which allows me to bike on side streets and avoid the mass of cars. Makes for a much more pleasant ride!

Pablo Charis
Pablo Charis

Worked as a bike courier in DC and NYC love to ride my bike, sure riding in the snow is possible so is steering a car with your feet, it doesn't make it a good idea. I saw some guy riding his bike on the shoulder of I94 a few weeks back no helmet no lights with a line of cars behind as he was trying to exit the interstate. I think this type of riding is telling of some deeper mental issue, whether it is proving that you can do it and live strong or some other misguided attempt at proving ones self or just plain old fashion crazy with a large dose of self entitlement. Ride how you feel live your life the way you choose, but if your gonna be an asshole in the process prepare for the consequences.

Katsi Duzynski
Katsi Duzynski

Rode a bicycle for over 40 years to get where I needed - all seasons except in the rain, as snow is easier to deal with. On days before plows go through - they can be a lifesaver - if headed to a neighborhood store for food. The coldest I have been out in is - 38 with -20 windchill added - if you bundle and layer clothing - it is easy - and mountain or cross trainer bikes are best for maneuvering ... only times I did not was if I needed a ride in a car, to get way across town - that was kinda rare. I find I had more freedom on a bicycle than a car - and I don't want to insinuate any recklessness in that regard - as I was a very careful bicyclist.

henk.tobias0
henk.tobias0 topcommenter

Biking the winter streets is very hard on equipment. Find a bike that you're not real attached too.

kenpaulman
kenpaulman

@patiomensch Going to go out a limb and guess people who disapprove of winter cycling aren’t that fond of summer cycling either.

Patrick_Stephenson
Patrick_Stephenson

That's a good point, but there's plenty of stories out there like that. Essentially shopping lists for what you should buy. My intention was mostly to say, "You can do it. It's tough but easier than you think." Motivation!

jillithd
jillithd

@patiomensch can't. Wish I could. But I have to drop off and pick up baby from daycare. No wiggle room on time.

matthewtbecker
matthewtbecker

@cecinestpastom also switched to a freewheel and platforms - which has really helped. Hope to see you on the Stone Arch again soon!

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