I don't remember the exact day I began the process of becoming a year-round bicyclist. However, what began as a weekend adventure of short pleasure rides within a few miles of home grew into a habit of relying on my bicycle for most travel around the Twin Cities in most types of weather. I do remember a distinct conversation I had one day with a colleague at work about ditching the car for a day and walking to work. He lived a few blocks from our household. He laughed a bit and replied something to the effect of "You go ahead, I'm not up for a ten mile hike to work." As I thought about it further, I decided a better option would be to try a bicycle commute. I had no idea that the Twin Cities were number 2 nationally in the percentage of folks who commute to work by bike (that, despite the winters!)
To prepare myself, I made my first journey to the workplace from home on a Saturday morning. I wanted to see just how difficult the trek might be and how much time it would take. I was surprised at how much easier it seemed, although I had to stop a few times along the route for a quick rest. I managed to then make the trip back home. From that point, I decided Monday would be my first bicycle commuting day.
I had very little in helpful gear that first day, lacking any specialty biking clothing, tools, etc. nor did I have any sense of how to fix a flat tire or any other helpful skill to bicyclists. Never-the-less, I found a suitable backpack to haul work clothes and some lunch and set out. I managed to make it in to work on time, very proud of myself, having followed the 10 mile route along the Mississippi River on dedicated bicycle trails. I was a bit sweaty upon arrival, covered in my moisture-drenched cotton clothing and a heavy pack. (cotton not recommended because of its sweat retention properties) The journey homeward included more miles of uphill travel as well as battling the prevailing west winds. As such, I found that I needed two pit stops to rest up and continue on with my commuting.
The next day, I felt great in spirit but my legs muscles were feeling it - painfully. I soon realized that I would need to start with one day of bike commuting per week and gradually build up my strength and stamina to make it a more frequent option. I was energized by the sense that I could actually travel via my own locomotion, save some money in gas, and avoid the headaches of rush hour traffic.
As the days and weeks went by I found myself using my bike, hitting the bike trail in to work on a more frequent basis, and the need for pit stops went away. In addition, I discovered a whole universe of bicycle oriented clothing (to allow weather and anatomy protection while avoiding excessive sweat build up) and basic bicycle repair supplies. I also found a lightweight backpack tailored specifically to bike commuting--a pocket or pouch for everything. I invested in some simple bike repair tools, and a small first aid kit which I always carry. Finally, I signed up for a class at my local bike shop to learn how to fix a flat tire (a skill I since practiced on dozens of occasions on the side of the road while commuting) and some other things to watch out for. (For some great information on getting started on winter bicycling commuting, try https://peopleforbikes.org/blog/dashing-through-the-snow-winter-bike-commuting-basics/ or https://www.sefiles.net/merchant/2633/files/HubWinterRidingandMaintenaceChecklist.pdf)
I felt my enthusiasm for bike commuting growing as I learned more and became a more confident cyclist. I also began to discover the simple pleasures of riding at human speed. Among the things I found were the peaceful experience of nature and wildlife (that included eagles, hawks and other birds, coyotes, foxes, deer and wild turkeys), small shops and other landmarks, friendly smiles and waves from bicycle commuting regulars I passed traveling in the opposite direction. Rain and darkness soon became more familiar riding conditions as I expanded my days on the bike. Living in Minnesota, however, my bike commuting days soon ended abruptly as the temperatures dropped, and snow and ice began. I went back to car commuting, hoping for an early spring.
As one year passed to another and my bicycling became more frequent, I began using my bike to shop for groceries (one trip hauling a 10lb bag of charcoal and BBQ sauce), travel to evening volunteer work and longer pleasure rides on weekends, extending my riding further into cold weather. I developed more confidence to ride in traffic and use the streets. Then, I decided to take the plunge and brave the elements to see how travel by bicycle would be in the cold, long months of Minnesota winter. I had seen other cyclists out during the winter. I wanted to be smart about my plans and prepare myself for traveling on two wheels in dark, cold, wet, likely icy conditions. Thankfully the bicycling industry has a number of things to help you layer up and light up to stay warm, to see and be seen by motorists, and keep your bicycle in safe, working order.
In summary, I invested in good studded snow tires, lightweight but warm fleece and wool clothing, brighter head and tail lights, including a pair mounted to the top of my helmet. I felt ready to go. In honesty, nothing can quite prepare you for winter conditions while bicycle commuting. You need to be prepared for hidden ice spots, sliding and falling, much harder effort to travel with slower commute times. Mentally preparing yourself for the inevitable falling on ice will keep your determination and courage intact. Equipping yourself with a cell phone, a transit pass, and knowledge of warm oases are also critical.
Over time, as my confidence grew, I found I preferred traveling on main streets over the bike paths and trails. I also found that main streets in Minnesota were typically plowed within 24 hours of snow fall and most motorists accommodated bikers using the travel lanes when bike lanes became mounds of snow and ice. Winter is stressful but it also offers some subtle joys. The world becomes quieter and more still. Paradoxically, soft sounds become amplified when the mercury drops below zero F opening a new world of sensory input. Monitoring weather conditions, notably wind speed and direction becomes a daily necessity. You quickly develop a keen sense for all of the subtle differences in types of snow and ice, and the dangers of each. There is something invigorating about seeing your breath condense in frost around your face mask and jacket. And, there is a special camaraderie between winter bicyclists. On days when the weather seemed too adverse for my biking skills, I relied on short 2-mile runs to the nearest light rail transit station and took the train, or braved a vigorous 6.5-mile run commute. After successfully transitioning to year-round bicycle commuting, I decided to drop my parking contract at the ramp near my workplace. I think I had only commuted twice by car that year. I was logging between 5000 and 6000 miles annually. Eventually, our household sold my 7-year old car at 12,044 odometer miles. (I think it still had some residual "new car smell.")
Someone once said, every journey begins with a single step. As the years have passed, I have ceased daily commuting, reaching retirement eligibility and dropping to part time work. (though I am still a year-round cyclist) Yet, when I look back over the span of years from where I began that first day of riding to where I am now, I am amazed at how much I have learned about biking, about neighborhoods, about other people and about myself. I also wonder at how much I have experienced while traveling at a human speed, how much healthier I am, how much carbon I might have offset by ditching the car, and how much of a difference one person can make to the Planet Earth by trading travel by car to travel by bike. (for great information on riding safely, go to the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota's Handbook at https://www.bikemn.org/education/minnesota-bicycling-handbook). Studies have shown that many trips are within a few miles from home. I believe those trips are fertile ground for folks to opt for two-wheeled travel at human speed rather than the car.