30 days of Winter Biking

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I hate winter.

I can’t help it; I’ve never loved it, even though I’ve lived in MN my entire life. I don’t like cold, I have winter driving fears (my only auto accident was in the winter) and I worry about everyone I love and care about. In fact, winter driving conditions helped bring about conscious awareness that I have anxiety issues.

The winter of 2010-2011 was a snowy one. I was safely at home when we received at least 17 inches of snow December 10-11. I watched a Metro Transit bus get stuck at the intersection of 10th and Robert. It was stuck for several hours at that intersection, blocking 3 out of the 4 lanes of traffic. No one else was really driving that weekend, so it didn’t impede a lot of auto drivers. Yet I could see them from my downtown condo window and my anxiety grew and grew. 5 hours later, I finally gathered up some granola bars, apple sauce, chocolate, fresh fruit and small bags of chips, and brought it to the driver. A person who self-identified as homeless was also on the bus, mostly to keep the driver company. I handed over my snacks, complete with spoons and napkins to the both of them, as there was more than enough for 2 people to eat, even though I had no idea if the driver was alone on the bus. In fact, if I knew that, I wouldn’t have been quite so anxious. Both were extremely grateful for not only the food, but also that I was worried about the driver.

I later realized what triggered that level of increasing anxiety. I couldn’t physically help get a bus out of deep snow, and I couldn’t fix or control the situation. But I realized I still could do something. I did the only thing I could think of: see if I could help him with basic human needs. I found out the bus was warm and nearby restaurants (Keys Cafe, Black Sheep) had offered to let the driver use the restroom. I imagine that the passenger on the bus was actually very helpful, as the driver didn’t feel was abandoning his bus in the middle of an intersection, to use the bathroom!

I have a million other reasons why I hate winter, but having a multitude of anxiety issues tied to winter, and this particular story is one that is still relatively fresh in my mind. And it’s a symbolic reminder as to why, within the core of who I am, I cannot wait until winter is over and dread its arrival every year. I love spring SO much, for its color, warmth, for feeling renewed literally once a year. All the snow, ice, and anxiety melt away.

But this winter, something profound changed for me. I didn’t expect it at all, either.

A couple of years ago I heard about this micro-movement called “30 days of biking.” The April bike challenge was started in Minneapolis by Patrick Stephenson, and is now international movement with tens of thousands of people (I think) pledging to bike each day in April. Bike down your driveway if it’s cold, bike in a circle in your garage if it’s raining. But try to bike, even just a little, for each day in April! Last year was my first time joining in on the kickoff ride. I started at the Capitol with the St Paul riders (led by Saint Paul Bike Coalition) St Paul to Surly. We met up with the Minneapolis riders at the Marshall Ave Bridge, St Paul side. Over 600 of us rode to Surly together. I was beaming from ear to ear on that ride. And I’m not usually keen on group rides! I met a bunch of people that day who I consider my friends, and I got to meet Patrick (and hug him!!) for the first time in my life. He’s a hero to me.

Back to my original story. November and December were looming, and I was getting that familiar antsy unhappy feeling about losing daylight, temperatures dropping, leaves falling. I was already unhappy about biking; we had moved to the SE side of Saint Paul last year spring, and let’s just say it’s not particularly bike friendly over here. To get to work, I have to get through the McKnight and Lower Afton intersection, and I also have to cross Burns Ave at Highway 61. The Fish Hatchery Trail is closed at Warner Road/61 due to trail failure/erosion of the trail. That’s the next article I’ll be writing about. Stay tuned to those developments.

So we are first-time homeowners; we bought our home in April and moved in May. Biking in the spring is always lovely, but biking for transit in this area is so new to me. Previously, we lived downtown St Paul before (if you couldn’t have guessed from my snowstorm story before), and even though I’m very used to biking “long” distances, I’d never commuted to work this far (~14 miles round trip) and not from such a hilly part of the city. Our home is south of Battle Creek, within the Highwood Hills neighborhood. A previous streets.mn article captured my new-to-me neighborhood’s charm very well!

Since last May, I’d gotten used to the new commute but I didn’t like it much. I knew that getting the bike lane on Upper Afton was controversial, but I appreciate it SO much and every time I’m on it, I think of the bike advocates and community members who fought for this bike lane. Thank you, thank you!

So with winter looming, and me not liking my new commute, I was actually starting to regret moving to this part of St Paul. I thought we made a horrible decision, partly because I learned after we moved that we’re in a bit of a transit desert (I’m a transit advocate and I didn’t do proper homework in all of the rush and tension of buying our home during a low-supply-high-demand home sale period). The nearest bus stop is an express-only one, and does not work with my work schedule (or sleeping habits). The daytime buses run frequently, but the nearest bus stop is over a mile away.

November and December riding weren’t bad. I was (mostly) prepared for the cold weather. Riding conditions were actually quite nice, nicer than I anticipated. I was getting the hang of biking at night through Battle Creek neighborhoods and actually starting to enjoy it, but I was absolutely dreading January.

Emotionally, I’d been going through several other physical and emotional challenges lately, and with the idea of dreading winter biking (fear of getting hit, falling/breaking a bone, having a much slower commute time, etc.) I was really starting to question my emotional health and coping mechanisms. But true to my nature, I tried to come up with solutions to my own problems. After all, that’s what I’ve been doing for my day job for 15 years, and quite successfully I might add, and I’ve gotten through SO many other hardships in my personal life. So among many other changes I made to my life late December, I chose to take a personal pledge: I am going to have my own “30 days of winter biking” self-challenge. I called up my sister and mom and asked if they would consider joining me in this pledge. After all, they did the “regular” pledge with me last April for the first time and enjoyed it! They bike inside, I bike outside. They both agreed it would be good for them to do this now, when we all have a tendency to get fat and lazy!

Satisfied that I had a plan, I biked a few days before January 1, as I had taken the week off of work between Christmas and New Year’s, to get used to biking in the cold, and on snowy roads. I felt (mostly) ready, and I started January 1 with my 30 days of biking challenge with an open heart and mind. My original goal was “31 days of continuous biking” but we were out of town for a weekend and I couldn’t find a bike to borrow for 1 day, and I was NOT going to bring a bike with me (New York Mills, Minnesota) just to keep the biking streak going. It was my challenge, darn it! It’s okay if I change the goalposts!

So yes, mid-January, there was one day I didn’t bike. But there were 30 days that I did bike, and I’ve NEVER done anything like that before. Yes, it was cold, yes it was snowy, yes it was nearly 50 one day, yes it was miserable (to start with) and yes it was beautiful. I biked to the doctor, dentist, work, to Costco, to a happy hour, to the St Paul Super Slide at the Saints Ballpark, to Target, to pick up Chinese food take-out, to the liquor store, to a bike advocacy meeting with St. Paul Women on Bikes, to donate blood, to get my hair cut, to get a massage, to door-knock for a state representative candidate, to the pharmacist, to Candyland, to the Como Conservatory, and probably a few other places I can’t remember. I biked over 360 miles in those 30 days. If I averaged 12 miles per hour (I have an electric-assist bike and yes you can use them in the winter), then that means I biked for 30 hours. Outside. In the winter. In the cold, snow, ice, and beauty that is winter.

So I started off by saying I hate winter. I no longer do. Not only have I seen it in a way that I never did before, it helped me conquer my fear of winter biking. I love my new neighborhood and its beauty, and I appreciate the bike amenities that people fought for, so I can bike to work year-round (mostly) safely. I love seeing the kids at the bus stop, and bald eagles circling overhead and deer staring at me curiously.

I know that just like anything else in life, you may need to take your fears head-on and try to work through them the best you can. I did that, and I’m so grateful I did. I won’t get as many miles in February with a personal trip and a work trip planned, and I don’t feel the need to get the miles under my belt that I did in January. I do have a personal goal of an ambitious 3,000 miles for the year. Even though 90% of my bike trips are for commuting purposes, I’m planning several longer recreational rides SE, NE, even into WI to push myself further throughout the year.

My thanks go out to all of the other winter bicyclists out there. I see your tire tracks in the snow, you wave at me, and many of you have personally given me tips and suggestions on what clothing to wear, what pitfalls to avoid, and other ways that I can be successful. I am now “that person” giving helpful suggestions to other riders who may want to bike a bit more. They can see that I can do it, and maybe they can too. Because I’m not the “spandex-wearing, ride like Lance” rider, I’m just me, another person who uses their bike to commute to work, to shop, to live life. I have my fun teal e-bike with all of my blinky lights and Lumos helmet, and I treat my bike like my car: my tool to get around town.

I won’t ever say that I love winter. But I appreciate it a lot more now that I’ve spent so much time winter biking in January, and biking regularly before and since moving to our new neighborhood. Winter gave me a gift I never anticipated: being able to conquer my fear of winter biking. And we all know that when we’re able to overcome something that’s difficult, it’s nearly always worth it.

Winter: I appreciate you.

Melissa Wenzel

About Melissa Wenzel

Car-free bicycle advocate, passionate state employee, union leader. MN's "Industrial Stormwater Sherpa." Human being first, government employee second.