If you’re considering commuting through the darkest months – in temperatures so low water has frozen ten times over – take a leaf from Minnesotan Mark’s survival guide and learn some of his tricks of the trade.
After all, conditions don’t get more bone-chillingly frigid than mid-winter in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. In January, the average recorded highs are just 7°f (-13°c). It takes a certain amount of grit to pull this off… so who better to talk to than a longtime Minneapolis resident.
First up… who is Mark Sirek?
A recently subdued-by-New-England wanderer. I managed to make a living in a variety of ways around the country with bikes in the mix for almost 26 years. Now I write things for Hyperlite Mountain Gear in Biddeford, Maine. Pretty sure I’m done moving. I like being outside with my Number-One-Honey Kate on a bike or on foot, and we love heavy metal, dominoes, cribbage, and good food.
How many frigid winters did you endure?
I rode a bike nearly every day for twelve years – five in Minneapolis and seven in Milwaukee. My commutes were usually in the 10 to 20-mile range. After a winter in Los Angeles, I returned to MPLS and found my gumption to go every day started to wane. Something about 77 and sunny weather every day in California really messed up my seasonal flow that previously “got in the mode” for the no-matter-what-you-just-adjust headspace you need to succeed riding in winter with traffic. It’s a lot of pre- and post- effort to get the body ready to go out, and I decided to listen to mine and take a break. Never say never – maybe I’ll catch another spark in the future and do it all religiously again, but I can walk to work here, and it’s just straight up easier.
How do you develop the mindset that allows you to leave a cozy household to dive into the ice chest of the streets, each and every day?
I definitely enjoyed some of those winter rides, though. The worse, the better as I wore the conquest of seemingly unnavigable streets like a badge of honor. I was younger and cockier back then, though too. I don’t have anything to prove anymore.
Necessity is a great motivator. I didn’t have a car for some of that time, and even if I had, parking it near where I was working and going to school was cost-prohibitive. But I was also spending my Springs, Summers, and Falls doing super long-distance road rides and backcountry tours with my best bud Craig back then, and if I wanted to keep riding like that, carrying on through winter had to happen. I definitely enjoyed some of those winter rides, though. The worse, the better as I wore the conquest of seemingly unnavigable streets like a badge of honor. I was younger and cockier back then, though too. I don’t have anything to prove anymore.
Being bundled up seems important… What kind of layering did you go for?
I had all kinds of tricks I did that I thought were helping, but whether or not they did was negligible. Like running from a hot shower to my riding gear believing I was trapping some heat by getting dressed quickly. I tried a lot of the gear I could get bike industry discounts on but found I was just creating a bigger pile of clothing and accessories that were worthless. I mostly wore double-front Carhartt pants, layers as necessary of thin wooly long sleeve tops under a wind and waterproof-ish shell. Winter boots and flat pedals for actual warmth as I’ve never tried a pair of cycling-specific clipless winter shoes that were worth a lick. And rag-wool chopper mitts – those were the key! Found at Army/Navy Surplus or the Farm and Fleet stores in the Midwest. Wool scarf and a neoprene ear-flap and visor cap under a helmet. Clear safety glasses. I could deal with most any extreme in that get up as long as I kept moving.
Any special changes to your bike for the two of you to survive the dark months?
Studded tires right out of the gate. I never understood why anyone would ride in traffic in a city without them. I remember asking some messenger friends in Milwaukee if they used studs; “Never.” I’d ask, “Do you crash a lot?” They’d say, “All the time.” That was lost on me. The thought of NOT being able to ride when it was nice because of some unnecessary injury from a fall would have destroyed me. There’s was a pervasive mentality from motorists back then that if they wouldn’t do something themselves, they didn’t head out expecting to see someone else doing it, either. That shock when they’d see someone on a bike often lead them to drive even more erratically. Studded tires and the ability to aim for ice and slush on the sides of the roads was a crucial extra bit of security. I don’t recommend this other ploy unless you’re working in a bike shop and you’re prone to cover your clothes in grease and oil anyways, but I would just spray bare metal bits like axles and my bottom bracket spindle with T9 lubricant without wiping it off. I guess that stuff, made or branded by Boeing, is similar to aircraft wing de-icer and has a waxy element to it. All the sand, salt, and water would stick to it, and I could wipe it off at some point to reveal nice, clean, rust-free parts. You couldn’t get within three feet of the bike without getting all that shit all over you, but the bike ran like a top.
Any bits of favourite gear you can recommend?
As I mentioned, Double-front Carhartt pants always kept my legs from freezing, but my favorite piece of gear was desire. Without desire, it’s hard to get anywhere in the winter by bike without that corrosive voice in the back of your head that just asks, “Why are you doing this?” But I really used to go to great lengths to keep the motivation high and know that come Spring – after pushing those heavy studded tires around and making tracks or staying limber twisting my body reacting to a slick surfaces to maintain an upright position – I was going to be able to start big miles as soon as the snow melted, and the April and May rain had washed away all the salt. I definitely pay a price on early season rides now if I haven’t been out consistently in winter. You gotta work out the pros and cons of both scenarios though and do what makes sense to you.
How about magic tips? Or is it just good old grit and determination?
No magic tips really besides good ol’ grit. Have a solid argument you can turn to for doing it besides trying to impress the masses – you’ll be let down, I assure you. But when it’s 10-below out before wind chill, your nostrils feel like they have glass shards in them, and you’re flirting with frostbite, have a good mantra for why you believe there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing. Also, keep in mind that most people know that moisture on a beard in freezing temps will result in – wait for it – an icy beard. Instagram it if you need to, I guess.
Quick rundown on your Surly 1×1, if you please…
The Ol’ Stinker. Man, that bike got me through some unbelievably stupid weather. Original Surly 1×1 hubs that somehow kept rolling laced to Sun Rhyno-Lite rims with braking sidewalls thinner than a human hair by the end of their life. Some Tektro cantilever brakes pulled by SunTour XC Pro levers, an old Shimano LX crank, and cockpit bits and pieces that were just laying around. I never once had an ACS “Claws” BMX freewheel poop out on me, and the one time I had to use a Shimano, it freewheeled in both directions within hours in freezing temps. ACS all the way. I can’t remember why or when I replaced the original Surly fork, but the Tange one on there was definitely more flexible. Nokian “Mount and Ground” tires were predictable and lasted many seasons each. I had racks on and off it at times, permanent fenders and clip-ons, and sometimes a mix of the two. Death metal stickers provided the soundtrack. But I’ll say that if I had to sum up what Surly frames can do, I’d just show this bike and let it do the talking. Hail, Surly.
Death metal stickers provided the soundtrack. But I’ll say that if I had to sum up what Surly frames can do, I’d just show this bike and let it do the talking. Hail, Surly.
I surrendered this bike to my friend Matt before I moved from Minneapolis to Maine. That may have been a blessing or a curse for him. I haven’t heard if it’s still rolling, or if Matt is looking for a priest to read it its last rites. I believe that whatever the outcome, though, that bike will never truly be dead.
Metropolitan Midwest winters can take its toll on even the hardiest of individuals. Since this photoset, Mark has moved to Maine, where the January highs reach a relatively balmy 32°F (0°c). He now works for Hyperlite Mountain Gear and walks to work…