Beristain (SingleTracks #53)
Most cyclists hang up their bikes
with the first cold winds of winter. Yet there is a small but
growing hardcore group that rides throughout the winter. Making
"first tracks" in three or four inches of freshly
fallen powder snow is truly a spiritual experience. Unlike any
other form of riding that we are accustomed to, the surroundings
are pristine, the tires cut an easy line in the powder, and
there is almost a total lack of sound, as it is absorbed by
the snow. Riding in these conditions when the snow is still
falling just adds to both the thrill and the serenity.
Winter riding requires a totally different mindset, but once
the conversion is made, you’ll be hooked for life.
I started riding almost five years ago and have been an "icebiker"
from the very first year. I look forward to winter, and I've
never miss riding at the peak of every snowstorm or ice storm
we have had during this period.
Don't expect to go flying downhill or doing lots of technical
rock hopping. But do expect to have your endurance challenged
and your ability to control the bike when the snow gets rutted
or frozen. We ride up and down the frozen streambeds and even
do track stands, hop turns and figure eights on the ice. Immediately
after a snowfall, signs of life appear everywhere along the
trail with deer, turkey, fox, and rabbit footprints along the
If this is your year to get started icebiking, maybe these tips
on how to fit up your bike, how to dress, and riding techniques
will be helpful.
If there is only snow and no ice, then wide tires with big lugs
that can be run at low pressure are the best. If there is ice,
then studded tires are necessary. You can build your own (check
out the How-To in this issue) or you can buy them. I have found
that the homemade studded tires grip better when new, but quickly
get dulled when riding on blacktop or rock. Just be prepared
to replace or sharpen the screws necessary. I use Nokian Extremes,
which have 296 tungsten carbide studs in them (we review them
in this issue). They don't wear out even on blacktop but are
outrageously expensive. When it is icy, I pump the tires up
to 50+psi so the studs can get a grip on the ice. When there
is no ice, then I drop the pressure to 10psi to create a larger
contact patch. I may change tire pressure two or three times
during a ride, as conditions change rapidly.
Rims: The wider the rim the better for running
low pressure, maximizing the contact patch and minimizing pinch
flats. I use ultrawide 44mm wide "SnowCat SL's".
Cables/Housings: Slush and water will freeze
up the cables, especially after riding through a running stream.
You can spray WD40 into the cable ends to displace any water,
or use a water-resistant grease (Lubriplate Mag-1 will not thicken
in cold weather). Personally, I use Gore Ride-On cables which
are sealed and are less susceptible to freeze ups. If you do
get freeze ups, pull long and hard on the brakes to break up
the ice and move the derailleur by hand to break them free.
The key to clothing is to be able to stay comfortable from the
beginning to the end of the ride. Not too cold and not too hot.
This is quite a challenge. Layering and controlling heat output
by changing the 'effort' are the two techniques that I use.
I layer the clothing and then, as I get heated up, I open the
layers to let the heat escape and then zip up quickly if I have
to stop for repairs. Fortunately here in Connecticut I rarely
have to deal with sub zero temperatures. Some of my icebiking
friends from around the world have to deal with temperatures
of -20 or -30 degrees F. These temperatures require a very careful
selection of clothing, especially if one has to stop for an
extended period for repairs. Frostbite and hypothermia can set
in quickly. I check the temperature before setting out and dress
accordingly. Typically, I wear a base layer of a long sleeve
heavyweight polypro with a zipper front, then a short sleeve
polypro, again with a zipper front. Then, depending upon the
temperature, I either wear a fleece vest with a ripstop nylon
jacket over that, or a heavier windproof winter jacket that
allows moisture out through the back.
Balaclava: I wear a polypro (thin) balaclava.
I start out with it covering my nose and mouth but after some
15-20 minutes, I'm hot and pull it off my face. My hair is usually
very wet after the ride, so I have not had to tape over the
vents in the helmet yet, but I noticed that some folks do that
as well. The balaclava also covers my neck, but if it is really
cold, I wear an additional "turtle". In milder weather,
I just wear a polartec headband that fully covers the ears.
Glasses: Fogging and Windburn: Glasses protect
the skin around the eyes. Windburn can be very painful and comes
on quickly when riding in the cold, dry climate. The bigger
the glasses, the more skin protection. I always use sunscreen
on my face in the cold weather. It helps resist the windburn.
As soon as I stop or go slowly, the glasses will fog up due
to the heat/moisture coming off my face. Find a pair of glasses
that stand away from your face as much as possible to minimize
the fogging. I've seen ski goggles with a little fan/battery
in them. That definitely works. Rx glasses seem to fog up much
quicker than riding glasses because they sit closer to the face.
Legs: Winter tights are readily available.
I wear "icebiker" powerstretch 100 tights, and wear
regular cycling shorts under the tights, and then put a second
pair of cycling shorts over the tights because the wear resistance
of the powerstretch 100 is not adequate. It also helps keep
the "delicate parts" warmer. Put a piece of fleece
or a warm sock inside your shorts if it is still too cold.
Feet: Since the feet don't move very much,
they get very cold and the clipless pedals compound the problem
by drawing heat from the shoe/foot. It is the toes that really
get cold, not the whole foot. I have extra wide/extra long MTB
shoes that allow me to wear heavy socks. First I use a polypro
sock liner, then a "smart wool" sock and then a heaver
"smart wool" sock over that. If it is wet snow, I
put a plastic baggie between the sock liner and the smart wool
sock. Wiggle the toes to help warm them.
Hands: The hands, like the feet, tend to get
cold. Wiggling the fingers does help. I wear a glove liner and
any number of different winter gloves. My favorites are extra
heavy hiking gloves. If it is really cold I use "pogies"
which fit over the handlebars rather than on the hands. With
pogies, I can wear just a pair or light gloves and stay warm.
Safety gear: I still wear my knee/shin pads
and elbow pads, as it is not unusual to go down when there is
ice under the snow. Usually just getting dumped off the side
of the bike directly on the knee. Also, I put soft pads inside
my shorts on the hips. This saves trying to explain the black
and blue marks circling the hipbones. Of course, if you ride
sanely (which I have not been able to do), you probably will
not need to take these precautions.
Powder snow is the best to ride in. Especially if you are the
first one making tracks. Even pedal strokes and a relaxed upper
body will help keep the rubber side down.
Braking: ice will form on the braking surfaces.
So always check your brakes, especially after going through
water. Don't wait until you are on the downhill to check the
brakes as it is too late then. If your rims are iced up, keep
the brakes applied while you pedal. The heat will eventually
melt the ice. Disc brakes are definitely a plus for winter riding.
Tire pressure: High pressure to push out the
studs to grab the ice. Low pressure to maximize the contact
patch when riding in the snow. Bring a pump along, as you may
have to vary the pressure over the course of the ride.
Keep a light front wheel when the snow is deep or wet. Otherwise,
it is almost impossible to keep the bike on track.
The bike will tend to slide when there is ice under the snow.
It takes a while not to panic and just stay relaxed. But that
is what it takes to keep from making unscheduled landings. I've
seen riders go across shear ice without studded tires by remaining
perfectly relaxed and balanced on the bike.
Cross Country Ski grooves: Try to stay away
from these grooves, as the skiers reused them. Putting tire
tracks through them makes it virtually impossible to enjoy the
trail experience. Of course, if they take up the whole trail
with their tracks, then I do ride over them. These grooves usually
get densely packed and even ice up if they are used a few times.
The grooves are narrower than the bike tires, so it makes tricky
Wet Snow: Just as powder snow is the ultimate
ride, wet snow is the most challenging. It is too soft for the
tires to ride on top of the snow and too heavy to allow the
tires to push the snow out of the way. In addition, it sticks
to the spokes and adds many, many pounds to the load. On those
days, I look to improve my endurance rather than looking for
a smooth ride. Wet snow can still offer some free spirited fun.
One day, the snow was so sticky it filled the space between
the tires and the brakes, such that it was impossible to pedal.
We disengaged the brake cables and rode without brakes. Slaloming
downhill to scrub off speed was a memorable event. Thrilling!
We still talk about it!
Icebiking rounds out my year. No need to jump in a car and drive
3 hours to a ski resort. Just hop on the bike and go for a ride.
And in the spring you are in such good condition that you can
toast all your buddies on those first rides of the season.