How to make your spirits bright by transforming yourself into an abominable snow-bicycler
by Keith Couture
Winter bicycling? You must be crazy! This is the most common reaction I receive upon telling someone of the joys of winter biking. I empathize with the viewpoint, I really do. But I'd like to offer two rhetorical counterpoints to this incredulity.
There was a time in my life and likely in many of our readers' lives (although I won't make the mistake of saying this is universal) when upon waking up to see a lawn and a city blanketed in white fluff, we jumped joyously out of bed, skipped breakfast, put on our warmest boots, mittens, and coat, and went out to play in the snow and cold. We would stay out for hours and we'd only come in when we saw through the kitchen window that hot cocoa was being served up. What happened to that joy?
The second counterpoint is more of a personal anecdote. When I was in high school I rode my bike to school occasionally. I was young and the ideological reasons to refuse the car and choose the bike had not yet established themselves. So I was a frequent, but not dedicated, bicycler. The irony is that I specifically chose to ride on days when the weather was extreme. Why did I do this? Looking back, I believe it was because I was still a kid, and as such, still child-like in my pursuit of the adventure of winter. I wanted to play in the snow.
Having reflected on the latter notions for some years now, I can identify the motivation behind my dedication to biking in the harsh winter months. It was the adventure. I believe that embracing the fun and adventure of winter bicycling is tantamount to the practical preparations needed to embark on this “crazy” endeavor. It seems we are all taught to forget that playtime in the snow that we used to crave. Winter bicycling is our way to get it back.
If you can muster your inner child to ride in the winter you are halfway there. The other half of the battle is preparing yourself practically. Read on!
One of the most common reasons for reluctance to ride in the winter is the cold. Funny, because it didn't seem to stop us when we were kids. Granted, as kids we weighed about fifty pounds, our vascular system was robust, plus we didn't sweat and have to look professional. But these things can be addressed and they don't need to be overcomplicated. Cotton is typically a bad idea for the layer next to your skin because sweat (and you will sweat) gets absorbed by it and it doesn't evaporate all that well. Merino wool and synthetics are a good choice for this first layer. After that, you'll need to be the judge of what will keep your warm. Is it windy? A windbreaker is a good idea for an outermost layer. Windy and rainy? A waterproof windbreaker then. Layers are good and so are zippers. Getting too hot is common in the winter and it's nice to be able to unzip in a few spots.
A synthetic base layer, a heavy hoodie, a wool or down vest if it's really cold, and a windbreaker make a great combination.
Gloves are a must (how else will you throw snowballs at deserving motorists?!), but often-times I hear bike-industry people overstate the importance of dexterity. If mittens will keep you warmer and you can still operate your brakes, maybe they're the better choice. Remember, if you're miserable out there, you're never going to want to do it again, even if you can shift with rapid-fire quickness!
Headwear is also a must depending on your climate. If you live where it's rainy then maybe just a waterproof hood will suffice. But if you live in the upper Midwest then a serious balaclava/scarf and wool hat combo is a good way to go. If you prefer to wear a helmet and can't fit it all underneath, that's okay. Most balaclavas that are out there are thin enough that you can wear your helmet on top of one. A helmet will do an okay job of keeping your head warm (depending on the helmet), and furthermore, you can get a helmet cover to do a little bit more—especially to keep the wind and rain out.
A balaclava and a hat, or a helmet with helmet cover. A beard seems to work, too.
Shoes. Definitely wear those. A lot of people in the cycling community will try to convince you that clipless pedals and the corresponding shoes are the way to go. I contradict this. For the average rider it's probably best to just have normal, flat pedals on your bike, ones that are big enough to fit a large shoe like a snow boot. You should be able to comfortably wear a shoe that is going to keep you warm enough. Secondarily, not having your feet clipped in to your pedals in the winter will give you the ability to catch yourself should you feel the bike sliding on ice and about to go out from under you. If that happens, don't worry: ADVENTURE! You're likely to fall a few times, but those falls will help you develop the type of control and balance that are unique to winter riding.
Pants, well, I will say you should probably wear those, even though I don't, but this is because I am truly masochistic when it comes to winter apparel. The pants you wear need not be synthetic unless you expect to get wet, in which case, it may also make sense to wear some waterproof wind-pants on top of whatever you choose to wear. If it's snowy, but not currently snowing or raining, wear whatever you would normally wear if you were going to bike on a chillier day. I like to do the “Huck Finn” (figure 1c) occasionally; jeans rolled up to just below the knee. You don't have to roll them up that high, and you could pair it with some high socks, so no skin is exposed.
The "Huck Finn" and some knee-socks. Yes, your calves will become that big if you bike in the winter.
Depending on how your bike is dressed, you may not need as many layers yourself. For instance, fenders can make or break a ride—especially to work. In the rain, they prevent a cold, wet stripe from being Jackson Pollocked on your back, and in the snow they keep the same off your back with the added benefit of keeping your drivetrain and shift cables a lot cleaner. When it's snowy and cold outside, your cables may have a tendency to get snow caked on them, which can disrupt shifting. This is assuming your bike uses derailleurs and does not have an internal gear hub (see my previous article on Internal Gear Hubs for more info!).
If at all possible, store your bike indoors during the winter (if at all possible, store your bike indoors always! But in this particular case, when you're going to work let's say, eight hours of exposure to the elements can be harsh. If there's any way at all to blackmail a boss or some coworkers into getting some enclosed space to put your bike, by all means, get out the ransom letters). If your bike does have to sit outside when it's snowing all day long while you're at work, you may have to give your bike a good bounce or two and maybe scrape off some snow and ice from the cables (they often run down the underside of the downtube), and derailleurs. See if you can do that faster than your coworker scraping his or her car's windshield.
The bicycle's shoes are its tires, and in the winter they are definitely an area that needs attention. I'm about to use some seriously technical terms like “greasy snow” and “bobsled snow” so try to keep up. There are some conflicting hypotheses about what tires to use in the winter. Most of them have merit, but the problem is that some of these arguments are purely situational. For instance, studded tires. These babies can set you back around $100 for just a single tire! Some people advocate for them. I would advocate for them on a limited basis.
Studded tires are most appropriate for: people who live in Minnesota, probably Wisconsin, northern Michigan, the Dakotas, upper Great Lakes region, and northern New England and some other places, too, maybe. I don't know, I've never been there. But here's why: if you live in a place where snow falls, it stays cold, snow isn't plowed (or isn't plowed completely, or, let's face it, not in any timely manner), then snow gets packed down, that snow then turns into Bobsled Snow, or even ice. Bobsled Snow isn't clear like ice, but its surface is ice and is very slick. Even worse, Bobsled Snow has become packed down into shallow divots and canyons (maybe one to two inches deep), which I call Bobsled Runs. These runs can pose serious issues because your tires will naturally slide into the low parts and this can really endanger you if you need to maneuver. If you find yourself riding on the high part of a tiny ice canyon (see figure 2a), it's basically like riding a knife-edge. At any moment, your tire could slide laterally into a divot, giving you little time to react and you could be headed for Wrist-Cast City. These conditions can be navigated with much greater ease with studded tires. The metal studs pierce the ice and give you traction so that there is little to no lateral sliding. You won't fishtail either, which is good.
Viewed from the front, a tire riding on ice or hard-packed snow
To contrast, I currently live in Denver where it snows fairly large amounts, but due to weird, rain-shadowy things, the weather is frequently mild and the snow thaws and melts within a few days to a week after. There is very little snow-pack, ergo very little Bobsled Snow. In fact, in the winter, there are more days of riding on bare pavement than not. In these conditions, studded tires might be $200 poorly spent because the metal studs would wear themselves down on the concrete, significantly reducing the life span of the tires.
There are some who advocate strongly for skinnier tires in the winter. They say that a narrow tire will cut through the snow and make contact with the pavement underneath, giving you good traction. This is certainly true. Skinnier tires are the perfect antidote to what I call “Greasy Snow.” Greasy Snow happens when it's been snowing for a day (maybe it started in the early morning or the previous night) and it stopped that late afternoon or evening. Car traffic has smushed some of it down, but there are still high patches left here or there.
The high patches are the Greasy Snow. I call it Greasy because there are really two kinds of snow interacting. The snow underneath the high patch has been packed down from car traffic, and is actually fairly tacky to a tire, but on top of it is new snowfall that has not been packed down and may be fairly thick. The snow underneath might be tacky to a tire, but the snow on top of it will slide over it with ease when pressure is put on it, say, by a front tire; almost like the unsuspecting shoe of a pedestrian stepping on a banana peel. As the front tire comes down, it smushes the patch of snow down flat, but this snow slides right on top of the packed snow on which it is resting, which causes your front tire to float and slide in various, unsafe directions laterally. See figure 2c for clarification.
The "Greasy Snow" and the packed snow are distinct surfaces and slide against each other
Thinner tires (specifically thin, yet knobby tires) cut through the high patch of Greasy Snow and make contact with the packed snow underneath. Instead of floating on top, they penetrate through and displace the snow that is so Greasy and dangerous. However, if you were to run these tires over some Bobsled Snow, you'd be a in a rough place. If you can count on Greasy Snow conditions in your city, maybe having a bike with thinner, knobby tires makes sense. However, there are some climates that cause not one but all of the aforementioned conditions. For us, a tire is needed that can manage adequately on any given day: Greasy, Bobsled, Ice, Dry, or otherwise. How do you choose a tire that is going to give you the best option for a wide variety of conditions?
I think the key is to switch to tires that are larger (wider), knobby, and run at a lower pressure than normal. The Achilles Heel of this combination is going to be thick patches of Greasy Snow. But a major facet of surviving the dreaded Greasy Snow is just to avoid it in the first place. Stick to where the snow is packed down and you won't put yourself at risk. The larger tires naturally have a bigger contact patch (the surface area of a tire that is actually touching the ground). When tires are run at a lower pressure (say 35 or 40 psi), they squish down even further, making the contact patch even larger. The knobs on the tire's tread and sides also make contact and fill in terrain that isn't truly flat such as Bobsled Snow (see figure 2c)
A normal tire at high pressure will not have as many points of contact as a knobby tire at lower pressure
Lastly, if you experiment with these options and nothing seems to work for you, all is not lost! There is a company called SlipNot Bicycle Traction that manufactures bicycle tire chains (or you can make your own chains http://icebike.org/Equipment/tirechains.htm). The nice feature about them is that they are removable, so you only need to put them on as needed.
The most difficult aspect of winter biking, however, is the mental preparation. The analog would be going jogging in the morning. The jog itself is not as difficult as getting out of bed and making yourself do it. It is the same with biking, or arguably, making any significant change to your lifestyle (eating vegetarian, cutting back on facebook/twitter/etc, or trying to write left-handed—although why you'd want to do that last one I do not know). The idea that you are forcing yourself out of your cozy bed even earlier than you normally would be in order to go to work not in your cozy car with its selected going-to-work playlist, but on your bicycle, which will force your muscles to do work out in the cold, dark, snowing, possibly sleeting world out there is a powerful idea. It's the kind of powerful that you'll need to fight. It is powerful because the idea of having to bicycle in the winter is actually more dangerous to your attempts to make yourself into a winter biker than winter biking itself is. The perception of that discomfort is more uncomfortable than it actually is to be outside on your bicycle in the winter; that is what makes it so easy to succumb to the car.
Now comes the part you don't want to hear: there really is no shortcut to this. You have to steel yourself, move yourself, and make yourself do it out of sheer willpower. There's no mental fender that keeps you dry from the idea of what cold and wet feel like. There's no metal studded tire of the mind that can help you from slipping back to sleep after hitting the snooze. You just have to do it. The good news is, there are plenty of people who do it in hundreds of cities, and there is nothing special about us. Which is to say, we are not superheroes and we don't possess some gene that makes it easier for us to bike in the winter. We're just normal humans who've made it a habit to do this, which means you can do it, too.
If I could offer one piece of advice that might help you, it is this: connect with your inner kid. Would your inner kid be stopped because you realized you'd have to get wet and cold as you built a snowman? Probably not. Would your inner kid hit the snooze again if they saw the snow-covered lawn? Knowing full-well what snowball fights awaited? No way, Jose! So, when that alarm rings, it's dark out, and your bike beckons, don't groan and roll over, instead pretend your big sister just hit you with a snowball. Go get retribution! The adventure awaits.
Photos property of Keith Couture