Our rich cycling culture: Getting to know the pedal pushers

MinnPost photo by Denise Rath

Bicycling is increasingly popular in the Twin Cities. But who’s biking and why?

The Twin Cities’ rich cycling culture can be divided into several subsets. Here’s a look at who’s biking and why they’re pushing pedals.

The competitor
The competitive bikers who take part in organized bicycle racing often belong to one of the many racing clubs in the Twin Cities. They are a particularly serious breed of biker, and they have the gear to prove it. If you’re a driver, you may have come close to ramming one or two as they speed assertively down a major street, dressed in multicolored spandex, high-end goggles and aerodynamic helmets. Their ride of choice is a road bike.

John Zobel, president of the St. Paul Bicycle Racing Club, says he has seen a dramatic increase in competitive bikers in the past few years. His club had more than 150 members in 2008 and expects to see a 20 percent growth this year. Zobel says the social and fitness aspects of competitive racing are the most common attractions for new members. 

Carrie Swiggum has been involved in competitive bike racing since 2004, completing about 20 races. When training, Swiggum says she rides about 15 hours per week, often embarking on 60- to 70-mile rides.

Like many other bikers, Swiggum says sharing the road with cars poses a challenge. “I feel like I’m directing traffic some of the time,” she says. “I can tell right away if a driver’s from out of town.”

The Critical Masser
If you’re driving and come across a seemingly endless line of cyclists casually disobeying traffic laws, you might as well make yourself comfortable: The urgency of your situation makes no difference to members of Critical Mass.
Critical Mass is a cluster of self-proclaimed “anti-car” cyclists who meet monthly to temporarily sequester the roads. Their intent is to “celebrate cycling and to assert cyclists’ rights,” according to their website. Critical Mass started in California in 1992 and has chapters in every continent worldwide other than Antarctica. 

In Minneapolis, Critical Mass meets on the last Friday of every month, attracting between 200 to 400 riders at its peak. This group was in the local media spotlight after one of its members was charged for assaulting a police officer during a ride in August of 2007. He was later acquitted.

The Critical Massers ride a variety of bikes, ranging from old Huffys to expensive road bikes, and the bikers have a reputation for aggressive attitudes toward cars. But Ben Lansky, who has participated in Critical Mass in Minneapolis and Chicago, says altercations between riders and drivers usually do not escalate above harmless glares and honking. “I think they just get jealous because they’re sitting in their cars,” Lansky says. 

The commuter
The commuter cyclist is the most common subset of the Twin Cities bike culture, and is growing quickly. This genre encompasses everyone who rides a bike for the primary purpose of transportation. Similar to the Critical Massers, the commuters ride bikes of all shapes and costs. They can often be spotted in herds near the University of Minnesota area on their way to class or on the Stone Arch Bridge en route to downtown Minneapolis. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of people who bike to work in Minneapolis increased nearly 50 percent from 2006 to 2007. Almost 4 percent of commuting citywide is now done on bikes. To accommodate the rise in cyclists, Minneapolis is in the process of adding 45 miles of bikeways to the 123 miles already in place.

To encourage more commuting, Minneapolis unveiled plans last year for a bike-sharing program, which is expected to launch 2010. As part of the program, bikers, for an annual fee, will be able to rent bikes from kiosks around the city.

Justin Huelman, a student at the University of Minnesota, converted to commuter cycling last fall after the university raised bus-pass prices.  “I’m trying to stick it to the man,” Huelman says. 

The pro
The professional biker is one who bikes as part of his or her job: couriers, delivery cyclists and pedicab drivers, for example.  They are usually in a hurry and can easily be identified by the various custom additions to their bikes designed to meet the needs of their jobs. Because of Minnesota’s harsh winters, many of these bikers have only seasonal work.

Steven Audette is professional biker who works in the winter. In fact, he says, he prefers it.  “It’s nice because you don’t overheat as quickly,” he says. 

Audette is the owner of Como Pedicab, a bicycle-powered taxi service he opened six years ago.  For $30 an hour, Audette will wheel you around the metro area, narrating a historical tour of local landmarks.  Audette’s bike is a professionally built pedicab, which is essentially a love seat latched to the back of an over-sized tricycle.

Minneapolis restricts pedicabs, so the few services in the Twin Cities are located St. Paul.

The recreational biker
For many, cycling is primarily a recreational activity. Some use biking as a means of city exploration, though many stray from busy streets and use the metro area’s hundreds of miles of bike trails. There are several clubs in the Twin Cities designed to promote recreational biking.

Richard Franco, member of the Twin Cities Bike Club, bikes with his 5-year-old son twice a week.  Franco says he enjoys the exercise, fresh air and environmentally friendliness that comes with biking. Franco says he and his son often ride the Greenway trail, a 5.5 mile stretch in south Minneapolis.  He also occasionally brings his son along on club rides.

Franco says he bikes with his family to teach his children the perks of being a cycler. “I value the skill,” he says, “and it’s something I think is important for them to learn.”

This report is part of a special MinnPost project done in coordination with the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Andy Mannix is a journalism and English student at the University of Minnesota. He has written for TIME.com, City Pages and the Minnesota Daily.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/03/2009 - 12:37 pm.

    Minneapolis, the country’s number two bike-commuting city, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, is a case study in policy promoting bicycling as a viable means to get around.

    Minneapolis has been rearranged in the past five years to facilitate transportation as well as recreation on two wheels. There are miles of off-street paths and a single-track mountain-biking trail in a park near downtown. The city even plows bike paths when it snows.

    For visitors, a tour on the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway system provides a car-free trip from the banks of the Mississippi River to Minneapolis’s famous chain of urban lakes.

    Like many of the world’s best biking cities, Minneapolis has built an infrastructure that promotes bicycling on many fronts.

    Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, Were recently included in Travel and Leisure magazine’s: The World’s Top Biking Cities, which listed ten destinations worldwide.

    Minnesota has the quality of life that both natives and visitors can appreciate.

  2. Submitted by George Carlson on 07/04/2009 - 02:31 pm.

    Many of the cyclists riding in the twin cities area could be identified as another category, that of bicycle tourist. We ride around here for fun and recreation, but also to get in shape for our bike touring vacations. We range in age from the teens to the 80’s. Touring especially attracts older bicycling athletes who can afford the time and cost of bicycling vacations.

    Hundreds of these local cyclists ride in week-long Minnesota tours like Jim Klobuchar’s “Jaunt with Jim” or The Ride Across Minnesota (TRAM), or in out-of state rides like Iowa’s RAGBRAI and North Dakota’s CANDISC. Others take longer multiple-state rides and even rides across the country.

    These riders are indeed a subset of the Twin Cities bicycling culture, probably not quite as hard-core as the racers, but very committed nevertheless.

  3. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 07/06/2009 - 10:58 am.

    The Critical Massers do a huge disservice to the rest of us bicyclists. The whole adolescent “in your face” thing does nothing but create more car/bike antagonism than already exists. It builds resentment that potentially endangers all of us.

  4. Submitted by Knute Sands on 07/17/2009 - 12:03 pm.

    Wonderful analysis of the Twin Cities biking landscape! I hope MinnPost is going to do some Tour de France coverage in the coming days. It’s great to see the competitive cycling community grow – thanks for the great article.

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