Winter. The season of snow, ice, wind, visible breath, and numb fingers. For many, this is the time of year that bikes come inside and are pedaled on a trainer, or worse yet, simply hung up until the spring thaw. For some, its a time to cross-train on skis or snowshoes. For others, a time to pound out as many trainer
miles as they can tolerate. For a few, its the time to reward all the hard riding through summer with a season of binge eating. The good news for the intrepid, however, is that the snow and ice doesn’t have to mean that outdoor riding has come to a close. Today’s bike paths, gear, street services, and cycling communities make it easier than ever before to pedal year round!
Why bike in the winter?
Often times when the weather is at its worst, cycling is at its best. There is no scraping off car windows and windshields. You won’t need to worry about getting stuck in a ditch or sliding off the road. When the decrease in road traction and visibility brought on by winter leads to more congested car traffic than in warm weather months, often times going by bike tends to be faster than driving a car. This is certainly the case in cities like Madison, WI, where bike paths and lanes are cleared of snow and ice oftentimes before all the roads have been cleared. For commuters, this can mean and easier trip to and from work. It also provides a way to stay active through the winter, saving you a trip to the gym.
How the heck to you do it!?!
It’s no secret that winter riding is a much more pleasurable experience with the right gear. Like any activity, there are basics that will get you through the experience, and nicer equipment that will make you salivate at the prospect of snowfall.
Probably the most important piece of equiptment is studded tires. These tires have carbide spikes to grip the ice. At Budget Bicycle Center, we carry a huge selection of studded tires, mostly from Nokkian
. Studded tires allow for much better traction over ice and packed down snow. They help avoid slips and falls on wintry surfaces. While it will never feel exactly the same as smooth pavement, these tires make winter riding unimaginably easier. While a skinny tire does have the ability to cut through fresh, powdery snow and down to the pavement, I've found better luck using the widest possible tire to "float" on top of the snow. This works much better than a skinny tire once the snow is no longer fresh, and gives a little more control overall.
Clothing is generally the next largest barrier in getting out into the cold. Many worry they will be too cold riding in the winter. Much like XC skiing, however, you’ll find being too warm is generally the issue. Winter riding generates a lot of body heat, and you’ll need to be set up with gear that breathes well. We find that merino wool tends to do the best job of insulating while breathing to regulate the body temperature. Starting with socks and base layers from Smartwool
and layering over with a waterproof shell from Pearl Izumi
or Showers Pass
tends to work well.
Riding in the winter is also aided by a few integral accessories. With fewer hours of daylight, higher powered bicycle lights and reflective gear are essential. Full coverage fenders will keep the slush and snow off of you and out of your eyes. Planet Bike
is a great brand for these. Goggles or glasses will keep your eyes protected and a skull cap works great under a helmet.
Is winter riding hard on my bike?
To put it simply, yes. Because of this, many commuters have a dedicated winter or all season bike. For some this is a “beater bike” that can be used, abused, and thrown away. While this method works, you’ll have a more enjoyable riding experience on a bike that is actually made to withstand the travails of winter riding. There are several things to keep in mind when looking for an all season commuter bike. How long/hilly is your commute? Will you be carrying any gear, change of clothes, or work materials with you?
[caption id="attachment_141" align="alignright" width="257" caption="Raleigh Alleyway"]
One of the first casualties on most winter bikes is the drive-train. Sand and salt from the road combined with snow and slush wreak havoc on chains, derailleurs, and gears. The most effective way to thwart this is by ditching the derailleur. This means either riding a single speed or bike with an internally geared rear hub. Single speed bikes are the simplest design available, and are great for short distances and flat terrain. If your ride is longer or hilly, you probably want to have some gears, in which case the internally geared hub is the better choice. These hubs are available in 3,7,8, or 11 speeds covering a top to bottom range near the same as a 21 speed hybrid bike. Because the gear system is in the rear hub, it is sealed up away from the winter elements. Shimano
is the most common manufacturer, testing their hub systems in temperatures of -5 degrees F. The Shimano Alfine
hub system is set up to run with disc brakes, another feature that aids in winter riding performance. A traditional rim brake tends to slip when wet. Disc brakes tend to perform consistently regardless of the weather.
[caption id="attachment_140" align="alignleft" width="244" caption="Giant Seek 0"]
Rust proof chains and belt drives are 2 more recent technologies helping increase the life of your drive-train through bad weather. A rustproof chain is coated with a mineral to stop oxidization. The salt and wet of the road won’t wear it out nearly as quickly as a traditional chain. the Giant Seek 0
features this, and is a great choice for winter riding. The Raleigh Alley Way
is another great choice. This model features a belt drive. This is a composite belt, similar to what you’d find on a motorcycle. The belt is much more resistant to stretching and breaking than a chain. Both the Raleigh and the Giant also feature disc brakes and have wide clearance to accept fenders and studded tires. The Raleigh even includes the fenders and a generator front hub that can power a headlight and taillight. Also, both of these bikes will easily accept a rear cargo rack to carry your gear. The Trek Waubesa
is a more economical option with plenty of tire clearance
[caption id="attachment_142" align="alignright" width="248" caption="Trek Waubesa"]
and an internally geared hub. For most riders, getting started is the hardest part, but once you’ve pedaled through a couple of cold days, you’ll find it easier and more enjoyable than you thought it could be. There are plenty of online resources for more gear and riding advice. Check out Ice Bike
for great information on all aspects of winter biking. Also Bike Winter
is a great resource for winter commuting. As always, feel free to contact us
with any questions or comments you might have on pedaling through the winter. Keep riding!