A cycling neophyte gathers routes and tips from local bike experts
I'm not really a bike enthusiast -- one of those cyclists with all the right clothes, an intuitive understanding of biking etiquette and plenty of preplanned trip routes (from hour-long rides to weekend excursions) on hand. In fact, most of my biking experience involved a 1980s Huffy 10-speed with a unicorn on the seat.
I was fine with this level of knowledge (or lack thereof) until my first long bike trip -- a 55-miles round-tripper, to be exact -- in Southern Minnesota's bluff valley last summer. When my speed maxed at 7 mph on the return ride, I saw that there could be something to this talk of training and pacing yourself. (Coincidentally, that same ride introduced me to the invaluable nature of biking shorts with a padded seat.)
Bicycle enthusiasts say such experiences are all part of the learning process; after all, it's exploring that makes bicycling fun. Despite the challenges, I've found that I agree. I've had a fantastic time on every bike ride since. (OK, except for the one where I blew a tire -- but at least I learned to carry a patch kit.)
In preparation for this biking season, I decided to consult a few bike professionals for route recommendations and bicycle safety tips. It turns out you don't have to travel far for an interesting ride -- some of the best routes are easily accessible from Downtown.
Meet the experts
City Transportation Engineer Don Pflaum is known to keep a bike in his office and is working diligently on the city's five-year-bike plan, helping neighborhoods devise ways to work bike lanes into their streetscape. He frequently deals with resident concerns and questions about city bike routes. He said some of his favored routes are accessible from Downtown.
Minneapolis resident and local writer Doug Shidell has been mapping Minnesota and Wisconsin bike trails since 1984. He's published a frequently updated book with his wife called "Bicycle Vacation Guide" that features trail maps complete with interesting sights and places to stop along each trail.
St. Paul resident Richard "Fred" Areys is the author of "Twin Cities Best Bicycling," which lists all the popular biking trails in and around the Twin Cities and specifies the skill level necessary, as well as the sights along each route. His book also explores the local history of bicycling and includes a section on bike safety.
- Quick excursions
Pflaum recommended taking the Kenilworth Trail, in Kenwood and Bryn Mawr (accessible at Glenwood Avenue and North 12th Street), or the Midtown Greenway in Uptown (it runs parallel with South 29th street) southwest to Hopkins and Chaska and back. He said it's a nice paved trail ride and a convenient quick excursion for regular bikers who have only an hour or so.
He also suggested the trail along the west bank of the Mississippi River from Downtown to the Ford Bridge. Pflaum said there are plenty of interesting sights along the river. "It's not just about the trails or bicycling, but what's along the way," he said.
Shidell noted that the popular Chain of Lakes trails around Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Calhoun and Harriet in South Minneapolis are very well maintained and can be accessed from near the Farmers' Market.
- Making rounds
For bikers looking to find a less-populated trail, river trails are the best bet. However, one of Arey's favorite Minneapolis routes is the Grand Rounds, which incorporates both river and lake trails.
The Grand Rounds totals 32.7 miles from Theodore Wirth Parkway, northeast through St. Anthony, south through the University area down the Mississippi River to Minnehaha Falls, then linking to Minnehaha Parkway and connecting back up to the Chain of Lakes.
Arey said there are many great landmarks along the route, including the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden (in Theodore Wirth Park, just west of Downtown off the Penn Avenue exit of I-394), the Weisman Art Museum near the University of Minnesota and the Minnehaha Falls Regional Park.
Real safety tips
Pflaum said people tend to "switch around" some biking rules and suggested getting a small card to carry as a reminder of the rules of the road. (One is available from Hennepin County at 763-745-7644.) He said the most common mistaken perception is that cyclists should bike against traffic -- legally, you're required to bike with traffic.
Arey said riders need to do their best to be predictable -- ride with the regular flow of traffic, signal their intents, wait for red lights, etc. -- to best ensure their safety.
"The more you act like a motorist, the safer you are, " Shidell added.
Shidell went on to say that riders often "get on the trails and assume that they're safe" when they should be just as safety conscious on trails as they are on the road. A false sense of safety leads some bikers to weave between other trail traffic or make unpredictable stops, and weavers and stoppers are just asking for a collision, he said.
Pflaum said that in more congested areas, bikers need to use common sense and stick to the lanes designated for bikes and roller-bladers on separated trails like the ones around the Chain of Lakes. Arey added that riders should ride more isolated trails with a friend.
All experts suggested wearing a helmet and taking other appropriate safety precautions, such as wearing light and reflective clothing and having bright lights on both the front and rear of the bike. Arey also suggested paying close attention to the condition of your bike, checking the tires often.
The experienced riders also suggested getting involved with cycling clubs, such as Twin Cities Bicycling Club, which host events and provide guided rides year-round. They work with riders of all skill-levels throughout the Twin Cities, and then you can work up to that 55-mile trip when you're ready for it.