“I’m going to show you my favorite alley in the city,” said my friend Greg Neis Wednesday morning at 2:30 a.m., tooling on his bike down an empty S. 9th Street, past Hell’s Kitchen, and on to the empty Nicollet Mall. Then he got up on his haunches and rode hard after an airport minivan taxi cab, trailing after it down empty Hennepin Avenue with the passion of a Tour de France rider going after a stage win.
We’d been on our bikes for a few hours, riding under the cloak of darkness through Uptown, downtown and Northeast Minneapolis, and now we were headed home via the beautiful European-feel cobblestone alley behind the former Joe’s Garage, floating like hummingbirds over the pavement and through the sleeping city, and spilling out into the sprawling trails of Loring Park.
“We have amazing infrastructure,” said Greg, a dad, musician, avid bicyclist and manager of Calhoun Cycle in Uptown. “We have trails, regional trails, bike trails and it’s all really astounding. But every once in a while you’ve got to forget all that and take a short cut. I love it. It’s magic.”
As is the whole of a night ride itself, which Neis does on a regular basis, and which he agreed to take me on a couple tours of this week. Outfitted with flashing safety lights and the knowledge that cyclists are all but invisible to motorists at night, we saddled up at Kings Wine Bar, then rolled through Uptown’s backstreets and alleys, barely saying a word to one another, as is the custom honoring the silence and stillness that comes with riding at night.
“If [Neis’s girlfriend, songwriter] Brianna [Lane] and I are riding home from playing or hearing music at 2:30 in the morning, whether it’s a city street or on the greenway, the silent salute between riders is lovely,” he said. “You ring your bell, or nod your helmet rim, and you get that in return, and I love that. It’s a very strange moment of communion that does not happen during the day, because there’s so much noise, and distraction, and light.”
To be sure, riding after midnight amidst the shadows and without the hubbub of humanity is another way to go for the citizens of bicycle-crazed Minneapolis.
“It’s wonderful. It’s about quietude, and it’s about seeing the familiar in a different way,” said Greg. “You can ride the same route you do every day, but it’s quiet, you have the city to yourself, and the streetlights and alley lights and darkness all makes it such a different experience.
“One of the things I love about riding, and especially at night, is that you’re so connected to your senses. You roll past a homeless guy and he’s smoking a cigarette, and you smell it. You hear a motorcycle go by and you hear it totally differently than if you’re in a car. You hear every engine, every bus, every footstep, and you smell the pine trees, the pavement, the exhaust, the water, the mist from the falls, the river, you smell everything.”
Among many other things on our rides, I smelled the thrill of bombing down a hill and trail off Mount Curve and Kenwood Parkway that brought us under 394 and into downtown Minneapolis in a flash and rush of sensory stimuli. Greg laughed at my kidlike whoops, and as the twinkling city lights danced on the horizon and the night creatures buzzed in the brush, we — a couple of middle-aged men — pedaled on and figured Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn had nothing on us.
“I grew up in a small town, Apple Valley, that’s since been engulfed by suburban sprawl, but in the summertime we got up in the morning, got on our bikes, and we went … off,” said Greg. “We rode through pastures and trails and spent the day roaming and figuring things out. We came home dirty, hungry and tired at dinnertime and it was amazing. It was fantastic, and in a sense night riding brings that back. That’s certainly part of why I do it. I love that sense of freedom and independence that it brings.
“You don’t see a lot of people at night, but I’ve seen great horned owls and night herons and deer and foxes and people running and riding, and I know for a fact that the people who are out riding at night are after the same thing: That calm.”