Winter’s Here (Let’s Roll)

The season’s first wave of seriously cold weather is upon us.   Highs will struggle to break freezing by the weekend.  There will be wind, of course, down from Alberta and Saskatchewan.  There is always wind in this part of Iowa.  Yesterday morning it was blowing steadily at 20 mph with gusts to 30.    The wind chill was in the teens.   Sounds bad, I know, but it really wasn’t.  Honest.

Winter cycling is magic in so many ways.

This will be my fifth winter on the bike.   The first year, I’d just venture out when the weather was somewhat tolerable.  I didn’t do snow at first.  I also didn’t realize what I was getting into or just how addictive it was.

The second winter is really when everything changed.  We were still in Indiana and I distinctly remember riding down a lighted side path in a howling blizzard.  A minivan passed on the adjacent street.  In the back were two young boys with their faces glued to the window.  They were looking at me with jaws agape and there was no doubt what they were thinking.   It wasn’t the same thing their mother up front was thinking, that’s for sure.

As I rode on, it occurred to me that, yes, this really was as cool as those boys thought it was and so I found myself cycling more and more, no matter the weather.   People ski, I rationalized.  This wasn’t much different than that.  I rode eight miles on the coldest day of the year, a day when the ambient temperature was -15° F.  It didn’t kill me.  Instead, it offered me a glimpse of what I was capable of.  I liked the way it made me feel.

There are two primary challenges to winter cycling in these parts.  One is staying warm.  The other is staying upright.   Staying warm has gotten a lot easier.  Modern synthetics, from Gore to Polarfleece, are pretty amazing.  There aren’t too many days when I’m uncomfortable for more than a few minutes.

Head, fingers and toes are the only real challenges.  I use bar mitts on my fat bike and Craft lobster claw gloves from Sweden on everything else.  I change over to platform pedals which accommodate a pair of Solomon boots on my feet.  Those boots are good to minus thirty, and so ever since I made that change my feet are never cold.  As far as my head goes, I wear beanies under my helmet.  I have one from Outdoor Research with a Goretex band around the ears that’s really nice and I recently picked up a Polarfleece beanie from Duluth Trading that has become my new favorite.   It’s part of their Alaskan Hardgear line.  On really dangerous days, I slip a Goretex balaclava under the beanie.

This is the best beanie I’ve ever warn. It completely covers my ears and the Polarfleece keeps me warm.

It took me a while to get the apparel part of the equation right.   Layers are important and finding the right mix requires experimentation.  What works for me might not work for you.  One thing to be aware of though is that cotton is the enemy in the winter.  You don’t want to wear cotton.  It will absorb moisture and make you very uncomfortable.  In the perfect storm, it could cause serious hardship.

Staying upright is always a concern whenever the temperature dips below freezing, but if you haven’t tried it you might be surprised to discover that it’s not as big of a deal as it seems going in.  Like anything else, the more you ride on snow and ice the easier it gets.   You’ll learn to recognize different types of conditions and adjust for them.  I still fall from time to time, but not often and mostly when I get a little sloppy and lazy.  I’ve never hurt myself and so it’s not something that I worry too much about.

I have several winter bikes that I alternate between depending on conditions.  My go to bike is my Salsa Fargo with 29″x 2.25″ knobby mountain bike tires.   When the snow’s a little deeper, I ride my Surly Wednesday fat bike.

I’ve cycled in the winter in states as different and unique as Utah and Indiana.   These days, most of my riding is done near our Iowa home in rural areas where there’s little or no salt.  If I was to ride in the city, I’d get an old 26″ hardtail mountain bike and make it my winter runner.   If it was flat where I lived, I’d seriously consider something I could convert to single speed.  Road salt and other chemicals are a toxic brew that will eat derailleurs and other add ons pretty quickly if  you don’t rinse your bike off after every grimy ride.  Simpler is generally better.

Fat bikes = fun.

On the dangerously cold days (which I define as days where the temp is below zero and the wind chill is -30° or lower), I tend to ride closer to home.  Instead of an out and back course, I might do a loop where I’m never further than a few miles from  my front door.  If I need or want more miles, I might ride the loop twice.   I also pay attention to the wind and try to ride out into it so that I have it at my back on the way home.  Nothing is worse than working up a sweat only to turn around and have the wind hitting you in the face for ten or fifteen miles.

Speaking of miles, I cycle fewer in the winter…on average about half what I do the rest of the year.   That said, I’ve gone as long as 40 miles on days where the temperature never got out of the twenties.

It’s not some macho thing with me to ride in cold weather. I do it because I genuinely like the way it makes me feel.  Riding a bicycle is important to me, regardless of the weather.  That said, there is a certain sense of accomplishment that comes with heading out into inhospitable conditions and making it back home.  It’s more about knowing that I can adapt and survive than it is one of “conquering” nature or anything else.

So if you’ve thought about doing this, I hope that this is the year you will give it a try.  Cycling in cold weather can be magical.   It’s really a shame that more people don’t do it.

 

 

The Quiet Season

They’re all gone…the summer cyclists decked out in full kit and pedaling as if the peloton is back there about to reel them in.  Their handlebar boom boxes are no longer booming.   Their bikes are hanging from the rafters in the garage again, or wherever they put them, not to be used again until spring.  Where they’ve gone I do not know.

Evening fog rolling in…Raccoon River Valley Trail.

I ran into a couple of pheasant hunters on the trail this past weekend.  They were friendly.  Their dogs were well behaved.   It doesn’t bother me to see shotguns on the trail.  In some ways, I find these guys preferable to the Tour de France crowd.   They’re quiet and humble and focused on the task at hand.  They don’t litter.  They, too, are dressed in bright colors but for completely different reasons.

I’ve found myself struggling a bit this year to adjust to the cold.  I’m not quite ready for it, maybe because I know what lies ahead.  It’s not really going to warm up again in any sustained way until April.  Last year was our first in Iowa and I naively believed that by the first of March or so that Spring would arrive.  Maybe it did, but it was nothing like the Spring they get a little further south.

Since starting a new job, I’ve also been riding in the early morning dark most days.  That will change a little with the switch to standard time this weekend.  I’ll have a little more light, for awhile at least.  It’s been amazing to see just how much daylight I’ve lost since I started doing this three weeks ago.  This won’t change for another 50 days or so.  Then we’ll turn the corner and head back towards the sun.

It’s quiet on the trail these days and I can’t help but juxtapose it against the rest of life.  Those missing boom boxes are no small thing.  Our culture values the busy and the noisy.  We receive powerful, non-stop, external messages (mostly from people who wish to sell us something)  that tell us we must be on 24/7/365  and too many of us mindlessly play along by cramming our lives full of meaningless detritus and then we wonder why we are stressed and anxious.  When we find ourselves alone in the quiet with nothing to do, our natural state,  it’s very uncomfortable.

It isn’t that hard to deconstruct this.  Seek quiet and see how it impacts you.  Yes, I know, it is an act of defiance to consciously choose to opt out and to reject this way of living.   There are social costs that have to be paid, without a doubt, but as with most costs there’s also a return on investment.  Is it worth it?  I think so.

One of the things that cycling has taught me is to value quiet time.  When you learn how to be still, mentally and emotionally, everything changes.  It’s all very clear and makes perfect sense when you ride a bicycle through the wilds of middle America, in November, by yourself.

 

 

Sioux Falls in the Snow

Jan and I headed up to Sioux Falls the weekend before last.  I had planned to ride the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile gravel grinder through the wilds of eastern Nebraska, but a confluence of events had caused me to reconsider.

First, I’d started a new job the week before and was in Dallas right up until the day before the event.  I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to get to Nebraska in time to start.  Second, weeks of heavy rain had turned the roads in these parts into a quagmire.  I decided to bail on the event before I left for Dallas and it turned out to be the right decision.  Nobody finished.  The two guys who made it the furthest covered around 90 miles in 14 hours.  It hurts just to think about it.

Downtown Sioux Falls. Sasquatch is a local hero. I like that.
The twenty mile bike loop makes it easy to get anywhere in Sioux Falls by bicycle.
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny…not.
But I ride on because that’s what I do.
I am rewarded for my troubles. Just beautiful.

So we headed up to Sioux Falls instead to explore a little corner of the country I’ve passed through many times but never paused to check out.  For those who don’t know, Sioux Falls is the largest city in South Dakota with a population of around 175,000.   It’s located in the far southeastern corner of the state, not far from the point where South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota come together.

Named for the waterfalls on the Big Sioux River in the heart of town, it’s a delightful little city.  Downtown was vibrant and fun and they have a trail network that forms a 20+ mile loop around town.

We stopped into Two Wheeler Dealer, the local Surly/Kona bike shop and learned a little about the local cycling scene.  People here are friendly and helpful as can be.  Just about any place in town is accessible by bicycle, and bike racks are a common sight.

We also discovered that motorists here are probably the most mellow and cautious of anywhere we’ve ever been.  Nobody’s in a hurry.  They typically come to complete stops (and sit, and sit, and sit) at stop signs.  This is pretty typical in this part of the world, but if anything it seemed even more pronounced here.

Climate is a little drier than the Twin Cities and north central Iowa, which means that temperature fluctuations are a little more extreme.  The highs are higher and the lows are lower.  This is exactly what happened during our stay.  Saturday was delightful with lazy sunshine and highs pushing 70 degrees.  We rode in shorts.  A cold front passed through late Saturday night and we woke to three fresh inches of snow on Sunday morning.  It was snowing hard, so even though the sun wasn’t up yet, I headed out figuring it was only going to get worse before it got better.  It wasn’t a big thing except for the fact that I’d brought the wrong pair of gloves with me.

Sioux Falls is decidedly Midwestern, but in many ways it felt more like a Rocky Mountain town to me.  There’s a little bit of Boise here.  The vibe was more laid back than is typical in the heartland.   The local river runs fast and clear.  There were restaurants with rooftop decks and mountain gear stores.   If you looked towards the horizon and squinted, you could almost see the peaks.

The falls up close. 
The big picture from the city run observation tower. It’s free.
Most places wouldn’t allow you out on the rocks. I like this…a lot.

On a scale of one-to-five, I’d rate Sioux Falls a solid four in terms of cycling experience.  There’s not much to dislike here, though I suspect that winters are pretty brutal.  Snowfall totals vary widely, with a recent low of 15 inches in the winter of 2011-2012 versus a recent high of 69 inches just three years later.    I don’t know if they plow the trails like they do in Minneapolis.   The average January low is a bone chilling +7°F.  December is +10° and February is +12°.  That’s three long months hovering around single digits if you ride early in the day.

Great Outdoor Store. We did some serious damage here. The sales racks are upstairs.

If you find yourself heading this way, I’d recommend checking out the Clubhouse Inn and Suites on South Louise Avenue.  It’s located right on the bicycle loop and just minutes from everywhere.  It was clean, quiet and breakfast was awesome.  We got a suite, and it was a real suite as opposed to the pretend suites so many places sell these days.  There’s a strip of typical chain restaurants including Chevy’s and Granite City within walking distance.  Downtown is five minutes by car, fifteen by bike.

Must visit stores downtown include Duluth Trading (our first visit and lots of fun) and the absolutely delightful Great Outdoor Store if you’re into outdoor gear.

You also have to visit Falls Park.  Pictures don’t do the falls here  justice.  They’re quite a bit larger than they appear to be when viewed in two dimensions, and the  surrounding park is just delightful.  Sioux Falls isn’t into protecting you from yourself, so you can scramble right up to the water’s edge on the rocks.  This will probably change soon enough, but for now it’s still possible and one more thing that made me fall in love with this quirky little Rocky Mountain town hidden deep in the heart of the Great Plains.

 

 

 

 

The New Normal

It was dark and I was cold. Sunrise was still an hour away. There wasn’t a hint of orange or even gray in the eastern sky. I’d rolled out of bed not thirty minutes earlier and my eyes were still waking up. If it wasn’t for the 700 lumen blowtorch mounted on my handlebars, I never would have seen the skunk in the middle of the trail, dead ahead…

I skidded to a stop not more than ten feet from the little critter half expecting all hell to break loose. It never did. The skunk wasn’t bothered by me at all.  She eventually turned and ambled down the trail before turning into the brush. It was only then that I clipped in and moved on.

Shortly after the skunk, I hit my light and sent it flying. It was easy enough to find.

Welcome to the Iowa Outback after dark. This is my brave new world since starting a new job two weeks ago. The first week I was in Dallas, not far from downtown. I rode in the dark there, but it never really gets dark in Dallas or any other city for that matter.  If there are people around, there are also street lights and security lights and lights in store windows. Even the Katy Trail, my preferred route, was lit from end to end. I’d read reviews before heading out where people complained of “dark spots” along the way.  If only they knew.

The torch does a nice job of lighting my way. Without it, darkness wins.

Out here, darkness is pretty much absolute.  I pulled over this morning and turned the torch off for a moment just to see.  I held my hand six inches in front of my eyes.  I couldn’t see anything.  Then I looked up, drawn by the light above.   The heavens were ablaze (that’s the right word) with stars, none of them closer than 100 million miles to us.  Is there intelligent life up there?  Yeah, of course there is.  The universe is too big to believe otherwise.

I know that there are risks to riding in the dark, but it’s not like I really have a choice.  I ride when the time is available and they need me at work when the sun is out, so I’m riding early.  I bought the 700 lumen torch and it helps a lot. The biggest risk I face is a collision with wildlife.  In just three days this week, I’ve seen everything from raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, deer and a fox or coyote…not sure which…to the aforementioned skunk.   Just because a critter is small doesn’t mean he or she is not capable of doing some serious damage.

That said, I’m not afraid of wildlife.  Through numerous close encounters,  I’ve learned that most of nature’s critters are better at assessing and responding to risk than we humans are.  Animals don’t overreact.  Take this morning’s skunk, for example.  She didn’t spray me.  I probably would not have been so reserved if our roles had been reversed, and so I think that maybe I still have some things to learn from nature.

Morning breaks.  I can’t think of too many prettier sights.

Luther Standing Bear, the wise Oglala (Sioux) chief, once wrote that our hearts become hard when separated from nature.  I know this to be true in my own life.  Perhaps it explains some of our collective angst as a people.  We’ve been doing our level best to eradicate nature and beat it into submission for as long as I can remember.  This is one of those times when even if we win, we lose.  I wish we could see the damage we’re doing and then just stop doing it but I know better.  That’s not how we’re wired.

It seems to me that the real magic of cycling, the thing that makes it unique and special,  is that it allows us to slow down to a speed where we can see the world as it really is instead of just passing through it at the fastest speed possible on the way to some lit up big city at the end of the line.  When I look at it that way, riding before sunrise isn’t a hardship at all.  It’s a gift and a blessing and one that I feel very fortunate to have had foisted upon me.

Canopy By Hilton’s Bike Friendly Ethos

I hadn’t heard of Canopy Hotels until the company I just went to work for told me that’s where I’d be staying this week in Dallas.  Intriguing name, Canopy.  I wanted to learn more so I headed out to the website and wouldn’t you know it…they have bikes.

So orange…just like Holland.
Complimentary Dutch cycling socks make me happy.

I came to Dallas fully expecting my 600+ day streak would be broken and it still may be, but I was able to cycle last night after work and again this morning.  The streak lives on.  More importantly, I’ve discovered a new bike friendly business to rave about.  I really like this place.  I’d go out of my way to stay here again.

Protected bike lanes, downtown Dallas.
Big city problems.  Not worth worrying about.  It’s not going to change any time soon.

They say it’s the little things that make a big difference and that’s certainly on display here.   The room is not exceptionally spectacular but it has a contemporary edge that just feels good.   It’s clean and quiet and has a great view of the skyline.  The coffee machine makes espresso.  You get complimentary orange socks so you can get your Dutch cyclist on.

The staff here is exceptional.  They go out of their way to make you feel special and it’s all very sincere and real.  You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever stayed at a place where they force it.  It’s so obvious when someone’s heart just isn’t in it.  Here it feels like everyone’s heart is in it.

Speaking of hearts, the hotel sits in the heart of the Cityplace West development in Uptown Dallas.  This is a genuine, walkable urban village.  There’s a streetcar (DART M Line) that you can catch downtown.  There’s also the Katy Trail, which is lighted and open from 5:00 AM until midnight, which makes it easy to get some miles in before or after work.  You can head southwest towards downtown.  The trail ends at the American Airlines Center, home of the NHL’s Dallas Stars and the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.  From there you’ll find protected bike lanes that take you right into the heart of the central business district.  Head the other way and you’ll end up in Highland Park.

The bikes are Dutch cruisers, akin (although a little less robust) to what you’re likely to find in most bikeshare programs.   Bring your own lights and helmet if that’s important to you.  I wouldn’t recommend riding after dark without lights here.  You’re going to be on the road for a few short stretches and traffic is relatively fast and heavy.  I rode sans helmet as I didn’t have room to pack one.  It wasn’t a problem for me.

If you’re used to riding something a little sportier, be forewarned.  This is not that.  So what?  It’s a chance to ride like they do in the old country.  If you haven’t yet experienced that, you should.  It’s so different.  You sit upright and speed is pretty much out of the question.  I averaged a little over 10 mph this morning and I really worked at it.   I had a little bell and I rang it almost constantly.  It made such a happy noise.

For me, there’s no better way to explore new urban places than on a bicycle.  Thanks to Canopy, it was easy for me to do so in Dallas.  If you find yourself in a city they serve, I highly recommend them.

Cyclists Fare Best When…

There’s nothing sadder to me than a trail head parking lot. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s a place to park your car so that you can go cycling. My local trail is lined with them. How ironic.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to cyclist safety. One posits that cyclists fare best when separated from traffic via so called “safe spaces” like trails and protected bike lanes. The problem with this approach is that it’s virtually impossible to get anywhere by bike if you limit yourself to protected infrastructure. Advocates for the safe space have a simple solution: just build more. All well and good, but even the Dutch didn’t build their networks overnight.  What are those of us who cycle now supposed to do in the mean time?

There’s really only one viable answer to that question, and it is to learn to ride safely and effectively in traffic. That brings me to the other school of thought. It’s championed by a man named John Forester. Forester’s mantra is that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated the same as other road users. In Forester’s perfect world, we’re just another class of road user.   We might be slower than the average single passenger automobile, but so are Amish and Mennonite buggies, big rigs and buses.  Motorists adapt to them.  They will adapt to us, too.

I’ll never forget the first time I was told to take the lane. I was training to become a League of American Bicyclists’ Certified Instructor. It was November 2014. The weather was cold and blustery and I was on Allisonville Road on the north side of Indianapolis. I thought the instructor was nuts when she told me to ride down the middle instead of as far to the right as practicable,  but I did it anyway and a funny thing happened.  The cars behind me slowed and waited to pass until the oncoming lane was clear.  She wasn’t nuts at all.   She was teaching me John Forester’s worldview and it was if a light bulb went off in the deep, dark recesses of my brain.

When there’s diagonal parking as on this street in Lincoln NE, taking the lane is the safest approach.
Taking the lane also makes sense on this kind of road where motorists can easily change lanes to pass.

So last week while I was browsing the stacks at Half Price Books in suburban Des Moines and came across a lightly used copy of Forester’s classic book “Effective Cycling,” it was a no-brainer to purchase it. I haven’t been able to put it down since. It is without a doubt the best book on cycling I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about cycling and wants to ride more safely.

This is my favorite kind of bicycle infrastructure. I long for a day when the stencil won’t be necessary.

Is Forester correct? I think that’s up to you to decide for yourself. In my case, I know that since I’ve learned these techniques that I’m now often more comfortable on the street than I am on a trail where ear buds are common and many users are even more inattentive than motorists.   It’s liberating to ride on the street. It opens new possibilities and makes cycling much more enjoyable.  I don’t have to stop and let cars proceed before moving on myself.  I go with the flow.  It allows me to use my bicycle in ways that people who drive to the trail head can’t.

But this post isn’t about me.  It’s about you and so I just want to throw this out for your consideration.   You don’t have to wait 50 years for safe spaces.     There’s an alternative.  You can take a Bike League Smart Cycling class and learn how to ride on the street.   You should, too, because it will make you a more confident and safer cyclist.  This will cause you to cycle more and when you do, we all win.

 

 

New Adventures Ahead

I rode 42 miles yesterday.  It was a perfect Iowa day with lots of sunshine, a light breeze and temperatures hovering around seventy degrees.   It was absolutely as good as it gets.

I’m still training for the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile unsupported gravel grinder that  will take place on October 13 in the wilds of eastern Nebraska.  My cycling of late has been all about that and so I’ve been dividing my rides into four equal segments and trying to do each segment a little faster than the previous one.   I go out at about 6 hour century pace and turn it up from there.  Some days I turn it up a lot.  Other days, just a little.  It depends on how I feel.  So how’d I do yesterday?

  • 1st 10 miles: 36:21, 16.5 mph
  • 2nd 10 miles: 34:14, 17.5 mph
  • 3rd 10 miles: 31:19, 19.2 mph
  • 4th 10 miles: 28:55, 20.7 mph

Not too shabby…  I’ve found that there’s no better way to learn to be a disciplined cyclist than by doing this.  I used to do two segments, but using four completely changes the dynamic.  It’s much more about riding under control and it is much harder to pull off.  You have to be engaged the entire ride.  This may sound like drudgery, but I find it to be anything but.  It felt like I was back home in no time at all.

It has been fun, this magical bicycle journey.  I have learned so much…about myself…about the world around me.  When I first got back on the bike in 2013, I never dreamed I’d get to the point where I would be doing the miles I am doing today.  I never expected to go here.

Going forward, I’ll be doing less.  I gave my employer notice this morning.  I’m leaving my corporate home for the last four years and the new job is going to require a lot more time out of me.   That means there will be less time for cycling.  I’m going to have to travel, too…as soon as early October.  That means the end of my continuous day streak. It’s all good.  It really is.

Going forward, I still plan to ride most days, but instead of averaging 40 miles a day, I’m probably going to be closer to 20.  I’m okay with this.  I think I’ve proven to myself whatever it was that took me down this road.  I love cycling more today than I ever have.  I plan to continue doing it until they put me in the ground.   It’s just going to be a little different for the next little while.

I have been vaguely uncomfortable with what I was becoming for some time now anyway.  I justified it because I wanted to complete Seattle-to-Portland.  It was so far out of my comfort zone that I had to treat it seriously.  That’s what I told myself.  Maybe I went further than I needed to.  I don’t know.

In hindsight, it was all merely justification for riding more miles because more miles was where I was getting my validation and sense of worth from.   I think I finally got clarity a few weeks ago in Omaha when some nice person snapped this picture of me. Add big hair and a red nose and you have Bozo the bicycle clown.  You can even see my beer belly right there between the Space Needle and Mount Rainier.  How truly mortifying.

Cycle Dork. Not my best look.
Cycle Chic, Copenhagen.  The normalization of the bicycle commute.

But I’m never going to get rid of this picture because it will remind me of what I don’t want to be.  That said, I am slowly getting rid of most of my cycling specific clothing.  This week alone I tossed two jerseys and a pair of lycra shorts.  I will be replacing them with loose fitting hoodies and cargo shorts.  I’ll keep one or two pairs for really long rides but the rest has got to go.  My helmet (because we Americans wear helmets) is designed to be as inconspicuous as possible.

So what does my future as a cyclist look like?  I’m not really sure and I don’t think it’s all that important.  I’ll still cycle most days, but I think it will be more relaxed and spontaneous.  I’ll be slower than I am now.  I might leave the Garmin at home and not worry about how far I go.   I think my around town bike might be more upright and have only one speed…something that doesn’t need to be locked.   It might even be clunky.  There’s something about those bikes I really like.   I’ll also have to eat better because I won’t have those 40 mile calorie burners every day to bail me out.

Regardless of what it looks like, my primary objective won’t change.  I want to have fun and feel the wind in what’s left of my hair.  I want to smile spontaneously and see the deer run and the birds fly along with me just like they do now.   I’m not interested in changing the world.   I plan to explore and will keep the blog to share thoughts and pictures of the places I go by bike, but I’m dropping my League membership and will no longer be a League Certified Instructor.

In hindsight, I never was any of that.  I guess I felt like I needed it to prove that I was a cyclist.   Now that just seems silly.   Now I know I’m a cyclist.  I don’t need the clothes or the titles or the miles or any of that.  All I need is a bike.  New adventures await and I will share them as they unfold.  Until then, roll on.

 

 

 

 

What’s Different About Minneapolis

I wish I could say that my first cycling adventure in Minneapolis was one of those picture postcard Chamber of Commerce late summer weather days they are often blessed with up there,  but it wasn’t.  It was gray and rainy and blustery and kind of cold.  Cold’s okay.  They do cold here.  The gray and rain, not so much.  I didn’t see even a sliver of blue sky all day long.  Truth be told, it was kind of miserable weather-wise.

But somewhere along in my three hour, forty-plus mile journey around the City of Lakes, I found myself thinking that this was still a lot of fun in spite of the weather.  I was smiling because it was just so doggone easy to cycle here.  OK, maybe it wasn’t as easy as Missoula or Jackson Hole, but those are places of a different scale.  For a major city, this was a breeze.  I felt safe on the bike whether on trails or city streets (and I rode my share of both) in a way I almost never do.  I didn’t feel like I constantly needed to be on edge and looking at my rear view mirror.

Let me give you an example.  I  was on the Heritage Trail downtown and wanted to cross the Mississippi River.  I missed the Central Avenue bridge.  No big deal…all of the bridges here are designed to accommodate cyclists.  I could continue on and cross a few blocks  up on Hennepin, but first I needed to get across West River Parkway.  I pulled up to the crossing and traffic stopped for me, even though there were no signs directing them to.  Those of us who cycle a lot know that this doesn’t happen very often. Here it happened all day long.

I came across a lot of these scattered around town.

Everywhere I went, it seemed, motorists were not only aware of those of us on two wheels but also willing to share their space with us.  How utterly refreshing.  Part of it is the law but a bigger part of it is cultural.  People respect others here in a way they just don’t seem to elsewhere.  I think it’s in their DNA.

On the infrastructure front, Minneapolis is a cut above most other big cities I’ve cycled in.  There’s old recreation-focused infrastructure like the Grand Rounds and Stone Arch Bridge and then there’s the new stuff like the Martin Olaf Sabo bridge.  Bike lanes are everywhere.  So are bike boulevards.  Few are protected but they don’t really need to be.   It’s very easy to cycle on the street here in a way that it just isn’t most other places.

Heading into downtown on the Stone Arch Bridge. Note the separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians.
Martin Olaf Sabo bridge over Hiawatha. Even here they keep cyclists and pedestrians separate.
High traffic areas are typically one way with posted speed limits. The pedestrian trail is to the right.
For me, the true measure of a bicycle friendly city is how it feels to ride on the streets. In Minneapolis, it generally feels good.
On the Grand Rounds along the Mississippi River.
The Cedar Lake Trail actually burrows under Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. Note the lights.
Bike share is city wide here as opposed to just downtown like so many other places.

Then there’s the Midtown Greenway.   Holy moly.   If you haven’t heard of the Midtown Greenway, let me try to describe it for you.  Think of a freeway.  That’s  really what this is…a crosstown bicycle and pedestrian freeway that was placed in a trench that used to hold an abandoned rail line.  Because it’s below grade,there are exit ramps up to the streets that pass overhead just like any other freeway.  Cyclists zip along pretty much unimpeded.  It’s possible to cover the five miles or so from Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun) to the Mississippi River in less than 15 minutes without breaking a sweat.  This is the polar opposite of, say, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail where you’re forced to stop every block and wait for traffic signals to change.  If this was that, it would easily take an hour to get to Uptown from the river.

It gets better.   On the rare occasion where the Midtown Greenway does intersect with a cross street, cyclists are often given priority.  Cars crossing the trail are required to stop. They get the stop signs.  We get clear passage.   This is the exact opposite of how they do it just about everywhere else, and it changes everything.  It’s worth a trip to Minneapolis to ride the Greenway if you do absolutely nothing else.  It will blow your mind.

Along the Midtown Greenway east of Interstate 35W in the Phillips neighborhood.
At some road crossings on the Midtown Greenway bicycles have priority over motorists.  The truck to the left has a stop sign.  I don’t.   This is the first time I’ve ever seen this treatment and it just makes so much sense.

With the possible exception of Portland, Minneapolis is fundamentally different than every other city I’ve cycled in.  Most  just pretend.  They see bicycle friendly as something that is trendy.  They’re not really committed to it.  They hope it works to attract Millennials and some transit oriented development but they’re skeptical.  Here it’s so much deeper than that.  It’s more like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, in a sense.  It’s about changing the city dramatically instead of incrementally.  They are true believers.

It’s obvious in the smaller things they do here that I’ve never seen elsewhere.  There were the color coded street signs that made it easy to identify the best streets for cycling at a glance.  They closed other streets to motor vehicles  but kept them open for people on bikes.  All those trails I mentioned earlier?   In addition to separate spaces for cyclists and pedestrians, most are lighted and they plow them when the snow flies.

Road closed for them. Road open for us. 🙂
This sort of thing is brilliant and invaluable.

Taken together, all of this suggests a mindset that says “let’s think this through” instead of just pouring green paint and hoping it all works out.  In terms of making cycling easy, safe and fun, it makes all the difference in the world.   Back when we lived here, I never cycled.  Some of this was already in place, but I just wasn’t interested.  I didn’t think this city was especially conducive to cycling, especially coming from Denver.  It was too cold and wet.  It was too Midwestern.

But I was wrong.  Minneapolis is head and shoulders above Denver and every other big city I’ve cycled in since.  I think it’s maybe even a little better than Portland, but maybe not.  It’s close.  As of now, Minneapolis remains the only American city ever to be listed by Copenhagenize.EU as one of the world’s best.  The reasons why are apparent once you get on a bike and ride here.  It’s this city’s willingness to embrace and figure out the details that planners elsewhere just don’t bother with.

Does North American Cycling Culture Discourage Newbies?

“The main problem is that in North America cycling is seen as an extreme sport.” -Mikael Colville-Andersen

I stood before the wall of helmets at the local bike shop in Omaha Nebraska USA but I was thinking about Europe.  Way back in the 1990s while I was working for TetraPak AB, I was lucky enough to visit three of the world’s top ten cycling cities in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Malmö.  I went over eight times in all, and if I was still there now I wouldn’t be shopping for helmets. They don’t do helmets in Europe.

The typical Copenhagen cyclist. No helmet.  There’s never a helmet in Denmark.  Photo by https://www.flickr.com/people/56380734@N05/

There are a lot of reasons for this but in the end it doesn’t really matter.   Here in North America, we cyclists are expected to gear up and a big part of gearing up is choosing a helmet that sends a powerful message and tells the world we are a force to be reckoned with.  For most people, that means a colorful aero race design that says “Look at me…I am training for the Tour of France!”   

Or maybe it’s the Ironman.  There was a time when that’s what I would have chosen, too.  Not this time, though.  This time I went with the understated flat black helmet in the box that said Nutcase.  How appropriate, I thought.  That’s the helmet for me.

Cycling helmet. Cycling shoes.

It has been a long time coming, this epiphany.  I’ve been feeling a bit uncomfortable in lycra for awhile now.  It’s not that I want to be European.  I like being American just fine.   It’s just that it has gotten to the point of absurdity.  I’m not a competitive cyclist.  I’ve ridden as far as 200 miles in a day and I’ve climbed mountains on my bike but I’ve never done it all at once and if we’re being honest here,  competitive cyclists do that pretty much every day…before lunch.

So I don’t feel like dressing up like that any longer.  Looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed that I ever did.   I’m an adult for crying out loud.  I have a real job and  a house and a family.  I don’t need to dress up like it’s Halloween every time I ride my bicycle.

Maybe Colville-Andersen is on to something here. Maybe part of the reason we can’t get more people on bikes in North America has something to do with what we communicate to the rest of the world by how we act and dress.  Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that we’re all different..  I also understand that a lot of people like this sort of thing, but I also understand that it can be a little intimidating to people on the outside looking in.  It certainly looks and feels more extreme when compared to folks in those other countries where everybody cycles around like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Of course, it’s always possible and maybe even likely that I don’t know the first thing about what I’m talking about here.  If so, it won’t be the first time. That said, this time feels different.  I like this new, relaxed form of cycling better than the old extreme sport version.     I no longer need padded shorts or expensive, silly looking beer jerseys that accentuate my beer belly.  Seriously, who thought that was a good idea?  I’ll wear the ones I have until they wear out and then I’ll replace them with something else like loose fitting prAna shirts from REI or whatever’s on the 80% off rack at Kohl’s.  I realize that might be a Cleveland Browns hoodie, but if one person looks at me, feels totally un-impressed and un-threatened and gets on a bike as a result, it will have been worth the sacrifice.  Go Brownies.

 

Omaha + Council Bluffs

The plan was to go down to southwestern Iowa and ride the middle section of the Wabash Trace. It’s in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame and it’s relatively close to home, so why not?   The Trace would be my third RTHoF trail.  The other two were Indiana’s Monon Trail and Cardinal Greenway.  Ranking trails is subjective, but neither of those trails crack my top ten list so I’m not sure why I thought the Trace would be different.  Don’t get me wrong.  It was pleasant enough…just not worth the three hour drive.  There are nicer trails much closer to home.

Hall of Fame? OK.

Fortunately, Omaha was right down the road.  I love Omaha.  Most people don’t give it a second thought, but it’s one of my favorite cities.  Why?  Mostly because of the  rich tapestry of neighborhoods in a place you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them.  The economy is surprisingly vibrant here as well with headquarters for companies like Mutual of Omaha, Kiewit and Union Pacific scattered around.   It’s not a college town but it feels like one.  Jan said it reminded her of Austin back before Austin went corporate and turned into Boulder 2.0.  I can see that.  It reminds me of Seattle…in a good way.  People are smart here.  Pleasant, too.

This was my third time cycling in Nebraska’s largest city.  My first visit was in December a few years back and it was bitter cold.  I had fun, though.   I also cycled here on a beautiful spring morning en route to Ogden Utah.  Each time I’ve come I’ve discovered more infrastructure than the time before.  Omaha may still have a ways to go, but the city and region have obviously embraced cycling in a big way.

I always park on the Iowa side of the river not far from the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.  This is how my journey always begins.  Bob the Bridge is the region’s signature piece of infrastructure and one of the best bicycle bridges anywhere.  It connects Council Bluffs Iowa’s surprisingly robust trail network with downtown Omaha.

There were some big changes on the Iowa side of the river this time.  What used to be an empty field is now a  work zone with apartments springing up all over the place.  The riverfront includes a park with a hall overlooking downtown Omaha.  It’s surprisingly scenic, especially if all you know of Omaha is what you’ve seen from I-80 while zipping through on the way to Colorado.  There’s bikeshare here.  Through the middle of it all is a cycletrack that will extend into downtown Council Bluffs when completed. I’ve long felt that this waterfront was prime for development and when it’s done it will be easier and faster to get to jobs and entertainment in Omaha by bicycle than by car.

Council Bluffs cycletrack.

Of course, Bob the Bridge was the highlight of the visit as it always is.  As I said previously, I think this is one of the best bicycle bridges in America…maybe the very best.  It was built from the ground up especially for cyclists and pedestrians and to spur the development that is now taking place.    The bridge is about 3,000 feet long and rises gently before swooping gracefully over the Missouri River.    This is no small thing.  Bob the Bridge is a centerpiece as opposed to an afterthought.   There were lots of people out and about on a hot Saturday afternoon.  Most were on foot but there were a few cyclists, too.  It’s de rigueur to stop at the apex of the bridge for a photo op.

Bob the Bridge from the Omaha side of the Missouri River.
Downtown Omaha from the bridge deck
The obligatory photo op.

Once you roll off the bridge on the Omaha side, there are trails into the center of the downtown district.  One choice is to head straight west towards TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.  It’s probably the most beautiful ballpark in America that doesn’t have a permanent major league tenant.  You’ll pass CenturyLink Center and Arena on the way.  This is Omaha’s convention center.   They’ve held the NCAA swimming and diving championships in the arena.  They built a pool just for the event.  There are numerous hotels, restaurants and watering holes here that are easily accessible via bicycle.  Head west just a few blocks and you’re in the heart of the Creighton University campus  There’s a trail and sidepath heading north that takes you almost all the way to the  departure lounge of Eppley Airfield.

You can also head south along the river.  Cycle through Lewis and Clark landing, pass under Interstate 480 and then follow a series of bridges through Heartland of America Park and on to the Gene Lahey Mall, a beautiful canal side park that extends into the very heart of downtown.  It’s just over a mile from the bridge to the end of the trail here.

Passing under Interstate 480 along the Missouri River.
And then up and over a series of bridges into the heart of downtown Omaha.
The water features at Gene Lahey Mall were very nice on a hot, late summer afternoon.

If you want to explore further afield, you’re going to have to ride on the street for awhile.   Like most cities, Omaha is adding bike lanes all over the place.   Many connect to other trails in different parts of the city. If you feel like exploring beyond downtown, check out the city’s interactive bicycle map here.   The good news is that riding on the street here is relatively easy.   I recommend heading into Midtown.  That’s where we found Ponderosa Cyclery, a great local bike shop in the heart of a neighborhood strip with lots of used brick buildings and locally owned restaurants and shops.  This is a surprisingly hilly city, though, so be forewarned.

Neighborhood pride. Omaha is a city of vibrant neighborhoods, each with its own identity.

If you want to stick to trails, I’d recommend crossing back over to the Iowa side of the Missouri where you’ll find a riverfront trail that extends both north and south of Bob the Bridge for several miles each direction.  I didn’t ride it this time but I have  on previous visits.  If you head south, you’ll find yourself at Harrah’s Casino.  There’s even a connection to the Wabash Trace, so we could have ridden all the way back to Shenandoah and on to Missouri if we wanted to.  Maybe next time.

As the largest city in the state ranked dead last in terms of bicycle friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Omaha shouldn’t be this much fun but it is.  That’s the thing about bicycle friendly rankings.   Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Omaha is proof positive of that.  If you find yourself here, I definitely think it’s worth the time to get out and explore by bicycle.