Winter Biking Tips
Argyle, who's macho enough
enough) to ride all winter long.
Author's note: This
article was written very early
in the century, before the era of Fat Bikes.
The information is still appropriate,
but you'll want to also read our
Fat Bike page.
General: You'll get toasty hot when you're fighting snow
and mud. But when you get to a fast downhill, you'll freeze. It's best to
layer so you can adjust your protection.
Bottom: I use fleece-lined tights worn over a standard lycra
biking short. I wear the short because, (1) if I get hot, I can strip and
dump the tights in my CamelBak, (2) I can drop the mud-covered tights and
the porch, and go into the house clean, and (3) on a fast downhill, a
sweaty crotch can cool down VERY quickly if there's only one layer.
Top: I wear a standard bike jersey over a very thin
wool-acrylic long-sleeved upper body tight. I'm OK down to 20 degrees. If
I'll be doing some fast downhill, or if there's a nippy wind, I add a
nylon shell (1-layer, no insulation).
on a nippy January day, warm as
|Ears: A thin earband will keep your ears from
freezing on the downhill. I have it in the back pocket of my jersey on the
Gloves: Long-fingered with a thicker fabric and leather will
do for short warm rides. If you'll be downhilling much, use ski gloves or
heavy winter cycling gloves. If you put bar-mitts on your bike, you can
ride with light summer gloves.
Shoes: Toe spikes are highly recommended. Most days, you can
use your summer shoes with double-socks. (Be sure to use wool-acrylic
socks, NOT cotton. Cotton is your enemy in the winter.) You can buy
shoe covers that keep the water and wind out of your shoe. These covers have a hole in
the bottom for your cleat. High-top winter bike shoes are waterproof and
have extra padding, but cost they can be pricey. But if you find yourself
riding regularly in the winter, buy them!
On this ride, I'm wearing just a thin
acrylic long-sleeved T under the biking jersey. It's perfect, even when
Tires: For hold in "corn snow" and mud, you want
aggressive knobs for traction, of course. But the knobs should be widely spaced,
so the mud and snow isn't as likely to pack into the space between the treads.
(They say that red rubber tires don't allow as much mud to stick, but I haven't
found any difference.) For loose snow, a thinner "digger" tire like a
V-tread or bar-tread will keep you going forward. The thinner tire cuts through
the surface, and the V-tread finds something to grab. On the other hand, for
hard-pack (such as following snowmobile routes in early spring) you want a HUGE
fat tire, so it doesn't break through the surface.
|Pedals: In the winter, I swap my small light
SPD pedals for downhill pedals (where a pop-up binding is surrounded
by a toothed cage). If my cleat and pedal become packed with ice, I can
still stand on the platform and ride with confidence.
Cleat and binding are both gummed up
with ice and debris. Note the toothed cage around the binding -- this lets
me ride when I can't click in.
In winter, more than
ever, you need the full stroke that cleats provide so you don't spin out.
I loosen the tension in the SPD bindings to make room for a bit of ice and
mud on the cleat and in the binding receptacle.
Shocks: Your shock absorption will change. Elastomer and fluid shocks may
become very stiff. The spring coil may not be as "springy." Air shocks make
the smoothest change from summer to winter. In general, you'll want to soften up
your suspension and reduce the rebound dampening. (Adjust the dampening after the bike has
been outside in the cold for an hour -- you won't be able to tell how the bike
performs if you do it in your living room!)
Cables: If you know you're going for a sloshy mud-ride -- on 4x4
routes, NOT on bike trails! -- you can
mud-proof the spots where your raw cables enter the housings. We've put that
information on a separate page. See Mud-Proofing.
Also consider whether you should be riding at all! I strongly suggest that deliberate mud
rides be made only on ATV trails, where the dirt is already torn up beyond
||Brakes: If you go "digging" on wet
four-wheel drive routes with your bike, you'll find mud. Mud destroys standard brake pads and
rims. You may want to go with a softer brake pad -- to compensate for the
cold, and to reduce the sandpaper effect on your rims. (I wore right
through an expensive set of rims in one year!) You'll need to tune and
adjust your brakes more frequently, preferably before every ride. (Winter
biking is where disc brakes are worth the money. They perform like a
Ah, the joys of early spring, with mud-balls gumming the brakes. This wears a bike out fast.
|Hypothermia gear: You may think St. George is
warm because there's no snow. But if you're making an epic ride such as
the Stucki Springs loop, you'd better pack hypothermia gear. You WILL die
if you spend a winter's night in the desert unprepared.
In addition to "enough
clothing," I pack a disposable plastic rain slicker and a foil
emergency blanket. (They weigh almost nothing!) To keep my metabolism up if I'm
stranded, I add food.
Water Bottle: Yes, you need water, even in the winter. But the water
you pack with you has another use: squirting the mud off your chain to cure chain-suck (see
Making the Ride
When: I've found 9 a.m. to be the perfect hour for a short
ride. At that
time, the trail is still frozen, but the air temperature is warming. Around 11, the exposed areas of the trail are getting soft, but by then I'm
back in my own driveway. If you can find a northern slope with good shade, it
could be good all day. But DO NOT rut up the snowpack by riding when the surface
is soft -- the other snow bikers and fat bikers will hate you for it because it
messes up the riding surface.
Where: You may find a hard-packed snowmobile or ATC trail in the
high mountains, but in general, most winter biking is at low altitude. Just about any trail can
be ridden with 4 inches of soft snow. Once it reaches 6, the uphill will
be a battle. Trails we've ridden during every month of the winter:
Bonneville Shoreline SLC north and south, Corner Canyon's Potato Hill-BST-Canyon
Hollow-Ann's loop, Hog
Hollow, Alpine's Lambert Park, Antelope Island, Stansbury Island Mountain.
Many local "dry" streams
fill up in the winter. If you'll be running into water, plan for it.
Nothing creates frostbite like wet summer-biking shoes in a fierce
20-degree wind. Here Mike is hitting the
creek on the old Corner Canyon loop before the bridge was built -- wearing his summer shoes and cotton socks. He
knows better now!
Where NOT: In the winter, I avoid riding alone on remote trails.
(Break a leg and you die of hypothermia in a matter of hours.) Don't take long
rides on snowmobile paths -- the path may be frozen hard enough to support your
tires in the morning, but by noon your bike will be bogged in soft snow and you'll
spend hours hiking out.
Avoid riding on trails that you'll damage. Some trails, with good base of
rocks or gravel in the soil, are firm all year. Others will get soft and squishy
on a warm winter afternoon. It's best to ride on solidly frozen trail in the early
morning, so you don't leave ruts. On the other hand, if you're biking a
doubletrack where ATVs and jeeps go "4-digging," then who cares about a
few dainty little bike tracks? Really. For example, Five Mile Pass, where testosterone-crazed guys are raising big rooster-tails of mud.
|How: Winter riding requires a strong biker with a steady,
light touch. Abrupt moves may break through the
crust on the snow, or skid the bike into the deep snow on the edge of the trail.
Sudden force on the pedals can make the rear tire break loose and
spin. Keep the effort smooth and consistent. It helps to be
locked onto the pedals -- avoid putting your feet down in the snow, or
pretty soon there'll be a sheet of ice covering your cleats.
Nice thing about falling in winter --
you don't usually get scraped up. It's like falling on skis.
Ride in a more "spinning" gear than usual -- you're less likely to
break loose and spin the rear tire, and it's easier to recover when you do.
When your back tire begins to slide sideways on the slope, there
are two ways to correct the slip. (1) The uphill dig: You turn your handlebars
so the front tire faces a bit UPHILL. This forces the back tire to complete the
turn. Simultaneously, you romp on the pedals, powering yourself up the slope.
You'll be aiming about 45 to 60 degrees uphill from your original line of
travel, so this method only works where you've got some open space -- for
example, a snow-covered road, or a singletrack where there's some room in the
sagebrush to power yourself back onto the trail. (2) The downhill slip: You turn
your handlebars so the front tire faces slightly DOWNHILL, as you continue
steady and straight. The entire bike will sideslip down, stopping when it hits a
level area. This is the best way to handle most minor slides on ruts and steep
Snow-covered sandstone ledges require a bit of finesse. Whether
uphill or downhill, attack the ledge as close to straight-on as possible. If you
hit the ledge at an angle (especially if the snow is wet) your back tire will
||Chain-suck on a mud-ride can be a big problem. (This is
where your muddy chain sticks to the small front chain-ring and rides up
until it gets stuck against the other half of the chain at the top of the
ring.) In general, I've found chain-wax to be more resistant to
chain-suck than oil. It's also easier to clean a waxed chain with snow or
mud-puddle water on the trail.
Rubbing your muddy chain with snow can
stop chain-suck. Squirt with your water bottle to finish the job. Be sure to clean the pulleys, too.
For an extensive technical discussion of chain suck, its causes, and
prevention, may we suggest the following URL: http://www.fagan.co.za/Bikes/Csuck/
After the Ride
Clothing: All right, guys. If you want to stay married,
you WILL clean the mud off your clothing before you come in the house, and
you will NOT toss muddy clothes in the washer with your wife's underwear. If you strip your
tights while still outside and leave them there a bit to dry, you can usually
knock the dried mud right off.
Shoes: Important stuff! The metal retainer that holds
your cleat onto the shoe will RUST if you leave your shoes wet and muddy. Which
means you'll be buying new shoes soon. Always clean the bottom of your shoes
thoroughly, and dry the shoe. If necessary, take a blow-dryer to your shoes. I
usually stick mine over a heat vent.
Cleaning the bike: I keep a very short hose on the south side
of my house. I use it to forcefully spray off my bike after muddy rides, with
extra time and water pressure applied to the chain and pulleys. Watch
which direction you're spraying -- don't force mud into the cable ends or shock
absorber boots! After washing the bike, I blow the water out of the hose and
disconnect it from the faucet (to avoid freeze damage).
Spray forcefully as you run the chain
through the pulleys to remove all mud.
Chain: You'll need to clean the chain after every mud ride.
Not just a rinse; a high-pressure cleaning. Chain wax lets you get the chain
cleaner than oil lubricants. I never use oil lube on my chain any more. Any oily
dirt that remains in the chain acts like
"grinding compound." If there's no sunshine, I blow-dry the chain. (If
you use chain wax rather than oil, you have increased rust risk. Your chain can form rust in just a few hours in the garage.) I re-lube when the chain is
dry, before putting the bike away for the day.
A blow-dryer can save your chain from
Monthly cable cleanout: If you ride in the snow and mud every week,
you're going to accumulate some mud and debris in your brake and shifter cables.
I clean mine out once a month. See the cable
cleanout section. Better yet, mud-proof 'em
when you ride.
Summary: Winter riding is fun. Yes it's harder than fair-weather
cruising. But it's not as hard as most people think -- so it rates real
high on the "Macho" meter. Ride in the winter, and people will think
you're a Buff Hunk-on-Wheels. They'll also think you're insane, but that's a
small price to pay. The best way to try it out is, rent yourself a Fat
Bike for a weekend. Once you find that you like winter biking, buy yourself
a fat bike.