I am neither a poet, nor a winter biker – but in the age of COVID-19 when the only rule is to be socially distanced from one another, I’ll try my hand at both. Wondering how poetry and biking are connected? Watch the video later in this story. You’ll understand.

This winter, I set a goal for myself to snowshoe 100 miles. So far, thanks to our early October snow, I have 3 miles under my belt. Feeling the need to get outside during our recent stretch of non-wintery winter weather, I decided that, since Mother Nature refused to help me reach my snowshoe goal, I would pull my bike out of the rafters and give cold-weather biking a try.

WILL A LOVE OF SUMMER BIKING TRANSLATE TO WINTER?

A bicycle ride in the summer is one of my favorite physical activities. Jumping on my bike in shorts and a t-shirt for a 10-mile spin through the neighborhood, feeling the sunshine and breeze, is my favorite way to start a day. Will my love of warm-weather biking translate to a winter ride?

Getting outside, in socially distanced situations is a goal for me this winter. I’m ready for new things as long as those things don’t require a lot of skill, money or outright coordination.

Since I already know how to ride a bike and have boots, a stocking hat, a face mask, some warm pants and a pair of choppers, I decide to give it a whirl.

AN ODE TO A WINTERY RIDE (EXCUSE THE POETRY, PLEASE)

 

I set out with no particular destination in mind.

THE GATEWAY TRAIL IS AN ABSOLUTE GEM

State Trail sign
Trailer marker

I pick up the Gateway Trail off of Arlington Avenue, just to the east of I-35E in St. Paul. To this point, I ride about 4 miles and I’m feeling really good. The 10 to 12 mph wind I create isn’t as cold as it was when I first started, and I’m glad to be off the road and safely on this State Trail.

I have ridden the Gateway many times. In the summer, the trail fills with all sorts of users, from people donning the Lance Armstrong inspired lycra kits to families with kids on training wheels to inline skaters. A busy trail is a hectic trail, and in the warm weather months, I like to be off the trail before 10 am to avoid the crowds who flock to this gem.

The Gateway in the winter
A quiet Gateway Trail.

In the winter, I discovered, the Gateway is anything but hectic. It’s peaceful and serene. A dusting of snow was not too much for my regular bike to handle, though I did see two people with fat-tire bikes. I’m guessing those tires provide a better grip, but with the trail I encountered, covered only with a dusting of snow, I never felt as though I lost contact with the pavement.

Any more than a sugar-coating of snow, however, and I would not have felt as confident in my ability to stay upright.

A FEW WORDS ON WHY COTTON IS NOT RECOMMENDED

Around about mile eight, I started to get a little too warm and I realized that the cotton sweatshirt I had on under my wind jacket was a mistake: because at the same time I’m getting warm, I’m also getting a little chilled. So I decide to turn back.

Naturally, my turn around point is everyone’s favorite giant snowman in North St. Paul.

A 44 foot tall snowman
The iconic North St. Paul snow man

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Let’s pause for a very important factoid: That stucco snowman – who waves at passersby all year long – is the largest in the whole wide world. Discover more about him in this episode of 30-Second Minnesota.

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My toes are starting to get cold, though my hands feel fine. There’s a lot of snot. I am thankful there is very little wind.

The beauty of this ride is that it’s more about getting through and surviving it than it is speed. I would have rather avoided getting stuck at a train crossing for 5 minutes, but I did appreciate the sights and sounds of the train. My legs and lungs needed the break.

Bike rider with a facemask
It’s best to bundle up – but maybe not too much.

EMBRACING THE SEASON

I haven’t been on my bike for two months, so starting off with a 15-mile ride, was not super smart. But being out doing something on an 18-degree morning that others think is ridiculous made me feel like I was embracing my True North.

Over the years, I have seen, as I’m sure you have, a number of people biking around in the snow. Have I rolled my eyes at them? Yup. Do I now better understand why they’ve chosen bicycling as a way to get outdoors in the winter? Maybe.

Upon getting home, I peel off my wet sweatshirt, stocking hat and face mask. Did I mention the snot? A $100 performance type of wool undershirt would have been better, but I want to be able to get outside with the gear I already have. Spending exorbitant amounts of money to enjoy the fresh air only widens the rift between people who utilize the outdoors and people who do not.

Will I do it again? If a bike ride on a summer morning carries an enjoyment factor of 9.4/10 I will give a winter ride a 5.9/10. So, maybe. Though in December, I’d rather be able to strap on some snowshoes.

If you have any tips to share on how to better enjoy a winter ride, please share them in the comments.

THE GATEWAY TRAIL

The Minnesota DNR provides a lot of information about the Gateway Trail and how users can enjoy its 18-mile stretch from Saint Paul through Maplewood, North St. Paul, Oakdale and to Stillwater. Ample parking in various areas allows for the ability to haul a bike to any section of the system, and the connections to Phalen Regional Park, the Brown’s Creek Trail and the Vento Trail allow for extended rides in Saint Paul or Stillwater.

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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“I’m 45 years old. If I haven’t yet learned to climb rocks, do parkour or ride really fast on a bike down a wooded path, it’s safe to assume it’s not going to happen. Though I firmly believe this is a time when I should be getting outside and into some wide open spaces more often, I also believe this is definitely a time where I shouldn’t be taking up valuable medical space or attention nursing a broken ankle, snapped ACL or concussion. I’m not a risk-taker. Never have been, never will be. I like to keep things slow and steady.” So Twin Cities Producer Luke Heikkila decided to try a little something called “forest bathing.” His experience is your reward.

On a pristine day in October, Twin Cities Producer Luke Heikkila wandered down to Fort Snelling State Park for a few hours of skipping rocks across the Mississippi River. Both the rocks – and the time – flew by. He recounts his experience in this personal essay.