Sunday, December 21, 2014

Uncle Dan's Winter Cycling Tips

Riding indoors sucks
I wonder how long it will be before someone asks their local bike shop to help them put their e-bike on their trainer for winter.


Are you tired of winter yet?  You could try a gravel ride.  I hear the people are really friendly.

Bryan, quick: which way is heaven?
Or you can browse bike media.  This time of year in particular, publishers seek ways to deliver content to their audience on their websites and through social media.  This means supplying a steady stream of “infotainment” to Facebook followers and the like.  Often, this content is supposed to be seasonally relevant.  

How many pictures of Santa on a bike have you seen already?
Non-profit organizations do this too.  

One of my favorite non-profits is People for Bikes.  Ever heard of them?

Did you know they're giving away a Surly Krampus?

That's my krampus though.  You can't have it.
I like Krampus.  

Also, I like People for Bikes, I really do.  I support their mission.  And, I’m a member of their organization.  You can tell what’s coming, right?  There’s a big old BUT coming.

One of their seasonal posts caught my eye recently.  The article is titled “Dashing through the Snow: Winter Bike Commuting Basics” and, although written almost a year ago, was recently reposted:  (Find it here). 

So, when I saw the title of the People for Bikes post, I was intrigued.  I can always learn more about winter cycling, and it’s often informative to hear someone else’s thoughts on the subject.

Not this time.  I don’t disagree with the premise – that it’s possible to ride a bike in the snow and in winter without dying.  It's not even that hard.  And I have nothing against the author, in fact, I don’t know him at all.  He may be the nicest guy in the world.    

But this article is not helpful to those looking for winter riding tips. 

The first tip is:
Just about any bike will work for winter riding, although you may find a road racing or time-trial bike less than ideal.”
Let’s explore that a little bit. 

People are reading the article to get tips for learning how to ride in winter.  Saying “any bike will work” is not really advice.  It’s like shrugging your shoulders and saying “whatever.” 

Imagine if, in an episode of “This Old House,” Bob Villa was teaching you how to roof your house.  Now, imagine Bob starts the episode with “you’ll need some nails.  Just about any nails will do.”  Now imagine he says “you’ll need a hammer.  Just about any hammer will work.”  

MC Hammer works everytime
This technically true.  Any tool in your toolbox can be used to drive a nail.  But if you’re using a pair of pliers to drive roofing nails, then you’re going to have an unpleasant experience and some shitty shingles.  Wouldn’t it be better to use a hammer?  And, if you are driving on sloppy, snowy, or ice covered roads, wouldn’t it be better to get some advice on the right tool for the job?

Incidentally, a search of images for "worst roofing nails" summoned this image:

If you take nothing else from this post, know now that curvy women are striking out in Perth, Austrailia.  Shame, really.

But back to the matter at hand.  Obviously, people wouldn’t watch a show about home improvement from home improvement experts, just to have them say “whatever.”  “Yeah, fuck it, just hammer some nails in your shingles.  It’s fine.”  

That should be fine.  Whatever.
I understand why People for Bikes would say that it's fine to grab whatever bike you have and ride it in whatever you're wearing.  Their mission is to get people out on their bikes.  So, rather than discourage people from riding in winter, they try to make it seem super accessible.  Like “sure, what the hell, just grab your bike and head out the door.  It’s cool.  Ride any bike and wear any clothes”  
But this, it might have just the opposite effect.  Instead of having a positive experience, a new winter rider may just head out for his first ride on whatever bike, with whatever clothes and have a miserable experience. 

The article goes on to say that not only can you ride any bike, but any clothing is fine too.  You really don’t need much for specialized clothing."  This is no help either.

But I don't want to be a negative Ned.  I don't want to just criticize, I'm here to help.  So, I have compiled my own list of tips for winter riding.  

Uncle Dan's Top 7 Tips for Winter Cycling:

(1) Don't.  Winter riding is probably not for you.   

It's cold in winter.  Many riders who are better than me don't like the cold.  Their solution?  They don't ride outdoors in the cold.  Shocking, I know. 

You probably won't enjoy it.  It's cold.  Your desire to ride has to be stronger than your dislike of the winter weather.  It’s not for everyone. 

(2) If you do it, don't tell your families and friends about it.  Nobody cares. 
Remember the first time you rode with no hands as a kid?  You probably shouted "Look Mom, no hands!"  She didn't really care then, and she doesn't care that you ride your bike in the snow now.

And enough with the snow-selfies already.

Duck-face snow selfie.  The goose is all like "look at me, I'm waddling in the snow!"
Also, your friends and family don't want to hear about your bike ride anyway.  They will react with either boredom ("Is he talking about bikes again?") or annoyance ("He's one of the assholes in my way when I'm headed to Dairy Queen for an Oreo-fudge Blizzard.").  So just keep it to yourself.

(3) If the roads are dry and clear, it's fine.  I take back everything I just said.  
If the roads are clear, and there's no precipitation, just about any bike will do.  It's just like any other day of the year, just colder.  For these days, just dress warmer (see below).  Just go ride your bike.  The remaining tips are meant for riding in winter when there is snow, slush, or ice. 

(4) Use wide tires at low pressure.  
There is a spectrum of sloppy weather.  Easiest to ride on are roads that are merely wet, and have been salted and plowed.  On the other end of the spectrum is ice.  In between is snow, ranging from slush to powder to glazed hard-pack and to super-frozen “drift” snow. 

On the slippery stuff, it's best to take a page from the mountain biker’s playbook and use wide tires at low pressure.   

Take fat bikes, for example - they are booming for winter riding.  What fat bike riders have found is that the ultra-wide, low pressure tires offer a huge contact area with the ground, providing grip where narrower, harder tires slip. 

Fat biker
So, if you want to ride in winter weather, at least lower your tire pressure.  This will give you more grip on the road and will provide better handling in slippery situations.   

Better yet, ride a bike with wide, low pressure tires.  Me, I prefer a 29er with fenders.  I run at a decent pressure when the weather is dry and drop the pressure for precipitation.
I know that some people will say they ride their fixies with high-pressure skinny tires all winter and they’re fine.  Yeah, you can do it.  And you’re a badass for doing it; congrats.  But you’re better off on a mountain bike. 

When powder gets ridden into ruts and those ruts harden in the winter sun, narrow tire bikes get pushed around like a rollerblader on cobblestones.  And have fun when the slush turns to ankle-deep slop and the bike is trying to find friction in the corners!  Narrow, skinny tires just won’t work as well in these conditions.  Even pro road racers use bigger tires at lower pressure for bad conditions.  

Are those (gasp) 28s?
(5) Disc brakes.
In wet weather, your rims get wet.  When it's cold, the wet rims freeze.  And when you try to use rim brakes on frozen wheels, you don't stop.

Um, nope.  Image from
I learned this lesson when I had to lay down my bike to prevent rolling through a red light at a downhill intersection.  Dammit. 

Disc brakes don't freeze.  Therefore, disc brakes.

(6) Relax.  Also, learn some bike handling skills.
I can't teach you bike handling skills in a blog post (or anywhere else, really).  But what I can tell you is that, as my bike handling skills have improved, I crash less in winter.

Not to say I don't still fall down.  I do.  Usually, a fall happens right after I think "Hey, this bike is handling pretty well in the snow."  Once this thought crosses my mind, a crash is imminent. Proof of god, if you ask me.

You shouldn't take my advice on bike handling.  But, here it is anyway: relax.

When I hit an unexpected patch of ice, I try to relax and roll straight through it, centering my weight on the pedals.  This goes against every impulse in my body, which is screaming "STOP" or "GET OFF THE ICE"!

I want to tense up, get flop sweats and grab a fistful of brakes.  Or try to change course for a clear patch of pavement.  But braking and turning will likely cause me to slide and crash.  So I fight the urge.

I slow down gently (if possible), modulating the brakes, and I don't change direction unless I have to.

Also, learn how to fall.  Falling hurts, but is sometimes necessary.

(7) Wear layers and not cotton. 
I previously explained my approach to dressing for cycling.

The gist of it is this: wear layers.  The underlayers should be wicking, because you will quickly heat up and will sweat.  Cotton sucks.  It holds the sweat close to your body and can make you very cold and uncomfortable.  
It seems like 10 degrees colder when you ride a bike than when you walk.  So, keep your hands, feet, and face warm.  Your trunk will take care of itself with a couple layers.

So there it is.  Be brave, as brave as you can.  But not more.