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Hot Tips for a Cold Winter

By Chris Harris, with help from Jim Frost, Charles Beristain, Ed Davis, Larry DeVito, Peter White, Tom McCrumm, Alex Knowles, Andy Hong, Eric Evenson, Jon Crane, and Dan Teiger. (SingleTracks #41)

Dang, it’s cold! There’s precious little daylight and there are icicles everywhere. But don’t hibernate: Keep riding! Hey, we mountain bikers are supposed to be tough. Here’s a bit of How-To.

Keeping the Body Warm

Nobody likes to be cold and miserable, so staying warm is the key to winter riding. Even when the weather’s glacial, you still sweat buckets, and wet equals cold. The trick is to minimize the sweat and remove it from your skin. The staff of mtb-new-england, our area’s biggest email list, agree that layering is critical. To keep you dry, use a wicking layer (thermax, polypropylene, etc.) to draw your sweat away from your body towards your outer clothing layers. Cotton in contrast will absorb your sweat and hold it right against your skin, so don't wear it there! The second layer of choice is fleece or wool, which is light but warm, even when wet. Some people find that when riding on the trails a windproof layer isn't important but if you are riding at speed getting to the trails or commuting, etc., then the wind layer is essential. A breathable layer such as Gore-Tex, or any of the others out there, will further help remove the moisture from your clothing. If it is raining or very wet then this outer layer needs to be waterproof. But don’t overheat: if you aren't a bit chilly before you start riding, then you’ll be horribly overheated once you start working. For those inevitable stops on the trail though, an extra layer to throw on will help keep you warm.

The Legs

Since your legs are in perpetual motion and generate their own heat, you don’t need tons of garb. If you are on the roads then wind front tights help a lot whereas on the trails regular insulated tights will do well enough until you are well below freezing. If there is snow on the ground however, an outer wind layer will keep you much drier and therefore warmer.

Fingers? What fingers?

Cold fingers will ruin a ride. Once your fingers are frozen you have no brakes, gears or grip. Not a good thing. For many people, long fingered fleece gloves are popular, as are the Pearl Izumi Lobster type mitts for when it gets real cold. Others just wear ski gloves (make sure you can shift and brake before you hit the trails). Once your gloves get wet either from sweat or due to conditions, it is a tough fight to keep the hands warm. A spare pair of gloves can make a ride last twice as long! And if you have them stuffed inside your jacket, there is nothing like slipping on a warm pair of gloves! If you are wearing bulky mittens or gloves, think about carrying something thinner to protect your hands should you need to work on the bike.


Feet are a problem. Generally, a larger, looser fitting shoe with a thicker pair of socks is a great starting place. A simple rule is that you have to be able to move the toes to keep the blood flowing. Some people use Gore-Tex socks to keep that inner layer dry. Keeping your feet dry and out of the wind can be done with a sealed shoe such as Shimano or Sidi's winter or downhill shoes. Another choice is a plastic bag inside the shoe but this keeps the sweat in. As with the upper body, cotton against the feet will make matters worse. One big problem is that SPDs tend to lead to cold feet since you’re essentially standing on a metal platform that sucks the heat away. Many riders revert to hiking boots and clips when the snow flies. I like neoprene booties which keep your feet warm even when soaked in sweat. Off-road riding can be pretty tough on booties though, and they don't offer the traction you get used to in a regular cycling shoe. As with gloves, having a dry pair of socks in your pack can save the day should you dab in a stream.

Using your Head

You lose more body heat out the top of your head than anywhere else and yet head protection is a very personal thing. Many of my buds never wear anything over their ears and don't mind seriously freezing weather. Others are already wearing full-face covering. If you are the type to get cold, then skip the macho stuff and put on a hat. The ears are the most susceptible to freezing. A thin headband or polypro skullcap under the helmet will do a great job. For colder days a full-face balaclava will keep the chin and cheeks toasty. You don't need a thick hat or hood, just enough to keep the wind off and to wick away moisture. Whatever you use, make sure your helmet still fits properly and if you must adjust straps and padding remember to undo the changes for the next warm day.

Wear glasses so your eyeballs don’t freeze in their sockets! Nothing like coming down a hill with your eyes watering so badly from the wind that you don't see the one that gets you. The catch 22 is that for the best wind protection the glasses should be close to the face, but this means they tend to fog up when you stop. To stop the fog from rolling in, use Rain-X or anti-fog potions. If you keep moving, the wind will clear them up, but nothing beats a clean bandana when all else fails.


The colder it gets, the drier the air and the more dehydrated you’ll get! Not only are you soaked in sweat but that cloud of steam you are exhaling is precious moisture. Since it’s cold, your body doesn’t tell you you’re thirsty, so you have to force yourself to drink. Of course, if your water bottle is frozen solid that isn't easy. You can try hot water to start but drinking that is not high on many people's list. Camelbaks (etc.) worn inside the wind layer work pretty well. There are insulating tubes available to keep the hose running but a popular alternative is to simply blow the water back into the Camelbak after each sip.

The Bike

Until the snow flies your stock bike will work pretty well. Once the mercury drops below 32 degrees, however, things deteriorate. Derailleur and brake cables can freeze in place, SPD type pedals can become locked-either with or without your shoe in them, rims glaze with ice making stopping a harrowing experience at best. Even your shocks will act differently. And perhaps worst of all, when it is icy, the sudden gusts of gravity increase alarmingly.

Is Your Shock a Rock?

In cold weather elastomer shocks can stiffen to the point of feeling worthless. Today’s MCUs are supposed to be better but they still don’t compare with coil spring, air or air/oil systems. Most elastomer forks can be retrofitted with springs, but even with springs, your air/oil damping will also change somewhat. Once the trails have been snowed and trampled by walkers you may find the trail to be as brutal as anything you might ride in the summer. Full suspension makes your life much happier in these conditions should you have still needed an excuse to upgrade.

Ahhhh, No Brakes!!!

If it’s below freezing and you pass through some water, or are actually riding on snow, you will quickly find that the best rim brakes in the world are not your best friend. Your rims will glaze instantaneous, making stopping tenuous at best. Feather the brakes on a regular basis to heat them up and wipe off or melt off any ice build up especially if you are coming up on a section of trail where completely uncontrollable speed might not be the best idea. It takes longer to stop, so plan accordingly. If there was ever a reason for disc brakes this would be it! When all else fails, there’s always the Fred Flintstone method!

Crusty Cables

While iced rims can be dangerous, frozen derailleur and brake cables are frustrating. Top mounted or fully enclosed cables (e.g., Gore Ride-Ons) help a lot in terms of keeping the gears and brakes moving. All front derailleurs in particular takes a lot of crap from the rear wheel and can be very prone to freezing in place, especially bottom pull designs. Pick a good size chain ring-you might spend the whole ride in it.

Damn Pedals

Even after dealing with the cold foot problem, you may still find that your clipless pedals are more like lumps of steel on bearings. Cleats and pedals can clog up with snow, so coat the release mechanisms with grease or spray them a light lubricant. Many riders switch to toe clips or Power Grips and boots for the winter. Others carry a small can of de-icer can help in any component freezing scenario. One person --who will remain nameless!--suggested peeing on the frozen parts.

Get Studly

In northern New England, once the snow falls, it sticks around for a long time. Riders resort to riding on packed, hard, snowmobile trails. In the Boston area, we have snow on an off-and-on basis. When there is more than a couple inches of fresh snow, the going is really tough as you bog down endlessly. Once it is packed, it gets better, but one good thaw and a re-freeze and you have ice: foot printed, rock hard, off camber ice. There is only one answer to that: studded tires. Not only will studded tires allow you to keep riding but they will give you a freedom you could never imagine until you try them. With a well-studded tire you can travel with impunity where people can't even stand up! There is nothing in the world like riding by a dog that is laying on the ground, all four legs splayed out, unable to even stand. Initially it is terrifying as your brain screams at you to be anywhere but on ice but you soon realize that you can ride. As your confidence builds, so does the fun. You probably won’t be able to ride the steep, technical rocky stuff that so many of us live for but even fire roads and double track offer a new look in the winter. Just don't put your foot down because unless you have studded shoes on, you may end up just like the dog!

The downside of studded tires is their weight and price. We are talking winter here so what's the hurry? Live with the added weight and revel in the newfound lightness of your regular tires once spring arrives. Without a doubt the Nokian Extreme (296 studs/tire!) seems to be the best tire out there but at ~$100 a pop it takes a huge leap of faith to believe that you will get your money's worth. People report the studs lasting well over 1000 miles of iced road riding and since you aren't riding on bare ground that much, the rubber holds up really well and you can expect several seasons of use for that price. There are cheaper alternatives (consider the newer IRC Blizzard with ~130 studs), or you can make your own. Consensus is that homemade tires can work but they just don't do quite the same thing, are tough to build so that they don't kill your tubes, and pretty much suck on the pavement. There will probably only be a few weeks a year when studs are essential and perhaps a bit more when they will give you piece of mind so you really can do without them but once you try them you will wonder why you put off the purchase. If you have a cruel streak, go out with your friends as the trails clear up and let them follow you into an ice covered corner. As you lean into it and literally carve your way through it, listen for their screams and the sound of their bodies and bikes crashing through the underbrush!


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