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.
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.
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.
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.
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.