Staff Winter Bikes: Sam’s Winter Whip

Winter has just gifted Minneapolis with its first sizable dusting of lovely snow.  As nice as it looks when it’s fresh, it does have a habit of making the bicyclist’s commute a bit of a dodgy prospect.  While the roads may be rutted and covered in little patches of ice, it’s still totally possible to commute through it with confidence and a little bit of speed.  When it comes to riding in this particular excitement, it’s important to have the proper tools for the job. A decent set of goggles goes a long way, and a gaiter helps keep the cold out.  Arguably the most important weapon in your winter commuting arsenal is going to be your favorite winter bicycle.

The Surly in all its glory.

On that note I’d like everyone to… Meet The Steamroller:
The Surly Steamroller frame is definitely a go to frame and fork set-up for the snowy weather.  The frame and fork are specifically designed to accommodate larger treaded or studded tires, while still being able to utilize a front brake for all that safety.  I roll on a 700 x 32 Vittoria Randonneur as my rear tire and a 700 x 40 Schwalbe Marathon studded tire in the front.  The Marathon is a new addition and I have been very impressed with its ability to blend function on clear streets with a high level of control and grip in the really nasty bike lane ruts.  My tires are mounted on weinman rims laced to sealed bearing formula hubs.  I also utilize a sealed bearing bottom bracket to keep my important bits from seizing up or wearing out.  Sealed bearing components aren’t necessary for winter riding, but they do make a big difference in limiting repair and replacement costs.  I set up my ride with flipped mustache bars to get myself in a real comfortable body position that also gives me a great sense of steering control regardless of the terrain. I roll with a Tektro front brake, which is going to make all the fixed gear elitists shudder, but nothing makes me feel safer, especially on snowy streets when my fixed braking may not give me the stopping speed I need.  A front brake is not only the law, but also a very very good idea to keep you from skidding right out into traffic.

Check out that rack

A Schwalbe Marathon Winter helps Sam keep the rubber side down

Along the safety line of gear I rock at least four or five reflectors, as well as a full complement of six lights.  Three lights in front, and three in back keep me visible even in the heaviest of snow falls.  I also run lights in my spokes to give me that added side-on visibility.

Don't say it looks like a Christmas Tree, Sam hates Christmas Trees

Sam's rear light/reflector array

The newest addition to the steed was the front rack which I have been very impressed with.  Not having to carry quite so much on my back has been a pleasure as I navigate the city streets.  My particular winter set-up isn’t for everyone.  Some people are going to prefer the added comfort of riding two studded tires instead of just the one, and some people ride a twenty six inch bike to get them a little lower center of gravity.  Whatever set-up is going to give you the most confidence riding in poor conditions is always the way to go.  Remember, Riding in the winter is a totally realistic means of commuting no matter what the weather throws at us.  We are Minnesotan.


Look at this hipster

See you on the streets




Winter Biking and Studded Tires

I’ve been riding my bike in the winter for more than 20 years.  I’ve ridden in Minneapolis, Upstate New York, New York City and Vail, Colorado. Vail was the most challenging to ride through the winter, because of the large amounts of snow and number of hills/mountains to climb.  Last year in Minneapolis was one of the harder years to ride because of the large amounts of snow on top of the already icy rutted street surface, and the cold in January and February.  Then it just would not end.  It was very disheartening to take off my studded tires in March and then have to put them back on for the glaze ice and numerous snowfalls in March and April.  Even after saying that, last year was hard, but I was the most set up for winter riding and knock on wood did not crash a single time.

As for dressing for winter riding, the usual suggestions for any winter activity apply: Dress in layers, no cotton next to the skin, hands, feet and head are the most important and add a windproof layer.  The next most important thing is to know yourself and your ride: Are you warm or cold most of the time? How far is your ride? Do you have an easy escape, like the bus or a coffee shop to stop at?  I know that on my 6-7 mile commute to work I’ll start off a little cold, but be warm when I get there, so I wear a long underwear shirt with a fleece on top, regular pants, windproof fleece gloves, skate style shoes and a helmet with a liner like a Bern Watts until it get below 20 degrees.  Below that, I add goggles, a neck warmer, switch the gloves for Pearl Izumi Lobster Gloves, add a wind/water proof jacket, add long underwear or wind/rain pants and another pair of socks and/or put newspaper plastic bags over my socks before I put my shoes on.  I know now that I am warmer than the average person and leave from work or home which is warmer than many other places in the winter, so use this as a guideline knowing yourself.  I am also very lucky because I ride through Uptown, Downtown to Dinkytown so I have many places to stop if needed or buses to jump on if there is an emergency.  I can also show up to work looking like I rode and it is no problem, even cool.  My bag of tricks for staying warm consists of goggles, the above mentioned plastic bags over the socks, toe clip covers that stop the wind on your toes and hand or feet warmers.


My Winter Secret Weapons

My Winter Kit

When riding on packed snow or ice you have to change your riding technique to keep control and stay upright.  To avoid the wheels sliding out from under you, stay much more upright on the bike and try to turn with your handlebars versus the normal leaning of the bike to turn.  This means you need to slow down more before turns.  My commute of 20-30 minutes in summer turns into a 30-45 minute commute in the winter, depending on how much fresh snow there is.  Fresh snow will be the factor that slows you down the most, the more there is, the slower you will go and if you are riding on streets with cars it can be challenging to get around all the slow moving traffic.  Generally if there is fresh snow I try to take bike paths to avoid the car traffic and the sticky piles of snow the cars have pushed up.  If you have to ride on the streets, it’s always a difficult decision whether to ride on the more traveled main streets where the road condition is better, but car traffic higher, or to ride on the side streets where the roads can be in awful shape and very skinny, but where you’ll battle fewer cars.


My Winter Bike

Currently my winter bike is a 17″ Marin Hamilton 29er that I put a Shimano Alfine 8 speed hub on the rear.  I ride a smaller bike with a little longer stem and setback seat post so it’s easy to jump off if needed.  I love the internal geared hub. It’s great to have a range of gears for fresh snow, there’s less maintenance and the gears don’t get frozen up.  I’ve ridden with standard derailleur drive trains and single speed setups, but I have had the freewheel or cassette body mechanisms freeze up, and then your rear gears just spin with no engagement to the wheel.  I’ve also had the rear derailleur itself freeze up, so I couldn’t change gears.  Both of these problem have only happened when it was below 15 degrees or so. Other than the drive train, I don’t believe you need to have any other concerns about your components.  As far as brakes, if you are used to a certain style they will work, just not quite as well.  My bike has v-brakes which work just fine, I have used cantilever and caliper brakes as well, they do not work as well, but I was used to them and knew my bike and how far I needed to stop.  I’m sure disc brakes would work great, but I worry about all the extra moving parts of the caliper, how close it is the the salt laden street and how they could freeze up.  Currently the brakes are the part that corrodes the most quickly, after the chain of course.


My "Custom" Toe Covers

The only special feature on my bike are the toe clip covers that I made out of two old water bottles.  I cut the water bottle top off, wrapped it around the toe clip and attached it with zip ties.  This keeps my feet much warmer, because of the wind protection and my shoes stay much cleaner and dryer. I like toe clips, because they keep my feet on the pedals, which I’ve had issues with, either from hitting a patch off ice and the bike slides one way and my foot the other, or just the interface between a slippery, snow covered shoe sole and an icy cold pedal.  That having been said pedal choice comes down to personal preference. For instance, some people at the shop don’t like toe clips, because they feel it’s harder to get out of them in an emergency and that they don’t get big enough for wearing boots.

The final and most important bicycle component is tires.  I’ve ridden with wide 26×2.1-2.3″ mountain bike tires, 26″ hand made and production made studded tires, 700c knobby tires and 700c studded tires.  They’ve all worked for me over the years, but I believe the 700c studded tire is the best option, and they’re what I use now. When I first started winter riding, I used regular mountain bike tires that I kept inflated at a fairly low 25-35psi, and then I made my own studded tire with screws driven through the tread, and when production studded tire became more widely available, I used them.  The only thing I did not like about using 26″ mountain bike tires, is that they seemed to compress the snow, especially in the rear and then you floated along this layer of snow sort of like snowboarding.  I can only attribute a couple of crashes to this, but it always freaked me out a little bit.  I love the feeling of floating on a snowboard, but on a bike I like to be very connected to the street.  The one advantage of the wider tires is that they perform better in the ruts and bumps that can be formed in the ice or hard pack, especially on the side streets.  In light ice and snow winters or early season I have ridden with 700c knobby tires like the Kenda Kwick 700x30c tire.  It’s one of the few knobby tires that will fit on most road bikes with caliper brakes.  I reduce the pressure to 60psi, watch out for big bumps and ice and I’ve only had a couple of crashes while using it. My most successful tires have been 700c studded tires.  I ride a larger 38-42c with 200+ studs in the front for turning and braking traction and a skinner 35c with 100+ studs in the rear for cutting through the snow easier and getting good contact with the street or ice.  This wide front skinny rear also works with 26″ tires.  I have tried Innova and Kenda Klondike studded tires in the past and now I am running a Schwalbe front with a Nokian rear.  They’ve all performed well, but as already stated, I did not crash last year with my current tire combo.  I would like to try the Nokian Hakkapeliitta A10 700×30/32c 72 stud tire on my road bike for the early/late season with less snow and ice.  This is the only studded tire I’ve found that will work with a road bike and caliper brakes.  Others at the store have used them and say they are much easier rolling than any other studded tire and still provide good grip.

Some of our studded tire selection

Maintenance in the winter is a tough deal.  The best thing to do for your bike is to leave it outside as much as possible to avoid the freeze thaw cycle that leads to more corrosion and damage.  The chain is the most important component to keep lubed, but you can expect to replace the chain and rear gears after a winter of riding.  The brakes and any other thing made out of unfinished steel will have corrosion issues unless you are very obsessive and do a lot of lubing and cleaning.  After the winter ends and before you put away your bike is the best time to try and halt the damage being done to your bike.  If you just put it away dirty and salty, it will continue to get worse and worse all spring summer and fall long.

Lastly, but just as important is lighting in the winter.  The sun sets earlier so you need lights sooner, it seems darker and drivers have more going on, so you need more ways to show them where you are.  I always have at least one rear light and often two, one on the bike and one on my bag.  I’ve used the Planet bike Super Flash and the PDW Dangerzone, both are very bright.  For the front I have used the Blackburn Flea and the NiteRider MiNewt both of which are rechargeable, and can light up in front of you enough to see.  My favorite lights for being seen are lights on the wheels, they are very visible when you are riding because the movement. You can get lights that go on your valve stems, or my favorite–the Nite Ize Spoke Disco lights that go in the spokes.  I like them because the disco model changes colors every few seconds.  I’ve also wrapped my frame in a BikeGlow fiber light that lights up the frame to be more visible.  I have not tried helmet lights in the front or rear, but I probably should, because the higher the light is the easier it is to be seen.

I love winter riding, maybe not as much as a perfect fall day, but much better than a cold rainy spring or fall day, riding the bus, walking across a wind swept bridge, or sitting on a frozen car seat.  When I switch from the winter bike to any other bike it’s a sign of spring and I can start zipping around the city faster and with a wind in my hair that I actually want.



Stuff We Ride: Trash Messenger Bags

I’ve had my Trash Bags Garbage Truck backpack for 3 months now and I love it.

It fits perfect when riding, no strap around your belly to pinch you, your helmet does not hit the top of the bag and it has many straps to tighten it down so your stuff does not rattle around in it.

The only thing I did not like about it at first was the sternum strap was not in the right place. However, I looked at it more and discovered it was super easy to move and now no complaints.  I’ve been in many downpours this summer and it has stayed perfectly dry. Thanx to Andy for sealing even the seams on the inside.

Other features I love include the out side pockets on the front and sides, the load straps to carry the extra large things I so often find myself trying to get home.

This bag replaced a Chrome Pawn backpack which I liked but I tried it on yesterday and no comparison anymore. I’m glad I sold it. The hand-crafted, made for me quality of Trash Bags really shines through.





When not quite good enough is good enough.

I just purchased a new pair of Raceface shorts and they’ve given me some unexpected insight into our American way.

I have last years model of the same short and love them, hence the desire for another pair. I wore them for the first time and right off one snap completely blows out, and another has a 50/50 chance of success.

My first thought was “I need to warranty these and get a new pair.” Then I began to think what that would’ve meant: The shorts are going to take how many trips back to the distributor (Quality Bike Products), the brand (Raceface), and maybe the manufacturer, somewhere not in the US and then sit in an ever growing pile of basically garbage.

Or maybe I could just accept what I received and deal/fix the problem and move on and continue to enjoy life.

After my seemingly altruistic decision, I thought “Well I’ll contact Raceface and tell them what I have done and ask for compensation”. Another good American ideal, but do I really need a pair of socks, another mini bike tool or whatever they decide to send me to assuage my ego.

This all struck me as being very relevant today. with the closing of the Minnesota government, the NFL and NBA lockout and the pending US Federal government financial issues.

Maybe we all need to decide that life is not perfect and we can’t always have things our way. Maybe it’s time for us as Americans to deal with what we have, make some compromises and try to make it work.



The Bicycle As a Basic Need

Out of Disaster, a Burst of Enthusiasm for Bicycling

There are almost infinite reasons to love bikes. Compared with other forms of transportation, they’re cheaper, better for the planet and a thousand times more fun.

The disaster in Japan has shown how basic the bike is. Sales of bicycles are surging, as people recognize that when everything else grinds to a halt, a bike will take you almost anywhere you need to go.

Maybe this is why we love the bike so much. We realize that our bikes can help us deal with some of the what-ifs in life.


Me and M(e) Bike

A year ago I purchased an electric bike from Varsity Bike & Transit. An EZ Torq to be exact. It was a bit of an impulse buy that I thought might be “somewhat” functional, but a heckuv a lot of fun. It’s more than fun, it’s a blast. It clips along at 20 miles an hour, making nary a sound, and requires minimal peddling (you can peddle as much and as hard as you want, but really, what’s the point with an electric bike?). It’s a unique amusement cruising past people on hills while peddling leisurely.

It’s also incredibly functional, and has proven to be a practical purchase, which is icing on the cake. I can commute to and from meetings for work, or get across town for really any old reason, in good time and without showing up drenched in sweat and out of breath – I’m not exactly built like Lance Armstrong. When you consider that and the fact that parking is both easy and free, compared to having to pay the expensive parking in the city, it makes a lot of sense.

Lastly, it’s a nice recreation ride for friends and family, when they want to spin it around the block. From buddies to my in-laws to my parents to my friend’s New Zealand family, anyone who takes the EZ Torq for a spin smiles ear to ear. They also typically stare in intrigue and amusement when they’ve finished their ride. The best part is that it is mine, so it’s always helping me get around town on a bike versus my truck, and to shadow what the folks at Varsity Bike & Transit say, I am peddling less oil. I love my e-bike. It’s electric!


Enjoying the Slow Lane in Lanesboro, MN

My wife and I recently got new Marin bikes from Varsity Bike & Transit. We test drove a few options in the vicinity of the store, took some consultation from the kind and accommodating (and patient…my wife isn’t exactly a cyclist) staff at Varsity Bike & Transit. Our decision to get new bikes was pretty spontaneous…about as spontaneous as our trail biking trip to Southeastern Minnesota, which was the reason for the new bikes.

We had read about Lanesboro, Minnesota and the surrounding area and decided it would be a neat weekend trip. So, we found accommodations, mapped out our commuter bike trails in the area – there are many – and got ready for our trip. But, wait! We needed bikes. Both of our current bikes were dated and were ill equipped for our cycling habits – they were clunky mountain bikes that wouldn’t fair so well on the paved trails. Frankly, they haven’t faired so well for much of anything over the last several years because we are not the kind of people who race through the woods on muddy, off road trails.

So, while we were excited that we could use a rare open weekend in August on a trail bike trip to the Lanesboro area, and we were lucky enough to find lodging with just a few days to spare, we didn’t have adequate bikes. Enter, Varsity Bike & Transit. All within a couple of hours, we had test rode some bikes, talked to different employees at the store and purchased our new bikes. And, wow are they awesome, as was the trip. The bikes are fun to ride and just glide along. They are comfortable and what’s funny is that they’ve really opened up a whole new opportunity of discovery.

That’s what we liked about our trip: it was active, adventurous, and memorable. I don’t think we’d have gotten the same experience without our bikes. We enjoyed the scenery and felt refreshed after the weekend. All told we logged more than 30 miles, which for us is a feat. Our new Marin bikes have opened up our eyes to a whole new world – cycling adventures, at our pace of course, and bike trails through beautiful countryside. I’d recommend every facet of the experience to anyone. It’s a welcome change of pace and after the weekend you’ll feel upbeat and recharged, which is (literally) a breath of fresh air.


METRO Magazine Reviews an Electric Bike from Varsity

With spring in full force and more local residents commuting daily, a reporter at METRO Magazine came to Varsity Bike & Transit to see what all the buzz of electric bikes was all about. As the provider of the largest variety of electric bikes in the Twin Cities and more than 7 different options available, it’s no wonder why he came to Varsity Bike & Transit. The writer reviewed the very cool Ohm XU700, which allows the user to set their “assist” level, meaning the amount of push the electric motor will add, and includes a throttle you can use to boost the bike to top speed (20 mph) instantly. It’s a pretty wild feeling when you’re riding it.


It’s Easy Being Green!

Kim Carlson, Star Tribune eco-blogger, gave her top tips on how to go green for Earth Day this year. One of the tips – “get out of your car and ride a bike.” Is there better advice? The best part of the Twin Cities Live segment was that it featured an electric bike from Varsity Bike & Transit, and the very awesome Detour bag made entirely from used juice boxes available at Varsity.
View the article here