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Bizarro Biking Is Catching On in Colder Climes

A Minneapolis resident discovers that joining the winter cycling fraternity is all about a change in attitude -- and a lot of layers.

January 15, 2006|Patrick Condon | Associated Press Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — On the most frigid winter nights, they are a startling sight.

Out of the darkness they appear: the flicker of a bicycle's back reflector as the rider cruises over icy streets and past the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Winter bikers -- and the clubs and websites devoted to them -- are springing up all over, from Minneapolis to Milwaukee, from Alaska and Illinois to Sweden and even Russia. Some are in it for the workout, some because they want to live in a world with fewer automobiles and less consumption of fossil fuels.

"It's a way to get some exercise, and it's a way to see the outdoors in winter -- which can get difficult here," said Malcolm McEwen, who lives and works in Fairbanks, Alaska. McEwen bikes the five-mile round trip to work two or three days a week all year round, often riding over dog-sledding trails when the temperature plunges to 20 degrees below zero.

On a website heralding winter cycling in Moscow, Grisha Strasnij says winters are perfect for ice-biking and downhill racing because "the ice adds new challenges and requires new skills."

To fully understand the phenomenon, I decided to try it for myself. I've lived in Minnesota the majority of my life, but never had I steered a bicycle across ice-covered streets. I viewed those who did as at least a little insane.

Until I gained a fresh perspective.

"It's a whole lot more enjoyable than driving or taking the bus," said Pete Saunders, who's been crunching through the snow for five years. "I've got two hours a day where I'm having fun rather than fighting traffic."

Saunders, like many winter bikers, owns a car and drives it to work occasionally -- if the weather is particularly bad or there are errands to run. Typically, though, he bikes 28 miles a day between his home in suburban Eagan and his downtown Minneapolis office -- despite several days-long stretches of subzero wind chills.

Sarah Kaplan, 26, on the other hand, doesn't own a car and hates driving. She uses her bike for work, delivering magazines one day a week on a 20-mile route through some of Chicago's busiest streets. "Parking is a hassle I don't want. Cars are terrible for the city -- they stink, they're dangerous, they take up space."

Kaplan, an organizer of the Chicago Bike Winter social group, said there were noticeably more new participants every year, and growing interest had spawned new chapters in Milwaukee; Madison, Wis.; and Ann Arbor, Mich.

To prepare for the streets of Minneapolis, I asked several bikers for tips on how to dress and other precautions to take.

Kevin MacAfee, 50, who bikes a 28-mile round trip three days a week on average, advised that knobby tires were "essential" in case of icy patches. Wear a helmet, warned Peter Church, a government worker who doesn't own a car. Sascha Bates prescribed ski goggles and dressing in layers.

It was 4 degrees above on the December morning I chose for the 4-mile ride to my downtown office. In the Bizarro world of Minnesota winter parlance, this had been forecast as a "heat wave" by a TV meteorologist after several days of subzero weather.

I felt like a Navy SEAL suiting up for a mission. Dri-fit long underwear (to help sweat evaporate off my body). One more layer on my legs and three more on top. Two calf-length pairs of wool socks. Black ski-mask covering my entire head. Goggles and helmet. Two pairs of gloves.

The goal was enough gear to ensure that not a centimeter of bare skin would be exposed. I knew I'd look ridiculous, but I also knew that subzero wind chills can be deadly in minutes.

The first few blocks on my 7-year-old mountain bike were a breeze. The tires gripped the slushy streets nicely, and -- although the chilly air penetrated the layers -- my pumping legs generated enough warmth to make it tolerable.

I even started to feel a little cocky. Coasting across a bridge, I saw multiple lanes of stop-and-go traffic. "Enjoy your gas guzzlers, suckers!" I thought.

A few blocks later my feet were cold. I noticed how my heavy panting inside the face mask was condensing into a chilly mush around my mouth. And how the sweat evaporating off my back made it feel as if I were standing with my rear to an open refrigerator.

In another few blocks, my no-fog goggles started to fog. My feet felt as if I'd soaked them in ice water, and my fingers weren't far behind.

But with the pain came a feeling of hard-won confidence, and it propelled me as my destination grew closer. I started to think, "This really isn't that bad."

The last few blocks, I really hit my stride, and by the time I got to the office I wanted to keep riding. It's a feeling, I discovered, that's common to many winter bikers.

"It makes me feel like a stud -- it really does," Bates said.

One of the most exciting things for Bates, and many winter bikers, is discovering like-minded people.

"It's really a lifestyle choice," she said. "And when it becomes that, you start meeting other people who have made the same choice, and it gets reinforced."

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