Despite the cold, some cyclists still braving winter commute

Paul Stewart riding through Fort Snelling
In this file photo, Paul Stewart prepares for a winter commute to work. Despite the frigid temperatures, many cyclists are still riding their bikes and braving the icy conditions.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

A week after a winter storm dumped snow then ice then more snow on the region, Minnesota drivers are frustrated with caked ice and snow on the roads. The sub-zero temperatures make roads nearly impossible to clean off. But if you thought driving a car in these conditions was hard, consider with bicycle commuters are going through.

"This has been a tough winter for cycling just since we got that big snow followed by the rain followed by the cold," said Bob Aldrich of Freewheel Bikeshop in Minneapolis. Aldrich and a growing community of winter riders are still biking to work every day, regardless of how cold it is, or how icy the roads are.

Aldrich's advice for his fellow bikers: "If there's any one thing you need to do it is to use studded tires. There's a really significant difference between riding with studs and without, not the least of it is psychological."

Studded tires on a bike work just like they do on a car, gripping especially well when there is snow and ice covering the road. Also just like a car, a bike needs regular maintenance to stay in good working condition, particularly in the winter. And the same stuff cities use to make the roads passable can really gum up the works on a bicycle.

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Chains and gears can get bound up with sand, salt and grit. "If you can really thoroughly clean that stuff once a week, you'll do yourself and your bike a huge favor," Aldrich said.

Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, is continuing his daily, 13-mile commute into St. Paul this week. He has an answer for anyone who said he's crazy.

"Many of the roads are plowed down to the asphalt," Grilley said. "You really do need either studded tires to ride in the icy conditions that we've got now, or bare asphalt. What's wonderful about the bike trails is that the cars don't get out there and pack them down before they're plowed, so very often the bike trials are able to be plowed right down to the bare asphalt."

Carbide steel studs making riding safer
In the winter, tires with scores of steel studs embedded in the tread are necessary to get through the icy conditions.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

But what about the bitter cold? Dorian Grilley said, even when it's this cold, temperature isn't the thing he worries about most.

"The biggest challenge I think is staying safe; it's certainly not staying warm," he said. "People don't realize you generate a lot of heat when you're bicycling and as long as you have something that breaks the wind on the front, you should be able to stay warm."

Bob Aldrich at Freewheel Bike Shop agrees.

"This morning I had on my cycling shorts, a pair of power stretch tights, and a pair of wind pants over that," he said. "Long underwear top, a very lightly insulated jacket, and then a windbreaker over that; not a whole lot different than how you might dress to go cross country skiing, except you're going to probably have one additional layer,"

Even with studded tires, a clean drive train, and all the right clothing, it sounds like quite a challenge to ride a bike in Minnesota in January. So why do they do it? Dorian Grilley said, "I do it to stay fit and to enjoy myself in the out of doors. People don't get out enough in the wintertime, and it's a great way to stay fit year-round."

But Bob Aldrich has a different reason. "You get to walk around with a little self-righteous burning beacon of virtue in your heart because you didn't drive to work that day," he said.