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Bizarro Biking Is Catching On in Colder Climes

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Associated Press Writer

On the most frigid winter nights, they are a startling sight.

Out of the darkness they appear: the flicker of a bicycle’s back reflector as the rider cruises over icy streets and past the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Winter bikers -- and the clubs and websites devoted to them -- are springing up all over, from Minneapolis to Milwaukee, from Alaska and Illinois to Sweden and even Russia. Some are in it for the workout, some because they want to live in a world with fewer automobiles and less consumption of fossil fuels.

“It’s a way to get some exercise, and it’s a way to see the outdoors in winter -- which can get difficult here,” said Malcolm McEwen, who lives and works in Fairbanks, Alaska. McEwen bikes the five-mile round trip to work two or three days a week all year round, often riding over dog-sledding trails when the temperature plunges to 20 degrees below zero.

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On a website heralding winter cycling in Moscow, Grisha Strasnij says winters are perfect for ice-biking and downhill racing because “the ice adds new challenges and requires new skills.”

To fully understand the phenomenon, I decided to try it for myself. I’ve lived in Minnesota the majority of my life, but never had I steered a bicycle across ice-covered streets. I viewed those who did as at least a little insane.

Until I gained a fresh perspective.

“It’s a whole lot more enjoyable than driving or taking the bus,” said Pete Saunders, who’s been crunching through the snow for five years. “I’ve got two hours a day where I’m having fun rather than fighting traffic.”

Saunders, like many winter bikers, owns a car and drives it to work occasionally -- if the weather is particularly bad or there are errands to run. Typically, though, he bikes 28 miles a day between his home in suburban Eagan and his downtown Minneapolis office -- despite several days-long stretches of subzero wind chills.

Sarah Kaplan, 26, on the other hand, doesn’t own a car and hates driving. She uses her bike for work, delivering magazines one day a week on a 20-mile route through some of Chicago’s busiest streets. “Parking is a hassle I don’t want. Cars are terrible for the city -- they stink, they’re dangerous, they take up space.”

Kaplan, an organizer of the Chicago Bike Winter social group, said there were noticeably more new participants every year, and growing interest had spawned new chapters in Milwaukee; Madison, Wis.; and Ann Arbor, Mich.

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To prepare for the streets of Minneapolis, I asked several bikers for tips on how to dress and other precautions to take.

Kevin MacAfee, 50, who bikes a 28-mile round trip three days a week on average, advised that knobby tires were “essential” in case of icy patches. Wear a helmet, warned Peter Church, a government worker who doesn’t own a car. Sascha Bates prescribed ski goggles and dressing in layers.

It was 4 degrees above on the December morning I chose for the 4-mile ride to my downtown office. In the Bizarro world of Minnesota winter parlance, this had been forecast as a “heat wave” by a TV meteorologist after several days of subzero weather.

I felt like a Navy SEAL suiting up for a mission. Dri-fit long underwear (to help sweat evaporate off my body). One more layer on my legs and three more on top. Two calf-length pairs of wool socks. Black ski-mask covering my entire head. Goggles and helmet. Two pairs of gloves.

The goal was enough gear to ensure that not a centimeter of bare skin would be exposed. I knew I’d look ridiculous, but I also knew that subzero wind chills can be deadly in minutes.

The first few blocks on my 7-year-old mountain bike were a breeze. The tires gripped the slushy streets nicely, and -- although the chilly air penetrated the layers -- my pumping legs generated enough warmth to make it tolerable.

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I even started to feel a little cocky. Coasting across a bridge, I saw multiple lanes of stop-and-go traffic. “Enjoy your gas guzzlers, suckers!” I thought.

A few blocks later my feet were cold. I noticed how my heavy panting inside the face mask was condensing into a chilly mush around my mouth. And how the sweat evaporating off my back made it feel as if I were standing with my rear to an open refrigerator.

In another few blocks, my no-fog goggles started to fog. My feet felt as if I’d soaked them in ice water, and my fingers weren’t far behind.

But with the pain came a feeling of hard-won confidence, and it propelled me as my destination grew closer. I started to think, “This really isn’t that bad.”

The last few blocks, I really hit my stride, and by the time I got to the office I wanted to keep riding. It’s a feeling, I discovered, that’s common to many winter bikers.

“It makes me feel like a stud -- it really does,” Bates said.

One of the most exciting things for Bates, and many winter bikers, is discovering like-minded people.

“It’s really a lifestyle choice,” she said. “And when it becomes that, you start meeting other people who have made the same choice, and it gets reinforced.”

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Those passionate about biking said it started to affect decisions in other parts of their lives. Bates, who works for a retail chain, decided not to pursue promising job leads because the potential workplaces were not within reasonable biking distance.

I felt like a part of the fraternity as I climbed off the bike outside the office. Awaiting me was a change of clothes -- planning ahead was another tip from several bikers, including Saunders, who often showers at a YMCA near his office.

A few bikers asked if I’d ever do it again. I had an excuse ready: As a reporter, I never know when I might need my car at work.

But something Bates said rang true, and it made me think that maybe I would take the bike for a few more spins this winter.

“When people wonder about it, or say that I’m crazy for doing it, I just tell them it’s really not that hard,” she said. “The hardest part is the mental adjustment. Once you get past that, it’s pretty easy -- you’ve got to believe that you can, or you won’t ever do it.”

Next time, though, I’ll wear three pairs of socks.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Cold-weather cycling tips

Some tips for riding your bicycle in the winter:

* Any bike can be ridden in winter, but a mountain bike or bicycle with studded tires helps with traction. Some bikers add fenders to block flying winter sludge and snow buildup on tires.

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* It gets dark earlier and visibility can be bad even in daytime, so lights front and back are a must. Most states require them year-round after dark anyway.

* Skip the heavy, padded clothing. Use lighter layers, but don’t overdo it; a little chill when you start out is just right. You’ll warm up.

* Avoid moisture-absorbing fabrics like cotton, especially for the layer closest to the skin; try the so-called “wicking” fabrics that move sweat away from the skin.

* The top layers should have Gore-Tex or other material that keeps out water and wind.

* Hands and feet are most likely to get cold. Several pairs of gloves and socks are a good idea; so are shoes or boots that are warm without being clumsy.

* In extreme cold, leave no skin exposed. That means a ski mask and goggles. A helmet is a must; wipeouts are even more likely on wintry streets.

Source: Associated Press

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