Tell Me About Commuting in Snow and Ice
I'm moving to Iowa and plan to commute by bike once I'm there. What can I expect for winter commuting? What kind of gear do I need for myself and my bike? Also, I'll be locking my bike up outside all day when I'm away from home. Will the weather damage my bike, or freeze the chain stiff while it's out in the elements? I wonder if I should invest in a studded tire or if I should just plan to take the bus when the snow reaches my knees... Yikes, winter biking is daunting. Any suggestions?
Non sibi sed patriae
I lived and rode in Iowa for 12 years, and your concerns are not unfounded. IMO, you will need layered clothing (so you can adjust for temp. changes), I suggest you use the most minimalist bike setup as possible, something versatile with a single speed or IGH. Studded tires are great when there's ice, but actually do little for deep snow, so I would say you should be open to either. Good luck with it!
The Fat Guy In The Back
I ride year-round in South Dakota, which has similar winters. You'll want studded tires. As StoutDog stated above, they don't help much with snow but they are invaluable with ice. Especially when the freeze/thaw cycles happen and you get patches of ice forming on previously clear pavement.
Because of where we live they are pretty good about plowing. Sometimes I'll have to skip a day until the plows have a chance to clear a way out of my neighborhood. Riding through the deep stuff, while technically possible, is just more work than I'm interested in doing.
A couple years ago we had a storm while I was at work which dumped 7+ inches of snow in a few hours. My 6 mile ride home that night took an hour an a half as there were places not yet plowed. I had to keep stopping to let my heart rate come down from the stratosphere. That was the toughest ride I've ever done, especially considering I averaged 4 mph. Color me a wimp if you want, but if snow like that happens on my way to work I drive that day.
Another thing I noticed was how fast the salt and snow destroyed my bike. It looked like it aged 20 years in one season. After my first year of winter riding I designated that bike as my permanent winter bike and bought another one for non-snowy commuting. I've heard people say to prevent this you should rinse your bike off after riding, but I suspect they live in a climate where the temp doesn't stay below freezing for a solid four months. If I did rinse my bike, I would be dealing with a frozen hose or an ice sheet down my driveway. I know some people bring their bike inside to the bathtub to rinse it off, but frankly my wife wouldn't stand for that.
So for me I just opted to sacrifice my winter bike to the elements. I clean it good in the off-season and replace components as necessary due to accelerated wear.
As far as the cold, for me that's the easy part. Dress lighter than you think you need. You should be cold the first mile or two, then once you get warmed up you're nice and toasty. Dress too warm at the outset and you'll sweat a lot, which is not good. I've ridden down to -14F wearing just a t-shirt, sweat shirt and a light windbreaker on top, and a layer of long underwear and sweat pants on bottom.
A balaclava is a life-saver, although I find mine too warm to wear above 20F. Below zero I've yet to find a practical way to keep my fingers and toes warm so I just accept those are going to be cold. In any event they don't get any colder than when I'm out shoveling snow in those same temps.
Heat packs with mittens will keep your hands warm. You can get the same heat pack in the toe warmer size, they work very well. Both are popular among mushers and work just as well for bicyclist. But them by the case at Costco. I always carry 2 of the maxi warmers in the winter for emergency use, more of a comfort saver than a life saver.
Splicer of Molecules
Riding in the winter is great because you have the roads to yourself. I also find it makes me adapt quickly to cold temperatures so I am hardly bothered while everyone else is complaining.
The first snowfall you should make your way to a parking lot and practice riding in the snow. Get used to how your bike feels when it is slipping and get used to the rear wheel fishtailing and how to pedal through it.
Ice can only be conquered with studded tires. If you hit some, don't slam on the brakes or turn suddenly. Just try to relax and ride through it. I personally don't use studded tires but I know they are good for peace of mind. If you just get one, put it on the front.
Being outside constantly will help you adapt to the changing temperature. If you stop riding in September and start again in December, it is going to feel miserable. If you keep riding the whole time, you will experience a cold day or two, but you will adjust quickly.
I think the advice for a simple bike (singlespeed, fixed gear) is best. Your winter bike will get destroyed; it is rough riding through muck and salt. If you are storing it outdoors, you should get some sort of tarp to try and keep as much moisture off it as possible. It is likely that your hubs will feel stiff when you first start riding, but they usually loosen up with a bit of riding. Try to clean and lube your chain once a week and wipe the bottom of the frame off as best as possible. It is your personal choice on what type of tire to use. I have seen everything from the Pugsley to a skinny road tire... it really depends on your riding style. I am a fan of fat knobbies or skinnier knobbies (like CX tires).
I am really minimalist for cold weather riding. I think most people wear too much clothing and end up overheating, sweating and then getting chilled. Experimentation here is key. For me, I think the single most important item of clothing is a waterproof, windproof jacket shell. My daily gear is usually this shell, a long sleeved wool shirt, wool long johns and then sort of water resistant pants. Wool socks and waterproof winter boots. I invested in a Bern helmet which came with a liner and I found it to be fantastic, almost too hot some days. Balaclava is really good for a regular helmet as it will cover your head and face. You can't go wrong with wool. I find mine at thrift stores. It will keep you warm even when wet and you can wear it multiple times without it being nasty (unlike poly).
A good set of mittens + a liner is great. I like being able to take off the mitten and still have cover on my fingers if I have to fish something out of a pocket.
Protection from the wind is really key. It will make you feel so much warmer than just wearing more stuff. Make sure skin is covered on really cold days. If my eyelashes are sticking together, I will wear ski goggles (<20F). If my nose hairs are sticking together, I know I need to cover my face.
Originally Posted by AudStudent