The sky is a clear blue and the snow, just a few days old, still lies fresh and white upon the ground on Eagle Street, next to the Red River on the city’s north side.
Wednesday’s temperature isn’t the bone-chilling below-zero cold of the start of the week, but it was still clawing toward double-digits above zero at 9:30 a.m., just as Alexander Wagner prepared to head to work at North Dakota State University.
But instead of cranking up his family’s lone car and making a quick 3-mile drive to his campus office, Wagner was getting set to do what he’s done every workday since 2002 — get on his bike and ride.
Wagner is one of a small, but growing, number of bicycle enthusiasts in Fargo-Moorhead who embrace the deep-freeze months of winter. While most area residents consider just getting to and from the car an exercise in misery, these bicyclists brave the elements on two wheels.
The lanky German-born Wagner stands about 6 feet 3 inches tall. His hair hangs past his collar and he sports a salt-and-pepper mustache and beard that would earn a nod of approval from a lumberjack.
As his biking companion, a year-old goldendoodle named Skye, wanders over with a toy to play, Wagner preps to hit the road.
The physics professor wears long underwear and gray, woolen pants. A wool shirt is topped by a gray wool vest. He laces up a pair of insulated hunting boots, then tops that with a red and black buffalo-plaid wool coat and a scarf to protect his nose and mouth.
“When it’s really cold, you have to put on another layer,” he said.
That happens around 10 below zero Fahrenheit. Then he adds a sweater and another pair of pants, he said.
He wears a green, insulated cap with ear flaps, and gloves topped by mittens that cover his wrists to protect against biting winds.
“It’s my normal mode of transport. We’re a one-car family. And I’m a German. And we like to go biking. I’ve been doing this ever since I came here in 2002,” Wagner said.
He’s learned from experience.
“There is bit of an adjustment period,” he said. “This year I had a problem with eyelids freezing shut and some stuff like that, but you can figure it out. You’re eyes start to tear a little bit, and the hair starts freezing up and you blink and they shut. That’s not too good obviously.”
And he’s had self-inflicted misery.
“I had a bad decision. It was one of those really cold, minus 10 Fahrenheit days,” he said. “And I just washed my hair, because it’s not a problem (with a hat). I hadn’t put my hat on right. and I readjusted it. And my hair froze, And that was really uncomfortable. And that was probably the most uncomfortable winter riding that I’ve had.”
Some his neighbors think “it’s eccentric,” but he’s made at least one convert among his colleagues.
“If you see someone else can do it, then you know, ‘Well, if that guy can do it, then I know I can do it,’ ” Wagner said.
Bill Thomas, director of radio for Prairie Public Broadcasting in Fargo, has been biking most of his life, but he’s been commuting year-round for 25 years, starting in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., then in Los Angeles and later in Lincoln, Neb., where he took advantage of a nearby bikeway. Equipment became important when the Moorhead man moved to the Fargo-Moorhead area 16 years ago, he said.
Warm clothes, including a cast-off set of ski pants and a warm cap, plus a combination balaclava-neck gaiter, keep his skin protected from the wind and cold.
“And then the other huge factor for me was getting studded tires, because ice is really dangerous for bicycles in the winter,” Thomas said.
Thomas rides to downtown Fargo about 4 miles from his home in the Ellen Hopkins Elementary School area of Moorhead. The coldest weather Thomas has ridden in was a 20-degree below zero morning a couple of years ago.
“I was like, OK, can I really do this. Just to find out what it’s like,” he said. “So I found out what it was like to ride in minus-20, with a wind, of course. The wind makes a big bit of difference, too.”
Like Wagner, biking is an exercise program built into Thomas’ day.
“I don’t go to the gym, I don’t run, I don’t play racquetball or go swimming,” he said. “It’s the only vigorous exercise that I get. I hate to give it up.”
Sara Watson Curry, director of operations for Great Rides Fargo, rode into work at Fargo’s Great Northern Depot when the temperature has hit 11 degrees Wednesday.
She’s now preparing for the sixth annual B-B-BRRR Winter Classic, which is sponsored by Great Rides and the Great Northern Bicycle Co.
The Border Battle Bike Race on the Red River will be at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 31 on a 10-kilometer course in Wildflower Grove, just south of Oak Grove Park, she said. This year it’s part of the North of Normal Games in Fargo-Moorhead’s inaugural Frostival.
The racers can race and others can just enjoy being outdoors, Curry said. With about 100 organized bike rides in the spring and summer, she said ” it’s kind of nice to get people back together.”
The Moorhead resident says she’s biked to work about half the days so far this winter.
She swears by ski goggles for her rides.
Aaron Romaine, co-owner of of Great Northern Bicycle. rode a fat-tire bike into work Wednesday.
“In the wintertime, you’d be surprised” at the number of commuters. “I can’t put a number to it, I would say more than half of our staff ride year round. There’s a number of kids who actually have cars and choose not to ride them,” Romaine said.
Wagner regularly finds beauty in his winter rides.
With a Styrofoam scrunch of his tires on the packed snow of his driveway, Wagner mounts his bike and calls to Skye.
“Ready? Off we go!” he says, and starts pedaling.
Skye leaps and flounces through the snowdrifts lining the sidewalks and pulls Wagner along on her leash.
Winter bike riding is really no different than if you go skiing, he said.
“Nobody bats an eyelid if you go cross-country skiing in this weather,” Wagner said. “People just aren’t used to it.”