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Winter Wonderland on Two Wheels

by Jay Walljasper - January 30, 2008

I just got back from the grocery store and running other errands on my bike. Nothing unusual about that. The thermometer reads -3° F. Nothing too unusual about that either. In fact, the street sign outside the store where I usually lock my bike was already taken by another bicycle.

When I tell folks I ride my bike all winter long in Minnesota, they look at me like I'm crazy, or heroic for my eco-dedication and sheer toughness. In truth, neither is true.

It's surprisingly easy to ride throughout the coldest months of the year. And if I--a middle-aged guy living in Minneapolis--can do it, there's no reason you can't too.

Even here--one of the coldest major cities on earth, surpassed only by those in Russia and Canada--it's usually above 20° F on winter days with dry streets. A warm coat, good gloves and thick socks are all you need most of the time to join the ranks of hardy winter cyclists. (And maybe a shower near your workplace, if your commute is long and your job demands a neatly pressed appearance.)

The first thing you'll discover is that you don't stay cold long pedaling down the street. After a minute or two you're generating plenty of your own heat, and within a few blocks you'll probably be unzipping your coat to cool down.

Actually, the darkness of winter is a bigger safety problem than weather in most places. If you live far enough north that it's dark when you commute home from work, make sure to have a good light for both the front and back of your bike and wear brightly colored, reflective clothing.

If a few spins around town on mild winter days convince you to become an all-weather winter biker, here are some simple tips I've learned to manage snow, ice, howling winds and freezing temperatures:

Dress warmly: Layers are the key. Start with silk or wicking synthetic underwear to soak up the sweat. Wear a vest under your coat and a scarf over your face on really cold days. A Kucharik wool bike jersey will keep you warm without relying on petroleum-based fabrics ($99.95; www.kucharikclothing.com) and Ibex leg warmers, made of a wool Lycra blend will keep your knees warm ($62; www.rootedtonature.com). Goggles might help. But you want to make sure you can still see well from side to side. Toes and fingers are the first places to get cold, so invest in good gloves and socks from an outdoor sports store. For socks, see Teko's ecomerino winter gift pack ($49.95; www.teko.com), Smart Wool's cycling light mini-crew ($13.95; wwwsmartwool.com) or Maggie's Functional Organics organic cotton sports socks ($10.50-$29; www.maggiesorganics.com). For gloves, try Purely Alpaca's hand knit hooded fingerless gloves, a.k.a. "glittens" ($19.95, www.purelyalpaca.com).

Get your bike ready: Fenders are important to keep from getting splashed by snow or melting ice. I always lower my seat a few inches so I can make quick stops by planting my feet on the ground (though this can make pedaling more of a workout). And special snow tires for bikes give you more grip on the road. You'll need to lubricate the chain more regularly and check on the brakes. For a petroleum-free alternative, see soybean-oil-based SoyClean Penetrant and Lubricant ($8.99; www.soyclean.biz, 641-522-9559).

Ride smart: Just the same as when driving, give yourself a little extra time when it's icy or snow-packed. Wear a helmet and ride defensively: Motorists won't be looking for bikes in the winter and they won't be able to stop as quickly on icy roads.