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Make the switch from car to bike commute this winter: Here's how

Make the switch from car to bike commute this winter
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Standard-issue winter boots will do in a pinch, but they’re not particularly safe or comfortable for longer rides.

If you’re a fair-weather cyclist, as most upstanding MSPers are, you’ve probably already taken your last ride of the year. You’ve stashed your bike comfortably (or haphazardly) in the basement or garage. You’ve traded your helmet for a warm hat. You’re sliding (hopefully not literally) into your winter commute — car, bus or train — routine.

You still see a few hardy souls — or, at least, you assume they’re souls, if each person-astronaut shape is an accurate guide — pedaling easily down Summit Avenue, Nicollet Mall or wherever your commute takes you. They don’t appear to be suffering too badly, succumbing slowly to frostbite or skidding uncontrollably through busy intersections. (Actually, they seem more in control of their pedal-powered commute than many of your fellow drivers.)

Northeast Minneapolis resident Mike Mommsen is one person who crunched the numbers and made the switch from car to bike commute in the winter. “Driving [20 miles round-trip] to work each day, I burned through about 50 cents per mile,” he says — $10 per day.

Driving and maintaining a car costs thousands of dollars per year. Minnesota’s harsh climate makes care maintenance particularly costly. Road salt and chemicals corrode vehicle bodies and dull performance over time, necessitating spendy repairs. If biking through the winter means you don’t have to buy a personal vehicle, it’s liable to save you money — despite the startup costs.

So allow yourself to imagine a day in a bike commuter’s boots. How does he or she prepare before walking out the door? How do they stay comfortable behind Arctic fronts and snow curtains — even the dreaded polar vortex. How does one weather an MSP winter on two wheels? How exactly could you follow in their oversized, centrifugal footsteps? According to the experts, here’s how.

'There’s no such thing as bad weather …'

According to Gene Oberpriller, owner of One on One Bike Studio in Minneapolis’ North Loop, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Oberpriller identifies three basic clothing items all winter bikers should use:

  • Merino-wool base layers: Ditch the cotton socks and opt for wool underlayers made from near-miraculous merino wool. The mountain-dwelling merino sheep is “one of the world’s most ancient breeds ... and one of the toughest,” according to performance clothing manufacturer Icebreaker. Lightweight and moisture repellant, merino wool wicks away sweat and traps heat close to the body. Pricing varies. Polypropylene, a synthetic fabric with merino-like properties, is an option as well.
  • Vapor-barrier outer layers: Vapor-barrier outer layers — not to be confused with structural vapor barriers, which insulate buildings — essentially function as high-tech windbreakers, stopping airflow and moisture, while keeping you warm. Moisture that forms underneath vapor-barrier layers never comes into contact with the wind generated by your movement, so it doesn’t actively cool you down. Layers start at $50 to $60 new.
  • Waterproof footwear: Standard-issue winter boots will do in a pinch, but they’re not particularly safe or comfortable for longer rides. MSP-based 45NRTH makes a host of bike-specific boots for varying levels of frigidity: Opt for Wolvhammer ($325) down to 0 degrees, then switch to Wolfgar ($450), which work down to -50 degrees with appropriate base layers. When it’s not super-cold, waterproof shoe covers are a budget-friendly alternative.

Clothing visibility is just as important as durability and permeability. Kevin Ishaug, owner of Minneapolis-based Freewheel Bike, recommends bright-colored, preferably reflective clothing — even if it means wearing “fashion colors” like hot pink and orange. “You need to be visible to all vehicles, from bikes on bike paths to plows on city streets,” he says.

Don’t skimp on clothing accessories, either. Handlebar pogies ($50 and up for locally made 45NRTH varieties) “create a little microclimate for your hands,” says Ishaug. Lobster claw gloves, which keep your fingers together without compromising dexterity, work too. For your head and neck, use a balaclava or cowl; for your eyes, don adjustable ski goggles that seal tight.

What else? For liquids, you’ll want an insulated mug (for your hot morning beverage) and water bottle (for hydration). A slightly grosser alternative, ideal for longer rides, finds a Camelbak water pouch flush against the skin of your torso, where it won’t freeze. (Even if you don’t feel thirsty, warns Ishaug, remember to hydrate: The dry winter air relieves you of moisture in a hurry.) To protect against frostbite and windburn, apply petroleum jelly to exposed skin, particularly the tip of your nose.

If this all sounds intimidating, “remember that many of these clothing items and accessories are already in your closet,” says Ishaug. And you can accumulate specialized items over time, he adds, as your budget allows.

Deck out the bike 

Oberpriller calls out three essential pieces of cold-weather bike gear:

  • Winter Tires: Winter tires come in several forms. Fat tires (4 inches or wider) and studded tires (normal diameter, but with variable numbers of super-strong studs embedded for grip) are the most popular. Ishaug and Oberpriller recommend studded tires, which can last up to 20,000 miles (when properly maintained) on pavement. Fat tires are better for groomed snow trails, but don’t really improve grip on ice.
  • Fenders: Fenders protect your bike’s gearbox and chain from corrosive salt and sludge, reducing repair frequency and cost. (“Fenders make a huge difference,” Ishaug emphasizes.)
  • Lights: Front and rear lights are essential for safe riding in darkness and gloom. Ishaug recommends at least 500 lumens for your handlebar light and 75 lumens for the rear light — a total investment of $150 for high-quality lights, though “LED lighting prices are coming down.” Headlamps (headlight-grade lights affixed to your helmet) are highly recommended. They sync your illumination with your gaze and are difficult for motorists to ignore. If you’re using dark bike paths, opt for dim-able lights “that don’t burn holes in other cyclists’ retinas,” says Ishaug.

While tires, fenders and lights are table stakes for urban winter biking, Ishaug stresses that cyclists can always be more winter-ready — “prepared bikers are safe bikers, and that’s the most important thing,” he says. Your preparation is limited only by your budget and imagination.

For instance, “[y]ou really can’t have too many lights,” he says. Ishaug recommends affixing a few reflexive “pixie sticks,” which cost a few dollars each, to your spokes. Valve stem lights (about $15 each) move with your wheels, “creating a streak of motion through the night,” he says, making you more visible to drivers in your blind spots.

The Line

It’s also hard to over-maintain your bike, he adds. Ishaug recommends cleaning and lubricating your bike chain immediately after each ride. If you’re riding in subzero weather, you’ll likely need special cold-weather lube — a copper-laden substance with the consistency of peanut butter.

Last and perhaps most important for perennial winter cyclists: All the preparation in the world can’t completely keep the elements at bay. Daily riders “need to be prepared to bring [their bikes] in for a complete overhaul come spring,” says Ishaug, particularly if they’re commuting on city streets.

In fact, some seasoned cyclists use “burner bikes” that they either only take out when the weather turns or discard completely after a single season. “You definitely shouldn’t ride your flagship bike on winter roads,” says Ishaug. “Instead, use a less expensive, workhorse-type bike that you’re not upset about abusing.”

How one guy did it

To prepare for his Cedar Lake Trail commute out to Hopkins, Mommsen bought a durable, locally designed Surly Steamroller bike — not quite a burner, but not the fanciest ride either — and a set of sturdy 45NRTH Xerxes studded tires. He’ll ride the Steamroller-Xerxes combo until the snow melts, then switch to a more delicate summer bike.

An avid Nordic skier and lifelong Northerner, Mommsen already had most of the clothing and accessories necessary to survive winter on a bike — “two changes of everything,” he says, to ensure every item has a full day to dry between rides. He did buy a pair of shoe covers earlier this year, but otherwise “plan[s] on solving things iteratively,” he says. “I’ll buy additional clothing items if and when I find out that it’s an issue not to have them.”

This year, Mommsen budgeted about $1,000 for his winter bike, gear, clothing and maintenance. If he commutes an average of three days per week by bike and drives (he shares a car with his girlfriend) or takes the bus the other two, he figures he’ll break even or come close. Assuming he reuses the same bike and gear, he’ll come out well ahead next winter — and every winter thereafter.

“I thought a goal of three biking days per week would be realistic,” he says. “I want the flexibility to commute by other modes when it’s really dangerous out, and to work longer hours on non-biking days so that I minimize how long I need to bike in the dark.”<

To stretch his budget farther, Mommsen plans to run non-studded tires whenever possible — early and late in the season, and if there’s a dry midwinter stretch with little ice. He hopes to get several seasons out of the Xerxes tires, midseason replacements for which would be costly and inconvenient. “I’m stoked to maintain my fitness over the winter without a gym membership,” he says.

Plan your commute 

“First-time winter commuters are sometimes surprised to find that the routes they took for granted in nice weather aren’t there” or aren’t particularly safe when the snow starts to fly, says Ishaug. This is particularly true after heavy snowfalls, when rights-of-way get narrower on busy city streets and cars struggle to avoid one another, let alone cyclists and pedestrians they can barely see.

If you’re serious about commuting year-round, advises Ishaug, speak with staff at your local bike shop or more experienced peers to identify a relatively direct route that you know is going to be open and safe. Dry-run it on a weekend, preferably before the first heavy snowfall, to get a sense of how long it’ll take in ideal conditions. Then add a time buffer to account for traffic, bad weather, poor path conditions and other obstacles.

“Your body and bike are both going to run a little slower in winter, especially if it’s snowy or really cold,” says Ishaug. Dry-running your route ensures that you’re not late for work the first bad day of winter — and that you don’t compromise safety while trying to beat the clock.

Meanwhile, these trails and streets are bike-friendly year-round. Happy trails!

    • West River Road: West River Road is beautiful any time of year and it’s usually among the first Minneapolis parkways cleared on snow days. Plus, the road connects the University of Minnesota, downtown Minneapolis and (indirectly) the Midtown Greenway. “[West River Road] is a favorite for rec riders and north-south commuters alike,” says Oberpriller.
    • Midtown Greenway: Midtown Greenway takes some work to clear — usually a day or two after a heavy snowfall. But that’s what studs are for. The Greenway is ideal for people who live, work and play in Uptown and Midtown; numerous north-south connections help downtown Minneapolis commuters, too.
    • Cedar Lake Trail: Plow coverage is great in the North Loop and along 394, but can be more uneven farther out. Still, this is a great trail for anyone who lives, works or plays in downtown Minneapolis and points southwest.
    • Light Rail Trail: The relatively narrow Light Rail Trail is easy to plow after heavy snowfalls, though it’s usually not salted down to pavement. It’s ideal for north-south commuters looking for more exercise than they’d get standing on the train. Just don’t try to beat the train.
    • Summit Avenue: St. Paul’s grandest street (sorry, Grand Avenue) has wide bike lanes, good plowing and great views. Ideal for east-west commuters to downtown St. Paul or St. Paul’s private college cluster (St. Thomas, Macalester, St. Catherine’s).
    • Pierce Butler Route: Pierce Butler is the most bike-friendly east-west route through St. Paul’s northwestern quadrant. If you live or work in St. Anthony Park, downtown St. Paul or anywhere in between, Pierce Butler is your route.
    • Theodore Wirth Park: They’re not much use for commuters, but the mountain biking trail network at Theodore Wirth Park is your best bet for off-road winter rec riding anywhere in MSP.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Brian Martucci is The Line's innovation and jobs news editor. 

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Comments (7)

Fat bikes are not for city riding

Can people stop recommending fat tire bikes for winter urban riders? They are expensive, inefficient, actually worse than skinny tires on everything except for the packed snow they're designed for, and the make winter riding seem out of reach for the average person. It's the equivalent of recommending a Hummer for winter urban driving.

Let me let everyone in on a secret: our streets get plowed! They are bone dry 95% of the time, and if you're a new rider, just go back to your other commuting method on those truly awful days. You can buy a steel frame single speed for $400 new or less used that will work fine. Put on a set of cyclo cross tires (narrow but with a little knobbiness) for a bit of extra grip if it's actually necessary. If you're still concerned about snow and ice, get a backup set of wheels and snow or ice tires for another $200. That's the most anyone needs to spend.

So

The next time I find a couple thousand dollars lying around... Sheesh, l thought my ice fishing gear was pricey, you folks put it to shame.

The difference is that with

The difference is that with ice fishing you aren't saving money on groceries. If you are doing a 20 mile round trip commute in a car you are spending $10 for that commute. Bike for a season or two and the bike and gear pays for itself.
Also the 50cents per mile cost for driving is the national average and is very low for MN wintering driving.

Apples to Apples

If one compares the cost of a new vehicle (including finance charges & higher insurance costs) to the cost of ditching that vehicle and investing in the requisite winter bike/gear, biking may indeed be cheaper.

But actual mileage may vary. Vehicles have become so reliable, it's not hard to spend $5K on a vehicle that will still be rolling reliably and with little maintenance costs for well over 5 years. If paid for out of pocket rather than financed, coupled with the lower cost of insurance (no need for comprehensive), the cost is much cheaper. The 50 cents/ mile is an average, and includes the very high cost of buying a new vehicle and the required full insurance on an expensive vehicle as well as the (for most) loan payments.

Additionally, I like most, for a variety of reasons would not be able to sell my vehicle. If I were a single fella it may be different. But I'm raising the workforce/tax payers of the future, and I assume y'all will be wanting to have auto mechanics, doctors, house painters, etc, in the years to come. Biking with an 8 & 10 year old to grand Ma's in January would be interesting to say the least.

I have found the biking season can easily be extended down to the 20-30 degree range barring ice/snow, and since I have to keep my vehicle in any case, I can't justify the additional cost of another bike and winter biking gear for maybe 14 additional weeks of biking. But my hat is very much off to those who do so. Bravo to you!

Who is driving 20 miles for groceries?

I am simply a lowly 'burber but I have 5 different options for groceries within 1 mile of my house. Trouble is, after loading up both kids, resplendent in snowsuits, and enough groceries to feed the four of us for a week, I'm not sure I could get us moving. I'll stick to my fully paid, fuel efficient, cheaply insured, 12 year old car, thank you very much. As for commuting, I don't think they'd like me biking 610 to Brooklyn Park. I've Google mapped the overland route, but I really don't have an extra four hours a day to spend, sorry.

Maybe he is! You have no idea

Maybe he is! You have no idea how much fish this guy's family goes through.

Winter Riding

My parka's off to the people who put the time, effort, and money into researching and buying the equipment and clothes necessary to ride in the winter. For this old fart though, I think I'll stick to fair weather riding, thank you very much!