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Despite harsh winter, more bicyclists make frigid commutes

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Biking across Washington Ave. Bridge
Bundled head-to-toe, a biker crosses over the Washington Avenue Bridge on the University of Minnesota campus on Thursday, January 20. Many bikers braved the weather even as temperatures dropped below zero.
MPR Photo/Gina Reis

Bicyclists will pedal to the capitol in St. Paul on Monday for what organizers are calling the Inaugural Bike Summit on Capitol Hill, an event intended to educate state leaders about the benefits of cycling for people, communities and the environment. 

Organizers expect 150 cycling enthusiasts at the Capitol, and they've arranged extra bike racks for the event.

Speakers include former Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, an avid bicyclist.

Their short list of legislative priorities includes stiffer penalties for motorists who hit cyclists, and a request the Legislature authorize the first state bikeway along the Mississippi River.

Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota executive director Dorian Grilley says the bikeway amounts to creating connections among existing trails.

"Using on-road shoulders to connect off-road trail segments like the Paul Bunyan trail or the Cuyuna Lakes trail or the newly authorized Veterans Trail up near Camp Ripley in Little Falls," Grilley said.

Bicyclists selecting a winter day for a Capitol lobbying effort may seem odd to some, but Grilley has been pedaling year-round for 30 years. And he's not alone.

Kevin Jargo
Minneapolis commuter Kevin Jargo cycles to and from work even on the coldest winter days, including on Jan. 18, 2011, when it was six degrees outside.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Kevin Jargo, biking on his way home in Minneapolis, looks positively rosy on a winter day when the temperature is six above. What's the coldest weather he's biked in? "Thirty below," he said,"Which isn't pleasant but if you're prepared for it, it's not bad."

Jargo said he's been a winter bike commuter for seven years, and in a winter that's seen more than 70 inches of snow so far, this is the first year he's used a studded tire on the front of his bike.

The special tires aren't necessary for most conditions though, he said. As you might guess, winter biking techniques are different from warm weather cycling.

Chris Cross, who works at The Hub Bicycle Coop in Minneapolis, said turning a two-wheeler on ice and snow is often the riskiest part of the ride.

Cold weather gear
Manufacturers have discovered the cold weather cycling market and are creating products to meet the winter elements, including bicycle bar mitts like these sold at The Hub bicycle co-op in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Cross, who has been a winter bike commuter for 15 years, said  the way to avoid wipe outs on slick streets is to keep your center of gravity over the bike.

"Rather than leaning into your turns your staying on top of the bike and turning from the top of the bike," he said. Easier to say than learn.

That's why Nicole Waxmonsky, another Twin Cities year-round bike commuter, and a University of Minnesota grad student, teaches a class on winter biking. She's an instructor for the League of American Bicyclists.

Waxmonsky said numbers in her winter biking classes are growing. She teaches that the fishtailing that happens when pedaling through the snow is part of the experience.

Biking to class
Many University of Minnesota students use a bike to get to campus, even though the winter season.
MPR Photo/Gina Reis

"A lot of people that makes them nervous, but in reality the bicycle wants to stay upright," she said.  "So as long as you relax and keep pedaling you'll be able to continue down the street."

The Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota's Dorian Grilley said surveys show half of Minnesota's residents rode bikes last year. The number of winter cyclists is much smaller but growing.

Duluth winter bicyclist Justin Olson said he's seeing more two-wheel commuters. Olson, 40, is an elementary school teacher who bikes to work in nearby Superior every day -- including days well below zero.

Olson's list of must-have winter gear is something to cover the nose and cheeks.

Waiting for a bus
Jason Jewell waited with his bike for a bus along Snelling Avenue, despite knowing bus service was shut down because of the weather in St. Paul, Minn. Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"And then the other thing I have is handle bar covers that we're actually made for four wheelers, ATV's, but they work really good on this bike," said Olson. "I can go bare-handed or wear light gloves inside those down to below zero, no problem."

The growing array of winter cycling gear on the market ranges from specialized bikes to all kinds of clothing, and can cost the warmly attired rider thousands of dollars.

Not necessary, the veterans say.

Dress in layers, cover face and hands, learn to navigate on two wheels in frozen conditions and you're on your way.