Winter Cycling

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Rocky Mountain Blizzard living up to its name

Safe four-season two-wheeling

In hemispheres where four-seasons rule, winter requires a different approach to two-wheel travel. The cyclist who does not hang up her bicycle when the mercury plummets will trade shorts and sleeveless jersey for Merino wool, fleece, Gore-Tex and neoprene.

Bicycles

The winter cyclist might also adopt a completely different bicycle than their summer steed. These vary from road bike with generous clearance for wider tires and fenders/mudguards, through mountain bikes, to the specialized “ice-bike,” ready for Alaska’s Iditasport Ultra.

These rugged snow machines, typified by the Surly “Pugsley,” accommodate huge balloon tires like the appropriately labelled “Endomorph 3.7”, made to float in deep snow (or sand for that matter) and typically run at very low pressures—10 psi and less.

The average commuter however will likely want to equip an existing bicycle.

Start with a set of full mudguards/fenders. Nothing will contribute faster to a miserable, potentially dangerous winter ride than a spray of wet, muddy water into bodily crevices, not to mention expensive bicycle components. While you are at it, add mud flaps, front and rear. In any case, plan for the greatest clearance possible between tire and mudguard.

There is one caveat here: If you live in a very cold/dry climate, you may choose to forego fenders; they can ice up.

Traction

If you have strategically snuggled into Victoria, British Columbia; Seattle, Washington or Torquay, UK you are unlikely to face the extended deep-freeze of, say, Fort St. John, BC, Toronto, Ontario or Helsinki, Finland.

In these latter latitudes—where snow and ice are common—it might be worthwhile to invest in a set of studded bicycle tires. These are offered by several manufacturers, including Continental, Schwalbe, IRC and the Nordic company Nokian, whose tyres are appreciated for their resilient steel/carbide studs. Their “Hakkapeliitta” tyres are especially recommended by cognoscente of the cold.

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Studded tires are available in sizes including 700C, 26″ and 650B

Alternatively, or in addition, snow chains may be used. Many winter warriors go DIY, making them from hardware store bulk chain and wire. Install before inflating tyres.

Brakes

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Avid BB7 disk

Of all bicycle components affected by inclement weather, brakes are the most critical.

Winter cyclists can benefit significantly from the use of disk brakes. Mechanical disks are easy to service, compatible with a variety of levers and commonly found on road bikes of all stripes—from hybrid to touring.

The Avid BB road series disks are most commonly found on quality commuting and touring bikes.

Hydraulic brakes are admired for power and modulation, though they require somewhat more specialized skills to service. They are most often found on mountain bikes.

Cantilever and V-brakes are also powerful, but all rim brakes will benefit from the use of softer brake shoes, such as Kool-Stop Salmon pads.

Gears

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Robust Rohloff hub

All gearing for inclement weather should include sufficiently low ratios to deal with slippery conditions and snow clogged streets. But meeting what Glencoe ice-climbers refer to with typical Scottish aplomb as “full conditions” is best approached with internal-gear mechanisms such as the 8-speed Shimano Alfine and 14-speed Rohloff Speedhub. These eliminate the worry of ice-encrusted cassettes and slipping chains.

In relatively flat terrain, less gears might suffice. Remember, the renowned Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub carried generations to their jobs. There are many vintage examples still in use.

For those so inclined, another low cost option is fixed gear or single speed. These minimalist drive-trains were popular with thrifty British bike commuters before the Carpocalypse.

Clothing

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Wim Kok warms up in Fort St. John

Remember, just as fast descents from altitude in summer can chill to the bone, winter wind-chill can freeze you right to the core. Hypothermia is never far away in the dead of winter … or on an early spring bicycle outing that started sunny, then went south, er, north.

Even the more pacific areas toward the poles demand careful clothing selection. Rain and 4°C can be harder to dress for than subzero temperatures, while the dangers posed by overheating in cold weather should never be underestimated. Sweaty skin soon becomes freezing flesh in the Great White North. Choosing a “wicking” base garment of polyester or Merino wool banishes perspiration. Layering easily-adjusted, breathable outerwear facilitates quick changes as conditions dictate.

Important note: cotton is not a winter fabric.

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wintertogs

Winter togs

Top

Though the old tale about most heat loss occurring through the head and neck doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny—any exposed expanse of skin will vent heat equally—as soon as it’s cold enough to chill the ears, a skull cap under the helmet is in order. Particularly frigid weather will dictate you reach for a balaclava. Remember to remove these in the vicinity of banks.

Torso

I often wear a high-tech base layer of hydrophilic polyester, covered by a long-sleeve Merino-poly blend shirt. These are covered by a long-sleeve wool cycling jersey, followed by a fleece vest (with windproof front) and/or fleece jacket as conditions dictate. In temperatures much below freezing a final breathable layer in the form of a vented cycling jacket is added—I have an oversized one designed to accommodate extra layers. Adequate venting is essential to avoid condensation; “Pit-zips” and back vents are good features to look for as even the best breathable membrane, such as Gore-tex®, will fall short, as insulating layers hold the fabric further away from body heat.

Nether Regions

Working quads generate heat. Often, an extra pair of shorts with tights are enough. I rarely feel the need to wear waterproof leggings. But when the temperature dips below freezing, I add a set of polyester long-johns, next to my skin. The true arctic cyclist will need better protection, though. Pants designed with skiers in mind work well.

Extremities

At any temperature near freezing, the bike rider’s feet and hands will complain bitterly. The trick is to keep them dry and warm. Like the upper body, the foundation garment is a thin wicking layer, followed by a thicker wool or polyester outer layer. A further waterproof shell may be added in wet or particularly harsh weather.

Hands

It goes without saying that full-fingered gloves will come out from fall onward. Depending on your circulation, more insulation may be in order as temperatures drop. A thin poly liner glove can be added. In extreme conditions, “lobster claw” gloves work best. These leave enough dexterity to operate integrated gear shifters. If you have to resort to mitts, a bike with thumb or bar-end shifters is called for.

Feet

Keep feet happy with base liner and thick wool or pile socks. Very wet conditions call for a waterproof sock such as SealSkinz. You might also consider adding an insulating neoprene insole to your shoes or boots.

Shoes

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Wellgo platforms work well in winter

Several manufacturers make a foul-weather cycling shoe. It’s a good idea, whatever shoe you use, to have a pair one to several sizes larger than normal, to accommodate extra insulation.

My first layer over the cycling shoe is usually a neoprene bootie. Colder or wetter and I add a coated nylon overshoe. I personally find this combo good to around -5℃.

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Power Grips

In deep snow and extreme cold many riders prefer a platform pedal that leaves the foot free on iffy surfaces and allows the use of insulated “snowmobile” boots such as those made by Sorel or Salomon.

In this case, if you want to maintain a solid connection to the pedal, Power Grips—rather than traditional clips and straps—are a safe bet. Extra-long straps are available for bulky boots.

Lighting

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Dynamo hum
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SON 28 dynohub

Last, but not least, as the nights draw in, you must never be caught out after dark without adequate lighting and reflective gear. Don’t cut corners here; spend as if your life depended on it. Celebrate the season of short days and long nights. Pretend you are a Christmas tree.

Tips on the rando lighting page apply doubly here. As with gearing componentry, many experienced winter commuters lean toward internal generators for their lighting needs. The modern dynohub works best in extreme conditions.

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Reflective vest

Whether you are a battery booster or a generator junkie, buy lights and accessories that are bright, sturdy and do not leak. Make sure seals are adequate and switches are enclosed. Even so, it is wise to carry a length of trusty electricians tape in your repair kit. If you use batteries, carry spares.

It’s a good idea to carry a small LED battery light in addition to your main lights. A headlamp doubles as illumination for repairs and to see your “dashboard.”

“Be prepared,” warned the wise Baden-Powell. In winter, be forewarned—and well-equipped.

Additional images courtesy Avid, Continental, Power Grips, Nokian, Schwalbe and Wim Kok. All other photos ©VeloPix

Rob Krochenski June 14, 2010 at 12:20 am

Hi Raymond.

Great website. I have just discovered the world of the Randonnee as a result of it and I am smitten!

I take note of your comments respecting IGH’s and the Rohloff in particular, for winter riding. But I would be intrigued to know if there those who consider that the Rohloff has any substantial merit on the Randonneur bike?

Thanks a million.

Raymond Parker June 14, 2010 at 11:42 am

Glad you like the site, Rob.

I have seen one Rohloff hub at a brevet–Paris-Brest-Paris, 2007–where I’m guessing it performed well in the terrible weather.

The pros would be just the same as my reason for recommending for winter (weather). Cons would be the difficulty getting service in the off- chance one did have problems.

I have witnessed a couple of issues with the Rohloff, when I worked in bicycle retail, but it did not seem to be any kind of trend. It’s good to carry spare seals.

There has just been a conversation on the BC Randonneurs list and at least one rider is planning to have a brevet bike built with a Rohloff.

Joey Volpe August 10, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Just wondering what the advantage of a disc brake would be in winter. The biggest problem I have with components is not the cold eventhough I live in Madawaska County, NB, Canada so it’s cold (-20 to -30 degrees celcius are very common in January and February). The biggest issue I have is salt! Around March when the weather gets a little warmer on some days the salt eats and jams everything and anything… and fast… steel especialy, but aluminum too. I have never tried disc brakes in the winter, but it seems to me salt might be an issue with them. Have you ever had a problem of that nature?

P.S. I’ve just deiscovered your site tonight… Keep up the good work… this is an amazing site. It’s a great to have all those years experience and learning available with a simple click! Thanks and keep it coming please.

Raymond Parker August 14, 2010 at 5:43 pm

I can’t claim to be an expert on salt, here in the mildest corner of Canada. It doesn’t snow often, but we do also have to deal with salt occasionally.

I can, however, advise that disks should be no more trouble than rim brakes in such conditions. Like traditional pads, you will likely have to replace disk brake pads more often in winter conditions.

Locally, we have many commuters who use the Galloping Goose/Lochside Trails in winter, parts of which are surfaced with some sort of finely-crushed limestone. In the summer it creates fine dust, in winter a kind of grey abrasive paste. Local bike stores profit handsomely from the deleterious effects of this stuff on drivetrains, etc.

Ultimately, regular maintenance is the key to prolonging component life. Follow my guide to bicycle ablutions in the VeloWeb Garage and you’ll have few problems :-)