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.