Why would you bike commute in the winter?

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Bicycle commute
Jana Velo bikes from her home in south Minneapolis to the Midtown Global Market to shop for groceries Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Velo rides her bicycle all winter long, regardless of the snow and cold temperatures.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Jana Velo of Minneapolis started biking to work during the summer over two decades ago. But it wasn't until seven years ago that she decided to continue through the winter.

"I had been working in Eagan and said to somebody that I needed to put my bike away for the winter because it was getting cold, and they said, 'Why would you do that when you can still bike?'" Velo said. "I hadn't thought about it."

It took a couple months for Velo to gather together all the gear she'd need for her 12-mile commute, but since then the mother of one has been commuting by bike almost every day all year long.

"I just love it," Velo said. "For me and people I know who do it, it's actually so much fun. You get where you're going with this big grin on your face."

Biking in the winter is not always a simple operation. She wakes in the morning and checks in online with other bike commuters about best routes and conditions.

She tries to choose streets that minimize her contact with cars, which she says often look like moving snow drifts in the winter because drivers don't bother to brush snow off their windshields.

"If the bike lane is not plowed or the side of the street is just a big snow drift, then what I try to do is just take the lane next to it," Velo said. "Sometimes that's not possible so I'll just ride down the center of a traffic lane so that cars aren't able to pass me in the same lane when there isn't enough room to do so."

Velo said she's harassed or yelled at by drivers less often during the winter.

"I think drivers generally feel sorry for people who are on a bike for the winter, especially since it's been really cold," Velo said. "There's more abuse from drivers when the weather is nicer because maybe they don't want to open their windows during the winter to yell."

The ice ridges and snow drifts that build up on badly plowed streets and bike lanes can present a challenge for winter bikers, but it's not insurmountable.

"Just like winter driving, you might fishtail a little bit and if you resist it, it's a lot worse,'' Velo said. ''So you ease in and out of those fishtail situations and just try to stay as loose as possible."

Velo outfits her bike with studded tires at the start of the season but has typically returned to normal tires by the end of winter as she's grown accustomed to riding on slick streets.

For really deep snow, Velo has the bike equivalent of a dune buggy with really wide, thick tires.

She wears big chopper mittens and winter boots to keep her extremities warm, but said overheating is more of a concern because biking generates body heat.

"You want to wear enough clothing to block the wind but it needs to be really breathable because if you start to sweat, that's when your body temperature is going to work against you," Velo said.

For Velo, part of the appeal of winter biking is the camaraderie she finds with other riders through a nod or wave, even if she can't recognize her friends because they're too bundled up.

"Being a winter commuter is kind of like being in a club," Velo said. "When you're out there and the number of cyclists really drops when it starts getting colder, that's a special bond you have with people out there."

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