Winter cycling presents a variety of challenges; however, with the proper gear and planning it can be incredibly rewarding. Snow transforms the forest and the trails. Places that are inaccessible in the summer become passable. Winter creates an entirely new riding experience. In this article I will share with you some of the considerations for winter riding. In part one we will cover footwear, handling and tire pressure, and goals.
I started winter cycling in 2010, back when the Surly Pugsley was first released as a complete bike. Since then the sport has grown exponentially, the tires have gotten fatter, and the gear options have improved. Fat biking has turned cycling into a four season sport for me, and has given me a reason to look forward to winter.
Footwear and to clip or not to clip
The picture above is from my first winter fat biking. Jason Snell and I rode over to Mackinac Island via the ice bridge. The ride was excellent despite large patches of glare ice which you can see in the picture. What the picture doesn’t show is how miserable my feet were. Getting my footwear situation worked out was a huge improvement in my winter cycling comfort.
Your regular riding shoes typically won’t cut it for true winter riding. My first couple winters I tried everything, shoe covers, tin foil, plastic bags, hot packs, multiple pairs of socks. None of it made a significant difference. I could have switched to a winter boot and sacrificed the ability to clip in, however, I felt there were significant advantages to being clipped (see below). The next year I snagged a pair of 45NRTH Wolvhammers, an insulated cycling boot. Since then I have been comfortable on even the coldest days, for me they are an indispensable piece of winter riding gear. The lesson here is you don’t have to be uncomfortable, get a good pair of footwear.
Many riders choose not to clip-in during the winter in order to wear warmer boots and make it easier to step off the bike. I believe this to be a fine solution, but as someone who does clip-in when fat biking, I will share a bit about why I like it. Clipping in gives me additional power and efficiency, which is beneficial when pushing around a 30+ pound bike. An even bigger advantage is the ability to apply power smoothly and consistently. When snow conditions are loose I can stay seated and spin to maintain traction, rather than being forced to stand and mash.
Know how your bike will handle on snow, then expect it to change
In the winter, trail conditions shift constantly and as a result so does your bike’s handling. Just because you rallied the last corner, it doesn’t mean the next one will be the same. On any ride conditions can shift from incredible traction on textured snow to floaty/drifty riding on powder to unrideable glare ice, to deep energy sucking drifts, and much more. This dynamic terrain will challenge you as a rider and make you better.
One way you can improve your odds of succeeding is to run the correct tire pressure. 4-5″ tires allow you to run very low pressure. Most riders prefer between 3-8psi for winter riding. The factors to consider are your weight, tire size, and snow conditions. On groomed or packed trails really low tire pressure may feel sluggish. In deep and loose conditions a couple PSI may be the difference between riding and walking. It is a good idea to carry a pump and experiment until you determine what works best for you.
Set realistic distance and speed goals, or don’t set any
It is best not to compare your winter riding to the rest of the year. Winter riding is more taxing in several ways. Your body is working harder to keep warm, the cold air puts additional stress on your lungs, fat bikes are typically heavier, and snow is usually slower. Those who are riding to train should focus on time instead of distance and speed. For example, set a goal of riding for 2 hours instead of 20 miles. The important thing is not to get discouraged if the “numbers” are not what you are used to. For me, riding a bike in winter is perfectly satisfying no matter how far or fast I ride.
I hope you enjoyed this article, stay tuned for Part II. Please comment below with questions, and your own winter tips!