Bicycling an increasingly year-round activity

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December 3, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Hilary Reeves
Hilary Reeves

Practical, affordable and surprisingly rewarding, winter bicycling has become increasingly popular in Minneapolis, recently named one of the top five cities in the nation for winter bicycle commuting by MetaEfficient. That’s amazing when you consider that Minneapolis is colder, on average, than Montreal or Moscow during the winter.

More than one-third (36 percent) of summer bicyclists still ride on clear, winter days in our area, and 20 percent ride even in cold and snow, according to survey data from Bike Walk Twin Cities. And local bike shops report increasingly brisk business during the winter. That’s far different than a few years ago, when many bike shops relied on selling skates, skis and other winter gear to stay open during the colder months.

The fact is, while bicycling is a sport for some, it’s also a means of transportation for many, such as Kirk Johnson of Edina, who regularly commutes to his job in downtown Minneapolis by bike — even during the winter. Eight years ago, Johnson sold his car to create a fixed-gear bike and has not regretted the change in his transportation habits.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” Johnson says, as he explains his zest for year-round bicycling. Plus, there are added bonuses, he says, such as the sublime aural thrill of bike-riding on snow.

“There is nothing like rolling on fresh snow,” Johnson says. “Super-cold weather makes fresh snow sound squeaky. Mildly cold weather makes it sound pleasantly fluffy.”

Winter bike riding 

If you’ve never tried winter bicycling before, it might initially seem daunting, but the more you know about it, the easier it becomes. And keep in mind that until (and if — remember last year) we have persistent ice and snow, riding in winter can be much like any other time of year except that it’s darker and colder. Minneapolis’s network of bike routes — which nearly doubled in recent years to 81 miles of on-street bikeways and 85 miles of off-street bikeways — will serve you well. 

Perhaps surprisingly, winter bicyclists are less concerned with getting cold than dressing too warmly. While it’s important to wear appropriate clothing when bicycling, such as thick socks and high-quality gloves, it’s also important to dress in layers to prevent overheating. Wickable undergarments help keep sweat away from your skin, while outer garments with zippers can be easily opened to provide natural air conditioning. Stay away from cotton! 

Besides a quality coat and gloves, Johnson’s typical winter-bike attire includes jeans and long johns, a balaclava, ski goggles and helmet cover, and special winter bicycling shoes, which are insulated and waterproof. On especially cold days, he’ll don an extra balaclava.

When the snow falls and ice accumulates, more route planning is required. Side streets, which are great for riding the rest of the year, are often too slushy for good traction. While efforts are made to keep bike lanes clear, over time the build-up of snow at the edges of roads can push parked cars into the bike lane. When this happens, the best routes for cyclists often are roads with two lanes in each direction — and a willingness on the part of the cyclist to take the lane in order to be visible and safe. This is what state law says: to ride to the right unless safety and obstructions require the cyclist to take the lane. 

Snowy weather might also lead to some equipment changes — a different bike and studded tires. Considering that in a real Minnesota winter, you’ll be bicycling through snow, slush, sand and salt, you won’t want to regularly bike in the winter on a top-end machine. Many winter bicyclists, including Johnson, prefer riding a single-speed or fixed-gear bike, for their simplicity. 

Bikes with internal geared hubs are a relatively new and increasingly popular alternative. Available from multiple manufacturers, these bikes offer multiple gears, but all of the moving and shifting parts are contained with the bike hub, protecting them from the elements. Local bike shops also have options — including used “beater” or “winter” bikes that you can buy cheaply and use for the season

Other tips 

Get good lights. One of the greatest potential hazards in winter bicycling is being improperly lit. Invest in bright front and back lights for your bike, and consider also adding side lights and wearing reflective clothing and/or arm or leg bands. The more you can be seen in low-light and no-light conditions, the better!

Ride slowly, as needed. Just as you reduce speed when driving a car through snow and ice, so also with winter bicycling.

Lower your seat and tire pressure. If you need to stop quickly, you’ll want to be able to quickly plant your feet on the ground. A lower tire pressure provides greater grip, and helps smooth a bumpy ride.

Give motorists extra attention. Despite the increasing popularity of winter bicycling, many motorists are still unaccustomed to seeing bicyclists riding in cold weather. Ride accordingly. Be cautious and alert. At marked intersections, try to be sure that all drivers see you before proceeding.  

Many regular winter bicyclists, such as Johnson, particularly love the reliability and self-sufficiency of their activity. Unlike with motor vehicles, a bike always starts, regardless of the temperature. It only needs you to get going. “The biggest challenge [in winter bicycling] is staying organized for all of the extra layers of protection,” Johnson says.

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Bike Walk Twin Cities.