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Guy On A Bike: Winter Cycling

We're still two weeks away from stuffing ourselves with turkey, followed by tryptophan-induced naps on the couch, and yet many of us have put away the bicycles for the year.

With snow possible from October to April, Minnesotans have one of two choices: bike only half of the year, or learn to ride in the winter months.

Surveys have shown that the majority of us choose the former.

But riding in the winter months isn't as different as you might think. And with a little preparation, it can even be fun.

Here are a few tips for riding during the colder months.

A bicycle can be a significant investment and ice, snow, cold and road salt can wreak havoc on your ride. Put away your two-wheeled pride and joy and get a winter bike.

Got an old steel Scwhinn in the garage? Perfect. If not, your local bike shop will be happy to outfit you with a winter steed at a reasonable price. (A used bike is a great option.)

Personally, I prefer a single speed bike for winter riding. Gears can freeze up, and are just extra components that can fail or be compromised by the harsh conditions.

Some people really like gears. In that case, a hub with internal gears makes the most sense. A two- or three-speed hub can be purchased for a reasonable price.

There is a lot of debate when it comes to tires for winter cycling.

Some riders prefer fat tires, as they tend to float over the top of the snow and have a lot more rubber contacting the road surface.

The other school of thought is that a narrower tire can cut through snow and slush much easier, getting down to the pavement.

There are benefits to both and either will work.

Beyond the size of the tires, there are studded, winter and all-season tires.

Here is a quick overview of your options:

  • Studded tires: These have, by far, the best traction you can get. You will be sure-footed, even on the ice. But, be prepared to spend a good chunk of change for them. Furthermore, studs will significantly slow you down and can wear out fairly quickly on bare pavement. (Carbide studs will wear much more slowly than steel, but also cost more.) If you can only spring for one studded tire, be sure to install it on the front. That is where most of your braking and control comes from.
    Winter Bike Tire
    (credit: CBS)
  • Winter tires: I have a set of Continental Top Contact Winter tires and they do the trick for me. These are not studded, but have a special rubber compound that is softer and provides more grip on slippery surfaces. (These are very similar to winter tires used on cars.) They are a bit cheaper and faster than studded tires, but don't provide quite the same level of traction either. Since the rubber is softer, these tires will wear down quickly when ridden on bare pavement in warmer temperatures (e.g. consistently above 45 F degrees). A number of brands offer similar tires.
  • All season tires: If you aren't sure if winter cycling is right for you, just ride what's already on your bicycle, but first let some of the air out. This will improve your traction by increasing the amount of rubber in contact with the road, although it will make pedaling more onerous and be significantly less grippy than a specialized winter tire.

Also, be sure to have bright lights and reflective clothing.

Along with snow and colder temperatures, winter means shorter days. Moreover, with many paths and bike lanes covered in snow, you may find yourself riding in traffic lanes more often. Make sure you can be seen by motorists.

Once you finally take to the streets, don't be afraid to take a lane. Cyclists have the same rights as motorists. It's better to inconvenience a driver for a few seconds than to put yourself in danger by riding on dangerous surfaces, such as shoulders.

In the past, I have precariously pedaled on an icy shoulder, only to have a motorist pass at an uncomfortably close distance. By taking a lane of traffic motorists are more likely to pass at a safe distance.

With the first snowfall of the year, I found myself riding in a lane of traffic and a couple of motorists honked at me. And while they may have been mumbling unpleasantries as they passed by, I know they saw me and gave me the three feet required by law.

Additionally, it's important to ride in a predictable and consistent manner.

If you are riding on the shoulder, don't weave in and out of the traffic lane. Try to navigate a straight line, and find a pace that allows you to pedal at a consistent pace. Quick starts and stops on slick surfaces can only lead to trouble. Taking slow, wide turns on icy roads will help keep you upright.

Lastly, if you are commuting to work, take a look at your route. In the winter months I get off of side streets and on to snow emergency routes. While these roads often have more traffic, they also often have more than one lane and get attention from road maintenance crews first.

In the next edition of the blog, I'll tackle proper dressing for the cold weather.

You may be surprised to learn that bundling up to much can be just as detrimental as not wearing enough.


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