By TAD VEZNER, St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Winter in downtown: cold, slushy, laden with hardened barriers of snow. So what's an avid mountain biker to do?
If you're a St. Paul bike cop, take to the skyways.
As winter weather chases pedestrians off the sidewalks and indoors, skyway patrols are a common site - and with six miles of downtown St. Paul skyway to cover, it helps to have wheels.
If you're a bike fanatic, there's no better outlet.
"During the summer, I'm all bike, all the time," said officer Tony Holte, who raced mountain bikes in college, was a bike messenger in downtown Minneapolis for a couple of years and bikes hundreds of miles recreationally in the warmer months.
And for the third time in his 10-year career, Holte recently got the opportunity to transfer downtown and mount up.
"I was working up on Rice Street, and there wasn't a very big call for it (bike patrols) in the winter," he said.
"It's not your typical recreational riding," he said recently while on patrol, passing building security guards and enduring the occasional remark about "No riding bikes in the skyway, please."
"I'll give you a dollar if you ride down that escalator," one pedestrian says. Holte doesn't take him up on the offer.
"We don't condone public riding," he said.
It takes some training to be able to stop on a dime, turn on a sliver and ride at a snail's pace for minutes without falling.
Still, skyway bike cops can put in up to 20 miles a day, Holte estimates.
Peering down at street level - the road littered with orange construction barriers and mounds of snow - he noted that "with all this going on, it's hard to squeeze through traffic in a squad car."
Once you know the quickest routes through downtown's second-story labyrinth, Holte said, it's a rare instance where you're beat on a call by an officer on foot - or even in a car.
Several years ago, he and a partner were among many officers to respond to a bank robbery in which the suspect fled through the skyways.
"Me and my partner were first to catch him, a few blocks away," Holte said.
That partner, officer Jason Bain, just transferred out of downtown - after six years as a bike cop - to take a job with the SWAT team.
Bain is proud of the time spent on the saddle - but there are a few things he won't miss.
"People freeze, and stop right in front of you, which is quite interesting," Bain said. "Not running them over and going into the big glass-panel doors, and not falling off your bike and looking like a complete fool, that's the interesting part."
As for what you'd think would be barriers, "I've actually stayed on my bike, rode on an escalator and held on," he said. And when it comes to stairs, "We can ride most of them down."
"During the winter, the skyways are a good avenue for the criminal element to get out of the cold weather, to loiter, to trespass, to damage property. That's where everybody else is, and we want to be where everybody else is," Bain said.
But it helps with the noncriminal element, too.
Holte noted that people are more comfortable chatting up a bike officer, and getting up close and personal with the community is almost always a good thing.
A dozen officers assigned to downtown St. Paul are certified for bike patrol duties. Two to four might be on bikes during a shift, regardless of the season.
Their bikes - mostly Trek 6000s - were bought just before St. Paul hosted the Republican National Convention in 2008. Beyond that, the officers have high-performance, breathable pants and shirts to go with their long underwear. That, plus a portable jacket if - heaven forbid - they need to go outdoors.
Sure, the police officers assigned to downtown also have a Segway and a three-wheeled vehicle called a T-3 - nicknamed "the chariot" - but Bain said biking has a leg up on both of them.
"You're stuck wherever the battery's dead at," he said of the scooters. "I still have a battery in my legs."
One final thing both officers agree on: It helps to stay away from the doughnuts.
"If I have a bad food day, I'll see my performance go down. I'll be chugging away, and it'll be frustrating," Holte said. "Usually I bring a lunch."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)