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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99 comments
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.

johnebgood
johnebgood

I saw a unicyclist flying (close to speed limit) down Central near Hennepin NE when it was cold, snowing and the roads were horrible, now that is crazy!

snyde043
snyde043

@patiomensch Your story was great. The comments made my head hurt. Why do people not get that "can bike in winter" doesn't mean you have to?

Microphone Skerschman
Microphone Skerschman

I don't think any of it was directed at you Chad, more so the comments above yours. It's because we have to put up with a lot to enjoy something we love

Chad Nordstrom
Chad Nordstrom

I completely agree, everyone can do what they want. It is merely my OPINION that biking in the middle of winter is not safe, nor smart. I never knew "cyclists" could be such an easily offended bunch, geez. FYI I've ridden the MS150 bike tour more times than I can count.

theNthAndrew
theNthAndrew

@patiomensch nice article. I’ve learned many of the same tricks this year. Dressing properly is still a challenge.

Stuffie Bikeaholic Friend
Stuffie Bikeaholic Friend

How about we all shut up and just let people do what they want. If biking in -15 degrees makes you happy, do it. If you like a warm car in winter, do that. Too bad if you're pissed at someone who you think puts their life in danger. Life is dangerous. Respect their space and drive or bike on.

Daniel LaRose
Daniel LaRose

Exactly, Ben. I bet the haters don't even ride. They don't even know. It's a cyclist thing.

Microphone Skerschman
Microphone Skerschman

Hey Daniel you are the reason bikers suck too. What are you going to do with your blade and chain!? So tough, have you used them? lol

Daniel LaRose
Daniel LaRose

Yes. I do when it's that cold. I work mostly nights and when I get off work there is no bus at that time. So there you go.

Chad Nordstrom
Chad Nordstrom

Way to make assumptions. Wrong on all counts. I ride a bike, just not the hell in January, that's nuts.

Daniel LaRose
Daniel LaRose

I bet you cyclist haters are the type that try to run us over, swipe at us with your cars and are generally just rude. It's reasons and people like that that I carry a blade and a heavy duty chain that shatters windshields. Don't be a dick.

Chad Nordstrom
Chad Nordstrom

Hey Ryan, my "exaggerated rant" may sound foolish (it's an opinion and hardly a rant) but at least I won't LOOK foolish laying on the ground in agony waiting for an ambulance, hoping it shows up before I freeze to death.

Adam Wogen
Adam Wogen

Sliding around in the narrow streets.

Ben Bove
Ben Bove

Wtf? Why would anyone give a shit if we bike in the winter?

Microphone Skerschman
Microphone Skerschman

I knew the comments for this would annoy me but I read them anyways. No one should be able to tell someone what they should or shouldn't do, thought this was Mericuh. You're all just annoyed by that one biker that inconvenienced you by a couple seconds in your car and that makes you want to endanger the lives of all who choose to bike. There are many positives to biking in the winter. Biggest ones for me is the exercise and not having to pay for gas! Not going to lie, it can be stressful but that is mostly due to you all being aggressive and snow removal neglecting some bike lanes. Sorry for the rant!

Chris LeBlanc
Chris LeBlanc

Being sedentary is also hard on your body though

Jordan Felt
Jordan Felt

winter biking is fun...like rallying in the snow...it gets old like every other part of winter but that's when you make it fun for yourself

Kurt Duerksen
Kurt Duerksen

I've been out riding in this weather. You generate a great deal of heat while riding, the trick is to not overheat. The trails are hardly bare pavement though. My bike doesn't produce black ice, unlike all those car exhausts. I use various means to get around, but biking is my first choice always. The better the infrastructure gets, the easier and safer it is for everyone. The more of us riding, the fewer cars clogging the highways. My bike doesn't cause potholes either.

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.

minkahunter
minkahunter

@feministripper I *think* you live in the same city that I used to live in. (I drove though...fuck freezing my hair)

matthewtbecker
matthewtbecker

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

feministripper
feministripper

@minkahunter respect. One of my best friends lives there but they call it "bryn mawr" or "near north" to not scare away white ppl smdh

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