A dedicated winter bike, is oftentimes an older bike with used or budget parts cobbled together to save your more precious summer ride from the grit, grime, water, and salt that inevitably comes with Minnesota winters. Winter commuting is notoriously hard on bicycle parts: chains and cables rust and corrode, sand wears away brake pads and braking surfaces quicker, and pivots on brakes and derailleurs can stick and eventually seize. Funny thing then, that my winter ride this year revolves around a few new pieces of kit purchased solely with the intent of using and abusing them through the winter.
Oddly enough, my winter bike started to take form in the middle of summer when a rep from NuVinci stopped by the shop with a demo bike sporting their new N360 hub. The N360 is an internally geared hub with no set indexed shift points. This continuously variable transmission allows smooth, skip-free shifting at any point during your ride. Unlike a traditional derailleur based drive train, or a more standard internally geared hub, the N360 is capable of shifting while pedaling at full bore, at a complete standstill, or anywhere in between. Since there are no fixed shift points you’re never forced to decide between a gearing that feels just too high and one that is too low–a simple adjustment to the grip shifter allows you to fine tune your gearing to your liking at any point during your ride. You can make it as hard or easy as you like between the set high and low point with a single twist grip shifter.
A test ride on the demo bike had me grinning ear to ear; no matter how hard I tried I could not get the bike to skip or miss a shift, and the ability to shift while cranking with all my might or at a standstill was nearly dumbfounding. Struggling to start at a stoplight, or in the middle of a snowbank, because I didn’t downshift could be a thing of the past! Being an internally geared hub, the system eliminates the external moving parts of a traditional bicycle drive train and encases all the bits within the sealed hub which minimizes the effects of external variables, such as winter road slop, on the bicycles’ ability to shift. Many people, in the past myself included, switch to a single speed setup in the winter for the same reason–less moving parts means less maintenance–at the expense of being able to change gears. The seed was planted, but it took a couple of months for it to finally sprout.
Fast forward to October and with the air starting to cool the need to replace last years now dead winter beater took hold. I had already convinced myself that the N360 was going to be both the literal and figurative hub that the new bike would be built around. Like a bicycle hub needs a rim to frame itself with before it can be used, this wheel now needed a frame. Keeping in mind the primary use would be as a winter bike, I had little desire to drop a big chunk of dough on a fancy new frame, but at the same time I wanted some versatility that any old frame wouldn’t necessarily provide.
A dedicated winter bike not only saves your summer equipment from premature wear, but usually will sport a few other modifications that can make winter riding not only safer, but more enjoyable for the rider. Fenders of some sort tend to be standard fare, and studded tires are an increasingly popular way to increase traction and safety. However, neither of these items fall under the “one size fits all” category, since not all frames have the clearance for knobby or studded tires or full fenders. While most bikes can fit at least a dirtboard off the seat post, a full bolt-on fender set provides significantly better coverage, but does require eyelets on the frame to mount to. You’ll need even more clearance if you wish to run both a studded tire and a fender.
On a whim I came across the Origin8 cyclocross frame, the 700CX, in a catalogue. The 700CX falls under the newly emerging “monster cross” family of frame sets–that is, a taking the already increased tire clearance of a cyclocross frame and making even more room for even bigger tires. While not necessarily race-bred machines, they tend to be geared more towards off-road touring and commuting. Origin8 claims you can fit a 2.1” tire in this frame–essentially putting a mountain bike tire on your road bike. All of that tire clearance would make for oodles of fender and studded tire clearance for my purpose. The frame has fender and rack mounts, and allows full length cable housing all of which make it an ideal poor weather commuter. All this for $200, around $100 less than the closest competitor, made it an easy choice.
The bike has been rideable for about two months now, and other than a small issue with the shifter cable that has since been rectified with the help of NuVinci, the bike has performed admirably. Shifting still works as well as day one, and I’ve found is not nearly as dependant on cable tension as a standard derailleur is (good thing!). The hub does exhibit a small amount of drag but that tends to be par for the course with any internally geared hub–in this case the drag is not significant enough to notice while pedaling, and seems to have gotten better as the miles rolled by. The frame has proven solid so far. (Although, I would hope so after only 2 months!) and my only concern at this point is how the removable cable guides will fare the winter; I foresee the possibility the removable cable guides no longer being removable after a few rain/snow/ice storms.
In true winter bike fashion, most of the rest of the parts on the bike came out of the parts bin here at home. Notably, I will be running a Nokian Hakkapelitta 700×35 tire up front for the third winter in a row. The longevity of carbide tipped studs are completely worth the extra $$ up front : a vanilla steel studded tire lasted <1 season before I went carbide and I haven’t looked back since. In the rear I am trying something new with the Continental TopContact Winter tire. It is a non-studded winter compound tire designed to provide increased traction without the weight penalty of studs. In the limited snow we’ve had so far, it seems to be a happy medium between a plain slick tire and a knobby/studded tire. I’m happy it rolls as smooth as a regular tire on pavement and being in the rear I am not as concerned with absolute traction like I am in the front. SKS gets the dirty job with their super-sized Chromoplastic fenders. I’ve had good luck with SKS’ Raceblade fenders in the past and the 45mm wide Chromoplastic fenders leave ample snow clearance even with the studded tire mounted. The rear fender does rattle where it connects to the seat stays but some hockey or athletic tape would probably dampen the noise.
Well this ended up being longer than expected. If you made it this far thanks for sticking around and I hope you enjoyed yourself and maybe even learned something along the way. I hope to give a long term review in the spring if there is interest!