This is the advice I am given by a resident of the metropolis that Bicycling has proclaimed America’s Best Bike City: If I happen to be riding and my freewheel freezes up, which it tends to do here on the grim and purgatorial north-central plains of Minnesota, “Don’t just stand there and stick your thumb out. Flip your bike over. People will see that and feel sorry for you and help. People around here know that if you get stuck in the cold, you could die.”
The man who divulges this gem is teaching a class on winter riding to me and seven other men and women ranging in age from 20 to 70. The mere need for such a class to exist should preclude Minneapolis, Minnesota, from attaining utopian status among cyclists. The subarctic climate here is so awful that it has spawned skyways because people generally don’t even want to walk outside during the winter. Great bike cities are those like the sunny, progressive haven of Davis, California (or the more urban San Diego), or George Hincapie’s lush and hilly bike-centric hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, or even a place like the legendarily bike-friendly Portland, Oregon, where riding without fenders qualifies you as a hard sort. Sure, we all might admire the cyclists of Minneapolis for their grit. But declaring that their home is the best city in America in which to be a cyclist?
The instructor moves on to a discussion of studded bicycle tires, explains that jumping snowbanks “is a great skill to develop,” and that when we skid on ice and find ourselves out of control, we should lean into the skid and stay loose. He reminds us to oil the top and bottom of every spoke nipple, and that open tread patterns without tight parallel lines are best. Also, he adds that it’s never a bad idea to carry an extra plastic bag for each foot while pedaling around this icy and godforsaken slab of frozen prairie, so that if we find ourselves losing feeling in our toes, we can take our shoes off, wrap a bag around each foot, then resume pedaling—”at least until your feet start sweating, which is when you’ll really be in trouble.”
Best city? Really?
My first stop in my investigation of Minneapolis, which occurs during January 2010, is the One on One Bicycle Studio. I have heard, through people who claim to know the local scene, that this is the epicenter of all things two-wheeled. (Note to the other 50 bike shops in the Twin Cities, including Erik’s Bike Shop, The Alternative Bike & Board and the recently opened Angry Catfish, as well as all the bike hangouts such as Grumpy’s, and the bike-gang-run nonprofit repair joints such as The Grease Pit, and of course to the local bike lovers, bike messiahs and bike revolutionaries who all have their own hangout spots going: I didn’t leave you out on purpose.)
At One on One, which also serves as a coffee shop/ restaurant/occasional art gallery and party venue, there are signs announcing bike swaps and ice races and allfemale alley cat races (the kind that use a manifest and checkpoints to approximate the bicycle messenger experience). You can bring your old junker in and have the mechanics convert it into a singlespeed, which is the winter bike of choice on these endless, flat, snowy paths and streets. You can, at 6 p.m. every day, see gaggles of bike messengers drinking beer and/or smoking cigarettes in the front of the store, and in the back. And you can meet Gene Oberpriller, aka “the godfather of the Minneapolis bike scene.” Or, “Geno.”
A former BMX rider, Geno lived on the second floor of what is now his shop when it was still a massage parlor. The owner allowed him to use the basement for storage. He and a friend (“the Satanic Mechanic”) liked to go Dumpster diving from coast to coast, and by the time Geno decided to open One on One in 2003, the basement had become popular among cyclists and junk lovers alike. In 2006, he made $60,000 from sales out of what is known as The Bicycle Junkyard alone.
On the cold winter morning I meet him, Geno talks about the 27 raids in 12 years that led the massage-parlor owner (“a nice lady, she used to make me soup”) to sell the shop and get out, and how “a used bike that costs $400 in Portland costs $200 here,” and about a lake race coming up Saturday on Lake Minnetonka, and how even last week, when temperatures were below zero every day, cyclists were still stopping by, which is something that’s changed in the past 10 years. He says that now, when he rides his bike round-trip from home to work every day, he always sees tracks in the snow. He says he’s accidentally left bikes outside overnight, and they’re almost always there in the morning. He says that while he’s started to sell some bikes to Mexican immigrants in town, he thinks the Hmong and Somali are markets waiting to be tapped. He suggests that a person wanting to understand the bike culture in the city visit Mplsbikelove.com. And he does something strange and unexpected, something I will discover is not so strange and unexpected here, but that in fact is part of the very thing that makes Minneapolis such a great city to be a bicyclist: He suggests I visit a competitor.
Tommy “Hurl” Everstone got his nickname when he was working at a bike shop in Oregon. He was already being called Earl, after a Tom Petty song, and….well, Hurl got a degree in literature from Minnesota and he publishes (though on a very unpredictable schedule) a ‘zine that shares the name of his shop, Cars-R-Coffins, so let him tell the story.
“I was working at Second Nature bikes in 1991 and there was a drug dealer who would always come around and ask us to fix flats and stuff and throw doobies our way and one of the guys in the shop said, ‘Hey, your name should be Hurl, with a silent H, like Herb, with a silent H.’ But now it’s Hurl.”
Hurl commutes 4 miles to work each day, and he says he thinks so many people ride bikes here—even in winter—because “it’s always been an outdoorsy, Nordic, get-out-and-do-it kind of town. And there’s that Scandinavian mentality, that ‘What doesn’t freeze us makes us stronger’ thing.”
Wanting to present all sides of the Minneapolis scene, Hurl admits to me that while the Midtown Greenway—a 5.5-mile former railroad corridor in south Minneapolis that now serves as an east-west bicycle super highway—is great, at night there have been some assaults, which makes sense, as it goes through some rough neighborhoods. He suggests I consider joining one of the volunteer vigilante night bicycle rides that patrol the Greenway. He also tells me, as do about 10 other Minneapolites I meet, that the city always plows the Greenway before it plows the streets.
I’m impressed by all the bike information and all the bike enthusiasm, but I still don’t really understand why so many people ride bikes here. What makes this such a great bike town?
What makes Minneapolis a great bike town, Hurl answers, are the bike couriers and road racers; the BMX racers; the velodrome in nearby Blaine; the small but growing bike-polo community; the Stupor Bowl (the largest alley cat race in the country and, presumably, the free world, says Hurl, held every winter on Super Bowl weekend); and even the local branch of the Black Flag bike gang—its members fuse kids’ bikes together, one on top of another, then ride toward one another and smash each other with two by fours.
The cool thing about our community of cycling is everything helps each other out,” he says.
Like Geno, Hurl talks about how lately more people ride more often, even when, like now, the subzero temperatures leave “a gnarly layer of ice on the side streets. We call it boiler-plate ice.” Then he suggests I visit one of his competitors.
Chuck Cowan, owner of Behind Bars Bike Shop, is as laconic as Hurl and Geno are talkative. “I went down on some brown sugar today,” he says, perhaps by way of explanation. I say “huh,” then realize he means he fell skidding on yet another type of Minneapolis snow—different than boiler plate, but apparently every bit as treacherous. When he mentions the location, a visitor in the store in the best bike city in America says, “Oh, yeah, we call those ‘the lanes of death,'” and both men laugh.
According to the U.S. Census’s 2005 American Community Survey, 2.4 percent of the working population of Minneapolis rode their bikes to work. By 2008 (the latest figures available), the number had risen to 4.3 percent. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s the second-highest percentage in the country for a major city, behind Portland’s 5.9 percent. That’s 8,200 people living in Minneapolis who ride to work—except in winter, when by anyone’s best estimate the number dips to about 4,000.
The city government is hoping to get those numbers even higher. Minneapolis is one of four population centers (along with Marin County, California; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Columbia, Missouri) that recently was promised $25 million apiece in federal funds over the next 10 years to get more people onto bicycles.
Already, the Twin Cities have impressive bike infrastructure: Between them, Minneapolis and St. Paul have 84 miles of dedicated bike paths and 44 miles of designated bike lanes on streets. The city has plans to install another 40 miles of designated bike lanes. Every city bus and train has bicycle-carrying capability. Every office building in Minneapolis is required by law to provide bicycle storage, and the city funds half the price of every bike rack any business installs. Although a study by the Alliance for Biking and Walking said that Minneapolis had more bicycle parking than any city in the country, transportation planners want to install $250,000 worth of new racks. In the spring, Minneapolis will try its version of a city-bike program: One thousand bicycles, complete with headlights and taillights, will be set up at 75 locations throughout the city. They’ll be accessible with the swipe of a credit card at solar-powered kiosks, returnable at any location, and the cost will be $5 a day or $50 a year.
I know much of this because I spend the bulk of my second day in Minneapolis with Gary Sjoquist, looking at bike paths and bike bridges (including the $5 million Martin Olav Sabo bicycle bridge) and at Quality Bicycle Parts (QBP), the bike parts distributor that once employed Geno and Hurl and many other leading lights of the city’s bicycling scene, and where Sjoquist works as bicycle advocacy director.
Sjoquist, who is 56 years old, rode motorcycles competitively until he suffered a series of concussions that prompted his wife to strongly suggest he quit that sport. Now he takes two-hour spin classes regularly and rides at least 5 miles every morning, often on ice, holding the leash of his 70-pound Labradoodle with one hand. As a former editor of technical journals who once worked on proposals for Swedish anti-tank guns, he brings precision and a wonk’s passion to his job, which involves lobbying at local, state and national levels, following legislation through various committees, raising funds and generally trying to make Minneapolis—and the world—a safer, happier place for cyclists.
When I ask him why he thinks Minneapolis is such a great bike town, one of the first things he says to me, regarding a piece of federal legislation that passed a few decades back, is: “It was the first time the word ‘inter-modal’ was used in a Congressional setting!” I include the exclamation mark because Sjoquist utters the sentence in the same way another person might say, “Then I learned that there was a mysterious greatuncle and I was going to inherit 600 million dollars!”
He shows me another bridge and the Greenway. He takes me into Freewheel Bike’s Midtown Bike Center, a mostly city-funded coffee house/repair center/bike shop on the Greenway. Inside, there is bicycle storage (which costs $110 a year) and low-cost showers for cyclists who commute to downtown (office buildings, trains and buses are just steps away). Also, there is a replica of the rack found on every city bus, allowing cyclists to practice putting their bikes on.
Our last stop is at the office of city government employee Shaun Murphy, whose title is nonmotorized pilot project coordinator (which means he’s in charge of implementing all kinds of programs, including figuring out the best way to mark and maintain bike lanes on city streets, and making sure no one gets too riled up about it). Murphy says, “Four percent of work trips and 10 percent of all trips is where we are now. We need more connector links between dedicated bike paths and bike lanes on the streets. And we need to build partitions between traffic lanes and bike paths. In 10 years, it would be ideal if we were on our way to looking like a European city, where 30 to 40 percent of all work trips are on a bicycle.”
But it’s so cold. That night, puzzling once more over the question of why so many people ride in Minneapolis, I study the graphs and charts about bicycle use given to me by Sjoquist and Murphy. Eventually, I decide the answer won’t be found in a number. I log onto Mplsbikelove.com, and post a message that says I’m looking for cyclists who want to take a ride with me and who can help me appreciate their city.
In the morning, looking out my window at the blanket of ice crystals that has settled on downtown, I can’t believe this is anyone’s idea of bike nirvana. Over coffee, I punch up my computer. The response from the cycling website is staggering.
There is a message from Andy Lambert, a former bicycle courier who’s now sales manager for the local roaster Peace Coffee. “I delivered 83,659 pounds of coffee over 5,446 miles,” he writes. After a few paragraphs of memories regarding delivering coffee on two wheels, he says, “My favorite part about our bike scene is the diversity: You can ride down the Greenway and see roadies, fixies, Black Label kids, unicyclists, families, recumbents—you name it, we’ve got every stripe here. Minneapolis may be second to Portland in per-capita commuters, but how many days of the year do Portland commuters have to worry about icy roads, subzero wind chills and frostbite?”
A woman named Laura King (who signs off with “Bike Love,”) writes that “as a lady cyclist I am always looking for events that cater to me. Some examples of why I moved from Southern CA to Minneapolis and stayed: Babes in Bikeland (babesinbikeland.com), a huge all-female alley cat—the highlight of the summer; Girls Gone Grumpy Ride, a casual ride for ladies at which men who attend have to wear a skirt; Grease Rag (greaseragmpls.wordpress.com), a free, open-shop night twice a month, for ladies, by ladies.”
Someone suggests I take a night ride on ice, because “riding across a large frozen lake at night is very surreal. Riders on a static white twilight background take on this fantastic Wicked Witch of the West look; it kind of sticks in your memory. Plus hanging out in the middle of a city, but in a vast white emptiness on a lake is…go do it and you can fill in the blank.” A female professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota, R. Lee Penn, who teaches a freshman seminar entitled “My Other Car is a Bicycle,” writes that “I’ll haul just about anything by bicycle (including my child and all of his hockey gear to the local ice for hockey games and practice) and run just about any errand by bicycle.” She says she has pedaled in temperatures as low as -26 F, and likes to meet a group for prework morning rides when the weather is nice—”It gets into the teens for morning temps, and you cannot keep us inside.” Jeremy Werst, founder and guiding light of Mplsbikelove.com, asks if I want to meet Thursday at One on One to go out for a ride.
And Jen Gallop writes that she’d love to join me on a ride, too, but she works from nine to five (commuting by bike, of course, 20 miles each way every day). Just as I think I might be beginning to understand the charm of Minneapolis, I read Jen’s advice: “Be prepared for a lot of salt and sand on the roads and trails….Spray a bit of Pam cooking spray on your down tube, forks, rims, spokes and cranks. It will make them easier to clean.”
When I arrive at One on One, Jeremy Werst is already there, updating Mplsbikelove.com and talking about upcoming races and the local series of indoor “cold sprints” (races on stationary trainers with the participants hooked up to giant video monitors) with two friends of his, Bjorn Christianson and Landon Bouma. After I get fitted to a one-speed Surly Karate Monkey, and after the guys insist that I lose my bulky down coat, which I have on top of my T-shirt and sweatshirt, and beneath my wind shell, we head out. I would like to detail how we tested the new bike paths on Hennepin, then circled back on the newly designated oneway bike paths on First Avenue, then hit streets all over the metro area. But I was concentrating on looking for brown sugar and boiler plate and a new scourge called “ice warts,” which Bouma tells me to watch out for, right after he nonchalantly mentions to “be loose if you start skidding sideways.” I am not loose. I would rather not skid sideways. I’m as positive and passionate about that as my companions are about their bike city.
We ride along a few bike paths. No cars honk at us, and no taxi drivers scream (which I find disconcerting, being a New Yorker). After a while, we are on a dedicated bike path next to the river, then we’re on the great, vast Greenway, which at this cold, white hour—which Christianson calls “balmy in the 20s”—happens to be empty. We discuss all manner of bicycle subjects. We converse about Bouma’s ex, the only woman ever to win the Stupor Bowl, which leads to banter about a female messenger who punched out her boss. We talk about the website that Bouma is a majordomo for, Cyclopath.org, which lets you type in your starting point and your destination then view not only the best bike path route, but also bike-friendly coffee houses and stores and all sorts of other cool stuff on the way.
We stop at a grocery store, so the guys can show me the free bike pump outside, along with free bike tools including box wrenches, hexes, pedal levers, headset tools and a stand on which to hang your bike. Werst mentions that Babes in Bikeland is the largest all-female alley cat race in the country (and, I presume, the free world). This leads me to remember that the instructor of my winter-riding course told us there were more co-ops per capita in Minneapolis than anywhere else. Bouma replies that his mom, who attended The U (which is what Minneapolites call the University of Minnesota), used to tell him stories about the “co-op fire-bombings” when he was a kid—how rival co-ops would toss Molotov cocktails at each other. I spend a few quiet moments staring at the free tools outside this co-op. The people who live here seem so friendly and mellow, but underneath those placid exteriors run deep, raging rivers of incendiary passion.
The guys want to ride to a large warehouse right next to the Greenway, to introduce me to a couple of frame builders. The first is Chris Kvale, and he is lean, and white-haired and blue-eyed. The surfaces of his shop sparkle. Classical music hangs softly in the air. He has been making frames for 35 years—only steel, “only classic road frames.” He is a former racer, and at age 65 still rides 2.5 miles a day to work. When one of the guys makes an old-man joke about his preference for tubular tires, Kvale says, “I’m a minimalist, and they’re the simplest expression of the cyclist. Tubular tires demand something of the cyclist. They demand an involvement with your bike. And that’s what I demand.”
Across the hall is a man whom Kvale’s friends call The Anti-Chris. His name is Erik Noren and he starts cursing when we open the door, and continues doing so for the 30 minutes or so that we stay.
“Fuck Portland!” he opines upon learning I am trying to discover why Minneapolis deserves top status over what would seem the logical choice. “All I ever hear is about how cool Portland is. Who rides through the shit we do? We ride more by accident than they do on purpose.”
Noren is short and has a gut and mutton chops. He is known among other frame builders, including old-school masters like Kvale, as a dedicated and talented, if wildly unconventional, craftsman. But he’s popularly known as the foul-mouthed frame builder who plays his music loud at all hours and into whose office, late at night, young female artists sometimes wander and flash their breasts. Posters of naked women are plastered on the walls. There is a grimy, lumpy couch against one wall, with a grimy blanket on it. Noren has lately been having some trouble with his upstairs neighbor, who teaches “meditation and creative leadership.”
Of the 20 to 40 Peacock Groove frames he builds a year, some are classic road bikes, but he does not consider that his directive. He show us one he’s proud of: the “Homage to Uma Thurman from Kill Bill” bike, which is the canary yellow of the jumpsuit she wore in the movie, and has blood spatters all over the frame. “Yeah,” he says, as we all stare at the Uma Thurman. “I like to wow people.”
We leave and ride to the Midtown Bike Center, where I admire the bus-storage simulator some more, and tell the guys that a place with inexpensive secure indoor bike storage and showers is something they should never take for granted, and I probably get kind of incoherently emotional about the bike-bus-storage simulator (I’m cold and hungry and I think the Uma has unsettled me a little), and an employee intervenes and offers me a free giant cookie.
Back on the Greenway, we discuss the assaults (the three guys all agree that lights would help, and think the vigilante rides can’t hurt, either) and the power of Mplsbikelove. “We call it Jeremyslist,” says Christianson, who mentions that its local reach is so vast that when some kids posted a video on YouTube of other kids slapping unsuspecting riders, the cyber-community circulated it so fast, and contacted the police so swiftly, that an arrest was made that day. We speak of Black Flag (“Oh, yeah,” Christianson says, “they’re badass”). All three riders express their affection for Noren, and reveal that they worry about his business because, surprisingly to me, he gives away too many frames to community organizations (including Babes in Bikeland). Finally, I ask them again, directly, why their city is so great for cycling.
“It’s the liberal Northern attitude,” says Bouma, son of the woman who remembers the co-op wars. “Civil rights, hippies, that stuff.”
“The network of trails and parks,” says Werst.
“Because of how great our government has been,” Christianson says. “Every time I’ve reached out, they’ve been super-responsive.”
We’re all hungry, so we ride to Pizza Luce, a hangout for bike messengers that isn’t far from One on One. The trio is so polite and deferential toward each other that, even though I’m buying, it takes us 20 minutes to agree on a simple pizza. Is it this infernal niceness that makes the city so great for bicycling? And if so, how does one explain Noren?
I spend my final day in the greatest bicycle city in the United States inside my hotel room. I want to type up my notes, to see if in so doing I might arrive at a Grand Unified Theory about why Minneapolis is such a great cycling town. I want to incorporate Babes in Bikeland, blood-spattered bikes, two-by-four jousting matches, night-time vigilantes, ice warts, grocery-store repair stations, bus-rack-mounting practice contraptions, the silent H that’s pronounced, a 70-pound Labradoodle on a bike ride, Pam cooking spray and free giant cookies. Plus, it’s still so cold outside.
Months later, I am still working on my theory. I have told some of my friends that I am considering moving to Minneapolis, and I actually do think of moving, brown sugar and boiler plate be damned. Without knowing why, I have fallen in love with the cycling culture in Minneapolis. I tell my friends how nice the cyclists there are, how even the badass Black Flag group sponsors a community shop that makes bikes for poor kids, how the most misanthropic frame builder in the world is a secretly sweet guy who is always losing money because he is forever giving away his homemade frames. (He recently donated one to the vigilantes.) I still receive responses to my Mplsbikelove.com posting, outpourings of information, ride invitations, passionate (and long) discourses on the fun of this uniquely local cycling experience.
Among the e-mails is a message from a 36-year-old mother of two, a television producer named Angela Keegan Benson. She says she’s not a serious cyclist, that she bikes to work only three or four times a week. I ask how far from the television station she lives. Ten miles, she says.
That’s when the Grand Unified Theory of Minneapolis Cycling reveals itself. Here is a woman who commutes 20 miles round-trip four days a week, at least five months a year, yet does not consider herself a “serious cyclist.” Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe—along with decades of legislative support and a responsive government and friendly landscape and a cheerful community of cyclists—the Grand Unified Theory hinges on something essentially and particularly indigenous to the Midwest. Other cities might get more publicity, might brag about their famous hill and their local legends. In Minneapolis, cyclists (Noren nothwithstanding) don’t talk as much about cycling as they do it, through ice skids, along snowy bike superhighways, in the dead of winter and every other season. In Minneapolis, people ride and don’t consider it that big a deal.
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