Minneapolis is consistently ranked as one of the top, if not the top, biking city in the country, and it's easy to see why. The hearty folks of the Twin Cities area are known for staying in the saddle all year long, riding through heat, humidity, rain, sleet, snow, and even polar vortexes. Winter biking might just be the fastest-growing segment among the four seasons, proving Minnesotans love the outdoors no matter what the thermometer reads.
Even so, the chillier months are the toughest times to ride thanks to slick roads and head-high snow banks. Whether you’re commuting to work or simply looking for a bit of exercise in the cool, crisp air, consider these top tips before heading out on the roads.
1. Designate a Winter Set of Wheels.
There are a number of reasons to elect a specific bike as your winter steed. Most notably, riding in the winter is supremely hard on a bike. Sand, salt, and snow can gunk up the components and leave a frame worse for wear. If you have a bike for summer riding that you’re hoping to keep in pristine condition, now is not the time to drag it out of storage. “Folks spending a lot of time riding on roadways in winter can really benefit from putting a dedicated bike through that torture,” said Mike “Kid” Riemer, the Marketing Manager for Salsa Cycles based in the Twin Cities.
Many cyclists find that going to a one-speed drivetrain can save the front and rear derailleurs, as well as the shifters, from getting gunked up. Riemer also suggests keeping your bike locked outside to prevent it from going through too many of the freezing/thawing cycles. If you have an old mountain bike in your garage, that could also serve as a great winter bike, outfit it with carbide-studded tires and you’ll look like a pro. If you’re interested in fully committing, consider adding a fat bike to your fleet. Fat bike tires effortlessly float over slushy streets, snow-covered trails, as well as frozen lakes and creek beds. For fat bike rental options, check out Angry Catfish or Freewheel Bike.
2. Be Cautious.
Biking anywhere in winter will likely take longer than other times of the year. Be sure to allow yourself extra time to get around town so you aren’t in a rush. Ride on clear, dry pavement whenever possible and be careful braking on icy and snowy stretches. To avoid fishtailing, gently brake on the rear tire first and have your feet ready to hit the ground in case you go into a spin. Lowering your seat post can put you into a slightly more defensive position and allow you to get your foot down quicker in these instances.
“If you encounter an icy patch where you simply cannot apply your brakes because it’ll take you down, keep riding gently and look ahead to the next place where your wheels will have traction and be ready to use your brakes there,” advised Riemer. “That could be a bare spot of pavement or a section of chunky, hardened snow."
3. Remain Visible.
Shorter days and less daylight make for more dangerous biking conditions. Even if you are riding between dawn and dusk, you should still be sure to outfit both your ride and your body with visibility devices. “The smart winter cyclist is willing to throw fashion out the window and do everything they can to enhance their visibility,” said Riemer. “There are plenty of clothing options on the market right now that feature reflective fabric or piping.”
Laws require cyclists to ride with a white front headlight and red taillight after dark. With the addition of a headlamp, you’ll be hard to miss. “I’m a big fan of high quality LED lights,” said Josh Klauck, owner of Angry Catfish Bicycle Shop + Coffee Bar in Minneapolis. “I like to have a set of lights that can stay on the bike at all times, front and rear, and then a second set I carry with me for added visibility or in case a light runs low on batteries.”
And there is some strategy behind where to put which light. “A headlight is to help light your path, a blinker is to get a motorist’s attention, and a headlamp allows you to shine a light sideways at intersections, making sure the road is clear and helping catch the eye of drivers who might not have otherwise seen you,” explained Riemer.
4. Plan Your Route:
While the safest biking routes are usually off-road trails like those along the Greenway, the River Road, and the lakes, cyclists often have to do some amount of street riding. “Pick your route wisely,” said Riemer. “Is there a route that has less traffic? Is there a bike path? Is there a route with a wider shoulder or more lanes where you can assert a bit more authority and claim more space?”
“Cars will often choose the clearest and cleanest routes, but as a cyclist there are many side streets that will be quicker and safer for you,” added Klauck. “There are also a lot of bike paths that get cleaned before many roads—take these!”
5. Be Careful Where You Park Your Bike.
If you lock up your bike on the side of the road during a major blizzard, the plows are likely to bury it when they come by. Find an off-street rack to avoid having to do any unnecessary digging.
6. Bundle Up.
Minnesota winters can dole out some brutal temperatures. Be sure to get your hands on the appropriate layers to keep you warm atop your two-wheeled machine. While base- and mid-layers will keep your body warm, the best outer layers are built to withstand wind, rain, and snow. “Wool is a must-have,” added Klauck. “Merino wool is an amazing insulator and naturally anti-odor. Socks, long underwear, base layers, jerseys, gloves, jackets—they all come in wool these days and they are the best.”
In terms of accessories, a lightweight winter hat can fit perfectly beneath a helmet and sunglasses or ski goggles will help shield your eyes from any debris that gets kicked up. Experiment with different types of insulated gloves to ensure your hands stay warm, but still remain nimble enough to steer and brake. You can also look into getting pogies, which are essentially insulated handlebar covers that protect your mitts during the most brutal winter conditions. For your feet, winter boots work in the coldest temperatures, but bike shoes with neoprene covers will suffice in more moderate weather.