Winter biking trend keeps gaining

by Joel Meyer

Locking her mountain bike to a rack on the West Bank plaza, senior Elizabeth Acosta recalled a grueling ride to the University through sub-zero temperatures last winter.
“It had to be 20 below,” said Acosta, who pedals to campus each day from the Phillips neighborhood. “By the time I got to campus, my left eye had sealed shut and the bottom half of my pants were stiff with ice.”
The English major rolled her eyes when she mentioned what she wished was the punch line: “When I got to my classroom, I found out my instructor had canceled class.”
Many winter cyclists on campus have a story like Acosta’s, but few are willing to sacrifice the convenience and mobility of a bike during cold weather. According to some winter bikers, even a fair-weather commuter can reap the benefits of sub-zero riding by dressing smart, taking safety precautions and following a few maintenance steps.
“People perceive it as being kind of nutty,” said Steve Sanders, a project manager for Parking and Transportation Services who coordinates the University’s bike program. “When I first started biking during the winter, I was pretty apprehensive about it.”
Sanders is now a year-round cyclist and a vocal proponent of winter cycling. Although his job focuses primarily on serving the University’s warm weather bicycling needs, Sanders calls winter riding “a personal crusade.”
“I tell everyone I can that there’s no reason to put your bike away when it starts to get cold,” Sanders said.
Other officials at Parking and Transportation Services agreed with Sanders.
“It’s always a good idea to promote any form of alternative transportation,” said public relations representative Cari Hatcher. “If we can do some things that make it easier for students to pursue these things, then it’s a good service.”
Last year, the department kept bike racks on campus buses through the winter at the request of bike commuters. Hatcher said soon all four lines of the 52 route, which the University operates, will be equipped with the racks.
For mechanical engineering senior Andy Forsberg, bike commuting is practice for the University Cycling Club events he organizes. Although the competitive season ended almost a month ago, Forsberg said he’s looking forward to Saturday snow rides and “iceman” races staged on the frozen surfaces of Twin Cities lakes.
“Biking during the winter isn’t that bad at all,” said the Mankato native, who has pedalled through snow and ice for four years. “You just have to dress right.”
Sanders said many new riders make the mistake of overdressing.
“Ideally, you want to start out [feeling] cold,” Sanders said. “In just a couple of minutes you’re going to warm up because you’re exercising.”
Sanders emphasized the importance of covering vulnerable areas like the head, hands and feet with windproof gear, but added that winter biking “isn’t something students need expensive, specialized equipment to do.”
Surrounded by pricey full-suspension bikes and costly thermal underwear, Freewheel Bike co-owner Ed Neaton agreed, adding that fenders and bike lights are essential purchases.
“If you don’t have fenders, you’re going to get slopped,” said Neaton, who bought into the co-operatively-owned West Bank bike shop 15 years ago. Plastic fenders normally cost about $15, while metal versions run about twice that price. Customers owning bikes already outfitted with rear racks can add a short extension fender for about $7.
While fenders might keep a rider’s rear end from getting dirty, many cyclists said a set of lights is a safety “must” because the sun sets earlier in the winter. Basic headlights and taillights sell for about $18 apiece, but Neaton encouraged frequent riders to consider a more comprehensive package.
“It’ll cost about as much as a monthly bus pass, but last much longer,” Neaton said.
Varsity Bike Shop owner Rob DeHoff has held free winter bike maintenance clinics on campus during the past four years. The clinics covered the areas he considers most important to riding in the winter: regular maintenance, riding style and clothing.
“The most important thing is to keep the whole bike clean,” DeHoff said. He recommends thoroughly washing a bike twice per winter to prevent road salt from damaging its frame.
Special attention should be paid to a drivetrain during cold weather. DeHoff said the derailleurs, gears and chain should be wiped down and sprayed with a lubricant at least once every two weeks.
Also, a winter rider should avoid leaning into turns. Instead, DeHoff suggests that cyclists “concentrate on using the handlebars to turn.”
Mountain bike riders can put a larger “footprint” on the road surface by deflating both tires to 35 pounds per square inch.
DeHoff said students who ultimately choose not to ride during the winter shouldn’t leave their bikes “in a snowbank.”
Though he doesn’t mind the business generated by neglected bikes, DeHoff said seasonal riders can save money by keeping their bicycles inside. For a fee, Varsity will store a bike over the winter and give it a tuneup in the spring.
DeHoff and Neaton both stressed the added importance of a helmet in slippery conditions. DeHoff recommended wearing a small ski cap underneath the helmet to stay warm, while Forsberg mentioned something rather unconventional: duct tape. He applies the tape over the vents in his helmet to preserve the heat escaping off the top of his head.
“It looks really dorky,” Forsberg chuckled. “But it works really well.”