MINNEAPOLIS -- Rain, shine, sleet or snow, Jim Orange regularly pedals the 26-mile round-trip from his home in West St. Paul to his job as a Minneapolis city planner.

Orange, 43, also owns a nice, reliable car. But for eight years, bicycling has been his choice of transportation, even on bone-chilling cold, dark Minnesota mornings.

Dressed head to toe in polypropylene undergarments, a layer of wool, wind pants, a helmet wind screen, a vest and mittens, Orange said he feels cold only "for the first 10 or 15 minutes, and then I start to sweat."

He arrives at his office in less than an hour, locks a bathroom door, gives himself a little "splash bath" and heads for his desk.

Not all Minnesotans bicycle to work as much as Orange, but about 66 percent of them are bicyclists, nearly twice the national average, according to the State Bicycle Advisory Board.

A bicycle commuting plan recently approved by the board is the nation's most comprehensive, envisioning so many people commuting to work that freeways eventually will be crowded with two-wheelers instead of gas-guzzling vehicles. The plan sets out a nine-year strategy to make bike trips as easy and safe as those by car.

The state's first bicycle freeway, a 17-mile trail from suburban St. Paul to downtown St. Paul, is to be completed in 1992. Bike lockers are scattered throughout the Twin Cities, some available at parking garages for $30 a year.

Minneapolis developed a parkway system of recreational bike trails in 1972 "that are jam packed on the weekends," said Jim Dustrude, state bicycle coordinator, and more than 750 miles of bike trails are scatterred throughout the state.

Shunning terms such as "frigid," "sub-zero" and "Antarctic," Minnesotans prefer "Winter Wonderland" to describe their notorious climate and encourage more people to use bicycles all year for work, errands and play.

"Mountain bikes have fat tires and get great traction in the snow," Dustrude said. "Sometimes, you can get somewhere faster on a bike than in a car. . . . {like} a cross between cross-country skiing and a sleigh ride."

Even though Orange wears enough reflectors on himself and his 7-year-old mountain bike "to make me look like a Christmas tree on wheels," he said that does not "prevent cars and two-ton behemoth trucks from thinking the road is theirs and they don't have to share it with bicyclists.

"When the weather's bad, cold and inconvenience are not issues, but safety is," he said, adding that he has a close call "about every other week."

Planners hope to make bicycling safer by increasing state expenditures on bicycle transportation from $4 million to $10 million to build more bike freeways and create bike lanes on streets and highways. By 1999, the board estimates, the state could save at least $13 million annually in highway maintenance and construction.

In addition, the plan requires a $2 yearly registration fee for bikes that could generate almost $3 million annually to help pay for the promotional and informational programs and route improvements.

A recent editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune advocated more and safer bike riding statewide, saying "bicycling has an important and beneficial role to play in Minnesota's future. . . . If state and local governments make bicycling safer and more convenient, thousands of Minnesotans who now drive to work might opt to pedal instead."

State agencies are to review the proposal and make recommendations next month before a final plan is implemented.

"I'd love to see more people biking for energy conservation and health, but also the more bikers that are out there, the better chance we have to survive," Orange said.

An initial study by the board calculated that about 2,000 people bibycle to work daily in downtown Minneapolis. "That might not seem like a lot of people," Dustrude said, "until you think of 2,000 less cars on the freeway. If we can do it in Minnesota, it can be done anywhere."