Thursday, July 18, 2013

Twintastic Bike Cities

 I’ve read about Minneapolis being one of the most bike friendly cities in the U.S., so I was eager for my visit to the Twin Cities and the chance to explore on two wheels. The first step was to check out my cousin Miriam’s neglected bike, which was hanging from a hook in her garage, waiting patiently for someone to ride it. It’s a perfectly good bike, but it needed air in the tires and a quick stop at their local bike shop, Charlie’s Tangletown Bikes, to tighten up the seat and lube the chain. The shop featured an enticing selection of nutcase helmets in the front window and Charlie himself fixed up the bike for a very reasonable $5.

My cousin and her partner, Amy, took me for a little tour (in the car) of the bike paths around some of Minneapolis’s many lakes. The first thing I noticed was the luxury of paths that are separated for pedestrians and cyclists. Many of the local paths are split and clearly signed, so these two very different types of users don’t need to compete with each other. I have never had this luxury and it felt like bicycle heaven. On a Sunday afternoon the bikers were out in force, but the most unusual rider was the fellow pictured below, who sported a white dove perched contentedly on his shoulder.

Monday evening Amy and I headed out after dinner – the temperatures still warm and humid, but not bad compared to D.C. – and the sun was almost setting, so the ride was shady. We could get on the Minnehaha Trail just half a block from their home and rode it 2.5 miles to Lake Nokomis. It’s another two miles to ride around the entire lake, making for an easy, flat, seven-mile ride.

The sun made a brilliant red circle when we got to the lake and the ghostly half moon was midway up the sky ahead of us. What a perk: biking around Minneapolis’s lakes allows the rider to go swimming if s/he gets too hot. There are many swimming beaches on the small lakes, and plenty of folks take advantage of them.

But my big adventure was planned for Wednesday, when I had a meeting with my long-time colleague, the director of the Minnesota AARP office, located near the state capitol in St. Paul. I scoped out the 13-mile route, following the Minnehaha trail to the Mississippi River which I would cross into St. Paul. From there I would go north to Summit Avenue, a shady residential street with bike lane the whole way till I was practically downtown.

The trip went smoothly. I missed my river crossing closest to the Minnehaha, but rode north along the river to the next crossing (Marshall), which only took me a few blocks out of my way. Because I planned to get to the office around noon, I was riding in the heat of the day and – yes – even Minneapolis is having a 90+ degree heat wave. I took a water break on Summit and decided to try out using the GPS on my I-phone, as there were quite a few twists and turns from the end of Summit to my destination. I stopped when I got a view of the capitol building and using the GPS worked well. I arrived just in time, thirsty and drenched in sweat. After a quick clean-up in the restroom I changed into the work clothes I’d carried in my backpack (no rack/panniers on my cousin’s bike). My colleague, Michelle, took me out for a tasty Japanese lunch (vegetarian bento box with spinach, miso soup, salad, tofu, rice and pickles…yum!!!) and we spent four hours talking business and catching up on our personal lives.

I’d originally planned to just put the bike on the bus for the return home, and had mapped out a good route. But, for some insane reason, I decided to bike home. I wanted to try a different path – in part because I’d missed seeing Minnehaha Falls on my way out (because of the missed turn) and thought I’d try the river route from St. Paul instead of the city route. And thus began my long, hot, thirsty voyage during which I got lost many times and had to depend on the kindness of strangers to find my way back. Fortunately, other bikers generally tend to be helpful , and it’s true that Midwesterners are especially friendly and glad to help.

            My first wrong turn came at Fort Snelling, where I missed a turn and ended up on a path that took me along I-55, where I made a long crossing of the Mississippi. I know I shouldn’t go over the river again and, indeed, I had to turn around and do it again, but an especially nice cyclist went out of his way and guided me to the spot that would lead me to the right path. However, once I got to Minnehaha Park, the intersection of several paths was very confusing. By then, I’d been riding 2 hours in the extreme heat and had consumed every last drop of my water – probably losing half my body weight in sweat. So when I saw a Dairy Queen, I went in for a mango smoothie and 20 minutes of air conditioning. Even so, I got just as confused at the intersection, and ended up on the wrong path, going north when I wanted to go west. I recognized my mistake pretty soon, but – rather than chance a third mistake at the dreaded intersection – I decided to take the easy-to-navigate city streets to a place that I could see would make a clear connection back to the Minnehaha trail that goes to within a block of my cousin’s house.

 I was desperate for salt by the time I reached my destination, and fortunately my cousin had a jar of pickles – the cycling yogi’s remedy – of which I consumed many, including a glass of the salty juice!

            But – on the positive side – I saw many parts of the twin cities and found an amenity that the DC-region should embrace. There was one section of trail that required going down and then up a long flight of steep stairs for making a bridge crossing. As I was about to lift the bike and carry it, I noticed a steel bike ramp which I was only too happy to use. Despite having good bike maps for Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as an I-phone, my lifelong struggle with directional challenges made for a very long bike ride home in the hot sun. On the other hand, I felt the accomplishment of navigating an unknown city, and my physical stamina was more than up to the task – the only real challenge being dehydration and heat.

            Today will be a day of rest, or swimming, but another bike adventure is in the works for Friday, which is predicted to be cooler. Even more important, I will be accompanied by Amy, who will be my trusty bicycle Sherpa!

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