Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Snow riding for wimps

I'm a wimp, mostly. People seem to think riding down a busy highway, or on snowy trails, or in the cold, or 80 miles up a mountain pass means I'm tough as nails. No way, never will be. I have arthritic fingers, toes and knees. I'm a thin guy that grew up in the south and can't tolerate cold. I've fallen 4 times in the past 4 years (only once in winter), and I didn't like any of the four in the least. There I was, though, bombing down a snowy road at 20 miles per hour in biting cold here yesterday. What's my secret?

The dirty little secret of wimps like me is this: riding a bicycle is ridiculously easy. The part I'm good at is the part that trips most people up: getting outside and on the bike. Nine times out of ten, conditions that seem impossible when you first plant a tire in them become a lot easier in 5 miles and fun in 10. I even enjoy riding a stretch of Interstate now and then.

Most astounding to eyewitnesses, though, is a cycler riding on snow and ice. So, if you're actually a closet wimp like me, here are some winter riding tips you probably won't read in Bicycling's forthcoming "20 Hot Tips for Cold Rides."

1) Practice is more important than equipment. Just because you can't afford those studded tires, get out there anyway. I've ridden a month of snowy days this year without special tires and without a spill. It's hard at first but gets easier fast.

2) Snow isn't pavement. Once things get bad enough to slide out on pavement, you're in big trouble. Having a tire slide out on snow is different. Your tire is actually still gripping the surface. It's just that the surface isn't gripping itself. It's normal in some conditions for wheels to slide 6 inches or more in either direction before catching. As long as there's snow, the slide will stop before you fall. At first, you'll fight every one of these diversions, and your arms will ache after a mile, but you'll be warm! Eventually, you'll learn to ignore the minor diversions and relax your grip on the bars.

3) More snow means more effort but less chance of falling down, and vice versa. Six inches of fresh snow will pretty much hold a bike up on its own, but it's a workout to ride through it. You'll learn to find your comfort zone in this continuum.

4) Traffic is (mostly) friendlier. In most places, you have at least 5 minutes before that driver behind you comes to grips with the fact that you're riding a bike in the snow. During that time, you'll never get honked at. If conditions demand you ride the right tire track for a while, don't sweat it. Think of the show you're giving the cars behind you!

5) You'd think hard braking would mean instant death on snow and ice, but your two skinny tires are actually translating a lot of force to the surface. Ride up and down a quiet street braking each wheel until it just skids. Contrary to popular belief, locking the front wheel won't instantly crash you. Remember, everything slows down in snow. Now--if you want to--practice locking up the rear and finishing out a skid. Think of the rear wheel as a sled runner. Now--if you want to--lock the rear wheel and lean the bike to bring it around like you're driving a car in the movies. Useful? No, but I'll bet your smiling now.

6) To get re-started at messy intersections, get your weight on top of that saddle, and choose a relatively high (hard) gear.

7) The best way to warm up is to ride somewhat harder. I used to really pootle around in the winter because there are so many neat things to look at. Alternating pootling with more effort has done more than anything else to keep me warm.

8) If you have a commute with heavy traffic and lots of hills and ice, you're probably going to need studded tires, but 1-7 still apply--well, maybe not the 180's!

Tell me about your rides.


Blogger Hjalti said...

Nice tips, Thanks!

12:00 PM  
Blogger steve said...

Studded tyres are a must for me, because I'm so tall I have a relatively high centre of gravity so it only takes a tiny skid before I'm bailing - front brakes are a definite no-no!

I have to agree that the hardest part is getting out there... Once I'm going it gets pretty easy. I could do without the 20 minutes of prepwork getting dressed and checking equipment, though. Having sweat evaporate instead of drip is the biggest bonus of winter riding for me.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips. This was my first year riding as a full time commuting endeavor (previous years my wife would drop me off in the morning and I would ride home). So now that the snow has set it I am really missing riding. Taking the bus into work just doesn't cut it.
Seeing that I live in Central New York I am not sure when I'll be able to get back in the saddle.
Another thing that bothers me about biking in snowy conditions is all the salt and crap on the roads. I only own one bike, a Trek street bike, and am concerned about what all that salt will do to it.
Anyways I enjoy reading your blog and can't wait to get back out on the roads!

2:27 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Ahh, I'd almost forgotten about road salt. Missoula doesn't use it in town. Then again, road salt strikes me as a perfect excuse to build up a second bike. Maybe a fixed gear or singlespeed winter bike would coax you back onto the roads!

8:26 PM  
Blogger Mark Bishop said...

I love the snow. I'm amazed by the guys who commute here. They are the hardcore ones. But I love getting out on the back roads, mostly dirt, and thrashing around on my cross bike. There is something majestic about your ass end swinging around on you, and just letting it go, knowing that it will come around sooner or later as long as you keep pedaling. nice blog guy

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Franz said...

Missoula, I'm jelous. When my wife and i were there in 99 we thought we'd found the best town in the states! Kayaking & skiing are clearly the big draw for me. I commute all year long in Toronto & it can get pretty mean out there. Its always fun though! You're tips and observations on riding in the winter are excellent & well written! Thanks for the read.

1:55 PM  

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