Winter riding. It’s cold. It’s dark. It rains. Heck, last December in Seattle we were buried under a foot of snow. This year is looking a little different- though Old Man Winter can turn on us quicker than crap hits the ground, so it’s best to have a game plan.
Many folks that ride often have what they call their “winter bike” or “rain bike.” Often times it’s a touring bike, mountain bike, or something that has braze-ons for fenders, allows for wider tires, and maybe a little less sporty- it’s more about a procuring a stable ride over potentially unstable terrain. This is of course, the ideal situation- if the weather is nice, and you want to put in some miles, you can grab your faster bike and get out there with no need to strip off the fenders, put on different tires, etc. It’s not, however an option for everyone. Whether you have environmental concerns about owning multiple bikes, you can’t afford multiple bikes, or you just don’t want another bike, there are lots of folks out there that are bike-monogamous. Good for you. But, if you only have one bike, then, my friend, I hope you chose wisely, because in most cases, from October to February, you are going to be sacrificing one of two things: comfort or speed.
My Rain Bike – The Train Wreck Cruiser
This bike was put together on the cheap, pulling from my parts bin, and in an effort to have not only a loaner bike, but one that I could ride drier with. RIDE OR DRY!
Frame: converted road bike frame, with track ends where the rear dropouts used to be.
Full Fenders: I picked up some aluminum fenders from Velo Orange a few years back. They are now cracked, which may be an argument for plastic.
Handlebars: Upright style. Kinda like a 3-speed bar- I want to be able to see traffic, sit higher, and have traffic see me.
Saddle: Plastic Saddle- wet saddles suck. You can get a fancy cover for your leather, or use a plastic bag that can be stored tucked under the rails, or say screw it, and just go plastic. It’s not as comfortable for long rides, but for around town and running errands, it’s dry with a wipe of a cloth, and it does the job.
Drivetrain: Single speed- Coaster Brake. I am a big fan of coaster brakes- though they sometimes get a lot of flack -“Don’t they catch fire?”, “They fail all the time, “They are junk”. Well, I’ve ridden coaster brake bikes in Seattle and San Francisco for many miles, up and down many steep streets, and I’ll say that I’m still stoked on them.
Tires: I am running Schwalbe Marathon Pro’s 700x28c right now (review coming up soon.) They are solid, puncture resistant, and have good traction in the wet. The wider the tire, the more surface area/traction you have, and the 28c’s are as wide as I can go with this bike. If you have a touring bike, a Surly-anything, or (obviously) a Mt. Bike, then you can fit fatter. Studded tires are an option for many bikes, and are a good option for icy conditions. Snow is different to ride in (slower, but safer, in my opinion) Read below for more info on tires.
Rack: Not for everyone, but a basket, a rack, something to haul goods, it’s nice to have. Your bike is getting heavier anyway, a rack means that a case of beer sits on your rack, not your back. It feels good. It makes my bike more of a utility bike.
Your setup is bound to be different than mine. Different budgets, personal preference, and what’s available will get you on the road on whatever you can make happen. I love seeing peoples winter rides. They are sometimes very creative. And it’s quite possible to have beautiful bikes, with clean lines winter and summer. Bikes that we call “Dutch Bikes” have this utilitarian, “ready for anything” look about them. Full fenders do a lot for the ride, even when crossing occasional puddles.
Brakes: Rim brakes are an oft used and fairly effective means of stopping a bike. There are many variables that affect this, age and quality of the pads, the rim surface, whether or not it’s raining, and quality of the brake calipers themselves. I’m not such a big fan of them in the winter. Disc brakes work much better, or you can get into some internal gearing and hook up with a nice roller, or coaster brake. Or you can just say to hell with it and ride a brakeless fixed gear- which brings me to….
Fixed gear bikes in the winter: I love riding a fixed wheel bike. I don’t run a front brake. I think fixed gear bikes are fun, can be ridden safely and efficiently in any city, and I fit right in when I’m on Capital Hill or when I park my bike in front of Urban Outfitters… That said- fixed gear riding in the winter – sans front brake=not very safe. The second you get your butt off the saddle while riding your bike down a hill, you have lost about 40% of your handling. Whip skids look great, and are much easier on wet ground, but you demonstrating is that you have a marginal amount of control in a situation that’s overlooking a ledge of chaos. Ever try and change direction in the middle of a whip skid? Won’t happen. Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ride fixed in the winter- I’m merely suggesting that you add a front brake to your ride, as well as check your speed. Bombing Denny is totally doable in summer, but in winter, when the roads are wet or icey, it definitely sits in the “Poor Life Choices” category. Sheldon Brown (R.I.P.), longtime supporter of riding fixed wheel bicycles, would I’m sure argue on behalf of riding a fixed gear bike in the winter, but with front and rear brakes. I would agree whole-heartedly, though I doubt that we will see many people out there rocking that look. It would be akin to non-ironic mustaches, and minivans (read: NOT COOL)
Studded tires: Studded tires are nice. They aren’t necessary in many regions, but in areas with heavy ice in the winter, they make winter riding enjoyable where it was would be scary. There are a few manufacturers of tires. Schwalbe makes some fairly affordable models, available to fit different size tires. I bought a pair of 26″ Nokian 296’s (read: 296 studs PER TIRE) for my winter bike while I lived in AK. I still have them and bring them out with the weather is really foul. You can go out and buy some, or you can make some, LIKE THESE. Studded tires require a frame that you can fit wider tires on, the most narrow that I’ve seen are 35c, on the Marathon Winter($61.95), or the Innova Tundra Wolf ($29.95) From what I’ve seen, what you are paying for, on top of the rubber itself, is the amount of carbon in the steel used for the studs. Higher carbon content=stronger steel. It will last longer as you ride over harder surfaces, such as concrete. Your studded tires will last much longer if you stay off of anything but ice. If snow is your thing, I’ve seen chains available for bike tires, and last year on my coaster brake wheel, I just put zip ties around the rim and tire. It acted a bit like a paddle wheel in the snow, though in the ice I wasn’t that impressed. (note: this WILL NOT WORK if you use rim brakes)
Lights: Be seen. It’s dark in the winter. Drivers are less used to cyclists on the road because who would be crazy enough to be out in this weather, this time of year? Raindrops on sideview mirrors distort what the driver can see, and your puny little one LED Knog light is about as useful as riding with a cigarette in your mouth on the level of being seen. I’ve long felt that the rear blinkie light is more important than a front light for safety; my argument being that I can control what happens in front of me far easier than I can behind me, where I can’t see. I still believe this to a degree, but after riding with lights that ACTUALLY illuminate the path in front of me, I now believe that both are essential. Fact: You should ride with as many lights as you feel comfortable riding with. But please, for Merckx’s sake- keep the white lights in the front, and the red in the back. If you have to ask why, then you should sign up for a commuter class from Cascade Bike Club. There are lots of light options- with different price points for different budgets. Buy the best light you can afford. Take care of it. Make sure you keep it charged, and please make sure that you take it off your bike, because stolen lights put you in the dark.
Clothing: Winter in the Pacific Northwest can change quite a bit in the winter. As I write this, the skies are clear, and the cold is such that it literally brings a tear to my eye when I ride down the street. It’s clear, with icy patches, and if you don’t stay on your toes, you’ll wind up on your face. The wind bites, and gloves are a necessity if you want to use your hands when you reach your destination. Next week it could be 55 degrees and rain, but for now, it’s 31 degrees and clear. That said, riding a bike warms you up pretty good. A waterproof shell of some type is something that should be on your body or in your bag from fall until spring. They work great as windbreakers, and you never know when you might need it if you get caught in a winter storm. Arm warmers and leg or knee warmers are handy to have, small to carry, and work well. A winter cycling hat that fits under your helmet is essential. Stay tuned on a winter clothing specific post.
Fenders: Get em. Full fenders are the cat’s meow, and you won’t want to go back once you’ve tried them. You can get clip-on (like Raceblades), beaver tail types for just the rear, or make your own. The feeling of ice water dripping down the butt crack as you start your day is a feeling that you will remember for a while. When you install most fenders, prepare to take a fair amount of time to make them work. Not all fender makes and models fit equally, or even fit on all bikes.
Helmets: Helmets save lives. News Flash- they also can keep your head warmer. It’s a win win. Bern makes some that have winter add on kits with ear flaps. Put on your skid lid. As I read someplace recently- People in wheelchairs don’t get Ghost Bike Memorials.
How to ride: You should take more care in the winter- it’s good for your health. Drivers seem to pay less attention. It takes you, and them- more time to stop. Be mindful where you ride. Often, if the snow is plowed, it’s only in the lane, which means that you are left with no option except to ride in the lane. Do it. The best surface is generally where the cars tires travel. Make eye contact with drivers, that are crossing your path. Also please understand that though a driver may look right at you, this is no indicator that they have any intention of giving you the right of way. Perhaps they think that you are traveling slower than you actually are, or maybe they’re just dumb, but be ready for anything. If you ride in Seattle, then you know by now that some of the most unpredictable drivers on the West Coast call this town home. It may have something to do with how passive/aggressive many people here are. Though they may be trying to be nice one second, a second later something compels them to jump out in front of you. I know it doesn’t make sense. Just be safe.
Bonus tips: A friend and I were talking recently about visibility while riding. I, in an effort to not lose my lock while playing a game of U-lock pickup, put white electrical tape around the cylinder. This is the part that sticks out of my back pocket while riding. My friend mentioned that it would be a good idea to put 3M tape on the cylinder as a way to increase your reflectiveness. Good call I say. It’s on my short list of projects, and I encourage others to do the same. Just don’t use the same kind as me, because then I won’t be able to find my lock when we play U-lock pickup.
What are your thoughts? Any more tips? Questions you have? What do you think about winter riding?