All it takes is the right equipment to stay warm and safe on a bike, even in the middle of a polar vortex, these brave St. Paul cyclists say. Here’s what you should wear.
They know you think they’re crazy. But riding a bike during a polar vortex isn’t lunacy, winter cyclists say—it’s fun.
“It’s pleasant,” said Melissa Wenzel, who commutes to her job at Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency in St. Paul about 7 miles each way on her bike. “I’m actually more cold in a car that hasn’t been heated up than I am on a bike, because you’re moving.”
And yes, that includes this week, when thermometers in Minnesota plunged below -20 degrees Fahrenheit with dangerous wind chills below -50 degrees. Wenzel and plenty of other winter cyclists bundled up and hit the roads, like they always do.
“Honestly it wasn’t that bad,” said Zack Mensinger, after biking about four miles to a St. Paul coffee shop in -20 degree wind chill. “I was sweating by the time I got here, even.”
These are the Twin Cities’ winter road warriors, the small-but-tough band of urban cyclists who refuse to put away their bikes just because there are a few flakes on the ground, or because skin exposed to the air will experience frostbite within minutes. They insist there’s nothing extraordinary about what they’re doing—and you’d probably like it too, if you gave it a try. It’s just a matter of bringing the proper clothes, equipment, and attitude.
Avoid freezing to death
The first priority is finding a way to stay warm on a bike no matter how cold the air is. Every Minnesota winter cyclist has their own setup, but they say it’s surprisingly easy to keep toasty even when the temperature falls below zero.
“The breakthrough for me was realizing how good clothing has gotten,” said Benjamin Fribley, who bikes about 23 miles a day to and from work, year round. “Hands and feet are the real key. Once you can keep your hands and feet warm, you can do anything.”
Beyond that, it’s just a matter of dressing in layers, with an outer layer to keep the wind off. A scarf, balaclava, or goggles can help keep the face warm and eyeballs un-frozen, along with a hat or hood underneath a bike helmet.
“Every jacket I ever buy has to have a hood,” Wenzel said. “Having a hood under my bike helmet keeps me warm.”
Micheal Foley’s St. Paul bike commute is only about a mile. On typical winter days, he just puts a coat on over his normal work clothes. If the weather falls below about 10 degrees, he’ll add sweaters underneath his coat for added insulation. One key lesson is not to overdo the bundling, no matter how cold it gets.
“I tell people this—the real problem with winter biking is staying cool,” Fribley said.
Peter Grasse, a retired engineer, went riding for fun on Tuesday, when the air was about 12 degrees below zero. “At one point,” Grasse said, “I was unzipping a couple of zippers.”
The uninitiated may think biking in sub-freezing snow is miserable, but bike commuters know another type of winter weather can be far worse: 40 degrees and raining.
“Once you get wet, the cold hits you a million times harder,” Foley said. “On a bike, you’re always going through puddles and stuff is splashing around you — it’s just miserable. When it’s ice, that doesn’t happen. The moisture doesn’t get inside your shoes; it just bounces off.”
Don’t fall over
The other major concern that keeps many riders off their bikes in frigid weather: traction. Snow and ice can make riding on a two-wheeled contraption a perilous prospect. Winter biking is definitely riskier than summer biking, cyclists say—but less risky than it seems, and perhaps less risky than alternatives.
“I'm pretty sure I’m safer than a lot of auto drivers on the road,” Wenzel said.
The most important tool for serious winter biking is studded tires. Minnesota’s winter cyclists say you don’t need a special fat-tire rig—those are mountain bikes with extra-chubby tires that allow them to negotiate snow and sand—for a winter commute. Just adding studded tires on a normal bike can transform traction and stability.
Mensinger got studded tires for the bike after he wiped out on a patch of ice. “Since then I haven’t fallen, ever,” he said.
It’s important to slow down a little, too. “The studded tires give you a lot of grip, but they don’t give you complete immunity,” Grasse said. This is especially when bike paths or lanes aren’t properly plowed, a regular gripe among Twin Cities winter riders. Plowed streets can also be narrowed by snowbanks on either side, forcing riders to vie for clear road space with auto traffic.
The other key is visibility. Biking through a Northern Midwest winter means shorter days, with morning and evening commutes in full darkness. That means reflective clothing and lots of lamps on both your bike and helmet, so you can see the road and drivers can see you.
No one starts biking in the winter from scratch. The usual path to entry involves people who start out biking three seasons per year, and then decide to “keep pushing the season as long as you can,” as Grasse said.
Some people start out biking in the cold but not when it’s icy. Others will practice biking on winter weekends before attempting a commute, or arrange their first trip paralleling a bus route so they can bail out if the snow gets too deep.
Also helpful can be finding a local group of winter cycling enthusiasts who can provide advice and support, such as the Saint Paul Bicycling Coalition. Wenzel did a 30-day winter biking challenge, which she documented on social media and blogs.
Winter cycling definitely has some startup costs. Studded tires can be $100 or more; upgrading your riding outfit can cost several hundred more, depending on how much gear you buy. But winter cyclists say the cost is manageable, especially given the benefits.
“It’s more accessible than people think,” Fribley said. “Because I bike year-round, my wife and I have been able to go down to one car.” He estimates that this might be saving his household up to $10,000 a year. “Even if the clothing and the gear seems expensive at first, we’ve made it back and then some.”
Fribley said the days when it seems like no one in their right minds would want to bike—when a winter storm is dropping snow over the city—are when the advantages of bike commuting are most apparent. His bike can zip past snow-snarled traffic. “[When] it’s snowing I would rather ride than drive, because those are the days the roads are the absolute worst,” he said. “It’s not been uncommon to get to an empty office while my coworkers are 45 minutes late, because the roads are bad.”
And the cyclists say there’s something invigorating about a brisk morning bike ride, even on weeks like this. “It just felt really good to be outside, getting some exercise despite the cold, feeling the world is yours,” Mensinger said.
Wenzel also views winter bicycling as doing her part for the environment—something she shouldn’t stop doing just because it’s cold.
“My values don’t change in the winter,” she said.