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By Charlie Beristain (SingleTracks #53)

Most cyclists hang up their bikes with the first cold winds of winter. Yet there is a small but growing hardcore group that rides throughout the winter. Making "first tracks" in three or four inches of freshly fallen powder snow is truly a spiritual experience. Unlike any other form of riding that we are accustomed to, the surroundings are pristine, the tires cut an easy line in the powder, and there is almost a total lack of sound, as it is absorbed by the snow. Riding in these conditions when the snow is still falling just adds to both the thrill and the serenity.

Winter riding requires a totally different mindset, but once the conversion is made, you’ll be hooked for life.
I started riding almost five years ago and have been an "icebiker" from the very first year. I look forward to winter, and I've never miss riding at the peak of every snowstorm or ice storm we have had during this period.

Don't expect to go flying downhill or doing lots of technical rock hopping. But do expect to have your endurance challenged and your ability to control the bike when the snow gets rutted or frozen. We ride up and down the frozen streambeds and even do track stands, hop turns and figure eights on the ice. Immediately after a snowfall, signs of life appear everywhere along the trail with deer, turkey, fox, and rabbit footprints along the trail.

If this is your year to get started icebiking, maybe these tips on how to fit up your bike, how to dress, and riding techniques will be helpful.


Tires: If there is only snow and no ice, then wide tires with big lugs that can be run at low pressure are the best. If there is ice, then studded tires are necessary. You can build your own (check out the How-To in this issue) or you can buy them. I have found that the homemade studded tires grip better when new, but quickly get dulled when riding on blacktop or rock. Just be prepared to replace or sharpen the screws necessary. I use Nokian Extremes, which have 296 tungsten carbide studs in them (we review them in this issue). They don't wear out even on blacktop but are outrageously expensive. When it is icy, I pump the tires up to 50+psi so the studs can get a grip on the ice. When there is no ice, then I drop the pressure to 10psi to create a larger contact patch. I may change tire pressure two or three times during a ride, as conditions change rapidly.

Rims: The wider the rim the better for running low pressure, maximizing the contact patch and minimizing pinch flats. I use ultrawide 44mm wide "SnowCat SL's".

Cables/Housings: Slush and water will freeze up the cables, especially after riding through a running stream. You can spray WD40 into the cable ends to displace any water, or use a water-resistant grease (Lubriplate Mag-1 will not thicken in cold weather). Personally, I use Gore Ride-On cables which are sealed and are less susceptible to freeze ups. If you do get freeze ups, pull long and hard on the brakes to break up the ice and move the derailleur by hand to break them free.


The key to clothing is to be able to stay comfortable from the beginning to the end of the ride. Not too cold and not too hot. This is quite a challenge. Layering and controlling heat output by changing the 'effort' are the two techniques that I use. I layer the clothing and then, as I get heated up, I open the layers to let the heat escape and then zip up quickly if I have to stop for repairs. Fortunately here in Connecticut I rarely have to deal with sub zero temperatures. Some of my icebiking friends from around the world have to deal with temperatures of -20 or -30 degrees F. These temperatures require a very careful selection of clothing, especially if one has to stop for an extended period for repairs. Frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly. I check the temperature before setting out and dress accordingly. Typically, I wear a base layer of a long sleeve heavyweight polypro with a zipper front, then a short sleeve polypro, again with a zipper front. Then, depending upon the temperature, I either wear a fleece vest with a ripstop nylon jacket over that, or a heavier windproof winter jacket that allows moisture out through the back.

Balaclava: I wear a polypro (thin) balaclava. I start out with it covering my nose and mouth but after some 15-20 minutes, I'm hot and pull it off my face. My hair is usually very wet after the ride, so I have not had to tape over the vents in the helmet yet, but I noticed that some folks do that as well. The balaclava also covers my neck, but if it is really cold, I wear an additional "turtle". In milder weather, I just wear a polartec headband that fully covers the ears.

Glasses: Fogging and Windburn: Glasses protect the skin around the eyes. Windburn can be very painful and comes on quickly when riding in the cold, dry climate. The bigger the glasses, the more skin protection. I always use sunscreen on my face in the cold weather. It helps resist the windburn. As soon as I stop or go slowly, the glasses will fog up due to the heat/moisture coming off my face. Find a pair of glasses that stand away from your face as much as possible to minimize the fogging. I've seen ski goggles with a little fan/battery in them. That definitely works. Rx glasses seem to fog up much quicker than riding glasses because they sit closer to the face.

Legs: Winter tights are readily available. I wear "icebiker" powerstretch 100 tights, and wear regular cycling shorts under the tights, and then put a second pair of cycling shorts over the tights because the wear resistance of the powerstretch 100 is not adequate. It also helps keep the "delicate parts" warmer. Put a piece of fleece or a warm sock inside your shorts if it is still too cold.

Feet: Since the feet don't move very much, they get very cold and the clipless pedals compound the problem by drawing heat from the shoe/foot. It is the toes that really get cold, not the whole foot. I have extra wide/extra long MTB shoes that allow me to wear heavy socks. First I use a polypro sock liner, then a "smart wool" sock and then a heaver "smart wool" sock over that. If it is wet snow, I put a plastic baggie between the sock liner and the smart wool sock. Wiggle the toes to help warm them.

Hands: The hands, like the feet, tend to get cold. Wiggling the fingers does help. I wear a glove liner and any number of different winter gloves. My favorites are extra heavy hiking gloves. If it is really cold I use "pogies" which fit over the handlebars rather than on the hands. With pogies, I can wear just a pair or light gloves and stay warm.

Safety gear: I still wear my knee/shin pads and elbow pads, as it is not unusual to go down when there is ice under the snow. Usually just getting dumped off the side of the bike directly on the knee. Also, I put soft pads inside my shorts on the hips. This saves trying to explain the black and blue marks circling the hipbones. Of course, if you ride sanely (which I have not been able to do), you probably will not need to take these precautions.

Riding Techniques

Powder snow is the best to ride in. Especially if you are the first one making tracks. Even pedal strokes and a relaxed upper body will help keep the rubber side down.

Braking: ice will form on the braking surfaces. So always check your brakes, especially after going through water. Don't wait until you are on the downhill to check the brakes as it is too late then. If your rims are iced up, keep the brakes applied while you pedal. The heat will eventually melt the ice. Disc brakes are definitely a plus for winter riding.

Tire pressure: High pressure to push out the studs to grab the ice. Low pressure to maximize the contact patch when riding in the snow. Bring a pump along, as you may have to vary the pressure over the course of the ride.
Keep a light front wheel when the snow is deep or wet. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to keep the bike on track.
The bike will tend to slide when there is ice under the snow. It takes a while not to panic and just stay relaxed. But that is what it takes to keep from making unscheduled landings. I've seen riders go across shear ice without studded tires by remaining perfectly relaxed and balanced on the bike.

Cross Country Ski grooves: Try to stay away from these grooves, as the skiers reused them. Putting tire tracks through them makes it virtually impossible to enjoy the trail experience. Of course, if they take up the whole trail with their tracks, then I do ride over them. These grooves usually get densely packed and even ice up if they are used a few times. The grooves are narrower than the bike tires, so it makes tricky riding.

Wet Snow: Just as powder snow is the ultimate ride, wet snow is the most challenging. It is too soft for the tires to ride on top of the snow and too heavy to allow the tires to push the snow out of the way. In addition, it sticks to the spokes and adds many, many pounds to the load. On those days, I look to improve my endurance rather than looking for a smooth ride. Wet snow can still offer some free spirited fun. One day, the snow was so sticky it filled the space between the tires and the brakes, such that it was impossible to pedal. We disengaged the brake cables and rode without brakes. Slaloming downhill to scrub off speed was a memorable event. Thrilling! We still talk about it!

Icebiking rounds out my year. No need to jump in a car and drive 3 hours to a ski resort. Just hop on the bike and go for a ride. And in the spring you are in such good condition that you can toast all your buddies on those first rides of the season.



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Winter Riding Tips