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The ABCs of Winter Biking

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I'm just back from an invigorating bike ride. Nothing unusual about that.

I bike almost every afternoon -- not only for exercise but for the mental lift that comes from feeling the wind in my face and blood pumping through my body. For me it's a form of meditation, which sends fresh thoughts soaring into my imagination that would never take flight back at my desk.

The only thing unusual about my ride today is that it was 16 degrees (Fahrenheit, that is) during one of the snowiest and iciest winters on record here in Minneapolis. But that doesn't stop thousands of people here from getting on their bikes each day to pedal to work, school, errands and just for fun.

Traffic counts from Bike Walk Twin Cities show that 36 percent of summer bike commuters continue to ride on clear, warm winter days, and 20 percent on cold or snowy ones. Even in the midst of blizzards and Arctic cold blasts, you see intrepid cyclists navigating the streets on two wheels. It's one reason we were named America's No. 1 Bike City by Bicycling magazine last spring.

Now let me confess that I am no ultra-fit athlete; I'm just a regular middle-aged guy who likes to ride. So if I can do it here in the coldest big city in America, you probably can too. In fact, I've discovered over the past dozen years that winter biking is way easier than it looks. Actually, I can't think of any easier way to earn macho points without really pushing myself too hard.

Even here in Minneapolis, the streets are clear and the mercury hits the 20s many days throughout the winter. And when it's not, follow these common sense guidelines to stay safe and warm.

Get a Good Light.
I find that darkness, more than cold and ice, is the biggest challenge of year-round biking. Many North Americans and Europeans, even in warm climates, ride home from work in the dark and need the protection of both front and back lights.

Dress Warm.
Thick socks and good gloves are especially important, since the extremities get cold first. Add a face mask when you venture out in sub-zero temperatures.

Dress in Layers.
The great surprise about winter biking is that being too hot can be a problem as much as being too cold. You warm up quickly once you start pedaling, so make sure to wear wickable undershirts and long johns on long rides (I find silk the best to bead up the sweat, but others swear by synthetics). It's also handy to have outer garments that you can easily unbutton or unzip to let in some cool air.

Invest in Snow Tires:
This is the innovation that has sparked the winter biking boom. Studded tires give you good traction in the snow or slush. They help on sheer ice, too, but extra caution is warranted. (The only two serious spills I've had i happened when I was making a turn on an icy hill; both times I should have walked the bike up the hill.)

Lower Your Seat.

The best way to stop in a hurry is to plant your boots right on the pavement.

Travel Slower.
Use the same common sense that motorists should in winter conditions -- take it easy.

Pay Extra Attention to Cars.

Drivers are less likely to be looking for bikes in the cold weather. Also, you may be competing with them more often for the smooth spots in the center of the road. I stick more to off-road paths (which are well plowed here in Minneapolis) and less-traveled streets during the winter, and sometimes pull over to let a vehicle get past. It relieves anxiety for both of us.

Have Fun!

Biking in the winter is unexpectedly fun -- including all the smiles you get from people passing by, who seem genuinely tickled to see you on a bike.

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