It was 14 degrees outside but felt closer to zero when Mark Crown pulled on his riding cap and pedaled away from his Omaha home.
Every day around 6:30 a.m., Crown rides his bike 16 miles to work at Offutt Air Force Base and, when 5 o'clock rolls around, the same 16 miles home.
Even on cold December mornings. Even on blistering summer days. In the snow. In thunderstorms.
“I enjoy being out in bad weather,” said Crown, 56. “I enjoy the elements.”
If he's not on his red Cannondale — “a robust road bike” — he's sharing cycling tips with curious co-workers or watching the Tour de France. He talks about the history of “human-powered transportation” with a sort of reverence. He doesn't mind telling you that riding a bike beats other forms of fitness.
“Running downhill doesn't thrill me, but cycling downhill sure does,” he said.
He started riding in 1980 when he lived in Wyoming. It was a short trip to work in the summertime, and the mountains provided a scenic backdrop. Still, he did most of his commuting in the car.
“I wasn't as hardy — or as foolhardy as I am now,” he said.
When he moved to Omaha in 1993, he tried to bike to work year-round but was often deterred by the weather. His resolve waned in January and February when the wind felt like teeth on his skin. But as each year passed, Crown would cycle longer and longer into the winter months.
He accumulated the appropriate gear. He learned to adjust his schedule for bad weather. He purchased different bikes and different lights and different parts to withstand the wind and the slush and the dark.
Now his commute is a 15-year habit.
Though not all bike commuters do so year-round, the practice is growing in Nebraska. Omaha has seen a 124 percent increase in the number of local bike commuters since 2000, though fewer than 1,000 people travel that way, according to a report from the League of American Bicyclists.
Crown calls his commute a mild adventure, but “an adventure nonetheless.”
Meanwhile, his BMW 530 sits in the garage, only started for trips to Lowe's or the grocery store.
“I like cars, but to be in a car...is to be isolated,” he said, and driving in stop-and-go traffic isn't much fun, anyway.
Cycling, he says, is fun. His fervor for the sport took him to Europe, where he watched the Tour de France and biked through the Alps.
Usually, though, he's biking on the Keystone Trail in Omaha. Sometimes, he's clearing it.
When he spots snow that needs shoveling, a patch of ice or scattered glass, he thinks, “I wish someone would take care of that.” After he rides by it 15 or 20 times, he thinks, “I guess it's going to be me.”
Most of his daily commute is along the Keystone Trail. It's about two miles from his house and another two miles from Offutt, which means he spends about 20 minutes on the road.
Mishaps are rare, he said. Most drivers are courteous and considerate.
“If someone puts me in danger, the majority of the time they made the assumption that I was going slower than they thought,” Crown said. “They pass too closely. They don't understand the vulnerability of a guy wearing athletic attire, balancing on two wheels.”
It takes him 45 minutes to get to work, plus another five minutes if it's dark — he moves more slowly then. If there's a headwind, the commute might take an hour.
It's an hour he's happy to spend on his bike.
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