Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Monday, February 9, 2015

Winter Bikes

As I work on this article, we have more than three feet of snow on the ground with a couple more feet on the way. Rumor has it that the groundhog was so fed up, he just packed his bags and moved to the other hemisphere. Sky high snowbanks line our roads and sidewalks.

Each time the roads are plowed, more and larger potholes emerge, although emerge may not be the proper word, as they are often hidden under puddles filled with slushy, sandy salt water. Then as the temperature goes down with the sun, 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!

You might think cheap department store bike that you won't care about would make a good winter bike, but 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 shifters, cables and derailleurs, so you won't have to worry about crud filled or frozen shift cables and 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 than required by current derailleur systems and you don't have to worry about wearing out an expensive cassette either.

Also, without the option to coast, riding a fixed gear will be warmer. A few years ago I had a mostly downhill commute home from work. I could never stay warm enough on the ride home in the winter with a geared bike, but by having to pedal (with some actual resistance), I was able to generate a little bit of heat on the way home! (With an uphill ride to work, staying warm then was not an issue.)

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 was to find a frame with horizontal dropouts and order a fixed gear hub/wheel from a specialty shop and 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. The fad has since faded, so now you might find only one option in one of your local shops, but it still isn't quite as much of a challenge to find a fixed gear bike 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. 


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.


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. At night, it is much harder to see icy patches, which are also much more likely then. 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.  

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 turn sideways, the bike goes down and you break your collarbone! If the rear wheel slips, the result is in a 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, John read about and started using 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! 

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 a few advantages with SS/Fixed including lack of chain and cassette wear, as well as no 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.


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).


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 the knowledge to use them!

Of course, some folks prefer to just carry a cell phone as their primary tool, but if so, a down jacket and heavy gloves might be needed 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 conceived 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 tires, or wider, that are run at seriously low pressure 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, fat bikes have become all the rage, and more and more mainstream manufacturers have added fat bike models to their lines, bringing lower prices and making them more accessible. However as weights go down, the price goes back up. And since standards vary for dropout spacing and such it can be risky to invest too much in this new type of bike until things settle down. 

The conditions in Boston in the last week or so have been challenging for any type of commute, except for tele-commuting. Folks with fat bikes have been claiming an advantage on snowy paths and trails. However , I think for the typical commute around here or winter road ride, a fat bike might be overkill, and until someone makes a fat fender, it would be a bit messy!

Obviously your mileage may vary, depending on where you live and work, and whether you ride for transportation or pleasure. We seem to be having a pretty extreme winter here in the Boston area. It's the best snow we've had in years. My winter bike sits neglected, while my x-c skis and snow shoes are getting lots of attention. 


  1. I saw a rider today on a fatbike with full fenders! Didn't get a chance to ask him about them.
    This was on the Ford St. bridge between St Paul and Minneapolis, so for all I know he works for Salsa/Surly/Whisky/etc.

    1. Thanks Corey! With Google I managed to find some custom full coverage wood fenders in a variety of sizes, including for Fat Bikes. While I'm still resisting the Fat Bike craze, I am tempted by these pretty fenders out for my 650B bike.


  2. Thanks for this, I know you went over this in the past. There some argument against winter bikes, that you should ride the bike you love, but seeing it get eaten alive by de-icer is too hard. Even where I live in the PNW, the road crews put de-icer on the road like clockwork even though it is rarely freezing. I have seen what happens. And yes, one can try clean off the bike after every ride, but it is not enough.
    I like the idea of single speed of fixed, but live in a mountainous-however I ride my old raleigh sports in bad weather up very large hills, so methinks I could do it.
    I used to bike year round in prairie winters, never used studded tires, didn't even know they existed. I suppose there would be bad weather, snow, freezing but generally the prairie sun dried up roads even in winter enough to ride, or I had to ride in the ruts. Riding on ice and snow is a specific skill set.

    1. Obviously depending on your locale, and the severity of winter, your mileage may vary.

      I rode through quite a few winters before studded tires. They had been around for a while before I bought my first set, motivated by the busted wing. As always, YMMV. A lot depends on your local conditions and when and where you ride. Commuting in the winter has all sorts of special challenges.

      My local terrain is rolling to hilly. It's not unusual to get 4-5,000 feet of climbing in 100 miles. Not mountainous, but not pancake flat either. Riding a fixed gear here is fun, spinning like mad, taking advantage of momentum and sometimes slowly grinding up a steep pitch.

  3. I always prefer a fixie for commuting, but I've been particularly appreciating it this winter. I've been able to ride to work as normal every day, and the fixed drivetrain makes an ENORMOUS difference, even though I've been too lazy to change tires, so 28mm and no studs.

    1. Emily, you are already a stud. You don't need studs!

      For readers who may not know, Emily has done all sorts of crazy long distance rides on fixed - multiple times, including Furnace Creek 508, PBP, BMB, and some insane 1200 in West Virginia in the snow!

    2. Emily...do you ever ride studded tires? I'm wondering about early NE brevets in potentially snowy conditions.

    3. Kevin,

      I'll alert Emily to your question, but I believe that she got through this winter without studded tires, and even managed a few snowy 100km populaires without studs.

      I, personally, would use winter tires in doing today's populaire, which I am obviously NOT doing ;-)

    4. I don't bother with studded tires. Not because I don't think they're a good idea, but because I am lazy and set in my ways and can never be bothered to change my tires for any reason other than wearing them out. I've ridden through many NE winters just fine without them, including some slippery 100k's (although I overslept through today's!) although I will say again that I think a fixed gear really does make a big difference in being able to stay in control, especially with a few inches of snow on the road.
      Lots of folks do use studs on early season road rides just in case, and they are probably smarter than me. But I haven't ever crashed as a result of not having them, either.