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When you imagine a great bike city, we’d naturally picture cities like that of sunny, progressive California or the urban San Diego or lush and hilly Greenville, South Carolina, etc. You could even think of cities like the super bike-friendly Portland, but Minneapolis might be one of the last cities to come to your mind. To start with, when I took a cycling lesson in the region, I found that one not-so-uncommon advice that you get from people is that, if my freewheel freezes up while I am riding, which is not so uncommon again, I shouldn’t be just standing on the road-side sticking my thumb out.
Rather, I should flip my bike over so people would feel sorry for me and help. And why they’d feel sorry for me- those who live in the region know that if you got stuck outdoors in the city with its sub-arctic cold climate, you may die. Residents of such a cold region would hardly even consider walking outdoors during winters.
Another piece of advice I got from the instructor was to carry a pair of plastic bags so that if the toes ever start to lose feel- or feel like starting to freeze up,- we can wrap those plastic bags around the foot! So basically, the climate of the region itself could look like a huge factor preventing it from being on any “top bike city” list. For just seemingly so many reasons, Minneapolis can look like a city that could never ever get into any list of top cycling cities. Yet here it is, not just holding a place among the top 10 biking cities, but also ranking as the No. 1 bike city in America. Why would that be? Let’s find out.
One of the first places I checked out during my investigation to understand the same was a Bicycle studio, which people told me was one of the most popular spots for all the two-wheeled items and related accessories in the region. There are several other bike & board stores in the region, of course- perhaps over 50 decent places. But I wanted to head to the best- this one was called One on One bicycle studios.
This store had its own coffee store and restaurant and had all sorts of signs announcing things like ice races and bike swaps and everything in-between. The mechanics here are artists who can convert your old junker into a decent single-speed winter bike that suits the snowy paths of the region. Around the same place, you’ll be able to find a number of bikers getting together for beer or smoking. You’ll find bikers stopping by the place even when the temperature around the region drops below zero.
This is perhaps where one can meet “Geno” or the “Godfather of the Minneapolis bike scene”, Gene Oberpriller, a former BMX rider. Back when he was a rider, he used to live over the same building, only there was a massage parlor where One on One now stood. He’d managed to get permission from the then owner to convert the shop basement into storage where he- and his mechanic friend- could store and convert the bikes they’d find while going dumpster diving from coast to coast. They eventually decided to open One on One in 2003 and by then the basement was already a popular destination for the biking enthusiasts and junkyard sale hunters.
He’d made a profit of $60,000 from the bicycle junkyard sale alone in 2006. He could tell you interesting stories about how a bike that costs roughly $500 could cost just half the amount in Minneapolis and how the owner of the Massage parlor ended up selling the shop later on due to raids! Further, he proudly explains how the bikes would still be there in the morning if he happened to accidentally leave any bike outdoors overnight.
And one of the things he’d suggest to those who are in the region to explore the biking culture in the region is something that could surprise any outsider- he’d suggest that you visit some of the other bike stores in the area. The fact that bike store owners here freely recommend checking out its competitors is one of the things that makes the city one of the best cities to be a bicyclist in.
Next, we meet Tommy Earl Everstone, who is more popular by his nickname “Hurl”. He got his nickname while he was working at Second Nature bikes almost 3 decades back when some of his regular customers suggested that his name be Hurl with a “silent H” (instead of Earl, which was how his original name was spelled), “like in Herb, with a silent H”.
Hurl rides about 4 miles every day to his place of work. He believes the reason why so many people ride bikes around here is because of the general outdoorsy and Nordic attitude of the town along with the Scandinavian mentality of “What doesn’t freeze you makes you stronger”. However, he also admitted that there are few great bicycle superhighways like the Midtown Greenway also has seen some cases of assaults during the night, “as it goes through some rough neighborhoods”.
In response to the same, there is a volunteer night bicycle ride team in place that patrols the Greenway. Moreover, the bicycle highways get plowed by the city before it gets to the streets.
Hurl goes on to tell that Minneapolis actually is a great bike town because of so many things, including, but not limited to its great network of bike couriers, road races and BMX races, and the growing sport of bike polo. And the best thing, he says, is that “everybody helps each other out”. He agrees with Geno’s statement that we can still see bicyclists even in sub-zero temperatures. After all the discussion, Hurl recommended visiting a competitor too.
So we meet Chuck Cowan, the Behind Bars bike shop owner. He was hardly talkative and he explained that’s because he went down on “brown sugar” that day. Later on, we understood it was another category of dangerous snow sheets in the region. A visitor in the shop agreed and said that they call the area the lanes of death when Chuck explained the location.
The U.S Census itself suggests a stunning increase in the proportion of the population in Minneapolis that ride a bike to work, particularly during summers. By 2008, the number of such people was 8200, about 4.3% of the total population.
The Minneapolis government hopes to push those numbers higher. Decent Federal contributions are being made to achieve this target as well. Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin cities, have really impressive bike infrastructure. There are roughly 44 miles of bike lanes on streets and about 84 miles of dedicated bike paths between the two cities.
There’s a plan of laying additional 40 miles of bike lanes around the city. There bike carrying capacity in all the city trains and busses and you’ll find bike storages in every commercial building, as necessitated by the law. In fact, the bike parking capacity of Minneapolis is larger than any other city in America.
Further, the city is trying a new city-bike program which involved a thousand bicycles, set up at 75 different locations across the city. Anybody will be able to access them with the swipe of a credit card at solar-powered kiosks. The users would be able to return them at any of the 75 locations. Impressively, it would just cost the rider $5 a day or $50 a year.
I got all this information from Gary Sjoquist, with whom I spent most part of my second day, looking at the impressive bike bridges and a popular bike parts distributor, Quality Bicycle Part, where Gary works as a Bicycle Advocacy director.
Gary himself used to extensively ride bikes in competitions but had to give up due to injuries. He still rides roughly 5 miles every morning, and brings passion to his job, raising funds and contributing to make Minneapolis a better place for bike enthusiasts.
He believes that the bike-friendly laws of the city have much to do with the city’s status of being the best bike city in America. He took me to a few bridges and showed me a city-funded repair center/bike shop/ coffee house on the Greenway, Freewheel Bike’s Midtown Bike Center. The place had bike storage that would cost just $110 a year and cheap shower facilities for cyclists.
Finally, we stopped at the Shaun Murphy’s office, who is “Nonmotorized Pilot Project Coordinator with the city government. He said the city targets to have 30-40% of all work trips on bikes in 10 years’ time. Currently, about 10% of all trips were on a bicycle. To attain this, they plan to have more connector links between bike paths and lanes and to have partitions between traffic lanes and bike lanes.
The main question still remained. How does a city with such cold climatic conditions become the absolute best for biking? When statistics didn’t give me any answers, I posted on Mplsbiklove.com that I am looking for cyclists who can ride with me to help me appreciate the bike culture in the city. The response was literally staggering.
A man called Andy Lambert, who had worked as a bicycle courier for years, shared a few paragraphs about the great memories from that period. He explains how the diversity in the bike scene of Minneapolis is the best with all the roadies, fixes, unicyclists, recumbents, and Black-label kids that you can see around the place.
Laura King, another cycling enthusiast wrote to me about how she moved from southern CA to the city and remained back here because of its bike culture- even for ladies. There are really interesting ladies-special biking programs as well. One best example being the Girls Gone Grumpy Ride which is organized for females- if men want to attend it, they can, just that they’d have to wear a skirt!
On the stranger ends, I also got a suggestion of doing a night-ride on a large frozen lake. The person who suggested it explained the beautiful experience that sticks to the rider’s memory. Going ahead, another female bike enthusiast- and a professor- R.
Lee Penn says that she’d gone out of bikes in temperatures as low as -26 Fahrenheit and that she doesn’t mind hauling about anything by her bicycle. She says nobody can keep them indoors, especially when the weather is nice.
Finally, Jeremy Werst, the founder of the website offered to meet me at One in One on Thursday to go together for a ride. Moreover, I got an overwhelming lot of advice to prepare for my ride, including one to “spray a bit of Pam cooking spray on various bike parts to make them easier to clean.” I was more or less starting to understand the charm of the city.
Jeremy Werst was already there when I got to One on One busy updating his website Mplsbikelove.com and chatting about the upcoming races and the local series of indoor “cold sprints” (these are races on stationary trainers where the participants are hooked up to giant video monitors) with his two friends, Landon Bouma and Bjorn Christianson.
They suggested I lose the bulky down coat, which I wore above 2 other warm layers, on their recommendation, they helped me fit into a one-speed Surly Karate Monkey and we started the ride. As much as I wanted to capture other details, I was busy focusing on avoiding “brown sugar” and other kinds of dangerous ice-sheets. They had casually mentioned that I be loose if I start to skid sideways. I was very much passionate and determined to not skid sideways.
Those who are from New York and other crowded cities will find it surprising that no drivers scream and no cars honk at you here. After riding a few bike paths, we got on to a dedicated bike path alongside a river, and finally on to the great Greenway. The superhighway was empty at this cold hour and we discussed all bicycles and things that related to it as we rode, including the sites that show the best bike routes easily, bike-friendly store and coffee places in the city, and also Bouma’s ex who was the only female to win the city’s Stupor Bowl.
When we stopped at a local grocery store, the guys pointed to the free bike pump and bike tools (including wrenches, pedal levers, headset tools, and bike stands to hang your bikes) which were there outside. I stared at those tools for a while, wondering how everyone around here was so friendly and passionate about their city and its bike culture. We also discussed the largest all-female alley cat race in America, Babes of Bikeland, and about the co-ops. Bouma told me the stories that his mom, who attended the “U” (a common way of calling the University of Minneapolis), told him about the “co-op fire bombings” when he used to be a kid. This basically included rival co-ops tossing Molotov cocktails at each other.
Our next was a large warehouse next to Greenway where the guys wanted to take me to introduce me to some of the frame-builder. The first person I met there was Chris Kvale, a lean, blue-eyed, white-haired guy of 65. Chris had been making frames- classic road frames- for over 3.5 decades. A former rider, Chris still rides over 2 miles to work every day. He passionately defends his use of tubular tires when someone makes an old-guy joke about it. He says he demands an involvement with your bike and tubular tires offer it and that they are the “simplest expression of the cyclist”.
Next, we meet Erik Noren, whom Chris’s friends call “Anti-Chris”. When he found I was there trying to figure out why Minneapolis deserves the top status it holds over all the other cities- and Portland, he started cursing. He expresses his irritation at hearing “how cool Portland is all the time”. He argues that those in Portland don’t have to ride through all the ice and snow and extreme weather conditions- still the proportion of the population that rides bikes is pretty close to that of Portland. His precise statement being, “we ride more by accident than they do on purpose.”
We see posters of naked women plastered all across his office. Noren has a short-sweet appearance but is known as the foul-mouthed frame builder who’s loud music could trouble the neighbors. The guys mention that Noren had been having some trouble with a neighbor upstairs, who teaches meditation and creative leadership. Despite this, they all agree that he is a talented and dedicated craftsman.
While he mentions he’d not consider the classic road bikes much of his directive. He then goes ahead to show us the one frame that he was most proud of building- the one called Homage to Uma Thurman from Kill Bill.
We then leave to ride towards the Midtown Bike Center. By the time I reach there, I am pretty much all emotional with cold and daylong interactions with all the passionate people. I admire the indoor bike storage a bit more and tell the guys they should never take for granted the free showers and secure storage options they have here. Then I get a free big cookie from an employee there.
We get back on Greenway and discuss the assaults I heard about earlier. They did agree that lights on the highways would be great and Vigilante rides are good too. They told me the whole incident and explained how the cyber community is strong around the region and how the reach of his own website, Mplsbikelove.com is quite strong.
When the video of such an incident where some kids slapped a harmless rider was posted on Youtube, it was circulated so far that the arrest was made on the same day. We discuss more about Noren, and they express their affection for him. They also tell me they sometimes worry about his business, because, apparently, Noren gives away way too many to community organizations.
Going ahead I directly ask them, what makes Minneapolis the greatest city for cyclists. Bouma tells me it has more to do with their liberal Northern attitude and Werst tells me it’s the infrastructure, the network of trails. Bjorn told me it’s the government too, and how responsive they have been every time they’ve tried to reach out.
We went to Pizza Luca when we all got hungry and it took us 20 minutes to agree on a pizza, not out of disagreement, but out of politeness of those guys. The infernal niceness around the place amazed me.
On my last day in Minneapolis, I decided to stay back in my hotel and try to jolt down and put together all the pieces. I was hoping that this would help the charm of the city sink in and help me actually realize the reasons that made this city the best in the United States for any cyclist. I wanted to note all that I came across and join the dots.
Well, it didn’t dawn on me that day and it didn’t dawn on me for a couple of months. I did fall inexplicably in love with Minneapolis and have been considering moving to the city, of course. I’ve told all my friends and family over and over how nice the cyclists and people around the city are, how Noren, one of the maybe least polite person (by Minneapolis standard) I met back there, gives away so many bikes for free that his business is in danger. I still do get replies to my old post on Mplsbikeove.com where I had asked for biking partners getting me different perspectives about the city’s bike culture.
However, the real answer to why the city is the bike city occurred to me when I got an email from a TV producer and mother of 2, named Keegan, stating that she’s “not a serious cyclist”. Later on in our discussions, I discovered he rides ten miles to her work, 3-4 times a week. It hit me how, despite doing a 20-mile round trip 4 days a week, through snowy highways and ice skids and the extreme weather doesn’t count as “serious bicycling” in that part of the world. If this was in any other city, there is a good chance there’d be some publicity attempts and bragging. Perhaps this feeling, along with the stunning government backing and a great community is what makes Minneapolis the best city to be a cyclist in!