Winter Cycling

Boston Biker has put together an excellent series of articles about winter cycling. I thought I’d supplement these by writing about what works for me.

I’ve been riding through Boston area winters for the last five years, regardless of weather conditions. When my old commuter bike’s aluminum frame cracked in a snowstorm several years ago, I took that opportunity to design a bicycle that would withstand the winter abuse. This is the fourth winter that this bicycle will go through and it’s been working extremely well.

Hardware

I based this bike around a Surly single speed steel frame. As far as corrosion goes, both aluminum and steel will corrode when exposed to road salt and water. It’s the paint that prevents the metal from corrosion. The Surly frame has a tough paint job that hasn’t chipped or worn through despite several years of daily use. Also, the steel frame is slightly flexible, and dampens normal road vibrations and has more organic, gentler ride characteristics. This helps when riding through the pothole that appeared overnight. This frame has track ends, which were necessary because I wanted to use an internally geared hub. Finally, there are mounts for both disc and rim brakes on this frame. I had originally planned on using disc brakes and it’s nice to have that option.

complete bike

My previous commuter bicycle had derailleaurs. As I’d ride into work, slush would get kicked up and accumulate on the derailleurs. It would then freeze as the bicycle was locked outside while I was at work. I’d ridden home several times with frozen derailleurs, unable to shift, in a really low gear. While gears aren’t strictly necessary, they do help if you’re planning on riding up hills, which do exist where I ride in Somerville, Medford and Belmont. Also, when there is slush, snow and salt, having the ability to drop into a low gear and apply more torque can help. An internally geared hub – in my case, the Shimano Nexus 7 – was the solution to these problems:

internal hub

I used Sheldon Brown’s Online Gear Calculator to determine what size chainring and cog to use with the internal hub. I plugged in the most common chainring and cog sizes I used on my previous bicycle, found the gain ratios, and tweaked the chainring and cog sizes with the internal hub until I found gain ratios that were just a hair tougher than my previous bike. This worked out perfectly; the new bicycle has similar speeds to my old one.

Although I’d originally planned on using disc brakes, I ended up using rim brakes instead, primarily because I was warned that bicycles with disc brakes are more likely to be stolen. Also, I was minimizing costs and trying to re-use components from my old bicycle. In retrospect, I’ve been satisified with the performance of rim brakes, especially since using salmon compound brake pads — these are noticeably better than standard brake pads when the rim is wet:

salmon compound

I thought about clipless pedals, but was concerned about slush freezing in the pedal mechanism, so I opted for pedals with toe clips.

Fenders are absolutely necessary. Slush shot up your backside and into your face and mouth is very unpleasant.

Lights are also extremely important in the winter. It is always dark on my evening commute; riding without lights would be unnecessarily dangerous. I decided to spring for a ridiculously bright headlight so that I’d be seen even in significant snow storms. I have a standard red blinking rear light, a high intensity discharge headlight, and two blue LED strobe light strips that cover both the back and front of my cycling jacket. I would also consider Hokey Spokes or SpokePOV lights to increase  visibility. If I’m lit up like a rave, people will see me.

Incidentally, rechargeable batteries are also the way to go. The long term cost savings of rechargeables make up for the initially larger investment in brighter lighting systems.

I switch chain lubricant in the winter. Normally I use Tri-flow, which is a fairly light lubricant. However, to combat salt, I use Phil’s Tenacious Oil, which is a sticky, highly viscous substance:

tenacious oil

If you want to save a few bucks, buy a quart of chainsaw bar oil, it’s the same thing. Keep the chain lubricated, and wipe it down after wet rides! Even with proper lubrication, the chain may need to be replaced after the winter riding season. Replacing the chain is not expensive or difficult. If you have a stainless steel chainring, it probably won’t wear enough to need replacement, and my rear cog hasn’t worn enough to need replacement either.

I also install studded tires when ice starts to form on the road. These tires are too beefy for riding on the road; there are more studs than necessary — and I’ll be replacing them shortly with Nokian Hakkapeliitta tires, which have fewer studs and have less rolling resistance:

studded tires

Winter is harsh on bicycles. Before the winter, any missing paint should be touched up. Cable housing should be inspected for cracks and replaced if necessary. Exposed cables should be lubricated with a light lubricant like WD-40, and kept lubricated through the winter.

The rest of the bicycle is pretty standard; I hadn’t had issues with these parts in the winter so I saw no need to consider using anything different. The bottom bracket is a modern sealed cartridge type. The stem, handlebars and pedals were harvested from my old bicycle. The offset seat post was necessary to get a better fit. The seat is more comfortable than my previous seat, but not specifically designed for winter.

Clothing

There’s no need to bundle up with many many layers of fleece sweatshirts and a ski parka and other excessive heavy fluffy clothing when cycling in the winter. You’ll generate a lot of body heat moving the bicycle through the slushy crud that these roads turn into. Even on days when my ride starts slightly chilly, I’m comfortable five minutes later. The key is to keep wind and water out, minimize sweating, and wear a thermal base layer when it gets cold.

I wear or pack specific clothing depending on the temperature, wind, and precipitation:

clothes

– Cycling jacket: A good cycling jacket will be both windproof and waterproof. It will also have reflective material. I wear a cycling jacket whenever the temperature is less than 50 degrees; my jacket has air flaps that can be unzipped if I start to sweat or get too warm.

Waterproof, insulated cycling pants: I wear these in rain and when I’m expecting lots of slush or puddles.

– A BMX-style helmet: This style of helmet has fewer airholes. As a result, my head is warmer in the winter.

– Thermal base layer: This is really important and can make the difference between a comfortable ride and a miserable, cold and wet one. I’ve tried a lot of different types of thermal fabrics.
— Wool is warm, even when wet, but inflexible and itchy.
— Silk is very warm and lightweight, expensive, and not durable enough — it doesn’t even last a season
— Cotton should be avoided, since it absorbs moisture
— Fleece is very warm but in my experience holds moisture against the skin
— Wicking synthetic fabrics are not cheap, but have worked best for me. Columbia makes a synthetic fabric they call Omni-Dry. It is flexible, warm, lightweight, durable, comfortable and wicks moisture away. I’d anticipate that any wicking synthetic fabric is going to have similar properties.

– Lobster claw gloves: These gloves have two ‘fingers’ and a thumb. This allows me to operate the brakes and keeps my hands warmer than regular gloves. I wear these when the temperature is below 30 degrees.

– Glove liners or lightweight gloves: Lightweight glove liners or gloves are sufficient in temperatures between 30 and 45 degrees.

– Booties: These fit over shoes; I use them in rainy or wet conditions.- thick winter socks: Worn when under 40 degrees.

– balaclava liner: This can be worn under a helmet and keeps my head and face warm. The opening can be stretched to expose your face or pulled closed so that it only exposes the area around your eyes. I wear this in weather under 35 degrees.

– Goggles or protective glasses: I always wear safety glasses; I once spent an afternoon in the ER getting a dirt particle removed from my eye after riding behind a large truck. This was an unpleasant experience and another afternoon like this is easily avoided by wearing some form of eye protection. In the winter, goggles help keep the wind off your eyes and the area around them. Goggles tend to fog up if you’re wearing a balaclava liner and there’s no wind; when this happens I pull the liner down to expose my face. This way, I’m not breathing into the liner and the warm, moist air from my lungs isn’t directed onto the goggles.

Adjusting clothing for weather

It’s important to check the weather in the morning because temperature changes of over 20 degrees by the evening are not uncommon in this area. Comfortable clothing for the morning ride may not be warm enough for the ride home, so pack accordingly.

Rain

Cold rain is the absolute worst weather to ride in. The worst part, however, doesn’t need to be the ride — for me it is usually changing out of my wet outerwear and into dry clothes. In these conditions, I wear my cycling jacket, waterproof pants, thermal underwear, booties and glove liners (these get wet but keep my hands warm enough).

Snow

Snow is dry. As long as it’s not going to change to rain, there’s no need to waterproof for snow. Expect the roads to be wet, but good water resistant shoes and fenders will keep that water away. If there’s a lot of snowmelt, consider wearing waterproof, insulated pants and booties.

Wind

Any decent cycling jacket should be windproof. If there’s a significant headwind, however, I generally wear the next warmer set of clothing, because any exposed skin will be colder due to the wind chill.

Riding Strategy

Winter riding strategy is fundamentally the same as riding any other time — other excellent guides exist that I won’t needlessly rehash. However, there is one factor to be aware of when riding in the winter. Snow tends to build up on the edges of the roads, so cars park further away from the curb. This usually causes the bicycle lane, if there is one, to be blocked by parked cars. Even if the bicycle lane is clear of parked cars, snow, slush and ice often accumulate in the bicycle lane but not in the car lane. When the bicycle lane isn’t safe to use, take the entire car lane! It is a safer way to ride; you are supposed to use it, and you are not in the way — bicycles are also traffic, just like automobiles, so don’t worry if you’re slower than the cars.
If there’s no bike lane, cars are still often parked further from the curb, so the same solution applies — take the car lane, be well lighted and visible, and safe — and ride with confidence! You’re out there in the weather, experiencing it first-hand, riding a bicycle — be proud!

complete outfit

13 Comments so far

  1. Century Training on December 15th, 2009

    A great list. Not sure if the final photo is going to win you a fashion model contract. But such is the life of winter cycling!!

  2. h4ckw0r7h on December 15th, 2009

    Heck, who cares what I look like! If I’m warm and safe — mission accomplished.

  3. y.t. on December 17th, 2009

    Did I miss the memo on writing about winter cycling? http://www.heatherson.com/2009/12/14/winter-riding-essential/

  4. j.p.k. on December 18th, 2009

    Feet; got to keep em dry in the rain. 50-40F: midweight socks,midweight shoes,lightweight rubber boots.40-30F: midweight socks,LL Bean Maine Hunting Shoes compleat with Gortex-Thinsolite booties and 3/8″ felt insoles. 30-and lower: shoe-packs compleat with 3/8″ felt booties and 3/8″ felt insoles.The great thing about the bootie insole combo is takeing them out of the overboots after the ride and leting them dry out for the next goround.

  5. Josh on January 4th, 2010

    I like your Style!!!

  6. chris clark on January 4th, 2010

    Just something i was thinking about the other day, then bumped into it here. Track ends are not at all neccessary for internal hubs nor for any other single/fixed drive train, standard horizontal dropouts have as much adjustability as track ends with the added safety of weight and direction of travel decreasing the possibility of wheel loss. Not much of an issue on a steel frame with solid axles but an aluminum frame with thick dropouts and QR’s may come loose even if maintained meticulously if regularly heavily loaded and subject to nasty conditions. This whole preponderance of track ends mainly comes from fad/fashion with the roots of the current singlespeed boom based in couriers who preferred track frames which used track ends to speed maintenance. Many new frames use relatively short horizontal dropouts which won’t work well but older frames and traditional higher quality frames usually have full-length horizontal dropouts which are superior to track-ends unless use of a mechanical axle-pull tensioner is desired. That’s how I think about it anyway.

    Love the fashion shot. The lights make me think of this woman who used to ride a little motorcycle around Cambridge with reflective piping all over her leathers, strobing head and taillights and a traffic cone attached to the top of her helmet. You could not not see her. Another approach was the Cabbage Patch doll in a seat on the handlebars which someone else used.

  7. h4ckw0r7h on January 4th, 2010

    Agreed on the track ends not being strictly necessary. They make adjustment a little easier and more flexible, but standard horizontal dropouts work just fine.
    I don’t ride aluminum; I don’t like the ride characteristics and brittleness — but it’s good to be aware of the strength issues when modifying an aluminum bicycle.
    We have two other bicycles that are older steel frames with horizontal dropouts. I’ve been able to tension the chain appropriately within the short amount of horizontal room on the dropouts.

  8. chris clark on January 4th, 2010

    My feeling on AL frames is that it’s superior for situations where you know that the surface will be pretty uniformly smooth and you want to give up little/nothing to frame flex, mainly competitive situations, like board-track racing or TT’s. And suspension machines where you can dial in the give you’d like. But they tend to be brittle so they crack/break in commuter lives, or the way they’re usually built with super-fat thinwalled tubing they get dented on other bikes or poles and such or dropped on rocks in the woods then once dented they fold up in short order. A good steel frame will just last so much longer and if it does have problems it is much more repairable. Besides, a good steel frame is just as light in a traditional frame style. But at lower price points AL is often lighter, but should be considered disposable.
    Most older steel frames have dropouts as long as track ends so adjustment is just as achievable. On your Surly do the disc-mounts allow adjustment that match the track ends since you’d have to move the brakes with the hub if you’re running discs? Most frames I’ve seen like that don’t and that puts you in pretty much the same spot as if you had vertical dropouts so you’d end up having to run some mechanical tensioner anyway. On the Nexus you run 1/8 or 3/32 chain? How do you feel about Dynamo lighting?

  9. h4ckw0r7h on January 4th, 2010

    I haven’t futzed with disc brakes on the Surly frame; unless I want to spring for a Rohloff (4-5x more expensive than a Shimano) there doesn’t seem to be a good internally geared hub with disc brakes.
    The Nexus sprockets are 3/32″, as is the chain.
    Dynamo lighting is a great idea for certain commuting applications, but dynamo lights are not very bright compared to HIDs with lithium cells. I switched to HID lighting when part of my commute went through an unlighted trail and I haven’t looked back since. The lamp I’m using now is 14 watts which would cause a significant amount of drag if it was dynamo powered.

  10. chris clark on January 4th, 2010

    I asked about the chain because it seems to me that with what you’re running with all the grime from winter you’d get alot more life out of your chain and more adjustability with a 1/8″ half-link chain assuming there are 1/8″ cogs for the Nexus, which I’d think there would be. But I was reading that Rohloff now has an internally geared dynamo hub that is intended for charging devices more than running lights, that means good voltage regulation, which could make a great charging system for a battery pack which would allow one to run LED’s off the battery and provide some isolation from the draw meaning you could run bigger lights at less drag and not have to charge indoors which could be real handy when touring. That’s what i was thinking anyway. Don’t know the price and no idea if it’s disc compatible, just thought the new hub might open up more options. These HID lights, are these actual arc-discharge lights or are they blue xenon bulbs like the aftermarket HID bulb conversions for cars? How do they compare to the big LED lites? Sorry, if I’m asking annoying questions or whatever, i’m just building a winter trail/tour bike right now so this is kind of on my mind.

  11. h4ckw0r7h on January 4th, 2010

    The Shimano cogs should work with a 1/8″ chain, but the Surly chainring I’m using isn’t designed for the thicker chain. A larger chain may last longer; that sounds like a better design.
    Rohloff makes great hubs but they are very expensive.
    If you’re parking or riding the bicycle outside, what about solar cells instead of a dynamo to charge the battery? Fewer moving parts and less drag.
    One challenge with electrical design is that there are inefficiencies whenever energy is moved around. So, there’s less loss when the dynamo energy goes directly to the lights than if it was charging a battery. There could be a battery backup, though, or a dynamo backup for the battery, or you could use a capacitor to store energy temporarily to keep the lights on when you’re stopped at a traffic light.
    The HID lights I’m using have halogen bulbs. They generate 390 lumens of light — just looked up the specs — they’re 13 watts, not 14. At the time I bought this lighting unit, high power LEDs weren’t widely available like they are today.
    If I was building from scratch, I’d seriously consider DIY’ing something from really bright LEDs and a lightweight lithium or NiMH battery. Commercial bike lights seem needlessly expensive for what they are.

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