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Winter? Schminter! Here’s how to keep on biking

With the right preparation, anyone can bike in winter.

I’m just back from an invigorating bike ride. Nothing unusual about that.

I bike almost every afternoon — not only for exercise but for the mental lift that comes from feeling the wind in my face and blood pumping through my body. For me it’s a form of meditation, which sends fresh thoughts soaring into my imagination that would never take flight back at my desk.

The only thing unusual about my ride today is that it was 5 degrees (Fahrenheit, that is). But that doesn’t stop thousands of people in the Twin Cities from getting on their bikes each day to pedal to work, school, errands and just for fun.

It’s Not Just for Fanatics

Traffic counts from Bike Walk Twin Cities [see accompanying article] show that 36 percent of summer bike commuters continue to ride on clear, warm winter days (like the ones we experienced in early January) and 20 percent on cold or snowy ones (which we seem to be getting our share of now). Even in the midst of blizzards and Arctic cold blasts, you see hardy cyclists navigating the streets on two wheels. It’s one reason we were named America’s No. 1 Bike City by Bicycling magazine in 2010.

Now let me confess that I am no ultra-fit athlete; I’m just a regular middle-aged guy who likes to ride. So if I can do it, you probably can too. In fact, I’ve discovered over the past dozen years that winter biking is way easier than it looks. Actually, I can’t think of any easier way to earn macho points without really pushing myself too hard.

Here in Minneapolis, the streets are clear and the mercury hits the 20s many days throughout the winter. (Even in our coldest month, January, the average temperature is 21.) And when it’s not, follow these common sense guidelines to stay safe and warm.

Get a Good Light. I find that darkness, more than cold and ice, is the biggest challenge of year-round biking. Many North Americans and Europeans, even in warm climates, ride home from work in the dark and need the protection of bright front and back lights.

Dress Warm. Thick socks and good gloves are especially important, since the extremities get cold first. Add a face mask when you venture out in sub-zero temperatures.

Dress in Layers. The great surprise about winter biking is that being too hot can be as big a problem as being too cold. You warm up quickly once you start pedaling, so make sure to wear wickable undershirts and long johns on long rides (I find silk the best to bead up the sweat, but others swear by synthetics). It’s also handy to have outer garments that you can easily unbutton or unzip to let in some cool refreshing air.

Invest in Snow Tires. This innovation sparked the winter biking boom. Studded tires give you good traction in the snow or slush. They are some help on sheer ice, too, but extra caution is warranted.

Studded Tires
Photo by Bill Kelley
Studded tires can keep you upright even on the iciest of surfaces.

Lower Your Seat. The best way to stop in a hurry is to plant your boots right on the pavement.

Travel Slower. Use the same common sense as when driving a car in winter conditions — take it easy.

Pay Extra Attention to Motorists. Drivers are less likely to be looking for bikes in the cold weather. Also, you may be competing with them more for the smooth spots in the center of the road. I stick more to off-road paths (which are well plowed here in Minneapolis) and less-traveled streets in the winter, and sometimes pull over to let a vehicle get past. It relieves anxiety for both of us.

Have Fun! Winter biking really is one of life’s unexpected pleasures.

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