title

Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Winter Bikes

When I last revised this article (winter of 2015), we had more than three feet of snow on the ground with a couple more feet on the way. Rumor had it that the groundhog was so fed up, he just packed his bags and moved to the other hemisphere. Sky high snowbanks lined our roads and sidewalks. In fact, that winter was so severe, that we gave in, packed up and moved to Western Massachusetts, where we now get even more snow! Yes indeed, we opted for more winter! I guess this means we must really enjoy winter!



A proper winter brings all sorts of challenges for cyclists who insist on riding their bikes outdoors! Each time the roads are plowed, more and larger potholes emerge. Although emerge may not be the proper word, as these holes are often hidden under puddles filled with slushy, sandy salt water. Then as the sun goes down, taking the temperature with it, scattered patches of ice make walking or riding a game of chance where suddenly you may find yourself Slip Sliding Away.

Now take a good look at your fancy lightweight racing bike with its smooth narrow tires, shiny anodized parts and carbon rims. If nothing else, the lack of fenders makes it less than ideal for riding on wet, mucky, salty roads. Those high pressure, skinny tires lack grip on ice, bounce around on the uneven pavement or get swallowed up by deep ruts, cracks or potholes. The salt and sand will destroy the shiny finish on those anodized parts and grind away the carbon bits. Better just save that bike for dry rides on pristine pavement in warmer weather.

You need a winter bike!

Of course, you might think a cheap department store bike that you won't care about would make a good winter bike. However, the first time you have to repair it on the side of the road with cold, numb hands, you will curse that bike in a way that makes you care deeply! Maybe if you are just doing short jaunts around town, with the bailout option of a short walk or public transit, this kind of cheap hack bike will be fine. However, if you have a long commute or want to do longish rides to maintain some fitness over the winter, you'll want to prioritize durability and reliability.

Fixed Gear Bikes


One of the easiest ways to reduce maintenance and eliminate one potential source of on-the-road mechanical issues is to simply fix the bike. With a fixed gear bike, there are no shift levers and no derailleurs or cables, so you won't have to worry about crud filled or frozen shift cables or ice clogged derailleurs. Sure, you are stuck with one gear, but at least you get to choose that one gear! You can also use a wider, more durable chain (or better yet, belt drive) and you won't have to worry about wearing out an expensive cassette either. (Seriously, have you looked at the price of cassettes and chains recently?!? It may be cheaper to pick up a used fixie on ebay than to replace a worn out 11 speed chain and cassette!)

 

Also, since you have to keep pedaling, riding a fixie will be warmer. A few years ago I had a mostly downhill commute home from work. I could never stay warm enough on that ride home in the winter with a geared bike, but since I had to pedal (with some actual resistance), I was able to generate a little bit of heat on the way home! (Staying warm on my uphill ride to work was never an issue.)

Now back when I first started riding fixed (over 20 years ago), it was almost impossible to buy a fixed gear bike in a local bike shop. Standard practice at the time was to find a frame with horizontal dropouts and order a fixed gear hub/wheel from a specialty shop and then DIY. A few years ago, inexpensive fixed gear and single speed bikes became very popular with urban hipsters, and it seemed for a while that every bike shop carried a variety of fixed gear machines. Then, by definition, this fad passed. So now you might be lucky to find one fixie/ss option locally, but it still isn't quite as much of a challenge as it used to be. If your local shop looks at you crossed-eyed when you say fixed gear, there are a few online shops that specialize in inexpensive fixies and single speed bikes. Also a few hipsters seem to be selling their little used single speeds/fixies on craigslist

Of course, you can still do a conversion and this set of links to various articles by the late Sheldon Brown has some great advice on fixed gear conversions, riding and equipment.

Fenders


I will add one caveat about many of the hipster fixies: they typically have rear facing dropouts - so called track ends - which are a pain (in the rear) for rear wheel removal when using fenders, an essential component on a winter bike.



Remember that winter comes with sand and salt and other such muck. Roads are likely to be wet, either from snow melt or precipitation (both the frozen and non-frozen type), and fenders do a good job of keeping that muck off you, your bike and its drivetrain (whether it's fixed or has gears). A front fender will help to keep your feet dry, while a rear fender will prevent the dreaded ice water enema! Finally, don't forget courtesy. It's just plain rude to spray muck into the faces of your friends!

There are a variety of fender types to consider, from full coverage, semi-permanently mounted ones, to quick mount partial coverage models. I discuss fenders in much greater detail in this article.




Choosing from among the various styles of fenders depends a lot on the amount of tire clearance on your chosen winter bike. So when selecting a winter bike/frame, keep fenders in mind and look both for maximum tire clearance and a dropout style that plays well with fenders.

Tires


Hand in hand with clearance issues for fenders are clearance issues for tires. In the winter I use bigger tires both for comfort on those rough pothole filled roads as well as to help avoid flats. I'd rather work a little harder pushing a big fat tire than having to fix a puncture in the cold.

Another reason to look for greater tire clearance is to make room for studded tires, especially if the bike is used for commuting, which likely involves some amount of riding in the dark, when it is much harder to see any icy patches. During the day, the sun shines on those giant snow banks lining the road, causing the snow to melt and run into the road, where it freezes as the sun and temperature go down. Studded tires help to keep you from going down along with the sun and temperature.

Years ago, I was less than ½ mile from home on my evening commute when I slid out on a patch of ice and broke my collarbone. After I recovered, I began using Nokian studded tires on my commuting bike. This wasn't for riding in blizzards - thankfully working from home was acceptable on those days. I just wanted tires that would cope better with occasional patches of ice and the invisible black ice.

A studded tire will dig into the ice rather than sliding sideways. When a front tire (without enhanced traction) hits ice and slips, the fork and wheel flop sideways, the bike goes down and you break your collarbone! If the rear wheel slips, the damage is mostly loss of drive, rather than the bike instantly going down.

It's a judgement call whether to go with studs only on the front or on both front and rear. It takes extra effort to ride with studded tires, but they do have the special training benefit of making you a stud when you go back to regular tires in the spring.

A few years ago, we picked up some non-studded winter tires from Continental, made from rubber designed to grip better at colder temperatures.

Fear Rothar writes:

The Continental Top Contact Winter tyres are certainly quite a bit more pleasurable to ride on than their studded cousins. They are faster, quieter and much less harsh riding on bumpy roads. They have worked well for me on various combinations of snow covered and icy roads and trails. That isn't to say that I expect them to do the same job as studs on glazed ice, but that for 95% of the conditions in which I am willing to sally forth, I am happier to be on them than on studs. That other 5% of the time, I'm very cautious! 




The bike pictured above is my trusty commuter. While I no longer have a long ride to/from work, I do still use it for daily errands, like groceries, cat litter, and PT appointments. It is set up with a studded tire on the front and winter tire on rear.

Frozen Cables


Another potential problem in the winter is that moisture can get into cable housing and freeze - especially if you have to park your bike outdoors. Frozen cables mean no shifting and braking. Using lined cable housing will help, as will thoroughly lubricating all the cables. Ice can also build up around cable stops, but applying grease at cable stops and anywhere cable housing ends can also help keep moisture out.

GORE-branded lined cables used to be the gold standard, but they are no longer available. However, SRAM Pro cables appear to have taken up where GORE left off.

For those who must have gears, an internally geared hub shares many advantages with SS/Fixed including lack of chain and cassette wear, as well as eliminating ice clogged derailleurs.

In truly cold conditions, the grease in the bearings for the freewheel mechanisms as well as internally geared hubs can stiffen up. Using a light oil or low temperature grease may help with these issues.

 

Lights


Even if you are planning only to be out in daylight, the shorter days in the winter may leave you finishing a ride in waning light. A puncture or mechanical may have caused a delay. Winter or studded tires may have reduced the average speed. Or too much time was spent in the coffee shop trying to thaw cold fingers and toes!

There are loads of good battery powered LED lights available now that will work great for the case of getting caught out unexpectedly.

If you already own a generator light, you are well aware that you never have to worry about running out of power or recharging batteries.

For an in-depth discussion of various lights, check out this somewhat dated post on lighting (It is next on the list for an update).


Tools

 

As mentioned above, reliability and durability is of prime importance. No one wants to do bike maintenance on the side of the road in sub-freezing temperatures. In the winter, try to pay extra attention to keeping the bike in good working order and err on the side of sturdy, reliable components versus cheap, fragile or lightweight parts.

But keep in mind that winter is hard on bikes and parts, and even with the best preparation, sometimes things break or go out of adjustment on the road. Always carry enough tools to handle roadside repairs, including the obvious tire levers, tubes, and wrenches, but also add chain tool, cables, and some spare nuts and bolts. And most importantly know how to use them!

Of course, some folks prefer to just carry a cell phone as their primary tool, but if you plan to go that route, I'd also suggest carrying a down jacket and heavy gloves as well!

Clothing and a way to carry it


I talked in great detail about clothing and the concept of layering in the article about dressing for winter. Now consider that you may need a way to carry all that stuff when you aren't wearing it. Keep in mind that if it's worth carrying it is likely worth keeping dry! I use a variety of waterproof saddlebags, handlebar bags and panniers. For bikes without eyelets for racks, there are lots of large saddlebag or even frame-bag options.


Fat Bikes 


An article on winter bikes wouldn't be complete without a mention of fat bikes. Fat bikes were first developed for events like Ididabike - an ultra-marathon bike race along the Ididarod trail is Alaska. Originally a sled dog race, categories now include skiers, runners and bikes.

Fat bikes have 4 inch or wider tires, run at seriously low pressure (5-6 pounds) for great control/grip and the ability to roll over soft snow and sand. Early fat bikes were custom builds and DIY. In recent years, they have become all the rage, and more and more mainstream manufacturers have added fat bike models to their lines, with a variety of prices from low to high.






8 comments:

  1. Amazing article. I'm actually attempting my first year of Winter commuting this year. I'm in Upstate NY and we normally have heavy snows and some extreme temps. But this year, it's been in the 50s mid day somehow. I've been riding a 29er mountain bike and have just ordered a fat bike that should be here in plenty of time for the snow so I actually can't wait for the weather! Thanks for all the advice!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am very much pleased with the contents you have mentioned. I wanted to thank you for this great article. I enjoyed every little bit part of it and I will be waiting for the new updates.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Actually, I find the winter from 2 years ago with tons of snow (what you mentioned at the beginning) was likely much more pleasant than this mess we have now. Yes, it was freezing cold for 2 months straight, but this way everything was at least permanently frozen. We rode the whole time on a blanket of compacted snow.

    Now, with temperatures oscillating around 0C the snow melts during the day, then freezes overnight. Riding in such conditions is difficult - ice everywhere, water getting into the cables, freezing later. Honestly, a white (snowy) winter at constant 25F-15F would be more pleasant.

    Regarding the lights - my observation is quite opposite. Even though there are "loads of good battery powered LED lights available", 95% of them are sort of useless, or at least inappropriate, for commuting in the city. Most bicycle headlights are just powerful flashlights, with lousy reflectors and no shaped beams. This means - they illuminate absolutely everything around, including bird nests on tree tops, blinding everyone around. This is probably fine in the countryside but not in the middle of Boston. Finding a really good bicycle headlight is actually not easy. As far as I know, only German-made (B&M) lights meet these requirements.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think I suggested a super snowy winter was worse than one with lots of freeze/thaw cycles. In fact, most of this article is geared toward making a bike work for exactly those conditions, black ice, frozen cables, etc.

      And I'm not sure what part of the Boston area you are in, where the roads stayed white and packed with snow. It may have taken a day after each storm to get down to pavement, but even in our worst winter in Watertown, we regularly saw blacktop through those icy patches. Between plows, salt and traffic, the roads we travelled were a sloppy mess, or a frozen mess, and occasionally dry blacktop. If riding on roads, we were definitely not riding on well packed snowy roads. Even out here in Greenfield, where plowing seems to be a much lower priority than back east, and even on the remote dirt roads, I'm not finding ribbons of white. I think you have to travel to Lilyhammer for that!

      For reference, Lilyhammer - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilyhammer

      On the TV show, folks drove on these lovely white ribbons of hardpacked snow. I would love those conditions, but I think you have to have no salt, less traffic, and more cold. And a charming local mafia boss who plays a mean guitar.



      As regards lights, I'm absolutely a fan of generator lights, but one need not make that level of commitment to night riding or go to that expense (commuting is different). My point was that in the winter it can be easy to get caught out after dark, when you had not planned it. Having an emergency-get-you-home light is prudent. I've also been very impressed with many of the newer battery lights available. I've made no secret of the fact that I like symmetrical beam lights for the ability to see street signs and such. Correct aiming of lights is important and especially crucial in tight quarters like on a bike path, but I have far more issues with flashing lights than any round beam headlights.

      I have both round and the focused headlights on various bikes and have used them in urban, suburban and rural settings. LEDs were a game changer. Focused beams were absolutely critical with limited power, but with much more efficient *bulbs*, one can again afford to spill some light above the horizon and see street signs, as well as low hanging branches on trails.

      pamela

      Delete
  4. Thoughts on disc brakes? How do you cope with snow/ice build up, with rim brakes?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, disc brakes. I forgot to mention those. We have disc brakes on the tandem and on our *all roads* bikes. They are awesome. And since you will ask - I am using a hybrid - cable actuated hydro brake - the TRP hyrd. It works with any lever, and since it's cable, works well with a cable splitter for travel, but has the nice self centering feature of a hydro brake. We have these on the tandem as well. John has the hylex - TRP full hydro setup on his all roads bike. I know there were issues a few years back with seals on SRAM hydro brakes in freezing conditions, but that has since been resolved, but we've had no problems with either of our current setups in the winter.

      As for rim brakes on a winter machine, well there's another advantage of a fixed gear. I do tend to allow for more stopping time in wet icy conditions. But given the extra drag of studded tires and the natural speed control with a fixed gear, I haven't had to think about actual braking much!

      Delete
  5. Hi again, I can't seem to comment on the Dress for Success article and was wondering what your tips might be with regard to winds. I don't mean whether or not to cycle, although on these very windy British Isles, often the answer to that question in the winter is "No". My area of doubt and uncertainty relates to what modifications to cold weather clothing might better provide both wind protection and breathability, as my heart rate (and sweat production) does go up when battling into a headwind or controlling the bike in crosswinds. Would love to hear what your thoughts are on this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would tend to treat riding in wind like climbing. You have to find the balance and keep below the sweat threshold. I think the fundamentals are the same - zippers are a girl's best friend!

      And thanks for the note on the clothing comments. Not sure how that commenting turned off, but it is back on now.

      Delete