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Riders in the fifth annual New Year’s Day Brrrmidji Bike Ride turn onto Minnesota Avenue to start off their frigid tour of downtown Bemidji. At 11 below, this year’s ride was the coldest so far since the tradition began in 2010. Zach Kayser | Bemidji Pioneer

Cold Lang Syne: Brrrmidji Bike Ride enters fifth frigid year

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BEMIDJI — “We have a record!” Diane Pittman said excitedly after consulting her phone.

She and about a dozen other hearty souls were about to start the new year with a bang (and a shiver) Wednesday by embarking on the fifth annual Brrmidji Bike Ride, conducted on the first day of every year since 2010.

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The record? At 11 below, this was the coldest Brrmidji Bike Ride to date.

The main group planned to do about a four-mile tour of downtown, but there was talk among the diehards of riding 17 miles around Lake Bemidji.

“There’s fair-weather bikers, and then there’s preseason bikers, and there’s always this challenge of one more thing,” Pittman said. “Winter biking has become more accepted.”

The ride is organized by Shifting Gears Bemidji, which Pittman founded in 2002. Composed mostly of volunteers, Shifting Gears refurbishes disused bikes and then gives them to needy people who rely on the free wheels to get around.

“It’s fun to get bikes into the hands of people who need them,” Pittman said.

Sitting next to Pittman was Dillon Engel, Shifting Gears’ chief mechanic and Pittman’s only paid employee. Engel is a “year-round commuter” meaning he bikes to and from work every day.

“To sum it up in one word, I’m crazy,” Engel said. “Whether it’s snowing, minus 45 degrees, I’m out (riding).”

To combat the subzero temperatures, the Brrrmidji bikers were layered with so much winter clothing that some had trouble recognizing each other as riders trickled in to Cabin Coffee House and Cafe, the starting point for the ride. Other winter gear cyclers use includes thick, wind-blocking sleeves attached to handlebars that still allow the rider to brake. There’s also tire studs or spikes for traction, which Pittman said only recently became legal in Minnesota.

Bicyclists have what can only be described as their own language. One can “park and fly” or drive out to a destination, bike for awhile and then drive back. One can “wrench,” or repair bicycles. If one isn’t careful while riding they can get a “chain kiss” on their leg.

Brrrmidji rider Natalie Gille’s mission is to spread bike culture to the north country as part of Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, but for now she’s just enjoying getting out and riding.

“In winter, it’s a little bit quieter,” she said. “You dress a little bit warmer, but it’s still fun to ride.”

Former pro bike mechanic Mark Fulton, who has “wrenched” for Shifting Gears, said

“I’m getting into bike riding in the winter to a large extent because I really like it, and I don’t want to have to stop for five months a year.”

Grateful there was no crosswind to make conditions even tougher, the group set off up Minnesota Avenue into the frigid 2014 air with smiles on their faces.

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