Biking in the bitter cold

For an audio slideshow about winter biking, click here.


On a frigid Wednesday morning, with the temperature hovering just above 0 degrees, 22-year-old Trevor Martin gets ready to bike to work.

Sitting in his sun-drenched bedroom on the second floor of his house in Como, he wedges his feet inside three layers of Smart Wool socks. Then he pulls a tattered, brown wool sweater over his base of long underwear and stops to pet Muffin Porkchops, an orange-and-white cat milling around his ankles. Next come a heavy-duty, black Northface vest and a blue-and-black windbreaker with zippers in the armpits. On his lower half, Martin wears wool long underwear and jeans with a big belt buckle.

“The trick is to put sandwich bags on your toes,” he explains, slinging a messenger bag over his shoulder and heading downstairs. The plastic acts as a windbreaker for his toes, which are susceptible to frostbite.

Martin sits on a couch in his living room, which is decorated with mismatched furniture and a poster that says, “The machine kills fascists,” and pulls sandwich bags over his toes. He slides his feet into heavy black shoes that have tiny metal holes in the soles where a bike pedal will connect.

To protect his head, Martin tugs a black facemask over his messy red hair, and stretches a green headband and gray wool hat over his crown. Next, he wraps a violet handkerchief around his mouth, all the while chatting with his roommate about the durability of Carhartt coveralls. We go outside and walk to his detached garage, a storage space for roughly 30 bikes.

“I spend most of my winter dreaming about biking in the summer,” he laughs, pulling on thin, wool gloves that have a few accidental finger holes, then thick mittens one might see on a snowboarder.

The finishing touch to Martin’s winter ensemble is a pair of cheap, black sunglasses that cover the rest of his exposed skin. At night and during extreme cold, he wears goggles.
After his entire body is warm, layered and ready to go, he hops on a black two-speed with medium-width tires and a sticker that says “Riding Dirty,” and sets off on an eight-mile journey to his job at Calhoun Cycle on 34th Street and Hennepin Avenue.

Why bike when it’s cold?

Steve Clark, walking and bicycling program manager for Transit for Livable Communities, a local nonprofit, estimates that one-third of bike commuters continue to ride through the winter. The numbers vary throughout the city, but during a winter count in February of 2007, volunteers spotted 221 cyclists whizzing through the intersection of Franklin and Lyndale Avenues and 210 riders cruising across the Stone Arch Bridge. Nearly double that amount were counted at a corner in the University of Minnesota campus and the fewest riders, 126, were seen using the Midtown Greenway.

“I don’t own a car,” says Phillip Werst, general manager of Common Roots Café on 26th and Lyndale, who bikes to work from Seward every day. “[Biking] is better for the environment, for one, and I don’t see the point of owning a car. I mean, by the time a car heats up and by the time I drive over, it would take me just as long to bike over anyway. It’s just as fast. Plus, you don’t have to pay for insurance, you don’t have to pay for gasoline, you don’t have to pay for any of it.”

Many bikers also simply enjoy riding enough to want to do it year-round. “The first time I rode felt great,” said Brett Schlosser, a Tangletown artist who commutes to work Downtown. “I was doing something I enjoy that I had previously only done during the warm season. It felt a lot like I was having a bit of summer during the winter.”
Taking a spill at least once during the season is unavoidable.

“I have fallen a few times, but nothing major,” said Alisa Hoven who lives in Phillips and works at Common Roots with Werst. “It is [scary], but I feel that most cars are aware of me.”

Watching out for careless drivers is one of the top concerns for winter cyclists. Bike lanes are often full of snow and sidewalks are too icy for most tires, so bikers are forced to take up part of a traffic lane, which can result in angry drivers.

“They do things like drive as close as possible to the back of my bike, try and weave around me in the lane as fast as possible, and lay on the horn or scream obnoxious things like, ‘You’re not a car! Get out of the street!’” recalls Schlosser.

Martin has also dealt with road rage — some of which was his own. “I kind of have a pretty good amount of bike rage,” he grins. “You always have to assume [drivers] are going to do what they’re going to do regardless [of your presence].”

Though it may seem crazy — especially if you already own a car — many winter cyclists believe that any able-bodied person could ride during the snowy months.

“It’s nowhere near as bad as I think most folks assume,” explains Robin Garwood, an aide for City Council Member Cam Gordon (2nd Ward) and daily winter cyclist. “I consider it no more dangerous or inconvenient to bike in the winter than in the hottest part of summer. Each season has its own challenges, and I think the majority of bicyclists can meet them if they choose.”

Contact Mary O’Regan at [email protected] or 436-5088