Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Exclusive Breaking News!

After numerous bicycle commutes and walking forays following our recent snowstorms in Mpls, yours truly, editor of Urban-Crawl, could discern no rhyme or reason to the City's plowing methods and criteria. So, I decided to dig a little further.

While I had to pay two informants an undisclosed sum in Northern Lager Light (case packs) and gift cards to Sauce Wine Bar, as well as guarantee their complete anonymity, the cost was well worth the dirt I've uncovered. That's the grimy dirt that lay well below many of the unplowed and poorly cleared paths we cyclists have been forced to contend with so far this season.

It seems the City's plot is two-fold, but equally sinister at both turns.

My first correspondent, code name Hans Hunyuk, holds a position with Mpls Public Works. We spoke via Skype using an elaborate system of multinational relays. I posed a simple question in layman's terms: "Hans, how come the snow plowing is so shitty this year?"

He replied: "Oh yah, da City's made a lotta cost savin' measures dis year, ya know. Like skippin' da corners of every street and jus' pilin' snow on da sidewalks. Plus, der hirin' rookie plow drivers from Florida and Arizona to clear what we call, uh (he paused as if to pluck the term from memory) ... da 'non-essential routes'."

I pressed Hans for clarity just what he meant by "non-esential routes": "Well, der da trails around da lakes and all dem paths da skinny folk go ridin' bikes and joggin' in der funny outfits. Dat's da best place to go a-practicin' yer plowin', ya know."

I thanked Hans as we cut the conversation short to avoid a trace (but not before I got a few tips on the best holes this year at Mille Lacs).

My second informant, who goes by Zoe, is a fashion consultant/writer for a local trendy rag. In her spare time she's a social media maven focusing on conspiracy theory surrounding the City's dark inner workings. I'm not on Facebook so we texted. (I've expanded some of the text language because that stuff annoys me anyway, but I had trouble keeping up with her machine-gun texting prowess):

"The City doesn't care about bikers. They wish their hippie scum would move to Portland where they belong, so they've launched an aggressive campaign to strip away all the amenities you people have bragged so much about. The City needs new stadiums after all. Ones with real goddamn roofs."

"What might those amenities be, Zoe?" I queried.

"OMG, don't give me that shit! You know, 'Oh they plow our paths FIRST before the streets. They're smooth as a blow mirror. Blah, blah. We're number one in the nation now. Ha, f-ck Portland!' You know the lines, Dagwood." (That was the best code name I could muster on short notice.)

Zoe went on: "Well, blow me! I'm sick of your whiny crap because you naive bunch of sweaty, smelly, badly dressed misfits are gonna get screwed over like the rest of us. This town's no place for my art, my sensibilities and I don't give a shit whoever else they put the screws to either. You'll see."


I thought it best to forego thanking Zoe and instead contacted my cell provider to immediately have my number changed.

Well, there you have it folks. The City's definitely put cycling low on the list with snow removal this year. And it could be standard operating procedure going forward. Pray for subzero, because the warmer this unplowed stuff gets the nastier it's going to be when it does freeze hard.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice

Sylvia made a small Solstice shrine tonight, complete with candles and an original illustration to show the lengthening days.

We’re on the uphill side of daylight. Uphill if you consider the days will lengthen between now and spring; as in, we’re no longer descending into darkness. That’s downhill, I guess, if you consider it’s an effortless slide toward longer days. Either way you label it, I’ll take it. I'm not averse to winter but I like daylight.

Unlike the growing days ahead, the weather’s been anything but effortless, however. Mother Nature is working hard to make us work harder here in the 6-1-2. I rode to work yesterday morning in a pleasant snowfall. I was aboard the fixed gear Cross-Check, deciding to give my experiment with Pugsley commuting a break. The Check has Schwalbe Marathon Cross 40c tires on it. They are great for snow and feel like racing rubber compared to the 4” footprint of Pugsley. I kept my chin up in spite of the impending accumulation. Keep in mind some park paths still haven’t been plowed from our mega-snow a week and a half ago. I admit the reality of more snow made me wonder whether, as some of my cycling friends have posited, the city is giving up on clearing some of the smaller paths.

Shortly after arriving at work it REALLY started to snow and didn’t let up for about 5 hours. I’m glad I waited it out rather than leave work early, since I was able to avoid most of the automobile traffic congestion as well as the poor visibility from the heavy snow. I did have a fresh snow depth of 5” to contend with. No problem, I thought. I’ll slog through the residential connectors and hook up with the plowed main roads as available.

Out of the parking lot and into the street I began the zig-zagging pattern that inevitably greets the cyclist navigating the compacted cookie dough left by hundreds of car tires. That’s not my favorite kind of riding for sure, but it lasted no more than a quarter mile since the sidewalk connection I take to avoid a major road was snowed in. Someone on a fat tire bike looked to have successfully cleaned it earlier, but I was not able to hold a sufficient line to keep momentum. Oh well, the evening was warm so I dismounted for a half-mile walk to the next residential street. Remounting on the next street I proceeded to zig-zag some more. A half mile later I popped out onto a nicely plowed secondary and began sailing along with a decent tailwind.

A couple miles down the road I turned onto another residential and got stuck on a hill. Off again and more hike-a-bike for a hundred yards. I was working up a pretty good sweat on these walking sections – no cold feet tonight. At first I thought the wetness on the outside of my wind shell was my body perspiring through the well-worn nylon. But I rethought that as I realized the moisture on my face wasn’t sweat at all, but a fine, misting rain falling. As I hooked up with the main road for a 6-mile push straight north I carried some steady speed. The windchill created froze the slick layer to my jacket and mittens. I’ve never had that happen before on a ride. It seemed plenty cold enough that anything falling should be frozen, but it wasn’t. The few sections of clear pavement were beginning to crust a thin layer of ice. Nice.

My helmet and mittens, encrusted in ice, upon arrival at home.

Rounding Lake Calhoun I had the one and only driver of the night shout something I couldn’t quite make out as he passed. I could discern that it was directed at me and was derogatory in nature. I’m sure plenty of drivers think riding a bike in the snow and ice is dangerous, stupid and perhaps should even be outlawed. So be it. Do they really think driving in the snow and ice is particularly smart? Especially when so many continue to drive at unsafe speeds and behave recklessly with little regard for other non-drivers exercising their right to get peacefully from point A to B. This thought led to pondering the city’s philosophy of clearing snow. The emphasis is placed on restoring the ability of average motorists to confidently return to the streets. The resulting piles of snow on walkways and paths (some are impassible and will remain until spring) prove the concerns of the driver take precedence. It’s a shame since I regard those of us who choose to explore alternatives to driving to be the saner, safer variables in the equation during any season of the year. The internal-combustion-driven wheels of commerce must keep turning, however.

I expunged the negativity quickly because I was within a mile of the saving grace of winter cyclists – the greenway system. This peaceful ribbon is reliably plowed during snowfalls making it one of the best parts of any commute. I stopped off for a few cans of fizzy liquid refreshment to celebrate this most epic of solstice commutes upon my safe arrival at home. Moving quickly, I tried to avoid shedding my entire layer of ice in the store and made my exit back into the steady snow that had resumed.

Minutes later I rolled my tires onto the greenway where my enthusiasm quickly flagged. It hadn’t been plowed. Not only had the path gone uncleared, but a generous number of walkers and a couple skiers had already chopped up the way. I wanted my Pugsley but had no alternative. My skinny tires cut back and forth in the all-too-familiar zig-zag pattern. In addition I was fighting to turn over the gear in the deep snow. Moving to the edges didn’t help since they had been pocked from footfalls as well. A man was jogging ahead of me. Under normal conditions I would have rapidly overtaken him and left him behind. Tonight I was struggling to catch him. The effort to guide the bike and crank the gear was wrenching my lower back. My cyclometer read 4-5mph. I gave in about 2 miles from home, reasoning I could walk almost as fast and save my back for shoveling snow when I got home.

I walked for a while, cursing the city’s lax snow removal practices so far this season. As I left the last row of visible houses behind I noticed the warmth in the air and the glow of the full moon illuminating the dense, gray cloud cover. Then I remembered I had beer in my panniers. Propping the bike against a snow bank I introduced a celebratory crack into the silent night air. Then I took a few minutes to quench my thirst and ponder the beauty of it all – a fresh snowfall, peace and quiet in the middle of the city, plans that don’t work out but turn out okay in the end.

Feeling somewhat refreshed, I trudged the final mile of walking, post-holed across the railroad tracks and ascended the spiral ramp into Bryn Mawr. I rode the last stretch toward home, stowed my bike in the garage and mustered a soggy grumble ‘hello’ to the family. Still a bit chafed by the city’s untimely snow removal this season I swapped jackets and headed out to grab the shovel and complete my own snow removal responsibilities.

Happy Solstice, friends. Winter’s here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Best of 2010 (continued)

2010 was a busy year. I've been thinking over the past few weeks about the things I enjoyed, milestones that were passed and memories that will warm my heart over the coming winter months.

I returned to Germany (made two trips there this year actually). A couple of my associates took me to a hometown beer festival in Forchheim outside Nuremberg. It's called Annafest and celebrates the famed beer kellers (cellars) burrowed into the massive hillside where the festival takes place.

Of course there is the beautiful scenery of Bavaria. Although it was late July the evenings were cool and the days sunny and warm. Perfect for riding and we got to do some of that, too. It's a bonus that my work travel doesn't consist of landing in a country and going straight to a convention center or conference to be locked indoors the entire time. Riding bikes is part of the job.

Also this summer we went north to our friends' cabin. Charlie and Kathy are the girls' adopted grandparents. Our family is lucky to have them in our lives. They have a very impressive little getaway perched on a rock outcrop overlooking Lake Superior. I'm not much for the MN "cabin culture" but in my opinion this is doing it right. Their place had an amazingly settling energy about it. The structure is sustainable and fits with the landscape, literally built into the bedrock of the hillside.

We broke away for an overnight trip into the BWCAW. It was our first canoe trip in 5 years. That's far too long between adventures. Even though the Boundary Waters is in the same state, it's a big commitment in time and planning to make a trip happen. Here April looks a little soggy. We'd just emerged from sheltering beneath some trees while an impressive thunderstorm blew threw.

After camping we ventured to Grand Marais with the girls. The town was hopping in honor of the Fourth of July holiday. We fled the packed sidewalks to wander on the rocks sheltering the bay. Grand Marais is a special place. If you've never been and you get the chance to go, don't pass it up.

More on 2010 later, I'm sure. For now, forget Christmas -- have you made solstice plans for Tuesday? This year it's a full moon and an eclipse. Fortuitous indeed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Best of 2010

Sylvia confidently riding her own bike a long way.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


It's not quite winter, but winter has arrived in MN. We have about 8" of standing snow on the ground in Mpls and temperatures are holding below freezing. It's forecast to be below zero (F) tonight. The last snowfall came on Friday. I walked to get the kids from the babysitter today (Tuesday) and was a bit dismayed that most people in our neighborhod have not shoveled the curb cuts. That basically meant I could not push the stroller on our sidewalks; I had to resort to walking in the road. Same as it usually is in winter, I suppose.

When I shovel snow on our walk I clear at least a single swipe or a portion of the walk for both our immediate neighbors. I figure this is just being, well, neighborly. They tend to occasionally return the favor, which is a bonus. In addition, if we tell them we're gone for the weekend and it happens to snow they usually have our backs. Beyond that though I think about the common good. People who can't walk so well, but must, have a much easier time on a shoveled walkway. I shudder to think about those confined to wheelchairs living in MN. Once the snow piles up high enough few people consider a full width for passage.

Challenges with neighbors are relative I guess. Our previous neighbors were rude and sometimes hostile. We placed over half a dozen police calls against the building during the 18 months they lived there. Since then, the building went into foreclosure and was purchased by a conscientious landlord who renovated the place.

We now have seemingly affluent and quiet neighbors. They drive nice cars and mind their own business. They're almost too quiet. In a queer way I miss the noise from time to time. The silence is rarely broken by the four tenants -- save for one woman's automatic car starter which she uses to fire up her white Chevy Yukon sometimes 45 minutes before she comes out to drive it away. That grossly negates the 3-minute idling rule Mpls passed a few years back.

I have a problem with remote car starters, but I will spare you a full-fledged rant. I try to maintain an open mind. I knew someone a few years ago who moved here from a warmer overseas climate. She claimed she had an allergy to the cold. I understand we have identified a whole slough of modern allergies that were unknown in olden days. However, I have a difficult time accepting the existence of an allergy to environmental cold.

My own laziness is settling in. Getting myself on the bike for the 32 miles of daily pedaling to and from work has been more of a challenge. My toes are cold most of the way. It takes so long to dress and prep. If only it were 5 miles instead of 16. The list of 'If onlies' goes on.

Ah, inertia. Bless your inspiring, yet inanimate, heart.