Naturally, we have a lot of winter here in Interior Alaska. This is a Good Thing, as it treats us to almost six months of excellent winter bicycling. For the uninitiated, it sounds mad and ridiculous, but for folks that have tried it and gotten “the buzz” from winter rides, it is sublime, and the best riding of the year.
For starters, here are some links to whet your appetite and help you start preparing for a great winter of riding:
There are great reasons to get out on a properly equipped mountain bike in the middle of winter — here’s a few:
- Health – Winter riding can be a fine aerobic workout.
- Sanity – Getting out in the sun helps avoid “cabin fever”.
- Fun – Whether alone or in a group, riding on snow is great.
- Environment – If riding makes you drive one day less a week, it’s that much less gas in the car.
- Bucks – As above, if riding makes you drive one day less a week, it’s that much less $$ out of your wallet.
- Cool Points – You can brag about riding (warmly) at -25F.
- Beauty – Sun sparkling off the trail and branches is a treat for the eyes.
- Summer Riding – Winter riding puts you in good shape for summer riding!
Safety in presence of cars
Some people maintain that winter bicycling on roads is dumb and dangerous, needlessly putting the bicyclist and motorist at odds with one another. That sentiment is fading a bit, with more and more people using a bicycle for their commute. Still, the truth is that it is risky business, especially for you, the cyclist.
The worst situations arise when a careless motorist encounters a careless bicyclist. While you can’t change anything about the motorist, you can take a few safety measures and have a (reasonably) safe winter biking experience.
- Wear a helmet.
- Stay as far right as safely possible.
- Don’t weave; maintain a straight course.
- Assume that motorists cannot see you. Act accordingly.
- Wear reflective clothing.
- Use bright tail-lights, especially for dusk or dark conditions.
- Use a bright headlamp. Oncoming motorists will appreciate it.
- If visibility is poor, be extra careful, or don’t ride.
- If you routinely ride on glare ice roads, consider using studded tires.
- If the shoulder is “mashed potatoes,” be extra careful or get off and walk.
- Where possible, try to ride on trails. You’ll have more fun as well be safer.
- Think like a motorist. If you were in the car behind you, what would you think of you?
Leave a good impression on motorists, for the sake of your cycling peers. Every winter there are justifiably angry letters to the editor, describing a near miss with a cyclist wobbling down the middle of the lane at night in blowing snow without lights or reflective gear.
Don’t be that cyclist.
This is much easier than you would think. Generally, all that is needed are one or two light layers, topped off with a wind breaker layer. Even this needs vents, so that you don’t get too damp.
Core – torso, arms, legs
At 10F or above, try a single polypropylene shirt, followed by the vented windbreaker layer. Bring an extra shirt until you figure out what works best for you. Bicycle shorts and insulated bicycling tights will probably be fine for your legs, but you may need a pair of light poly ‘long-johns’. As the temperature drops, you might find that you require an additional light layer. Experimentation is key.
Unless it is nasty cold, you probably don’t need a face mask. A headband made from windstopper fleece will take care of your ears, or you might favor an expedition hat with earflaps. If your windbreaker has a hood, you might only need a light hat. A neck gator or scarf is indispensable. Remember to wear a helmet. Taping the vents shut can turn your helmet into a warm space for your head, so that you only need to deal with your ears. You may need to remove the pads from the inside of the helmet so that it fits comfortably over your light hat, or hood, etc.
Many riders use pogies, which are big, insulated, windproof mitts that are attached to the handlebars of the bike, that allow you to ride with very light or no gloves. Pogies also provide a warm place to keep food, batteries and the like. If you don’t have pogies, some windproof gloves or mitts should work well enough … until you decide to get pogies!
This is where a lot of winter riders have a tough time. The constant pressure of the ball of your foot against the pedal restricts blood circulation, leading to cold toes. Although solutions are as varied as can be, the common elements are:
- Loose, dry socks (poly)
- Loose, dry shoes or boots.(wind resistant)
- Don’t over tighten the laces. You need the circulation.
There is a “pogie” like thing for feet as well, which is a boot that fits over your shoe, and is open on the bottom, allowing you to use clipless pedals, like Shimano SPDs or Egg Beaters. If you are committed to wearing Sorels or Bunny Boots, there are some monster pedals available, complete with toestraps.
Toe warmers work great. You can put them on your heel, under the toes, or on top of the toes (sock goes on first, of course.) Try one first, and then add another if you need it.
When, not if, your feet get chilly, get off and walk a bit. Your toes will warm right up.
For starters, any mountain bike that is in decent mechanical shape will do. Some folks might argue that you need some particular bike with certain pieces of gear, but the fact is that you can have winter fun on a clunker. You just need to have the right expectations.
That said, here are some basic equipment guidlines:
The better your bike, the better your ride. Ensure that your bicycle is in good condition. If you don’t do your own maintenance, having a local shop get your bike in top shape is a great idea. If you are in the market for a bicycle, resist the temptation to buy a bicycle from a supermarket or department store, at least not until you have visited local area bicycle shops, browsed the line-up and spoken with their sales folks about the bikes. Bicycle shops carry much better-quality mountain bikes, and can help you find a bike that will fit you AND your budget.
A class of mountain bikes, known as fatbikes, has become the de facto standard for snow biking. The wheel width is anywhere from about three inches to five inches, compared with about 1.5 inches for normal rims. At low tire pressure, you can achieve a large contact patch, enabling you to float over loosely compacted snow, whereas a narrower wheel would dig in. Definitely something to look into if you are interested.
Tires – For trails and snow, soft, supple tires with a low-profile paddle tread can really help get through the loose stuff. For ice, studded tires are great. Figure out what you’ll be doing most of (trails or roads), and get tires that fit your need from your bike shop.
Wheels – Wide rims, like the Snowcat rims built by Simon Rakower, or wider, like those on fat bikes, are good at handling soft trails. The extra width spreads the tire out, putting more tread on the trail. The larger the contact patch (the area of tire that actually hits the snow), the greater the floatation or ability to ride on top of the snow without digging in. The bigger the tire, the lower you can run the pressure (under 5 psi on fat bikes) for a stable, high traction ride in loose snow conditions. You might not be fast, but you’re riding!
Lighting – A headlamp helps you extend your riding hours, and is essential for navigating trails in the dark (which is great fun!) A tail light is critical gear, when riding on the road.
Suspension – Depending on how much riding you are doing, your comfort level on the bike, and your budget, you might decide that you’d like suspension. Though far from a requirement for winter riding, front or full suspension bikes can be great for dealing with a bumpy or roller-coaster trail. Keep in mind that as the temperature drops, your suspension may get stiffer. There is even danger of destroying seals in extreme cold, so use caution. For this reason, many winter bikes use no suspension.
Winter riding requires slight adaptations from summer riding. It’s not rocket science, and you’ll figure it out as you go along. As with many physical activities, experience is the best teacher. You’ll find that you need to make different accommodations for road riding and trail riding.
Obviously, you need to be really cautious on roads. You can end up getting whacked if you don’t. Additionally, you need to maintain good control of your bike when motorists pass you. Sudden, jerky movements may cause the driver to swerve into oncoming traffic, causing serious accidents. Be chill.
This is not meant to dissuade you from winter riding, but to make you aware that, like the driver of a car, you have safety responsibilities. Just remember to put yourself in the motorists shoes; what would you think about you?
Here are some specific tips:
- Wear a helmet, use lights front and rear, and use reflectors. If it is dark, you’ve got no business on the road without lights. You can be ticketed, just like a motorist would.
- Avoid wild corrections. The road is probably icy, and sudden corrections will cause you to lose traction.
- When the shoulder is soft and you have no choice but to ride in it, gear down. If it is really soupy, push your bike.
- Be careful of the transition area between open pavement and the snowy shoulder. This is frequently icy.
- Keeping your balance on ice is all technique. Focus on keeping the bike underneath you. If it slides a little bit, relax. You’ll be surprised how often things just line back up again. It’s kind of a Zen thing.
- Don’t slam on the brakes. You’ll lose traction and slip, and probably fall.
Trail riding doesn’t come with as many hazards as road riding. You still need to be aware of other trail users, and you must also watch out for sticks (getting poked in the face or eye really hurts), but that’s about it. If you crash, you pretty much just have to stop laughing, pick the snow out of your ears, and keep going.
Trail riding tips:
- Wear a helmet, and use lights at night.
- When the trail is soft, let some air out of the tires for better traction. Snowcat rims, mentioned earlier, can be of great help by letting you ride with lower tire pressures.
- On soft trails, look at where you want the bike to go. Don’t look at where you don’t want to go. Keeping your attention focused on the path that you want the tires to travel really seems to help keep your bike moving.
- Like road riding, avoid sudden over-corrections. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself bouncing from one side of the trail to the other, constantly putting a foot down, or falling over.
- If you find that things seem to be tougher than they should be, try relaxing. If you can ride with a loose grip, and keep your neck and shoulders relaxed, you’ll go better, straighter, and last longer.
- Give mushers and ski-jorers, and even skiers, the right-of-way. Be considerate of everyone on the trail.