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Getting in Gear: Local Innovations--From Knobbies to Pogies to Rims--for Winter Biking

Freewheel's Winter Expo--Courtesy Freewheel

Fat tire demo--Courtesy Freewheel

Freewheel expo--Courtesy Freewheel

Trying on a 45NRTH product--Courtesy Freewheel

Surly at the Winter Exp--Courtesy Freewheel

Salsa at Expo--Courtesy Freewheel

After two days of sleet and snow, Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway looks like a wrong turn on “Ice Road Truckers.” Outside the Freewheel Midtown Bike Center, bundled-up fat-bike riders trace circular routes back and forth in front of the building, their barely visible eyes squinting with purpose into the gray air. A solitary soul, hardier than the rest, sails off a berm, plants smoothly on the snow-packed trail, and swishes gracefully around for another pass.

Inside the bike center, Freewheel’s Winter Bike Expo is in full swing. The café bustles with activity, and the adjacent retail space is thick with smartly dressed shoppers and jersey-wearing employees. Along the walls, bright-eyed reps from local manufacturers like 45NRTH, Borealis, and Hed show off their wares. If it can be ridden—or worn—through ice and snow, there’s a good chance it’s on display here.

Since the mid-2000s, Minnesota’s winter biking community has outgrown its competition-oriented niche, and expanded—with help from some homegrown manufacturers and retailers—to welcome laid-back students, middle-class suburbanites, and folks committed to sustainable living. Accessible events like the Fatbike Frozen 40 and the Penn Cycle Fat Tire Loppet now draw hundreds of participants, many of whom also ride casually throughout the year and don’t own thousands of dollars’ worth of specialized gear.

“It’s not that big of a deal to ride in the winter,” says Christopher Cross, parts and accessories buyer for The Hub Bike Co-op in Minneapolis. “If you can walk 10 blocks, you can do it.” The Hub is a worker-owned business in which every senior employee has an equal share. The Hub also has been pushing the boundaries of the winter biking scene for some time by catering to “people who ride bikes, not cyclists,” says Cross. “We support non-cyclists who have made the commitment to ride.”

Winter biking novices—those non-cyclists—can turn to Minneapolis-based Velolet for help. The rapidly expanding bike rental company, which offers year-round bike rentals throughout the U.S., works with a dozen local dealers that carry winter-friendly bike frames like Surly’s Pugsley and Salsa’s Mukluk. Velolet encourages riders to “try before they buy.”

“Although our traffic picks up in the southern states, we do get a [winter] drop off in Minnesota,” says co-founder Ethan Otterlei, “but riders who are looking to get into winter biking can test some awesome bikes out before making a commitment.” Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Nice Ride MN program usually ends in early November, leaving Velolet as one of the few private bike-sharing options available to winter riders.  

Local innovations for winter riders

The Twin Cities is the country’s coldest major metro and has become the nerve center of the winter biking scene in the U.S. With few exceptions, local all-weather riders rely on bikes, parts, and accessories made by metro-area manufacturers and designers. Bloomington-based Quality Bike Parts (QBP) owns and operates Surly and Salsa, two high-end bike and bike gear brands, and 45NRTH, a smaller marque that focuses specifically on cold weather apparel and gear.

Before 2005, folks who wanted to ride in the winter used jacked-up 29-inch mountain bikes or attached heavy metal studs to their wheels. Then came Surly’s pioneering Pugsley “fat bike.” Some budget-conscious riders continue to use modified road tires (“knobbies”) to cut through ice and snow.  But Ben Oliver, Surly’s in-house warranty specialist, credits the fat bike for winter biking’s newfound popularity.

The Surly designers’ key innovation with the Pugsley was a lightweight fat tire (with a 4-inch diameter and pressure of 10 psi or less) that didn’t require superhuman strength to keep straight. Thick, low-pressure tires stay true as they roll over icy obstacles and can power through drifts better than light, low-inertia wheels. 45NRTH also offers individual fat tires—which are compatible with bike frames from Surly and Salsa as well as non-QBP brands—at $150 a pop. Surly also designs bike frames at a range of price points, from the off-the-rack Pugsley (under $1500) to the heavier-duty Moonlander ($2500 or more).

Serious cyclists with generous budgets can also shell out $325 for 45NRTH’s NASA-designed, dual-layer boots that all but eliminate heat transfer. Vented, magnetic-locking helmets sell for around $400. Lobster gloves cost about as much as a nice pair of mittens and offer a similar amount of thermal protection. On the bitterest days, 45NRTH’s Cobrafist pogies ($125) wrap riders’ entire forearms in cozy bubbles of warm air.

In the Twin Cities metro, the other noteworthy equipment manufacturer is Shoreview-based Hed Cycling Products, which just got into the winter biking business after 30-plus years of building high-performance road and trail wheels. The company recently debuted a prototype rim with the working name of “Yo Mamma,” which may be rebranded as “Hed Zeppelin” after a dispute with the holder of an unrelated trademark. Production has just begun, and there’s not yet a firm retail price, but reviewers have raved about the rim’s light weight and sturdy construction, which allow the bike to “float” over snow-covered roads.

Gearing up for less

Novices needn’t be overwhelmed by talk of $7,000 frames and $400 helmets. Since 2010, the selection of off-the-rack bikes, tires, and accessories has exploded. To cut costs, riders slowly accumulate gear and apparel over several seasons. Aside from ski goggles and water-resistant footwear, standard-issue winter clothing is perfectly appropriate in all but the most extreme conditions.  

Newbies also shouldn’t worry too much about maintenance or DIY projects. Winter biking—especially on salt-slicked roads—is harder on bike frames and chains than road or mountain biking, but bikers who rinse their rides off in the shower (don’t tell the landlord!) after returning home can mitigate the problem. Using stainless steel chains and encased crankshafts can reduce wear on bikes’ most sensitive parts.

Ambitious riders who want to work in truly brutal conditions, though, should consider purchasing fixed-gear cycles or converting their existing rides with the help of an expert. The reason? Chain grease starts to freeze at 20 below.

Après le ride

Where can winter bikers go to warm up and socialize once they’re off the road? Freewheel’s Midtown Bike Center partnered with Dangerous Man Brewing Company to provide libations for the 2013 Winter Bike Expo. One on One Bicycle Studio’s cozy coffee shop serves up free trade grinds from B&W Coffee, and sells soups, breakfast sandwiches, and cookies, making it the perfect pit stop for commuters.

The Hub sponsors classes on winter riding techniques, cold-weather bike maintenance, and seasonal preparations. The Hub also lends space to Grease Rag, a community organization that, according to its website, was created “ to encourage and empower women/trans/femme (WTF) cyclists in a collaborative and fun learning environment through rides, discussions, shop nights and educational seminars.”

One on One also hosts, or partners with, some of the Twin Cities’ most fervent supporters of bike culture, including the Cars-R-Coffins zine and the annual Artcrank festival. The bike shop’s indoor “junkyard” might be the region’s most comprehensive resource for DIY enthusiasts and professional mechanics needing parts for older bikes.

If the growing crowds at The Hub and One on One—not to mention the annual Winter Bike Expo—are any indication, year-round biking has gone mainstream in the Twin Cities. From frugal undergrads seeking secondhand helmets and pogies, to health-conscious execs looking to spice up their commute with a sturdier ride, winter bikers are as diverse as the metro itself. And the burgeoning winter-biking scene wouldn’t be possible without the bike designers, entrepreneurs, co-ops, fests, expos, zines, and coffee shops that give the community its innovative edge and vitality.

Brian Martucci writes about entrepreneurship, culture, food, beer, and anything else that catches his fancy. When he's not researching a story or staring blankly at his writing desk, he's exploring the region's trails or sampling a new culinary (or liquid) creation -- which, happily, he can often write off as "research."

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