Joyfully Ride this Winter on a Great Winter Bike
by Patria Lanfranchi
What is the first thought that pops to mind when you hear someone talk about a winter bike? For me, I imagine a beaten up old bike that is already so worn out, there won’t be any guilt in riding it through the salty slush of a New England winter.
Why should the winter bike be this “B” bike? Why would it make any sense for it to be any less comfortable or fit less well than the summer bike? The last thing any of us need during the winter is yet another excuse not to get outside or to have riding become something of misery at any point in time.
I subscribe to the school of thought that there’s no such thing as a bad ride or a bad day on the bike. Feel free to argue with me on that — but at least let’s discuss it while out riding bikes.
Can Winter Riding Be Better Than Summer Riding?
Redefine what a winter bike is and not only will this translate to being safer and more comfortable in harsh conditions, but it will also open a new world of fun riding that means winter days that last longer than summer ones. In tearing down the barriers to riding, the feeling of freedom and independence goes up. Isn’t the feeling of total freedom one of the greatest perks of riding?
I don’t mean to imply that that everyone should ride in harsher conditions, but I am challenging you to just shift your thinking while you read this. If it means getting out on a day you wouldn’t have gotten out previously, it’s all been worth it.
One of the best bits of riding advice I’ve gotten is this: if you don’t feel like riding, convince yourself to go out for only 10 minutes. Thinking in this way will lead you to riding you would never have done otherwise. Why? The hard part is getting ready for the ride. If you have the right bike and clothing, 10 minutes will easily turn into an hour or more.
The Winter Bike Defined
A winter bike is made to handle the various weather and lighting conditions gracefully. This bike presents solutions to problems that challenge a fair-weather bike. I’d argue that the winter bike should be the coolest bike you own because its list of features is so much longer than that of a good-weather road bike. Its “fun” factor should be particularly high, to more than compensate for the bad weather that might attempt to deter you from riding.
Now that the bar has been raised impossibly high for this mystical winter bike, here is why it’s not built of unobtanium and why it is really possible to have a ride that is so good, you look forward to the next rainy, snowy, icy, and/or dark ride.
What it has that other bikes lust after
Clearance for Wide Tires
Wide tires provide more traction on dirty roads, make roads riddled with potholes far more comfortable, make hitting a pothole feel like a bump rather than result in a blow-out or worse.
Room for wide tires also means having room for studded tires. Studded tires make it possible to ride on the ice without falling. I’m speaking from experience: last winter I spent many miles riding on studded tires on the thick Boston ice and they worked really well. I’m already looking forward to mounting the studded tires on my bike. Studded tires are heavy, but for the stability on ice, it’s a trade-off I don’t mind.
Use fenders to help stay dry. Full-time fenders – those that are mounted on the bike via mounts on the dropouts – are less likely to break and are the ones that will provide the best coverage. We have suggestions on which fenders/tires go well together. Start with making sure your winter bike has the proper mounts for fenders. If your bike has a carbon fork and no front fender mounts, there is a crown mount coming soon to allow a full-time fender to attach well to the front – assuming the fork is wide enough for the fender.
Fenders we’ve had great luck with are the SKS Longboard fenders and Portland Design Works full metal city fender.
If your winter bike is also a commuter bike, I highly suggest taking the load off your back and putting it on a rack-hanging pannier. There’s nothing like having to deal with a load on your back adding to saddle pressure, raising your center of gravity, and even making for a sweaty back on a frigid day. The combination can add to not enjoying the commute. Racks can really come in handy, I suggest giving one a try to see how it changes what and how you carry things.
Whether your winter bike is in need of carrying all of your work-related items or not, it will often be necessary to change clothes during a ride. It’s never a bad idea to have a second set of gloves, rain jacket, another base layer, waterproof shoe covers, warmer hat, two extra tubes in case of flats just in case.
My top recommendation in this arena is the very versatile and large-yet-light Revelate Designs Viscacha saddle bag. I use this saddle bag all of the time. It’s really easy to put on almost any saddle and I don’t notice it’s there, even when I have it fully loaded. Having everything I could possibly need just adds to my feeling of self-sufficiency. A side benefit, too, is it acts like a rear fender keeping me significantly cleaner when the road is a mess when I’m not using fenders.
Salt, chemicals, and road grime are terrible for most bike components, namely anything that touches anything else like brakes and rims, chains and cassettes, cables and housing, all bearings. Minimizing the number of moving parts that are exposed to the elements extends the life of those parts. Also, using parts that are better sealed or less affected by salt is helpful. There are many factors, though, such as where the bike is being ridden (on flats or hills, city or country), and how much weight will affect the enjoyment of the rider on the bike. So, all of these are options, but there will be a different combination for everyone depending upon how and where the bike is being ridden.
We wrote an article on our blog about how to clean a bike. Take a look for a reminder, we’ve included some helpful tips that make it easier and faster.
- Gates Belt drive – The belt doesn’t corrode or get dirty like a chain, it lasts 2-3 times as long as a chain, and it’s particularly easy to just hose off and not worry about otherwise. It also rides very quietly. The performance is impressively good: feel the instant acceleration. A belt can be used with a single-speed or fixed-gear setup or an internally geared hub for 3 to 14 speeds. We have a belt-driven single speed bike here for demo if you want to see what I’m talking about.
- Internally Geared Hub – Going with an internally-geared Rohloff or Shimano Alfine hub means no exposed cassette. It’s far cleaner than traditional gears. There is very little upkeep or maintenance for the rider to be concerned with, but these hubs add weight that may not be desired.
- Single speed bike or some variation – The less shifting a chain has to do, the better. A single-speed bike doesn’t have any shifting issues so that’s one less thing to worry about! Another option many people are turning to now made possible by new technology is a single chainring accompanied by a larger cassette – so no front shifting issues but still a bike with the necessary gears.
- Headsets and Bottom Brackets – Choosing Chris King headsets and bottom brackets ensures you’ll get the maximum possible life out of these components since they’re sealed and really well built. Many people enjoy Chris King headsets, bottom brakets, and hubs not just for their quality, but also their colors. We have color samples here of everything they offer.
Believe it or not, there is a high-end bottom bracket on the market that is designed to be cleaned and re-lubed every single time the bike is ridden in rain. Unless you have a personal mechanic, this sort of bottom bracket simply doesn’t have a place on what should be a worry-free bike.
The frame material of the perfect winter bike has less to do with the material as it comes to handling salt and road grime – since most materials stand up to harsh conditions. Even steel, though it can rust, assuming it’s painted and has been treated with framesaver on the non-painted inside portion, stands up just fine to salt and whatever muck is on the road. It has a lot more to do with whether the frame is painted or not. This is where titanium stands above other materials. An unpainted frame is easier to clean and doesn’t have to be concerned with chipping paint if rocks are thrown up against the frame.
Other considerations where it comes to frame is the design: it should be more stable than a race bike and the bottom bracket should be a little lower (to aid in the stability). A slightly longer wheelbase adds to the feeling of stability. A more relaxed position can be more comfortable (have a professional fitting done to understand what’s ideal for you); there isn’t a good reason to ride super fast in the wintertime, so don’t worry about aerodynamic concerns. This is the time to enjoy base miles, build fitness at a lower heart rate, and let the body recover from a long summer of riding hard.
A stiff frame will jump around and not be as able to maintain contact on the ground. The plushness and liveliness of steel and titanium translate to being more sure-footed and giving the rider confidence with the feeling of being connected with the earth. A way to compensate for a stiffer frame if you have one is to let air out of the tires and allow them to be a little softer than usual. Again, fatter tires will offer a better ride and lower possible air pressures.
Ability to Brake: It’s About More than Just Braking
Originally, I was a road biker and I’ve since grown into an avid off-road rider. Therefore, I never used to think much about brakes until I started to get off-road and I grew to appreciate the difference between good and not-good brakes. There are many options out there and most of them lead to cramping hands and not stopping as well as desired.
Bad weather means braking becomes more difficult with precipitation between the brake pads and rims. Add road grime to the mix and now braking means wearing down a rim fairly quickly. If you were to use sand paper instead of brakes on your rims, how long would the rims last? We’ve seen many of the rims on wheels destroyed as a result of braking in bad weather. Braking shouldn’t mean shortening the life of your wheels!
This is where disc brakes come in handy. The braking power of these is really good even in bad weather. The rotors are separated from the ground so they don’t get nearly as dirty as the rim on a wheel does. And if it were to get damaged, all it takes is to replace the rotor, not the rim or wheel. Brake pads last longer and are easy to change on disc systems. Hydraulic disc brakes have proven themselves on mountain bikes. Now they’ve shown themselves to offer awesome braking power on road-bike setups.
Winter riders and people who are often on messy trails are perfect candidates for disc brakes. I still believe caliper brakes on good-weather road bikes are the best in a pure road situation due to the lighter weight and that road bikes usually don’t need the braking power that off-road or bad-weather bikes need.
Consider long-reach caliper brakes if you want a setup closer to road, but the ability to run a 33c slick tire. It’s the best of all worlds for those who are more road-centric. Velo Orange Grand Cru brakes are particularly nice with great braking power.
Lighting is a subject that can get complicated quickly but doesn’t have to be. Extend the riding day from sunlit-hours to all of the hours with bright-enough lights! Night riding is fun; some of the best riding experiences in my life have been long after the sun dropped. It goes without saying that there are hazards at night so I highly recommend going with someone else, but with fewer cars on the road and the obviousness of lights to catch the attention of vehicles, some potential daytime issues are lessened.
The easy light solution is this:
Front Lights: Try Light & Motion’s Urban series of lights. They are so easy to attach to handlebars via a strong rubber strap, and (thank goodness) there’s no difficult mount to have to wrestle with. Use these on all of your bikes – they move from one to the next so easily. These are my go-to lights. They are making them with more lumens than ever and has dropped the price at the same time. A lumen equates to a candle. So, an Urban 350 with 350 lumens will light up a very dark road well at lower speeds. The Urban 650 lights up dark woods, and is ample light on a dark road traveling at higher speeds. (It’s important to know that the light you use won’t let you “outrun” it. The Urban 200 is perfectly adequate for a commute that runs along a generally lit road. All of the Urban lights have various settings from blinking to bright allowing them to last anywhere from 1.5 hours to 12 hours. Being USB rechargeable, they can always be ready to go.
There are a lot of options for AA or AAA battery-operated lights that warn cars of your presence but aren’t enough light to see by.
Rear Lights: I’m not a big fan of needing to recharge my rear lights regularly like I do with the front ones. Planet Bike’s Superflash rear light is my go-to rear light. I ride with at least two rear lights. They blink so as to get the attention of drivers and the batteries seem to last forever (100 hours on the set of AAA batteries that comes with the light). Being able to go to a convenience store and buy batteries is important to me because I see the rear light as an absolutely necessary safety device (front and rear lights are required by law before the sun rises and after it sets).
In case you were wondering what the complicated solution to lighting is, it involves a front-wheel generator hub and a semi-permanent light mounted on the crown of the fork. This way, the bike will always cast light in-front of it when it’s being pedaled. There are a few really nice systems (hubs/lights – front and rear) out there that mean the bike can actually ride through the night without running out of power.
The front generator hubs can also be plugged into a USB charger so that a cell phone, Garmin or other electronic device can be recharged during the ride. We’re happy to talk with you about these if you’re interested in pursing this option. A few of us here ride with such wheel/lighting systems.
Pedals & Shoes
Any time there’s a chance walking will be involved with your bike ride, mountain shoes and pedals are the best choice. Shimano SPD mtn pedals work great. Couple these with a pair of mountain shoes – or even better – shoes made for wet/cold conditions. Keeping your feet happy is one of the best possible ways to stay happy during the ride.
Eating a bowl of hot chili post cold ride is extremely satisfying. A mocha or hot chocolate is, too. So is that hot shower. The winter will be significantly more pleasing if you stay active throughout it. It also won’t feel as cold. (I tested this theory last winter, which I’m happy to report was one of the most fun winters of my life.) Enjoy riding throughout the winter and discover a side of riding that you may not have yet experienced. See how particularly beautiful and peaceful the woods are during the winter, and try a night ride in Boston. Having the world to yourself as you silently pedal through the fresh air is a truly wondrous place to be.
Building Your Winter Bike
We are here to help you put together a great winter bike. We can help you outfit a current bike or you may demo ride a Honey or Seven. Both of these companies make bikes that are perfect for fun winter riding that are capable of everything you want of them and more. We as a shop make sure you get the perfect combination of fit, components, and aesthetic so you have the best bike for you. We have a depth of experience that translates to you have the best possible experience.
From now until November 15th: If you order a winter bike here, we will supply you with a set of studded tires of your choice free with the bike. Take advantage of this and have the best winter of your riding life!