Winterbike Workshop Notes

My Trusty Steed in Snow

Winter poses special challenges to the utilitarian cyclist.  Those who ride purely for fun and fitness tend not to ride when it’s dark and cold and snowy.  If you consider the bike your primary form of transportation, you don’t necessarily have this option.  You still need groceries in February, after all.  There are three main differences between fair weather and winter cycling: more darkness, the cold, and snow and ice on the roads.

In Darkness We Ride

There just isn’t as much sunlight in the winter.  Around the solstice in mid to late December, the sun comes up after 7am, and goes down well before 5pm.  The shortest days are less than 9.5 hours long, and so you’ll probably spend more time riding in the dark.  If you have to go to work early, it’ll be dark.  If you stay at work late, it’ll be dark.  Any evening outing will mean riding in darkness.

Not only will you spend more time riding in the dark, but with snow and ice on the ground, stopping distances increase for both bikes and cars.  Cold brake pads are harder and less effective than warm soft brake pads.  Your braking surfaces are more likely to be wet, gritty, or icy.  You’ll skid more easily.  Cold hands and fingers don’t respond as quickly.  If you’re wearing a hat, headband or hood, your peripheral vision may be impaired.  Evasive maneuvers involving quick turns will also be less effective.  Fewer bikes on the road means drivers will have less awareness of bikes.  It’s important to be able to judge the quality of the road surface ahead of you, to see whether there’s slick ice, or ruts in unploughed snow, or chunks of ice sprayed onto the path by the plows.

Having head and tail lights on your bike is a good idea all year round, but for all of the above reasons, it’s especially important in winter.  Bike lights generally fall into two categories: see, and be seen.  I.e. those that actually allow you to see the road in the absence of other illumination, vs. those that really just help you to be seen by drivers.  If you’ve decided you want to ride throughout the winter, it’s worthwhile to invest in the former.  They’ll light your way, and they also make you easy to see from afar, but they will seem relatively expensive compared to the blinky lights that most people use to increase their visibility on the road.

With the advent of reasonably priced super-bright LEDs in the last few years, there is no reason to consider a headlight with a halogen bulb.  LEDs last almost indefinitely, and will give you much more light for a given amount of power.  Any lights you buy should be waterproof, especially if you’re planning to use them in the winter.  Most bicycle lights sold in the US are powered by batteries, but in much of the world where cycling is a more common form of all around transportation, bikes tend to have built in generators, also called dynamos, which power their lighting systems.  Both kinds of power sources can work well, but they have different strengths and weaknesses.  First I’ll look at battery powered systems, and then dynamos.

Battery Powered Lights

High capacity rechargeable batteries, whether lithium ion (LiIon) or nickel metal hydride (NiMH), tend to be proprietary and relatively expensive.  Replacing them can be expensive or impossible (if the manufacturer goes out of business).  At the same time, they can give you much greater burn times, and higher power outputs than standardized rechargeable AA cells, which nowadays are almost always NiMH.  Disposable alkaline batteries become expensive quickly if you’re riding much in the dark, and result in a constant stream of toxic waste.  If you’re going to use battery powered lights, I recommend getting ones that use AA or AAA cells.  NiMH AA batteries are relatively cheap, easily replaceable, can be recharged hundreds of times, and will be usable in other applications as well.  And with today’s high output, ultra-efficient LED bulbs, these lights can also provide you with plenty of light.  Of course, you’ll also have to have a charger to make this kind of system work.

I can recommend the La Crosse BC-700 ($30) charger, which takes with both AAs and AAAs.  Sanyo’s NiMH batteries are a decent value, at $20 for a pack of 8.  A couple of AA powered headlights that are bright and reasonably powered are the Planet Bike Blaze 2W headlight ($55 at REI) and the Fenix LD20 ($63) which is a powerful waterproof LED pocket flashlight, easily re-purposed for use as a bike headlight with a simple mounting system.  Both of these options put out close to 200 lumens of light.  Bright red LED taillights usually run on AAA batteries.  Two decent options are the Cateye TL-LD610 taillight ($25 at REI) and the Planet Bike Superflash taillight ($25 at REI).

Either of the above suggestions will cost about $130 total, which is considerably less than a dynamo setup.  Another advantage of batteries over dynamos is that you can easily remove the lights from your bike to keep them from getting stolen, to use the headlight as a flashlight, or to transfer them to another bike, if you have more than one.

The big downside of battery powered lights is you have to be conscientious about keeping them charged.  It’s easy to get complacent, because the lights dim only slowly and often by the time you get home, you’ve forgotten that the light is almost dead.  Carrying an extra set of batteries with you at all times helps, but then you have to remember to charge them up, and return them to your bike.  Most batteries also don’t perform as well in cold conditions.  The chemistry that makes them work just goes slower when it’s really cold.  However, it has to be pretty dang frigid (-10°C or single-digits F) before this becomes a serious issue.

Human Powered Lights

Dynamo powered lights cost more initially, and are really an integral part of the bike that they’re installed on.  However, they’re always bright, always ready to use, work in any weather conditions, require little to no maintenance, and can last for many years, without ever generating any waste.  Until high output LEDs became inexpensive, dynamo lights were only just barely bright enough to be considered “seeing” lights (as opposed to “being seen” lights), but today they provide plenty of light, and excellent visibility.

DSC_4006 Shimano DH-3N80

Dynamos (generators) are generally either built into the hub of your front wheel, or attached to the frame of your bike, with a small roller that is turned by the sidewall of one of your tires.  In my experience hub dynamos are simpler, more reliable, and more efficient.  Also, most bikes in the US don’t have the braze-ons that allow for easy direct mounting of sidewall generators.

If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to build up a bicycle wheel, building a dynamo wheel is a great excuse.  If that’s not attractive to you, you can buy good pre-built dynamo wheels for about $150 (either 700c road, or 26″ mountain).  There are also dynamo hubs which are compatible with disk brakes.  $150 might seem like a lot, but a strong, well built wheel will last a long time.  Usually it’s the rim that wears out first (if you’re using rim brakes), and then the hub can be built up into a new wheel.  I’ve had my two dynamo hubs for a decade, and each of them has been part of multiple wheels.

The Shimano DH-3D71, DH-3D72 DH-3D80 and Alfine dynamos are all a good value.  Very low drag, but durable, well sealed, and with good bearings.  The gold standard of generator hubs is the German made Schmidt SON28, but it costs 2-3 times as much, and is only a tiny bit more efficient.

There are very few dynamo powered lights available in the US.  My favorite ones come from the German company Busch and Mueller: the IQ Cyo Senso Plus and another version that has daytime running lights/nearfield illumination.  Both of these headlights use a novel reflector, which concentrates more of the light near the top of the beam, which means you get much more even illumination of your field of view… since the top of the beam falls further away from you than the bottom, it needs to be brighter to compensate.  They also make a very bright dynamo powered taillight, the Toplight Line Plus, which uses a Fresnel lens to spread the light from two very bright LEDs into a bright, continuous line all the way across the taillight.  Whether you buy these lights directly from Europe, or through Peter White Cycles (the sole US distributor) the total cost for a head and tail light set will end up being about $150, including shipping.  If you’re buying more than one set, getting them from Germany ends up being marginally cheaper.  These lights each have a small capacitor in them, and store up a few minutes worth of power while you ride, so that when you stop, your lights stay lit, keeping you visible.  They also have a light sensor built in, letting them turn on automatically at dusk, which is very nice.

I choose to use dynamo powered lights because my bike is my only form of transportation, and I always want the lights to work, with no hassles or remembering.  I also don’t mind having the lights completely attached to the bike, because I think each bike should be complete and ready to go in any weather at any time… if for instance one wanted to loan the bike out to a visiting friend.  This is a significant investment, but it’s one of those things that makes the bike act more like a replacement for a car than a piece of sports equipment or a form of recreation.  For me, it’s worth it.

Where to mount the lights?

Headlights can be mounted on your helmet, your handlebars, the crown of your bike’s fork, or lower down on one side of the fork.  Most battery powered lights are designed to go on your handlebars, which is convenient for operation, but not ideal for illuminating the road.  The further your headlight is away from your eyes and the closer it is to the ground, the more shadows it will cast, and the more information you will get about upcoming topography.  Helmet mounted lights cast virtually no visible shadows, but they let you point the light independent of where your bike is headed, which can be nice for corners, and for flashing drivers who may not see you.  Obviously helmet mounted lights are going to be battery operated.  On one of my bikes, I have the headlight at the fork crown, and on the other it’s at the mid-fork on the right hand side.

Taillights can generally be mounted either on your helmet, elsewhere on your person, at your seatpost, on the back end of your rack, or on the back of your fender.  Most battery operated lights expect to end up on your seatpost.  This works well as long as you don’t ever carry anything on top of your rack, but as soon as you’ve got a package or a box of groceries or a friend sitting there, your visibility from behind goes way down.  Dynamo powered lights generally expect to be mounted on the back end of your rack, and most European racks have standardized mounting brackets there.  If you’ve got an American rack, you can still mount the lights with a couple of P-clamps and a little ingenuity.  This location makes sure the light is almost always visible, regardless of what you’re carrying.

Battery powered lights sometimes seem to disappear when they’re left on your bike, so having pricey dynamo powered lights bolted on to your rack or frame might seem a little risky.  However, over 12 years of having this kind of light, I’ve never had a problem.  I suspect it’s partly because they’re rare in the US, and thieves don’t know they’re worth anything.  It’s also a bit more trouble to remove them if you’re just a vandalizing miscreant.

Riding Without Getting Cold

After a full winter of riding, you’ll have built up a good intuition for what clothing you need to wear at what temperatures.  Different people have different cold tolerances, and better or worse circulation in their fingers and toes, so there won’t be any one-size-fits-all prescription.  When you first start out riding in cold weather, make sure you take a wide variety of clothes with you, that can be easily layered.  Especially with how capricious the weather is in Colorado, this is good insurance against a sudden change, even if you have a good idea of what clothes you need in what weather.

I’m always surprised at how little clothing I need to stay warm while riding.  More than anything else, it’s the wind that will chill you to the bone.  Cycling, you generate your own wind.  You also generate a significant amount of heat if you’re riding briskly.  I usually ride with little in the way of insulation, but a good windproof layer on the outside.  Especially if you’re riding a significant distance or are headed uphill, your body heat will build up.  It’s important not to wear too much clothing, since if you do get sweaty, and then stop, that sweat will quickly chill you deeply, and potentially dangerously if you’re somewhere isolated.  When it’s very cold, if you have a significant distance to go (more than 15 minutes or so) you may want to start out wearing more clothing than necessary, until you’ve built up a little body heat, and then stop to shed an insulating layer before continuing on your way.  Otherwise, it can take a very long time to recover from the initial chill at the beginning of the ride before you’ve started putting out heat.

Here’s an overview of what I usually wear riding in cooler weather.  I have good circulation in my extremities, and don’t get chilled easily.  Windchill can easily bump me down into the next temperature bracket.  With the exception of my bright yellow reflective shell, I didn’t buy any of this clothing specifically for biking.  It’s all just clothes that I already had.  If you spend any time outside in Colorado, you’ve probably already got everything you need.  Really it’s just insulation and something to cut the wind.  Dig around in your closet, and see if you can make things you’ve already got work.  If not, a quick trip to a local thrift store will often do the trick.

  • 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 60°F): Windproof fleece gloves, thin long-sleeved wool or synthetic shirt, possibly a windproof fleece vest during the day or my reflective windbreaker at night.  Long pants, closed toe shoes, and light wool socks.
  • 5°C to 10°C (40°F to 50°F): Same as above, with the addition of a fleece earband or neck gaiter worn as a kind of topless hat, and definitely my windproof fleece vest or reflective windbreaker (if riding at night).
  • -5°C to 5°C (25°F to 40°F): Same as above, but instead of a vest or windbreaker I wear a mid-weight soft-shell jacket, which is somewhat insulating, very breathable and very windproof.  I’ll also switch up to heavier wool socks.  Instead of wearing the neck-gaiter above my face as an ear-band, I wear it like a mask covering my nose, mouth, ears, and part of my neck.
  • -10°C to -5°C (15°F to 25°F): I add a pair of long underwear bottoms. and a thin wool sweater or fleece underneath my soft-shell.
  • -15°C to -10°C (5°F to 15°F): I switch to using a hooded primaloft jacket instead of my soft-shell.  When it’s this cold, I will also usually start out with my windbreaker/shell on as an outer layer to avoid being chilled initially, and take it off when I start to get too warm.  If I’m going to be riding any distance, I also switch from using my windproof fleece gloves to using a pair of insulated, windproof mitts and thin liner gloves, and instead of wearing my normal shoes, I’ll switch to insulating boots, tied loosely to allow good circulation.  For short jaunts normal shoes and the fleece gloves are usually fine.
  • -25°C to -15°C (-15°F to 5°F): I definitely use mitts and insulated boots, start out with my shell on, and generally don’t take it off.  At this temperature, riding fast starts to be painful, because the wind is so cold, and I have to strike a balance between generating body heat, and having it stolen from me.
  • Below -25°C (Below -15°F): Brrr!  This is very rare in Boulder.  When it gets this cold, I take the bus or stay home!

The hardest things to keep warm are your extremities.  They don’t benefit nearly as much as your core and your legs from the work you’re doing to keep yourself moving forward.  The two articles of clothing that I love most in the winter are my windproof fleece gloves and my neck gaiter.  The gloves give you good dexterity, and really cut the wind, keeping your hands useful for controlling the bike.  The neck gaiter can either be a warm headband or a substitute for a scarf or mask, keeping the air you’re breathing in warm and moist, instead of frigid and dry, and keeping your nose from freezing.  Your feet may go numb from poor circulation.  Especially if you’re using toeclips and socks that are thicker than usual, be careful not to lace your shoes or boots too tightly, restricting blood flow.  You also don’t get much chance to wiggle your toes, whereas your hands get to move around as you brake and steer.

More so than normal, it’s important to be aware of whether you are overheating and getting sweaty.  Don’t hesitate to stop and shed a layer if you are.  Cold sweat sucks.  Preemptively stopping to add a layer when you crest a hill and start descending is often a good idea.  When you’re not doing a lot of work pedaling, you’ll get much colder much faster.

If you wear glasses while you ride, whether they’re corrective lenses or sunglasses to deal with the bright snow, then any time you’re wearing a scarf or mask or neck gaiter, you will have to deal with them fogging up.  Usually while you’re moving this isn’t a big issue, since there’s enough airflow to keep them de-fogged, especially if you let them sit a little bit further from your face than normal.  They’ll quickly become almost opaque stopped at traffic signals though, or on slow uphill climbs where there’s little wind and you’re putting out a lot of hot, moist air.  The colder it is, the worse this problem.  Also, if snow is actually falling it will often accumulate on the lenses, making them useless.  Since I don’t use corrective lenses, I usually just go without sunglasses when I have to cover my face.  If you do, you may want to use anti-fog ski-goggles that fit over your glasses.  Not wearing glasses when it’s really cold creates another problem though.  On downhills, or going into headwinds, your eyes will start watering.  If it’s cold enough, those tears will freeze.  Occasionally, I’ve had the problem of my eyelashes freezing together when I blink on fast downhills, which is obviously unacceptable.  I end up braking on the way downhill to avoid this.

And here are a couple of short videos on dressing for the winter from StreetFilms and Let’s go Ride a Bike, both in frigid Chicago:

Riding on Snow and Ice

Darkness makes it cold, and when it’s cold, water that falls from the sky is no longer liquid.  Sometimes it will stick around for days or weeks on the ground.  Riding on re-frozen ice and old rutted snow is probably the most challenging part of staying on your bike all winter long.  Like the story about the eskimos and their hundred words for snow, the winter cyclist eventually discovers that there are many different kinds of snowy and icy roads.

Cycle tracks in the snow

  • Fresh snow that fell on cold clear pavement is easy to ride on with any tire that has tread.  You will compress the snow, and the tread can usually do a decent job of holding on to that newly formed grippy, icy rut, because it’s formed to your tread.  The cold underlying pavement means that there’s no hidden ice slick underneath.
  • Fresh snow that fell on warm pavement is less friendly, because until the pavement surface cools down to freezing, the snow that falls on it melts.  Then, once the pavement does cool down to freezing, that thin layer of water freezes, creating a dangerous ice slick which you can’t easily see.
  • Slushy melting snow is common in Boulder because we have so many freeze-thaw cycles over the course of the winter.  It’s not too hard to ride in, but it will often make a mess of your bike, putting lots of water and grit into the drive train.  It will also make your feet very cold and wet, especially if you don’t have fenders.
  • Slushy freezing snow is what you get when the temperature abruptly drops from above to below freezing, when there’s snow accumulated on the ground.  This usually happens as the sun goes down after a warmer day.  Freezing slush is sticky.  It can accumulate on your tires, and will sometimes fill the space between your wheels and your fenders, until your tire rubs against it creating a lot of friction.  It can also get into the cogs on your rear cassette, freezing in place, and making it impossible to shift gears.  This kind of snow is a real pain.  Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to happen too often.
  • Partially melted snow that re-froze over night creating an icy crust on top of a softer interior can surprise you, as your front wheel will break through the crust somewhat irregularly, making controlling the bike a little difficult.
  • Bare pavement with snow melt that ran across it, and froze can be extremely slick and dangerous unless you have studded tires.  When I wipe out in the winter, it’s usually because of this.  Stopping, accelerating, and turning are basically impossible without studs.  If you encounter this kind of “black ice”, the best you can do often is to just proceed slow and straight across it, or stop and walk over or around… though it can be tricky to walk on too.
  • Compacted old snow on roads and paths that don’t get plowed, and have significant traffic can be difficult to judge.  Usually it’s rideable without studs if you’re careful and don’t try to stop or turn abruptly, but if it’s recently gotten warm and re-frozen, it can be quite slick.
  • Rutted old snow on roads and paths that don’t get plowed, and have little traffic is on par with black ice in terms of treacherousness.  In this case, it’s not the fact that the surface is icy that’s the problem, it’s getting stuck in somebody else’s rut.  Car tire ruts are often wide enough that you can stay within them for significant periods.  Bike ruts are much more confining, and make it difficult to keep your balance.  Having studded tires with studs not just along the centerline of the tire, but also off toward the edges of the tread will help you deal with this topography.
  • The thin ice that exists on smooth plowed bike paths never seems quite as hard to handle as the re-frozen slicks, but will still seriously impair your ability to turn or stop quickly.  This usually melts and/or sublimates away quickly in the sun.
  • The thin snowy crust that exists on plowed asphalt roads, often mixed with grit is relatively rideable.  Often when the plows have piled up snow in the bike lanes along major roads, you will end up taking over the right hand car tire tracks, which will be this kind of surface.  Sometimes there will be dirty chunks of snow and ice strewn across the otherwise fairly clear slushy space.
  • The snowbanks filled with ice chunks that snow plows throw into bike lanes and across curb-cuts are irritating barriers to bikes and pedestrians that you simply have to avoid, or posthole through.  Don’t risk riding through any significant pile of snowplow snow.  It often contains large chunks of ice that can easily take you to the pavement, to terrible effect if you’re near traffic.

Maintaining control of your bike on snow and ice safely is a combination of technique and equipment.  You have to ride cautiously.  Don’t expect to be able to stop or accelerate quickly.  Don’t assume you’ll be able to do any aggressive maneuvering.  Slow down to make turns — don’t lean into them.  All this means you will go slower on average, so you need to allow more time than normal to get to your destinations.  I usually add about 50% to my normal trip times just to be safe.  Remember that all of the above also apply to cars.  They won’t be able to stop or turn as quickly either, so leave yourself an extra margin of safety in your interactions with them.  Also remember that your own cold hands will react more slowly, increasing your reaction time.  In addition, wet, icy, and/or gritty brakes don’t work as well as clean dry brakes.  For all these reasons, it’s imperative that you stay out of the door zone at all costs. If someone opens their door in front of you, you will not be able to stop or swerve out of the way.  You will go down.  It will hurt.  Maybe more than any other time, in the winter, you must ride predictably, hold your line, and take a lane if you’re in the road.  Shoulders and bike lanes often might as well not exist in the winter, filled with grit and ice and other debris.  Metal surfaces, like manhole or utility access covers, drainage gratings, and railroad rails, are smooth and are likely to be coated with a layer of ice for much of the winter because they often stay cold enough to freeze melt water throughout much of the day.  Be extremely careful when crossing them.  Lane markings can also be slippery compared to pavement when wet and icy, depending on the type of paint used.

Bicycle Courier in Snow

Winter Tires

It’s entirely possible to ride all winter with normal tires.  I did it for a couple of years, and wiped out each winter a couple of times with no real injuries or serious damage because it usually happened on a bike path or the CU campus, where traffic was light or non-existent.  If you’re committed to riding in all kinds of conditions though, it’s worth at least borrowing someone else’s studded tires to see what they feel like.

With the on again, off again winters that we have here in Colorado, it’s annoying to think of swapping in winter tires or wheels whenever the weather goes bad, only to swap them back out for your normal tires or wheels when it gets sunny and warm again.  Knobby tread will give you better traction in snow, but won’t help you out on ice at all.  Studded tires will help you out on ice, but make no difference in the snow.  If you expect to ride on both snow and ice, knobby studded tires are the way to go, but for most urban winter riding on plowed paths and city streets, you’ll be exposed to much more danger and inconvenience from ice than from snow, so for the winter commuter, I think relatively smooth studded tires like the Schwalbe Marathon Winter or the Nokian Hakkapellitta W106 are the way to go.  Especially in Boulder, where many days out of the winter, the only ice you’ll come across will be the patches that hide in the shadows where the sun never shines.  Relatively wide but smooth studded tires can be run at low pressure when you need to have the studs in contact with the (icy) road, and at high pressure when the roads are clear, putting the studs less in contact with the pavement and reducing your rolling resistance.  With these tires, you can swap them in for the first snow, and then take them off in the spring when you think (foolishly) that the snow is finally done with, without paying too high a performance penalty during fair weather windows in the winter.

Schwalbe Marathon Winters ready to go

The studs in snow tires can either be made of steel or tungsten carbide.  Steel studs are cheaper, but they’re also much, much less durable.  They will wear down quickly if you run them on pavement, and will also be subject to rust.  Tungsten carbide is much harder than the pavement materials, and the tires will last for several seasons.  If you’re going to invest in studded tires, get carbide studs. Some people also make their own studded tires, using an old set of tires and a bunch of sheet metal screws.  However, this takes a few hours, the tires end up being very heavy, they have enormous rolling resistance on pavement, the screws wear down quickly because they’re soft steel, and will rust unless they’re made of stainless (which is more expensive).  The technique only works well on high volume tires, because the heads of the screws protrude into the volume of the tire, and you have to protect your tube from them with a strip of rubber (usually an old tube).  Even with that protection, they are still prone to getting flats.

Protecting Your Bike and Stuff

Winter is hard on your bike.  The wet and slushy snow will carry sand and grit into your drivetrain, wearing down your gears and stretching your chain.  If you’re riding on salted roads, that will accelerate rusting.  Grit on wet rims will grind down the relatively soft aluminum quickly.

Fenders are a must in winter not only to help keep you clean and dry, but also to help keep grit and water out of your drivetrain and bottom bracket bearings.  The best after-market fenders I’ve used are the full-coverage thermoplastic and aluminum ones made by SKS: the P35, P45, P50 and P65.  Their hardware is all stainless steel and they’ll last for many years.  Get the widest fenders that your frame will let you mount.

Slushy Boulder Bike

If you’re going to ride in the sleet and slush and snow, you and your bike and anything you’re carrying is going to get wet, even if you have full coverage fenders.  At the very least, you should have pack covers for your bags, especially if you carry things like books or laptops, which really don’t appreciate getting wet (trust me).  Even better are waterproof panniers, like the ones made by Ortlieb, and sold by Wayne at The Touring Store (His prices are great, shipping is free, he’s super friendly, and has extremely good customer service.  I can’t recommend him highly enough.).  The Ortlieb panniers are essentially drybags, and come with a 5 year warranty.  I bought a pair used on eBay in 2000, from someone who had toured across Australia, and I only just replaced them… after giving them away as a bribe to someone who was interested in trying out a less car-dependent way of life.

If your saddle is leather, or made of any other absorbent material, carry a grocery or produce bag with you, so you can cover it when you park the bike outside in the rain or snow.  A cold, soggy crotch definitely makes riding less pleasant, and your saddle will last longer if you don’t let it get wet.

Make sure you check your rims regularly for wear throughout the winter.  One long day of riding in wet sandy conditions can do a significant amount of damage.  Rinse your bike and your chain off regularly to limit the amount of time that the salt and grit spend in contact with its delicate bits.  Lube your chain whenever you hear it start squeaking (which will be after just about every storm in which it gets wet).  Check your chain for wear (stretch) a few times each winter, and replace it before it gets so worn that it begins to affect your cassette.

Because the winter is so hard on bikes, many people choose to have a dedicated winter bike that’s meant to take the abuse.  A single-speed mountain bike can be a good option.  With fewer moving parts, there are fewer delicate parts to wear.  Having an “ice bike” with studded tires all the time means you don’t have to ride on studs at all when the weather is nice.  If you’ve got the money you can build or buy one with disc brakes, and then you don’t have to worry about wearing down your rims with grit, or poor braking performance in cold, wet and/or icy conditions.  If you want to get really extravagant, modern internally geared rear hubs are a great option for riding in wet dirty conditions, because all the delicate bits (except for the chain) are sealed up inside, and never exposed to the elements.  I’ve been fantasizing about building a bike just like this, around the new Surly Troll frame… but I’m not going to let that happen until next winter.  I’ve got to set boundaries somewhere!

Winterbike Wonderlands

Riding all winter is challenging character building, but it can also have a kind of peaceful magic.  Riding across town with an inch of fresh snow blanketing everything, early in the morning or late at night, in the muffled silence that only snow creates, as the perfect crystalline flakes drift downward slowly, and you pass through them, the sense of motion — of almost flying — that you get on a bike is heightened.  If it’s very cold you’ll hear the soft crunch and squeak of your tires in the fresh snow.  You’ll often have the paths all to yourself, and sometimes you can make out exactly how many others have passed this way since the snow began to fall, by their sinuous tracks, and occasionally you’ll see other traces too, of coyotes, foxes, raccoons and deer.

Umeå (2)

Making it through an entire winter here on your bike — and maybe even enjoying it — is also an important rite of passage for anyone aiming to live a life that’s more independent of cars and oil.  Foul weather is an often cited reason that we “need” our automobiles, but if you’re prepared for it I think the cold and snowy but dry and often sunny weather we have here is actually more pleasant than the endless winter rains of Portland, Oregon, and they’re aiming to get their bike modeshare from 8% to 25% by 2030.  Let’s see if we can’t beat them at their own game.

Published by

Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

12 thoughts on “Winterbike Workshop Notes”

  1. I totally agree about the LaCrosse BC-700 + Sanyo Eneloop batteries. Really good charger, and nice to the batteries. Just don’t do what I did and accidentally plug in a 12VAC transformer to the thing. Smokey-smokey =(

  2. This may be my first winter I attempt riding through, but I’m definitely missing some core pieces (fenders and panniers, especially). We’ll see how far I make it before wimping out (the car still sits parked for now, though).

  3. One quick light recommendation. Blackburn makes an LED light set called the Flea. They’re small, lightweight, and powerful. The other reason I bought them last winter was because they are also rechargeable via USB port on any computer. This means I got a decent set of lights for $50 and don’t have to pay for batteries or a special charger. The rear light uses significantly less battery power and I’ve only had to charge it once since I bought the lights last February. The front light, on the other hand, I need to recharge about once a week depending on how much night riding I do. Blackburn also sells a solar charger for the lights which I have, but can’t seem to get to work right now. Another benefit of this pair is that they attach by velcro which makes them super easy to take off. I’ve also had them sit out in the wet elements for hours, and they’ve held up just fine.

    1. For how tiny they are, the Flea lights are great (and being able to recharge them without a separate charger is cool) but I think I’d probably put them into the category of lights that increase your visibility to other road users rather than provide enough illumination for winter riding. But that’s just me. There are some bigger brighter headlights that are also USB rechargeable too, like the NiteRider MiNewt 150 and MiNewt 250.

  4. Okay, I have to admit that just reading this and thinking about everything I need to do to get my bike ready for winter makes me feel exhausted. And then I spend money, do all this work on my bike, and try to avoid having my eyelashes frozen shut???? I don’t know, Zane. I love all the helpful information, but I’m thinking fond thoughts about the heater in my car right now. (said with a hint of playing devil’s advocate)

  5. I guess I feel torn between giving people as much information as possible, so they don’t have to go through the trouble of figuring all this stuff out for themselves, and making it seem difficult. I’ve seen plenty of people get turned off from biking for completely avoidable reasons, like shoulder and back pain from riding with a heavy backpack or messenger bag instead of using a rear rack with some baskets or panniers. So I feel like it’s maybe better to say up front: if you want this to be as pleasant and functional as possible, here are the things you should think about doing. You don’t have to do it all up front, but I think it’s good for people to know ahead of time, so if they do end up getting frustrated by something, they know what some of the available solutions are.

    In LA, I felt like I had to be honest about riding in traffic actually sucking sometimes. Telling new utilitarian cyclists that it would feel comfortable and peaceful and safe just wouldn’t have been true. There are things you can do to mitigate those problems (like developing good urban route finding skills) but isn’t it better to know ahead of time that there’s an issue you’ll need to deal with than to have a negative surprise?

    By the same token biking all winter here is a little bit challenging, but it’s completely doable, especially for anyone that enjoys spending time out in the snow doing other things sometimes. Until the temperature gets down to -10°C (15°F) it’s really quite easy to stay warm. And I’ve only frozen my eyes shut a couple of times. 🙂

    Cars are definitely warmer, and in some ways feel more convenient, but only if you’re happy to work all the extra hours it takes to pay for them (many more hours than it takes to pay for a first-rate all-season bike), and are willing to externalize their negative effects.

  6. Very comprehensive! I pretty much agree with everything you said, and the ways in which my practice differs from your advice – well, I’d recommend your advice first! Up here in Alaska you can pretty much be guaranteed to have 6 months plus of pretty cold, consistent ice and snow, so in early november I put the summer bike in the shed and get out the old mountain bike with studded snow tires for the whole winter – Nokkians – carbide. When I was poor I rode with a single studded tire on the front, but very much better with two – especially pulling a trailabike instead of a trailer (the trailer helped with stability, the trailabike hurts a bit). It stays out until May or so. Most of the roads and trails I use have decent lighting, so I just use cheap blinkies to be seen. Often a led headlamp on my helmet or wrapped on my handlebars, perhaps one on the trailabike handlebars, and at least a red blinky on my son’s backpack, perhaps another on my pannier or the back of my bike. Unfortunately it is my summer bike that has the internal hub dynamo. I’m bad with lighting actually – I’m always forgetting my lights and having to assume and ride as if I am invisible – dangerous!! Don’t do this 🙂 I’ve found that, although sometimes very challenging, you can safely pull a trailer or trailabike without studs with the bike. The studded tires on the bike keep everything stable on ice. The challenge comes in tracking on rutted or deepish snow with all that extra weight slowing you down! I don’t really notice extra wear, and I don’t have fenders for my winter bike – the snow is generally really cold and dry here – not much slop. Well, there are times…but doesn’t seem to be a big deal. I ride pretty slowly, almost never ride in the street in the winter here (traffic can NOT be trusted and usually the shoulders are full of snow piles). Usually trails are covered with snow plowed off the streets for a couple of days after a snowstorm, so I tend to walk, run, or bus it on those days. Otherwise, I find biking even to 20 below F quite doable, I just dress well, but I do have very good circulation, and I’ve been known to have to take my gloves off at 0F when I have biked a long way. rutted and plowed up snow is by far my biggest challenge. My son doesn’t work as hard on his trailabike, so he gets warm clothing – long underwear, pants and shirt, sweater, snowsuit, wool socks, winter boots, neck gator and hat or balaklava, helmet of course, good gloves. He still complains a bit of cold toes and fingers by the end of the 3 mile trip from school on the coldest days, but a little cocoa sets that right! The best thing about not owning a car in the winter is not spending the half hour to scrape the windshield and warm it up that most people do – hop on the bike and get warm before the car heater would, or hop on an already warm bus!

  7. Zane,
    Great article with lots of great product recommendations. I’ve been commuting year-round since 1993, all but the last year of that up in Minneapolis where -10F is commonplace. I find that over time, I’ve migrated to many of the upper end solutions, like dyno hub powered lights on a dedicated winter bike, Schwalbe Marathon Winter tires etc… but it has taken years to get there. Winter commuting is very doable on a budget, you just have to be more creative and careful. I’ve done the sheetrock screws in the tires and yes they wear out fast and are heavy, but they work and the solution is cheap. I’m looking forward to your workshop next week.

  8. Zane,

    First, thanks for the great winter biking seminar Saturday even if some of us were late 😉

    Second, do you have info on those $10 glasses/goggles?

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