Snow doesn't stop these cycling commuters

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April 24, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Why some Downtown workers keep pedaling through the winter

Cycling enthusiasts Gene and Jennifer Oberpriller own a 1997 Cutlass Oldsmobile, but it doesn't see much action. The couple bikes to their North Loop cycling shop, One on One Studio, from their south Minneapolis home -- a 16-mile daily trek roundtrip that takes 30 minutes each way. The car stays parked most days unless the Oberprillers have an out-of-town bike race.

Even when the mercury dips well below zero and mounds of snow pile up on street curbs, the Oberprillers pedal into Downtown. They are among a growing number of hearty cyclists who refuse to put their bikes away during the winter. They say it beats fighting traffic and paying hefty sums to park in Downtown ramps.

"It's really liberating. You can ride home and there's just lines of cars sitting on the entrance ramps going nowhere, and you just think, 'If they could just get out of their cars. They'd probably feel so much better,'" said Jennifer Oberpriller. "It's a really good stress reliever, and then you don't have to go home and say, 'Oh, I have to go to the gym and workout.' I already did it. It's a lifestyle."

The Oberprillers' studio caters to cycling commuters and Downtown's bike messenger community. They've noticed an increase in biking, even this winter, one of the harsher ones in recent years.

"It seems like more people are getting into it. A lot of people start out saying, 'Oh my God, I could never ride in the wintertime.' Once you talk them through it and say you just have to be prepared and wear the right clothing so you don't get cold and hate it: just try it one day a week; and quite a few people start doing it and adding a few days," Oberpriller said.

An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people commute to work Downtown by bike during the summer, said Gene Oberpriller, who cited city figures.

Based on his observations, he guessed a couple hundred keep riding in the winter -- a few more each year.

"I can go out any day now and find tracks, where three years ago you wouldn't see them," he said. "Once people figure out a route in the summer they figure they could do it in the winter because why fight Downtown traffic. ... Everybody needs to be aware that we're out here 365 days a year now."

How it's done

The cycling couple typically takes West River Road home, which adds a few miles to the commute, but guarantees a plowed path. Both ride single-speed Surly Crosscheck bikes. The tires are a hybrid -- they are skinny like road bikes but have small knobs that add grip.

Single-speed bikes require less maintenance in the winter than their multispeed counterparts.

Winter bikers say the skinny tires are best for trips after heavy snowfalls. The wheels cut through the snow while mountain bike tires tend to clog up with the white stuff. Cyclists depend on thicker tires with good fenders that keep the slop at bay when the snow begins to melt.

Amy Campbell, 25, a part-time Downtown bike messenger for Street Fleet Courier Service, said she also prefers to get around town with a single-speed bike in the winter.

Campbell, who has worked as a courier for three years, is one of the fastest messengers Downtown. She rides a single-speed bike with skinny tires and a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer decal lodged in her wheel frame. Her bike is a hodgepodge of used parts.

"It's just a crappy old frame," she said, while standing along side the bike on Hennepin Avenue, near 11th Street. "A lot of people like to ride skinnies in the winter. It cuts through the ice and stuff, but it's slippery. You just got to slow down and take wide turns when it's really bad."

Campbell recently came in first among women and 13th overall in the 7th Stupor Bowl Messenger Race held Downtown on Jan. 31. Cyclists collect stamps at a dozen bars in Downtown's Warehouse District, Northeast and the West Bank near the University of Minnesota. About 70 bikers competed in the race.

For Campbell, winter cycling isn't much of a challenge. She zips around without much trouble and hasn't spun out this year, but the bike lanes can get kind of tricky.

"When they plow they plow into the bike lane a lot, but I just take up a lane if I have to," she said. [Legally, cyclists have as much right to a "driving lane" as any car.] "Usually, it's pretty clean Downtown. When there's a lot of snow, you stick to the main roads."

While Downtown treks can be more hazardous in the winter, it's a productive time for bike messengers.

"Winter is a busy season, we make better money. Summer is slower," Campbell said.

Most bike couriers work as independent contractors, keeping 55 percent of the delivery fee. In the winter, Campbell makes about 15 deliveries per day, earning between $50 and $100.

What to wear

Dressing appropriately is also a priority.

"Wool socks are very important, and waterproof footwear," Campbell said.

For winter biker Clint Beckman, 20, padded clothing provides a defensive layer against the elements -- and automobiles.

"I'm out here biking because I got hit about a month ago on the south side," he said, while standing with his 10-speed on the sidewalk near the corner of Hennepin Avenue and 9th Street. "I figure that shouldn't stop me. This guy blew a stop sign. That just propelled me to come out and bike more to show people that there are still bikers out here. Maybe they'll be cautious."

Beckman said he exercises extra caution during the winter months and tries to keep tight to the curb. "If you take the side of a road and you weave into the middle, a car could smack you. If you see 3 inches of snow in front of you, sometimes you have to weave to your left right away. That could be fast enough that a car can't react to you," he said.

Despite the potential hazards, Beckman keeps going, often pedaling five miles a day.

"I think people in Minneapolis are pretty unbelievable for doing this sort of stuff," he said. "Everybody's biking around."