Friday 16 January 2015

Winter Wisdom: Winter Bicycles

My winter bike; studded knobby tires, disc brakes, pogies, I'm wearing a
hydrapak under my coat, front/rear derailleurs, front and rear mudguards,
energy drink in bottle cage.


Cycling in the winter was long considered a "hardcore" form of cycling but has been gaining in popularity.  There is a lot of advice floating around the internet about what sort of bicycle is well suited for winter cycling.  But for me, it comes down to what sort of components you are using, not the bicycle in general.


Bicycle tire technology has come a long way.  There are several types of tires that can keep you spinning in the icy cold.

  • Fat tires: These wide tires have been around for a few decades but have seen a recent surge in popularity.  The original fat tires were called Snowcats that had rims that were 44mm wide; they could be fitted to most bicycles capable of equipping a mountain bike tire.  The more recent incarnations come with a rim width of 80mm or more and require a specialized bike called a "Fat Bike."  The tires can be run at a very low pressure, enabling you to float on top of snow.
  • Studded tires: These tires literally have studs embedded in them.  Originally steel was used in production.  Most commercial production of studded tires uses tungsten carbine, an incredibly hard alloy.  There are also many DIY studded tire instructions on the Internet, usually by modifying a knobby tire with outwardly protruding wood screws.  Studded tires can dig into ice and provide solid traction.  While studded tires on cars are banned in certain jurisdictions, studded tires on a bicycle are usually exempt as they cannot cause the damage that studded tires on cars can.
  • Soft tires: These are bicycle tires made out of similar soft rubber compounds found on automotive winter tires.  They excel at providing traction at sub zero temperatures.
  • Knobby tires: Sometimes the best thing to use in shallow, sticky snow, knobby tires can be used for traction, just like in muddy scenarios.
  • Thin tires:  Instead of floating on top of the snow, a thin profile allows them to cut through the snow to where the pavement is.  Works best in clear roads and shallow powder snow.
  • Any tires: Sometimes the best tire for the job is the one you have.  If you commute where the road is dry or regularly gritted or salted, as long as you ride slowly and with caution, you should be just fine.
  • Combinations: You can get multiple features on one tire.  For example, there are studded fat tires.  My Ice Spiker Pro's are studded knobby tires.


Braking technology moved in starts and stops (pun intended) since the very first bicycle.  There are many different types of systems; I will just speak generally about what I know.

  • Rim Brakes: A braking system where the brake pads are applied to the rim of the wheel.  These are a very poor choice for winter cycling.  While they're very easy to fix if they break down (again, pun intended), their proximity to the ground means the rim can be caked up with snow and ice.
  • Disc Brakes: This is a very popular type of brake for off road vehicles.  The disc is close to the center of the wheel, which means it is away from the ground and all the snow and ice.
  • Drum Brakes: These resemble drum brakes in cars.  As they are an enclosed system they do not suffer from poor weather conditions.
  • Coaster Brakes: I have fond memories of coaster brakes from my youth.  As it is an enclosed system it does not suffer from poor weather conditions.  It applies braking power to the rear wheel only.
  • Fixed Gear: Not a brake type per se.  But fixies and track bikes have a fixed gear where slowing the wheels can be accomplished by slowing the pedals.  In winter conditions you don't tend to be a speed demon so this can be accomplished easily.
  • Flintstone Brakes: Borrowed from a cartoon of the same name.  If you aren't familiar with it, they drove around in stone cars and would brake by putting their feet on the ground.  So in order to accomplish this, keep your seat lower so you can put your feet on the ground.  While I would never recommend this as a primary braking system, it can assist you while braking with other methods.  If done correctly it can help with stability too.

Protection From the Elements

So we've covered important things like traction and stopping.  But an often overlooked subject in winter cycling is protection from the elements.  Keeping yourself dry in the winter is very important.  Keeping your bicycle free of crud and salt is good for its health too!

  • Fenders: Coverings for front and rear wheels.  They are usually close fitting and cover a large expanse of your wheel.  They usually provide great coverage, keeping you and your bicycle dry.  An added flap on your front fender helps protect your bottom bracket.  I haven't seen many for wider wheels.
  • Mud Guards: If you have wider wheels, mud guards will be right up your alley.  They don't tend to provide as much coverage as fenders.  But as they are open, they don't tend to get clogged like a fender can.  Usually they won't protect your bottom bracket.
  • Chain Guards: This is like a covering for your chain.  There are different configurations which go from partial to full protection of your chain, in both permanent and temporary fixtures.
  • Pogies: Their name comes from a type of bait fish as they were originally designed for kayak paddles.  Several years ago they were adapted for bicycle use.  The great thing about them is they keep your hands out of the wind and can retain heat inside.  I find they are great as they allow you to fine tune the level of warmth you need.  For example, I'll put gloves in my pockets and ride bare handed; as I get colder I add a pair of gloves.  In the past I'd just wear the gloves and they' end up getting sweaty and uncomfortable; now I'm always warm and dry.


Bicycle gearing is definitely something to keep in mind when cycling in the winter.  It's an integral part of the drive train.  You do not want your drive train to go south on you while peddling around the frozen north!

  • Derailleurs: Having a variety of gears is great in the winter.  It enables you to take on various types of terrain with just the right amount of effort.  But because they are fully exposed to the elements, they are always at risk of being clogged.  Or worse, freezing!  Ways to mitigate this is to keep your drive train protected (mud flap on fender, chain guard) or to keep changing gears often.  Worst case scenario, try to keep yourself in a gear that you won't mind being stuck in!  Front derailleur freezes still gives you a fair amount of gear changes.  A frozen rear derailleur may affect the chain slack so you can't shift front or rear.
  • Internal Hub: As this is a completely enclosed system, it doesn't suffer from winter weather.  Gearing systems start at 3 speed and if memory serves, you can get ones that go up to 11 speed.
  • Fixed Gear or Single Speed:  There is no gear system here to freeze so there's no problem.


It is very important to stay hydrated any time you are engaged in physical activity, including cycling.  More so in winter, when the air is dry and evaporated sweat may make you think you don't need as much.  In addition, lower temperatures will bring your bottle close to freezing.  Frozen water worse than no water at all; it weighs more and hydrates you exactly the same.

  • Water Bottles: You should be OK with water bottles so long as you are out for a small amount of time.  Assuming you fill the bottles with warm water, you have about an hour before frozen nozzles become an issue.  You can extend this period of time by making the water hotter beforehand.
  • Water Bladder: Namely Camelbak or hydrapak style systems.  These use a large vessel filled with water.  It usually dispenses through a hose to a nozzle.  The issue with these is the stream of water in the hose is very small with a large surface area in the hose.  This means it is very susceptible to freezing.  There are hose insulators out there but most reviews point to them being ineffective.  I've found two great ways to keep the water going.  One, keep the nozzle section inside your coat.  Two, keep the nozzle, hose, and the entire bladder inside your outer layer of clothing.  The latter is extremely effective.
  • Energy Drink: Not really water per se, but a great source of hydration, energy and electrolytes.  It also doesn't freeze as quickly as water.  I've found a room temperature energy drink will last an hour an a half when the mercury drops.  I usually keep on in a bottle cage and I drink that before I drink any water.
  • Thermos: Aka an insulated beverage container.  The nice thing about a thermos is you can put in soup or coffee for extended trips and have something that can warm you from the inside out.  They can be as simple as one that fits in a pack or something that fits in a bottle cage of your bike.


In the winter days get shorter and nights get longer.  This effect increases as you get further north.  Go far enough and the night will last six months!  Around the 45th parallel daylight only lasts for a shade over 8 hours at winter solstice.  That's assuming no storms and no cloud cover.  This means most rides have an increased chance of occurring in the dark or low-light conditions.  The selections below are not exclusive, I would recommend all of them if you can.
  • Front Lights: Almost always a white light but there are a couple of configurations to think about.  There are lights that illuminate a large spot in front of you.  Others will "zoom" out and provide greater lumination at a distance.  Fortunately you can fit several front lights on a bike so you don't have to choose.
  • Rear Lights: Almost always a red light.  Usually there is a solid light and several blink settings.  They usually don't go really high in the lumen scale as they are used to be seen, not to see.
  • Head Lamps: In off-road situations it can be hard to look around as only the area in front of you is lit.  Having a head lamp on your helmet means you can still have a good range of visibility around you as the light is always shining where you are looking.
  • Visibility Lights: Whether you are on road or off road, you want to make sure to be seen by motorized vehicles.  Good front and rear lights can do this for you but you aren't limited to them.  There are several systems that can help you light up your frame and wheels.  One novel approach was to light up your wheel using a valve cap light.  I have some cheap red/white usb lights that I point downward to light up my bicycle.


So what's the best configuration?  There is none.  Do the best you can with what you can afford.  My icebike has knobbed studded tires, disc brakes, mud guards , pogies and front/rear derailleurs.  I have my main light system from my summer bike on (front 480 lumen spot, rear 5 led with lasers, backup lights to light up visibility).  I haven't had issues stopping nor traction concerns on icy surfaces or in shallow snow.  I have had my gears freeze (front one sucked; rear one really sucked), so I try to shift gears often to avoid freezing up.  For water I use all listed methods (bottle, bladder, energy drink, thermos); what combination I use depends on ambient temperature and how long I intend on being in the cold.

Many of these suggestions can be done on the cheap.  You can make your own studded tire, or stick to dry roads with a regular tire.  There are DIY instructions on making your own fenders and mudguards out of things like cans and pop bottles.  If you are decent at sewing you can make your own pogies.  You can get pogies cheaper if you shop around for scooter or ATV mitts (Apparently putting the word "cycling" on a box of pogies triples the cost).

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