Winter biking basics
What to consider in a snow-worthy steed
by Kierstin Kloeckner
It was 25 years ago I began my journey into winter cycling. Initially I did it in part out of necessity and part out of a need for adventure. I didn’t own a car and my part-time job site was not within walking distance. The bus often required a transfer, making the wait outside in freezing temps in Minneapolis annoying at best.
It was late fall when I went to the now-closed Kenwood Cyclery to purchase my Bianchi mountain bike; a bike that would prove to be a solid steed for almost 15 winters. I knew nothing about winter riding. (For example, I kept full pressure in my tires because I was trained as a better weather road rider. I’ve since learned that’s not advisable.)
I would bundle up, often too much, and make my way around the lakes on paths often plowed before the roads. When the snow got too deep, I’d either dismount and walk or fishtail my way through it. I learned almost everything through trial and error since there weren’t many year-round commuters in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Partly due to the difficulties I had those first few years, and partly because I needed others to share in my misery (and joy), I became active in winter bike groups. I didn’t want everyone to have to learn from scratch like I did.
Now there’s a ton of debate about which bikes are best for winter riding and what gear should be used. I’ll just share a few simple pointers to help winter biking newbies feel comfortable. Once someone gets going, they will find what works best for them.
Let’s focus on the three most common bikes, as well as wheels and tires, best for winter commuting in the Midwest.
Let’s start with the most practical and most common: the hybrid. Not everyone has a stable full of different bikes for different conditions. Many have just one or two bikes, making a hybrid a great choice for both summer and winter conditions.
These upright bikes with flat bars make it easy for riders to look around and carry items in panniers on a rack. They usually have clearance for wider tires for better traction in snow and a sloping top tube, which makes them easier to step over and take a seat when layered up. Most hybrids also have brazeons for fenders and racks. Hybrids also tend to be quite stable.
What’s not to like about hybrids for winter use? They do tend to be slower and heavier than, lets say, a cyclocross bike. They also can’t fit increasingly popular fat tires.
When someone comes to me wanting to turn their hybrid into a winter commuter, I usually steer them into purchasing studded tires. With these a rider can get away with using tires still narrow enough to fit fenders (which help keep dirty slush off your clothes) and still have stability in slippery conditions. (Please note that new studded tires should be ridden on dry pavement for a few weeks prior to using them in snow.)
Cyclocross & mountain bikes
The next bike option is either a cyclocross bike or mountain bike. No, they are not one and the same, but I do find people using both in a very similar fashion.
The main differences between the two are that cyclocross bikes usually have drop handlebars, not something I’d recommend for new winter riders. Mountain bikes have flat bars offering more control, especially in urban areas. I, myself, use a ‘cross bike with flat bars.
I like the stability of 29-inch or 700cm wheels. And I have never used studded tires, although every year I consider it. I feel quite comfortable on 40mm-wide tires with a more aggressive tread until there’s more than four inches of fresh snow.
In fact, fresh snow is rarely an issue. It’s just more work to push through. It’s the sloppy or “brown sugar” snow which always poses a problem for me, making it difficult to control my front wheel. I always go back and forth between wider vs. narrower tires on my bike. Wider tires offer more flotation, but in sloppy snow, narrower tires tend to cut down to the pavement easier. Sometimes neither work, and that’s when I walk.
The final bike I’ll cover is the fat bike. Over the past five years, these bikes have gone viral. It’s to the point where I see them almost as much in the summer as the winter. Yes, they can be heavy and take more energy to push, but regular riders swear by them in almost all conditions.
Although fat bikes are great for winter riding, don’t think you are 100 percent safe from falls if you choose to get one. I’ve seen plenty of folks go down on ice even with studded fat bike tires because they shifted their weight too quickly or took too sharp a turn. Where fat bikes really excel is in deep powder. Nothing can top their flotation and I’ve ridden with folks who purposely go through large snow drifts on them to push the limits.
I’ also like to touch on frame material and drive trains. Nowadays you’ll see winter steeds comprised of steel, aluminum and carbon. I find there are plusses and minuses to all.
Steel is widely available and very forgiving if you fall. Aluminum and carbon are lighter and don’t rust, although carbon can crack during falls if it hits something hard.
I have been quite happy with my steel frames, but I do take time to rinse them after rides to prevent rust and choose frames that have an internal coating. The big thing is to wipe down and lube the seat post on any bike you have from time to time to prevent it from fusing to the frame.
Gears vs. singlespeed
The choice to ride a geared or singlespeed bike largely depends on the hilliness of your commute. I have several hills on my commute that allow me to ride singlespeed during the summer but causes rear-wheel slippage in the winter. A singlespeed would certainly be my year-round choice if my commute were more level.
Singlespeed bikes are easier to clean, have fewer parts that could freeze or fail when dirty or wet, and the parts are less expensive to replace when something does go wrong. If choosing a singlespeed for winter riding, I would suggest selecting a lower gear so that you can keep pedaling up small hills without getting out of the saddle. A nice smooth pedal stroke will help quite a bit in slippery or slushy conditions.
I hope this short explanation of the most popular bikes for winter commuting helps get you out there to try it yourself. If you have more questions, most cities now have winter cycling groups or online forums to help answer questions. Many bike shops have also become quite savvy about year-round cycling and can also help steer you in the right direction.
Just remember when beginning your winter biking journey is to be patient and have fun. Everything else will fall into place.
Kierstin Kloeckner used to race bikes and now commutes by bike to work as a personal trainer and yoga/pilates instructor in Madison, Wisconsin.