The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway: Embracing Winter Biking

In 2020, I turned away from my car and became a bike commuter. In 2021, I’m tackling my first winter as a biker, and I’m doing it by riding every day in January.

Flurries whistle past me, only a cotton mask standing between my face and the biting wind.  Through the blowing snow I take in the string lights twinkling along the street, illuminating the path home.  My fingers and toes are frigid, the closest to complete numbness I’ve ever felt.  Yet on the verge of my extremities freezing, I’ve never felt so warm and free, so alive.

Bike on a snow-covered path surrounded by trees. Source: Author

In these times, perhaps one of the biggest escapes a person can get comes on the seat of a bike.  That’s certainly been the case for me.  In the spring of 2020 I rediscovered the joy of life behind handlebars.  Spurred by this joy, my commitment to fighting climate change, and connections with many in the Twin Cities bike community, I began a journey into bike commuting.  A few uncertainties accompanied my determination.  Seeing cycling as a space dominated by white men, was there a safe place for me?  Would I physically and mentally be able to hold my own out on the street?  I knew nothing about gear or bike parts; was I equipped with what I needed?  I had only lived in Minneapolis for a little under a year; would I get lost?  Would I find my way?

After a couple months, the answer to all those questions was yes.  Whenever I was unsure, I felt like I had a village behind me to fill in the gaps, consisting of fellow bike lovers and the kind folks at the neighborhood bike shop who always took time to answer my many questions.  I memorized maps, added accessories, traded stories, and sought advice.  Very soon I found my two wheels carrying me wherever I desired to go, a new layer of confidence cloaking me every time I started pedaling.  Living alone during a pandemic, these were the times when the sense of isolation left my headspace.  In the confines of a car, the city feels removed, vaguely familiar but more of an acquaintance than a friend.  On the bike I felt like I was meeting Minneapolis for the first time: making music with the pavement, waltzing with the river, letting the trails and boulevards sweep me off to both planned and impromptu destinations.  Among the trees and passersby, I was never alone.  I became part of the city, and with every breath it became part of me.

Bike in front of a pastel pink and orange sunset next to St. Anthony Parkway. Source: Author

With the power and courage to pedal absolutely anywhere secured in my bones, one word lurked at the back of my mind: winter.  It’s one thing to get around when paths are pristine and dry, but what about when they’re coated in slippery ice and snow for much of the year?  I knew I was certainly going to try; my goal after all was to be a year-round biker.  But I was filled with dread anticipating spills and falls, rage at poorly-maintained infrastructure, and limited mobility in a season I adore.  Just when I was ready to despair and give up, the community swooped in again.  A few days before the new year, I saw 31 Days of Winter Biking circulating on Twitter.  Started by St. Paul cyclist Melissa Wenzel and inspired by the global 30 Days of Biking movement, it is an initiative to bike for any amount of time or distance over 31 days during the winter.  Seeing the joy and excitement surrounding the occasion melted my worries away (no pun intended).  I decided that starting on New Year’s Day, I was going to bike every day in the month of January, empowered by the fact that I wouldn’t have to do it alone.

A little over halfway through my 31 days, I have a newfound appreciation for what winter cycling offers.  I feel that I can take it slow and bike for the time and distance I’m comfortable with, pushing myself a little further at times but ensuring I feel safe.  This self-awareness seems like an important lesson to carry to other aspects of life, in recognizing that it’s okay for us to learn and move at our own pace.  There is so little pressure; I can simply enjoy and experience my cherished bike time as I please, and others support me in my effort.  On days when I might otherwise never leave my apartment, committing to biking every day has given me the opportunity to get outside and breathe in fresh air.  The atmosphere in winter carries a certain crispness, and something about the chill never fails to rejuvenate me.  I admit that I’ve felt sluggish and tired recently, with little sunlight and a whole mess of things going on in the world, but pedaling around the block for just five minutes is restorative and even healing, enough to get me through the day.

Selfie of me during my ride on January 1st in front of a frozen Mississippi River. Smiling with my eyes under a face covering and giving a thumbs-up with a mittened hand. Source: Author

Biking every day in the cold hasn’t been without its challenges, of course.  Early on, I felt so frustrated that I nearly cried a few times.  After getting to the point last summer where I was confident enough to go anywhere, it almost seemed like I was starting over, subject to the whims of the weather and no longer in control of where I could go.  I’ve learned how to handle those winter conditions, but even recently I’ve felt angry when encountering impatient drivers or ice that renders trails unusable.  Sometimes it seems like nobody cares about your safety or mobility in winter if you don’t get around by car.  Whenever I feel this way, I think of all the folks I know who tirelessly advocate for equitable transportation infrastructure, the ones who continue to care and fight every day so people can get around safely year-round.  If nothing else, 31 Days of Winter Biking has instilled empathy in me.  Thinking back to how my former car-centric lifestyle cut me off from the city’s vibrancy, it also removed me from its struggles.  Within metal walls I was blind to how clear roads for cars didn’t mean clear paths for everyone, how while I was able to get around easily in all seasons, many cannot.  I had begun advocating for accessibility but didn’t actually feel what it means until I was forced to encounter its opposite.  The experience has only strengthened my resolve in making streets work for people.  No matter how lengthy or difficult our battles, it is absolutely necessary that we ensure safety, health, and equity in our transportation systems.

Hockey stick tethered to bike–ultimate Minnesota! Source: Author

Some winter biking moments are too pure or profound to be forgotten.  I’ll always remember the little jolt of excitement in my chest when I tethered my hockey stick to my bike and rode it to the park for the first time.  The image of a gorgeous pink sunset at the top of St. Anthony Parkway after days of constant fog will remain embedded in my memory.  Most of all, I’ll recall how in the frosty breeze of January I had the opportunity to meet my city all over again.  Powdered in snow and frozen in crystalline ice, Minneapolis was new to me, a unique personality revealing itself on the very streets I had come to know so well.  There is love and adventure to be found atop two wheels in the wintry north, and I hope you have the chance to hop on your bike this season and discover it. 

25 thoughts on “The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway: Embracing Winter Biking

  1. Bill Mantis

    A quick note of caution: I slid on a patch of ice a couple of winters ago, flew over my handlebars, and spent the afternoon in an urgent care clinic with a broken collarbone. I still ride in winters, but only when and where I can be sure I won’t encounter another ice patch.

    1. Emilie WilleEmilie Wille Post author

      Wow, that sounds scary! A big challenge for me has been assessing ice patches and deciding when I just need to hop off and walk it

  2. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    Moderator’s note: Hi Tom. Our organization long ago made a commitment to openly discuss race, gender and other structural inequalities in our articles and in the comment section. I would urge you to be open to thinking critically about these things and to not be defensive when people raise questions about how gender or race play roles in public space, cities, or with specific communities like cycling.

    It’s a big topic but please keep and open mind, try not to derail a conversation (this one is about the weather, for example), and approach statements like this with a spirit of learning and listening. I don’t think the author is alone in having the reaction she does when faced with US bicycling culture. There are literally thousands of articles about the topic, and gender equity in the cycling community been a problem since bicycles were invented.

    To others reading this: please let’s not turn this into a big poisonous tangent, relative to an article that is about the joy of riding a bicycle in the wintertime.

    1. Rob

      If you want to have an open and honest discussion, you shouldn’t so glibbly dismiss Tom’s feelings. I’m slightly offended by the article, Emilie could have voiced concerns about being a woman without being negative to men. I am more offended by your response to Tom.

      1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

        Apologies for coming off glib. My intention was to be calming and serious. Conversations about social power structures require people to be able to discuss difficult criticism without becoming defensive. Honestly, if you’re offended by my response, maybe this website is not the right place for you to weigh in.

        And in this case, I don’t really want to have an long conversation about bicycling, race, and gender in a comment thread about winter bicycling. That’s another conversation altogether.

        1. Melissa Wenzel

          The author did go on to say “yes” there is a safe place for her. Please let the author vulnerably share her fears, thoughts and concerns. And please know that many others have them too.

          You being offended by her comment doesn’t change the fact that she had those fears in the first place. Be offended, if you must, but also do this: consider long and hard what it took for Emilie to write that. Not only did she FEEL it, she chose to take a risk to SHARE IT in this public forum.

          Lastly, you don’t get to change her fears, not until/unless you start to change how and why others feel they way they do about white men dominating the biking community. Hint: this may mean changing the behavior of white men.

          1. Emilie WilleEmilie Wille

            Hi all, I appreciate the responses and contextualization efforts. I’ll chime in here with my own perspective.

            Tom and Rob, can you please tell me where in my writing I was negative and/or degrading to white men? I believe I simply acknowledged their large presence and existence in this community, which is factually true. Simply acknowledging a presence is not inherently insulting a group of people. If you came to a cultural event for my people, or a space mostly geared towards women, I assume you would also initially wonder if you belong in that space. You would likely feel different from everyone else there because of your identity. Does that feeling of questioning your place or acknowledging your differing identity automatically mean you have ill feelings towards that group of people? I think that’s an important question to think about.

          2. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

            Thanks for weighing in Melissa. I’d just encourage folks to close the discussion on this and re-focus on Emilie’s original post, if possible.

  3. Melissa Wenzel

    Our local Transit Management Organization at the time (~2013-2015?), Saint Paul Smart Trips formed the organization “St Paul Women on Bikes” because they listened to the community members who said that biking doesn’t feel safe for people who identify as women and families. The theory is that if women and families feel safe, everyone would feel safe biking around Saint Paul. As a year-round cyclist who started to bike year-round when I lived downtown Saint Paul, I didn’t quite understand the concerns from others on safety. But my world that I biked to was quite small, and without kids or a family (outside of my partner who doesn’t bike), I realized that my perspective is just that: mine. I learned so much more about other people’s perspectives, my own close calls, especially when I moved to SE Saint Paul. Biking across highway 61, biking on or across Kellogg Blvd, and to suburbs of Saint Paul south and east of Saint Paul. Everyone’s perspective is different and I’m trying to listen to other people’s perspectives especially while sharing my own.

    Emilie, thanks for the shout-out about the “31 days of winter biking” reference! What was a silly idea 4 years ago has become an important part of my life. I did it 31 days consecutively last year. A pulled muscle in my back earlier this month prevented me from biking 31 days this winter consecutively. Which might be a shame for how mild this winter is. But I tell others: “it’s a judgement free opportunity!” And I learned I was guilting/judging myself for not biking every day. I stopped judging myself, haven’t necessarily biked every day, and am still having fun and enjoying the ride.

    ~Melissa

    1. Emilie WilleEmilie Wille Post author

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and for creating this! In my first winter it’s really helped me practice and form a habit. And it’s probably the most judgement-free initiative I’ve ever taken part in. I hope your back is feeling better, keep riding and enjoying!

  4. Dan MarshallDan Marshall

    Thank you so much for this! Biking in winter is a truly different experience than in warmer months. Cold, yes, sometimes treacherous, but somehow magical and transcendent nonetheless. Quiet forests, iced waterfalls, and frozen lakes are all things I never would have experienced without my studded tires and warm mittens. I also credit Melissa Wenzel and #31DaysOfWinterBiking for motivating me even on the coldest days. Our local bike community is pretty great and I hope we can all be as welcoming and encouraging to everyone who hasn’t tried riding through snow and ice as you are in this article.

    1. Emilie WilleEmilie Wille Post author

      So much beauty to be found, I agree! I still need to make it to the waterfalls. I love the shared experience and credit so much of my positive experience to these folks who have always helped out and shared their knowledge from many seasons out on the ice

  5. Zack

    This is such a beautiful piece and you’ve done such an eloquent job expressing many of my own feelings about winter biking. I’m currently at 118 days riding in a row and counting!

  6. James

    I just saw this excellent video, also posted on Jan 25th, on why some cities see more winter cyclists than others (spoiler alert – it’s the infrastructure, not the cold). I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone who rides in winter, but the presentation is excellent! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uhx-26GfCBU

    1. Emilie WilleEmilie Wille Post author

      Truly a great example of how we can improve bike infrastructure for resilience to inclement winter weather

  7. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    Hockey stick tether is an awesome hack. I always wanted to figure out a way to get my XX skiis attached to my bike top tube, but never figured it out.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

      Have you considered one of those PVC-tube hacks for cross-country skis? Like attaching it upright and sticking the skis in? I’ve seen photos on the internet but nothing in-depth about how it’d work.

  8. Mandy

    You should check out some studded tires for winter riding! Gives just a bit of help when you hit those icy spots!

  9. Ian R Buck

    Learning to bike through the winter is one of the most liberating experiences I have ever had! Glad you joined us for #31daysofwinterbiking, it’s been great to get to know you through that event!

    1. Melissa Wenzel

      Cheers to winter cyclists around the Twin Cities and around the world! Thank you for being you! (all of you!)

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