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Winter Biking Tips

By Bruce Argyle, who's macho enough
(or stupid enough) to ride all winter long.

Author's note:  This article was written very early
in the century. The information is still appropriate,
but you'll want to also read our
Fat Bike page.

Clothing

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 shoes on 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).

That's me on a nippy January day, warm as toast.

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 way up.
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.
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 have extra padding (and no mesh to let in water), but cost about three times the price of good summer shoes.

On this ride, I'm wearing just a thin acrylic long-sleeved T under the biking jersey. It's perfect, even when "flying low!"

Equipment

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, 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 there: I suggest that deliberate mud rides be made on ATV trails, where the dirt is already torn up beyond redemption.

Brakes:  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 charm!)

Ah, the joys of early spring, with mudballs 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 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 bottle has another use: squirting the mud off your chain to cure chain-suck (see below).

Making the Ride

When:   I've found 10 a.m. to be the perfect hour. At that time, the trail is still frozen, but the air temperature is warming. Around noon, the exposed areas of the trail are getting soft, but by then I'm on the way downhill. But if you're breaking a new trail where snow has had a few days to melt down, then crust over, you may find it easier to ride after the sun has softened the snow a bit -- 1 p.m. for example. If you can find a northern slope (for example, Draper's South Mountain Trail), it will be good all day!

Where:  You may find a hard-packed snowmobile or ATC trail in the high mountains, but in general, 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 South Mountain, Hog Hollow, Alpine East Mountain, 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 South Mountain -- 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. If in doubt, ride on the 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 SUVs go "4-digging," then who cares about a few dainty little bike tracks? Really. When I want to play in the mud, I go to Hog Hollow, where testosterone-crazed guys are raising big rooster-tails of mud. Any mud-riding I do on national forest singletrack is purely accidental.

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 little higher 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 trail edges.

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 slide sideways.

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 rust.

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. And it's not hard -- yet 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. If you find that you like winter biking, buy or rent a Fat Bike.