Not so tough? Year-round biking isn't only for the hardy, advocates say
You always want to assume that you're invisible.
That's a good safety reminder to be diligent and aware of cars when riding a bike, said Shawna Mullen.
She led the pack in a group ride early Friday from Leif Erickson Park to Minnesota Power Plaza as part of the International Winter Bike to Work Day. While she has a car, Mullen is a yearlong bike commuter in Duluth. She rides every day, and has for about three years.
"People think that anybody who bikes in winter is this hard-core cyclist, and it's this unattainable thing. But nobody really wakes up and starts biking every single day," she said.
Friday's ride was part of Zeitgeist's Winter Bike Week, which started on Feb. 3 and ends today with a group ride, food and a Ben Weaver concert. The week's events ranged from a Twin Ports Bikeways Q&A, a people-for-bikes meetup and a Winter Bike Commuting 101 class at the Duluth Folk School, which Mullen instructed.
She is the active transportation coordinator at Zeitgeist Center for Arts and Community — and she's on the board of the Duluth Bike Coalition and the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota.
The way we build our communities influences our daily activities, she said. With public health funding, Mullen works on biking and walking initiatives, as well as education, from which she draws personal experience.
"Shawna knows what she's doing," said Bryan French, co-founder and director of the Duluth Folk School. "She has experienced the full gamut of what it means to ride in wonderful conditions and in less-than-ideal conditions. And she's a great role model."
During class at the folk school, Mullen said it's important to be in the lane of vision, especially during winter. There's snow buildup in bike lanes, there can be debris or broken glass on the side of the road. There's also "the door zone," so you should be a minimum of 4 feet away from parked cars.
Starr Brainard of Superior said she goes through spurts of being a "good cyclist." She came to class to learn more about year-round commuting. "I want to build up the confidence, but I'm nervous about the weather, the hills and the bridge."
"That first winter was pretty rough and miserable," Mullen said. It took some time to figure out what worked best, and she suggested making the change gradually.
Mullen had ridden to work a couple times a month. She started riding short distances to destinations where there wasn't a time constraint. She also figured out her equipment needs through trial and error. "It's not an all-or-nothing thing. Start where you're at and build up to what you want to do," she said.
Kyle Severson of Duluth came to class because he's a year-round runner and wanted to extend that to biking. Severson said he has a simple road bike, and getting a new mountain bike is at the top of his list.
A common misconception for yearlong riding is that you need expensive gear, Mullen said. "Any bike will do," she said, adding that she uses a commuter model. She also wears $3 windbreaker pants she got from a thrift store. And: "Knit scarves work better than an expensive balaclava."
To keep your feet warm, she recommends boots with a rubber toe, and there's always the "plastic bag trick": wrapping it around your sock before putting on shoes. It's all about blocking the wind, she said.
Duluth's hills are a common deterrent to biking. Walk your bike when you need to, and Mullen assured that it didn't take long for her to see a difference. "In a week, I noticed that I could pedal up the hill higher and higher each day."
Other tips: Use the bus one way and ride back, or park and lock your bike and pick it up later. "Biking and walking is accessible to most people, and helping people realize that is a goal."
Mullen discussed bike law and traffic principles, adding that some drivers are unaware biking on the road is legal. While she hasn't experienced a ton of hostility, she is honked at up to six times a year, and she has been yelled at by drivers.
She chalks that up to lack of knowledge about bike rights. To the class, she suggested thinking about how to respond in those situations.
"If someone lays on the horn, I automatically think 'license plate number.'" Later, she'll call that in to police, which can lead to a phone call to the driver, she said.
"They're probably not going to ticket them, but if you're aggressively driving, that's against the law, and it's more educational, ... to let them know that we have a legal right to be on the road."
Riding with confidence also is successful in drivers respecting your space, she said. Sharing what she's learned is a driving force to her work, as well as spreading the wellness benefits.
"I'm healthier now than I've ever been," said the 33-year-old. "I don't work out, I don't train, but I can manage to do some of those things that I never thought I could do."
Also with biking and walking comes a sense of community, and you have a chance to interact with the people in your neighborhood and harness a sense of connection.
Mullen's year-round commuting doesn't keep her from interests that call for more space; she created a way to mount her paddleboard onto her bike, she said.
Among her favorite parts of biking are sharing moments with her 7-year-old daughter, Mackenzie.
"Being able to have really cool conversations with her because we're outside," she said, "and we're hearing birds and we're smelling things, and we're right next to each other."If you go
What: Winter Bike Week’s Ride with Wolves concert featuring Ben Weaver
When: 10 a.m. to noon
Where: Group ride begins and ends outside Two Harbors at Lake County Ferguson Demonstration Forest parking lot off the Drummond Grade.
Cost: $25, includes foodRide smart: be visible and predictable
- Drive your bike, be predictable and position yourself well in the lane
- Be visible with lights and reflective gear
- Wear a helmet
- ABC quick check: air; brakes; chains, cassette, cranks
- Start in the fall and build up to winter biking
- You learn where those temperature changes happen
- Start in milder conditions
- Start going a short distance, where it doesn’t matter if you’re late (take baby steps). It’s a lot of trial and error.