Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Monday, December 17, 2012

Winter Bike

My recent blog postings have dealt with dressing for winter cycling.  (Southern Hemisphere readers can skip the smug comments, and store away these links for a few months!) So now that we've got you in appropriate clothing for riding comfortably through the winter, let's take a look at your bike. You may look at your fancy lightweight bike with its shiny anodized parts and carbon rims and think that you don't want to take it out on wet mucky salty roads. Good call! Save that bike for warm dry rides on pristine pavement.

A winter bike is one that will need to stand up well to abuse, as it is likely to get caked in sand and salt and other assorted road grime, be ridden through slush covered potholes and occasionally kept out after dark. You might think that an appropriate winter bike is a cheap department store bike that you won't care about, but the first time you are doing some repair on the side of the road with cold numb hands, you will curse that bike in a way that makes you care!

One of the best ways to eliminate a lot of maintenance and potential for breakdowns (and the dreaded roadside repairs) is to simply fix the bike. (What else would the fixie pixie say?) With no derailleurs, there is far less maintenance and no chance of dealing with frozen or crud filled shift cables. There's also no worry of shifting getting out of adjustment from all the sand and salt, and chain wear. In many ways, a fixed gear bike offers more control on slippery surfaces. While I wouldn't suggest taking your first spin on a fixer on icy roads,  but once used to riding fixed wheel, you should find that increased control. 

Traditionally many racers used fixed gear bikes in the winter for training.  According to many coaches, riding fixed will make you a stronger and smoother rider. It will also keep you warmer, since you are always pedaling. A few years ago I had a downhill commute home from work. I could never stay warm on the ride home in the winter with a geared bike, but by having to pedal all the way home, I was able to generate a bit of heat!

Not that long ago, you couldn't just walk into any bike shop and buy a fixed gear bike off-the-shelf - as it were. Folks would have to convert an older geared bike to fixed for their winter riding, or have something made custom.  In recent years, all that changed. Inexpensive fixed gear and single speed bikes are now quite common and have become very popular with urban hipsters, increasing their availability for the non-urban-hipsters too. 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.

I will add one caveat about many of these off-the-shelf fixies: they often have rear facing dropouts - trackends, which can be a pain for rear wheel removal when using fenders. If you have a puncture, you'll be pulling the wheel back into the fender to remove it. Also many of these urban-hipster bikes, being designed to look like a track bike, may have too tight clearances for full fenders.  Fenders are essential for a winter bike. Remember that winter often comes with sand and salt and other such muck. Roads are often wet, either from snow melt or precipitation (both the frozen and non-frozen type), and fenders will go along way to keeping that muck off you and your bike and it's drivetrain (whether it's fixed or has gears). There's a variety of fender types to consider, from full coverage semi-permanently mounted ones, to quick mount partial coverage models. Choosing among the various styles of fenders depends a lot on what kind of clearance your chosen winter bike has. So when selecting a winter bike, look at clearances and dropout styles with regard to fenders. Regardless of which type you go with, fenders are worth their weight in gold in New England. I wouldn't think of doing a winter or spring ride without them. Even if no rain is falling, snow melt keeps the roads wet and fenders keep that water from the road off of me. I just can't emphasize enough that fenders are one of the most valuable components for staying dry, warm and comfortable.  I discuss fenders in greater detail in this post.

Hand in hand with clearance issues for fenders are clearance issues for tires.  I use wider tires for comfort on those rough pothole filled roads as well as to avoid flats. I'd rather work a little harder riding than having to fix a puncture in the cold. And speaking of working harder and tire clearance, also consider that you might want to use a studded tire. Years ago, I fell on black ice while commuting home one night. I was less than ½ mile from home.  It was a classic front wheel turns sideways resulting in a broken collarbone. Now for the additional bit of control I use Nokian studded tires on my commuting bike. I don't use them for riding in blizzards - thankfully I can work from home on those days. But in a typical snowy winter here, we may have snowbanks lining the road from December to March. During the day, the sun melts some of that snow, and it runs across the road. Once the sun goes down, it freezes in the road, leaving invisible patches of black ice. A studded tire digs into the ice rather than sliding sideways. I typically just use one on the front.  When the front wheel slides sideways, the bike goes down and you break your collarbone! If the rear slides, it mostly a loss of traction, rather than something catastrophic. It's a judgement call whether to go with front or both front and rear. They add a lot of effort, but have the special training benefit of making me fly when I go back to regular tires in the spring.

Next up is lights. Naturally my commuting bike has lights year round, but I also find that I can sometimes accidentally get caught out late on a weekend recreational ride in the winter. The days are shorter. The wider studded tires have slowed me down. A riding companion may have had a puncture or mechanical causing a delay. Or I may have spent too much time in the coffee shop trying to thaw cold fingers and toes! For a discussion of various lights, see my article on lighting.

I always carry enough tools to do minor roadside repairs, tire levers, tubes, wrenches, chain tool, etc. And in the winter I try to pay special attention to keeping the bike in good working order. I don't want to have to do bike maintenance on the side of the road in sub-freezing temperatures.

I mentioned a lot of clothing and the concept of layering in the dressing for winter posts, and you may wonder how to carry all that stuff when you aren't wearing it. On my commuter bikes, I either use a Carradice saddlebag with a Bagman support or an Ortlieb pannier. Water-proofness is pretty important. If it's worth carrying it is likely worth keeping dry!

I have a couple of fixies that I use in the winter. The commuter fixie makes use of a cyclo-cross frame with horizontal dropouts, allowing me to set it up as a fixed gear. It has good clearance for beefy studded tires and full coverage permanently mounted fenders. The frame even has braze-ons for the fenders and a rear rack. This bike has a generator hub and lights. The popularity of cross has made this type of frame much easier to find and at reasonable prices.

I also have a lighter fixie that I use for more spirited winter club rides. It's one of those urban hipster bikes. It sports clip-on fenders and a battery light. I often use a large waterproof seatbag and supplement carry capacity with a small waterproof handlebar bag. Again I'll emphasize the difference in dropouts for fixed gear/fender convenience. The lighter bike has the dreaded trackends, and doesn't have enough clearance under the brakes for full fenders. The clip-on fenders are short and flexible enough to make rear wheel removal less of a pain.

Winter is trying hard to make us uncomfortable. But there is no such thing as bad weather, if you are prepared.

And just in case you missed the posts of dressing for winter...


  1. An alternative to fixies is single speed, or going for an internal geared hub. I built up a bike with a sturmey archer 5 speed hub with drum brakes and love it. While I rarely get snow, the roads are nasty over the winter. The other day my husband's rear derailleur froze up in the cold and I was secretly laughing because the internal geared hub has been so awesome.

  2. Lots of good advice! What do you think about a belt drive for a winter bike?? Would you recommend that over a fixie with a normal chain?
    Ridding in the winter seems tough, but so rewarding when you manage to do it!!

  3. I've just acquired my own belt-drive fixie - last week. So while I have not ridden it through a winter yet, I plan to do so. It will certainly eliminate rusty chains. I guess I'll have to get back to you on how well it copes with snow and ice accumulation.