Low Kling signals a turn while commuting to work on a snowy Friday in January. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Shashank Kamdar loved the feeling of freedom. Monica Bryand was inspired to try it by a coworker. And Low Kling thought it looked fun. 

The three Twin Cities residents of color are among thousands of Minnesotans who ride bicycles as their primary means of transportation–and proud members of the bold subculture that pushes through all year round, even in the bitter cold. 

With COVID-19 restrictions and frigid weather curtailing many activities, winter biking is a great way to get outdoors and score some exercise at a time when it’s easy to feel cooped up. It also lowers your carbon footprint.

Getting started can be daunting, but it’s well worth it, riders say. 

Sahan Journal interviewed winter bike commuters of color to find out how they got started, why they do it, and what advice they have for others curious to try it.

Training wheels

Low Kling started biking as an adult. After moving to Minneapolis in the mid-2000s, Kling fell in with an active crowd of friends. Everyone else was riding, so Kling did too. After three years riding in the warmer months, they decided to go year round. 

The group held an informal conference where tips were exchanged on safety, layering, and equipment. 

“We just brought our bikes and talked it through,” Kling said. 

Now that session, the Annual Winter Skill Share and Gear Swap, is held every November with the group, called Grease Rag, a biking community open to women, transgender, and nonbinary people. Kling often leads the discussion. 

If you’re just starting out, Kling has some tips:

  1. Practice first. If you’re preparing to ride to work or school for the first time in the winter, test out your route on the weekend or a day off to get it down. 
  2. Layer up. Wear a sweat-wicking, athletic-type material, an insulating down layer, and a wind- and water-resistant shell on top. 
  3. Don’t forget to have fun. Riding a bike is a good time. 

While layering is important, there’s no need to overdo it, cautions Shashank Kamdar. Your body produces a lot of heat when it moves, and it’s normal to feel cold at first, as long as your hands and feet aren’t freezing. 

Layering is crucial in cold weather, but excessive bundling isn’t. The body produces its own heat during exercise. Properly clad, you’ll feel cold at first, but quickly warm up.

Two years ago, Kamdar, 27, decided to ride year-round to the University of Minnesota, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. After a couple of challenging winter days, he realized he needed new tires. With help from friends, he chose studded tires, which have dozens of metal studs lining the rubber, adding traction and preventing slipping on ice or snow. Many riders buy just one studded tire, typically placed on the front wheel, to prevent wipeouts. Kamdar has studs on both wheels. 

Studded tires help riders get more traction on slick winter roads. Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

His other prized piece of equipment is a set of Bar Mitts, built-in mittens that can be attached to bike handles. Those take all the cold away, Kamdar said. 

There are plenty of welcoming communities like Grease Rag happy to advise riders. Kamdar gets tips from Twin Cities Bicycle Trading Post, a large Facebook group where riders share updates on conditions and sell used gear. 

Having lights on the front and back of your bike is crucial for safety. While dedicated parkway trails are cleared in the Twin Cities, on-street bike lanes often vanish in winter months. That’s a source of frustration for many riders. On the street, close to vehicles, it’s crucial to make yourself visible.

Kling said they’d like to see Minneapolis develop a snow emergency plan for bikeable streets like it has for cars, so riders could expect a few key routes to be cleared quickly. 

‘It’s not all or nothing’ 

It’s never too late to start bike commuting in the winter, and there’s no need to do it every day. Monica Bryand, 60, began in her mid-40s, inspired by a colleague who was riding to work year-round. She started making the long pedal from her home on St. Paul’s West Side to downtown Minneapolis. The ride took about an hour each way, but she found she enjoyed it. 

Easing into winter riding, Bryand would do it about once a month. Early into her winter riding, she had a hard fall that turned her on to studded tires. But she kept going.

About eight years ago, Bryand bought a pedal-assisted electric bike, where a battery boosts your strokes along. She said she had resisted the idea for years, but is glad she switched. The electric bike saves her about 15 minutes each way. 

Last year, she added a game-changing piece of equipment: electric socks. The socks charge on a battery and warm the feet, which was always the part of her body that became the coldest on her long commute. 

Bryand’s advice for new riders? Think about time. Winter biking isn’t fast. Thinking you’ll fly around can lead to frustration. 

When it comes to gear, there’s no need to start with anything fancy or expensive. All three bicyclists recommend buying used equipment, and making investments as you go as needed or desired. Starting by riding once in a while is fine, and people shouldn’t pressure themselves to do it every day or to brave the harshest conditions. 

“It’s not all or nothing,” Bryand said. 

Winter bike commuting is a fun way to see your neighborhood and take in nature, like this squirrel darting in front of Low Kling on their ride to work. Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Why they ride 

Transportation is Minnesota’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2021 report by the state Pollution Control Agency. For many riders, the chance to reduce their carbon footprint plays a factor in their decision to bike. 

“What got me started was the environment. I wanted to be in my car less,” Bryand said. 

Kling and Kamdar said they aim to live in environmentally sustainable ways, but see that as a secondary benefit to biking for transportation. 

“I don’t bike every day to torture myself, I bike to feel good,” Kling said.

“I don’t bike every day to torture myself, I bike to feel good,” says Low Kling. 

When Kamdar arrived in Minneapolis four years ago from northwest India to study at the University of Minnesota, biking was the practical way to get around. He didn’t have a car and found a home near campus. Biking was a good way to get to know his new city. 

“The only thing is freedom. You can go anywhere,” he said. 

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...