Becoming a winter biker: Six lessons learned
One evening not so long ago, I was struggling over a hazardous bike path into downtown Minneapolis. Witnessing my work, a fatbiker shouted across the path's poorly plowed expanse.
"How's it going?"
"Great!" I said back, and meant it, though I'd almost fallen in front of him. I smiled then rode on. I wasn't going to stick around to see how his enviable fatbike handled the terrain that had worked me and my single-speed. With only a mile to go, I was in animal mode, my eyeballs almost frozen, my body clad in Merino. Lovin' it.
This past November, I got a new job that meant, after a year-plus break from bike commuting, I'd finally have a good route again. Twelve miles across the Twin Cities. Years ago, biking to work — 17 miles a day, every day — had formed a cornerstone of my soul.
Now, during the toughest winter in years, I've once again gained a bike commute. Here, during my haphazard return to winter biking, is what I've re-learned.
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1. You'll love it.
Bike commuting in the winter is pure and beautiful. It puts you in touch with nature and the childlike freedom of your first bike. Pedaling wherever you wish, stopping here for a coffee or there for a waffle, at your leisure. It's often a solo experience. Even now, during a boom time for winter biking, you're usually alone on the path. But that's okay. Biking is the ultimate in self-reliance. Everything you need — layers, snacks, tools — is on your back or your bike's rack. There's something soul-pleasing about carrying your life around. What's especially cool is finding a route that works for you, and exploring until you find the right fit.
2. You'll hate it.
There's no avoiding it. Winter is cold, painfully so sometimes. This has been an especially nipple-twerking one, what with the Polar Vortex and the wind chills deep below zero. Your nose will run like Minnehaha Falls in summer. Your feet and hands might start to ache. Your eyeballs might very well freeze. As your eyesight gets weird, you'll wonder what the hell is going on, then realize you need goggles. The good news is that, with the right clothing, you can surmount just about any deep freeze. Modern clothing is wonderful. Wool (socks, base layers) is your savior. Experiment with layering until you discover what works for you. Find good boots and warm gloves.
3. It's all about the routine.
Pile your bicycling clothes together so you can snap them on within 15 minutes of waking. The more time you spend searching for your long-johns, the more likely it is that you'll give up and take the bus. In addition, pack your bag before you go to bed, preferably with a change of clothes, the next day's lunch, and an extra layer, and leave it by the door. The key is to get yourself out and onto your bike before your body has realized you're awake. Hesitation may lead to bike avoidance. Get to pedaling.
4. Ready your bike.
That means, for starters, finding the right tires. Skinny road tires fail during a winter this brutal. You'll slip all over. That also means ensuring your bike fits you well and that you can comfortably ride it for miles and miles every day. If a part of your body aches more than it should, your bike fit is probably off, and you need to adjust it. Next, get some really good, bright lights. It gets darker earlier during the winter, and you'll definitely be riding in pitch-black conditions. Spending $80 on a front light won't disappoint you, but you'll be good with $15 snap-ons, too. Just ensure you're visible.
5. Allow yourself to fuck up.
It's okay to fall. It's okay to overlayer. It's okay if you have to walk the last few blocks. It's okay if your bike's freewheel freezes and you ride the bus into work. Perfectionism is a hindrance. Just do it. The more you expect perfection from yourself, the less likely it is that you'll ride. Don't fear that other cyclists are judging you. Ninety-five percent of them aren't. We're all just happy you're out here, just like we're happy we're out here. Winter biking brings out the best from the Twin Cities bike community, and truly, the best from drivers, too. You'll be surprised by how kind and patient most cars are with you.
If you fall, get back on and pedal some more.
6. The bus is your ally — and your enemy.
MetroTransit is a beautiful Minneapolis-St. Paul bonus when your bike fails, or when you get up late. It rocks to include the bus in your bike commute, especially if the whole journey is too long for you. If your commute's between the downtowns, for instance, you could take the 94 express to the Snelling Avenue exit and bike the remainder, or vice versa. HOWEVER, relying too much on the bus can make you lazy about your bike. Be serious about this. Don't let the bus prevent bicycling. Let it aid you.
Bonus Lesson: Take at least one selfie.
Glory in your accomplishment. Get some Facebook high-fives. This is particularly important if you're a guy whose beard gets frosty.
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