Winter Warriors

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January 31, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// Despite record snowfalls, chaotic parking restrictions and buried bike lanes, Downtown cyclists say this year has been one of the best for winter riding  //

What does it take to get a Minneapolis cyclist to give up the winter commute? Not a record-setting snowfall, apparently.

Despite the great winter deluge of December 2010, which dumped more than 33 inches of snow on the metro area — the most the city has seen since 1969 — Downtown bike commuters continued to climb on to their two-wheelers to get to and from work. And while this should surprise no one — cold-hardiness has long been our scene’s biggest bragging point, our trump card in finally edging out Portland last spring as Bicycling Magazine’s “#1 Bike City” — this winter’s riders are significant in another way.

They seem to be the only ones prepared for the weather.


Click here to see a slideshow featuring winter bikers

The Metrodome’s roof collapsed, the City of Minneapolis busted its 2010 snowplowing budget by $3 million and thanks to a record-setting string of six snow emergencies, 6,699 cars have been towed since late November.

But the cyclists keep making it from point A to point B. Bike Walk Twin Cities, the local arm of a federal initiative aimed at reducing car dependence, estimates that 36 percent of area cyclists continue to pedal on clear winter days, and a hardy 20 percent ride on through more frightful conditions.

Many of these commuters have said that this season has been much better than last year — though the bar may have been set pretty low.

“Last year, we had that snowstorm on Christmas that didn’t get plowed. And that melted and froze, leaving terrible, terrible icy ruts,” said Kyle Neitzel, a Windom Park resident who rides daily to his job at the IDS Center Downtown. “We have been pretty fortunate that we haven’t had a quick freeze, or a warm-up followed by a quick freeze. [This winter] hasn’t been bad.”

Bjorn Christianson, lead administrator of the popular local cycling forum, agreed.

“I would say so far this year, it’s been easier than last year. Last year we had the really bad freeze/thaw cycles,” he said. “So you’d end up with 3- to 4-inch high — I call them ‘ice warts,’ just big hunks of ice that sit on the road and the plow can never get them up.”

These refrozen slush nuggets, also known as “ice islands” or “ice boogers,” are riders’ worst enemies, more feared than frigid wind chills and mushy snow melt.

“They’re just polished to a hardness, like diamonds, and you hit it and it jerks your handlebars,” said Gene Oberpriller, co-founder of One on One Bicycle Studio, 117 Washington Ave. N.

Oberpriller’s studio — which includes a mechanic’s shop, an art gallery and a coffee bar — is the community hub for the city’s bike messengers, who fuel and warm up there in between deliveries. During late mornings, a steady stream of splattered, ruddy-cheeked riders track in and out, ordering coffee and smoking cigarettes outside.

On a recent Tuesday, with light snow falling outside and balmy, 22-degree weather, most were in high spirits.

“This is a pleasurable day,” said Evan Reich, a messenger with courier service Blazing Saddles, noting that fresh snow increases traction.

But once the conversation veered away from climate and toward plowing, opinions grew less cheerful.

“I would say it’s definitely worse,” said Chris “Skinny” Anderson, a courier who zips between Downtown law firms, trafficking documents and serving subpoenas. “The streets are not being plowed. I’ll go the whole day without seeing a plow truck. Or you’ll see a guy going someplace else to plow. You’d think they’d cover [Downtown] first.”

Mike Harris, an eight-year messenger veteran, held a similar view. “It’s worse. It’s nicer because it’s less cold, but there’s a lot of sh** out there.”

All three cited Nicollet Mall as “utterly horrible.” Another dangerous stretch is 5th Street, Reich said, which shares its roadway with the light rail and is divided by a tall fence outside of Target Field.

Off-street bikeways like the Midtown Greenway and the Hiawatha LRT trail have faired much better, said One on One mechanic Ben Husby. 

“What I’m hearing from a lot of people is that trails and paths are in great shape,” he said.

Both the city’s Public Works department and the Park Board have a general practice of clearing off-street paths within 24 hours of the end of a snowfall, according to Shaun Murphy, Non-Motorized Pilot Project Coordinator for the City of Minneapolis.

A quick walking tour revealed a Hennepin Avenue that was mushy but manageable. The green stripe bike lanes were clear of snow but camouflaged beneath gray muck. The 1st Avenue bike lanes, each sandwiched between the curb and an inner parking lane, were completely out of commission, buried in 3-inch deep snow and mini boulders of ice. Prime bus arteries Marquette and 2nd Avenues appeared well cleared, with some stretches, like the 800 block of Marquette, squeaky clean from curb to curb.

But hulking snowdrifts were everywhere. Oberpriller cited these as a major danger, as they tend to block sight lines at busy intersections. 

But most cyclists said they feel satisfied with the city’s plowing efforts.

“A lot of streets, there isn’t a lot of room to work with, so if there are multiple vehicles and you’re cycling, you get kind of pinched a little bit,” commented Christianson. “But if you follow the rules and own your lane when you need to, it’s pretty easy to get around.”

“The city’s done a decent job of clearing the snow up. It’s not so bad,” said Tim Roach, who does bike delivery for Jimmy Johns at 88 S. 9th St. 

There’s also an unexpected benefit from narrowed roadways, Neitzel pointed out: de facto bike-only lanes.

“A lot of times when you have a two-lane road, the outer lane will only be halfway plowed. And that leaves you with essentially your own lane.”

Cyclists are also noticing more consideration from vehicles.

“I’ve had less people honking at me,” Oberpriller said. “We’re a little more visible now. There’s a lot of buzz about the city and riding. It seems to enthuse people.”

All in all, he said, the diminished bike lanes, the drifts, the near-daily snowfall — it just builds a level of challenge and adversity that most riders thrill to.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather,” Oberpiller joked, citing a favorite cycling aphorism. “Just bad clothing.”