Tips for a Cold Winter
Harris, with help from Jim Frost, Charles Beristain, Ed Davis,
Larry DeVito, Peter White, Tom McCrumm, Alex Knowles, Andy Hong,
Eric Evenson, Jon Crane, and Dan Teiger.
Dang, it’s cold! There’s
precious little daylight and there are icicles everywhere. But
don’t hibernate: Keep riding! Hey, we mountain bikers
are supposed to be tough. Here’s a bit of How-To.
Keeping the Body
Nobody likes to be cold and miserable, so staying warm is the
key to winter riding. Even when the weather’s glacial,
you still sweat buckets, and wet equals cold. The trick is to
minimize the sweat and remove it from your skin. The staff of
mtb-new-england, our area’s biggest email list, agree
that layering is critical. To keep you dry, use a wicking layer
(thermax, polypropylene, etc.) to draw your sweat away from
your body towards your outer clothing layers. Cotton in contrast
will absorb your sweat and hold it right against your skin,
so don't wear it there! The second layer of choice is fleece
or wool, which is light but warm, even when wet. Some people
find that when riding on the trails a windproof layer isn't
important but if you are riding at speed getting to the trails
or commuting, etc., then the wind layer is essential. A breathable
layer such as Gore-Tex, or any of the others out there, will
further help remove the moisture from your clothing. If it is
raining or very wet then this outer layer needs to be waterproof.
But don’t overheat: if you aren't a bit chilly before
you start riding, then you’ll be horribly overheated once
you start working. For those inevitable stops on the trail though,
an extra layer to throw on will help keep you warm.
Since your legs are in perpetual motion and generate their own
heat, you don’t need tons of garb. If you are on the roads
then wind front tights help a lot whereas on the trails regular
insulated tights will do well enough until you are well below
freezing. If there is snow on the ground however, an outer wind
layer will keep you much drier and therefore warmer.
Fingers? What fingers?
Cold fingers will ruin a ride. Once your fingers are frozen
you have no brakes, gears or grip. Not a good thing. For many
people, long fingered fleece gloves are popular, as are the
Pearl Izumi Lobster type mitts for when it gets real cold. Others
just wear ski gloves (make sure you can shift and brake before
you hit the trails). Once your gloves get wet either from sweat
or due to conditions, it is a tough fight to keep the hands
warm. A spare pair of gloves can make a ride last twice as long!
And if you have them stuffed inside your jacket, there is nothing
like slipping on a warm pair of gloves! If you are wearing bulky
mittens or gloves, think about carrying something thinner to
protect your hands should you need to work on the bike.
Feet are a problem. Generally, a larger, looser fitting shoe
with a thicker pair of socks is a great starting place. A simple
rule is that you have to be able to move the toes to keep the
blood flowing. Some people use Gore-Tex socks to keep that inner
layer dry. Keeping your feet dry and out of the wind can be
done with a sealed shoe such as Shimano or Sidi's winter or
downhill shoes. Another choice is a plastic bag inside the shoe
but this keeps the sweat in. As with the upper body, cotton
against the feet will make matters worse. One big problem is
that SPDs tend to lead to cold feet since you’re essentially
standing on a metal platform that sucks the heat away. Many
riders revert to hiking boots and clips when the snow flies.
I like neoprene booties which keep your feet warm even when
soaked in sweat. Off-road riding can be pretty tough on booties
though, and they don't offer the traction you get used to in
a regular cycling shoe. As with gloves, having a dry pair of
socks in your pack can save the day should you dab in a stream.
Using your Head
You lose more body heat out the top of your head than anywhere
else and yet head protection is a very personal thing. Many
of my buds never wear anything over their ears and don't mind
seriously freezing weather. Others are already wearing full-face
covering. If you are the type to get cold, then skip the macho
stuff and put on a hat. The ears are the most susceptible to
freezing. A thin headband or polypro skullcap under the helmet
will do a great job. For colder days a full-face balaclava will
keep the chin and cheeks toasty. You don't need a thick hat
or hood, just enough to keep the wind off and to wick away moisture.
Whatever you use, make sure your helmet still fits properly
and if you must adjust straps and padding remember to undo the
changes for the next warm day.
Wear glasses so your eyeballs don’t freeze in their sockets!
Nothing like coming down a hill with your eyes watering so badly
from the wind that you don't see the one that gets you. The
catch 22 is that for the best wind protection the glasses should
be close to the face, but this means they tend to fog up when
you stop. To stop the fog from rolling in, use Rain-X or anti-fog
potions. If you keep moving, the wind will clear them up, but
nothing beats a clean bandana when all else fails.
The colder it gets, the drier the air and the more dehydrated
you’ll get! Not only are you soaked in sweat but that
cloud of steam you are exhaling is precious moisture. Since
it’s cold, your body doesn’t tell you you’re
thirsty, so you have to force yourself to drink. Of course,
if your water bottle is frozen solid that isn't easy. You can
try hot water to start but drinking that is not high on many
people's list. Camelbaks (etc.) worn inside the wind layer work
pretty well. There are insulating tubes available to keep the
hose running but a popular alternative is to simply blow the
water back into the Camelbak after each sip.
Until the snow flies your stock bike will work pretty well.
Once the mercury drops below 32 degrees, however, things deteriorate.
Derailleur and brake cables can freeze in place, SPD type pedals
can become locked-either with or without your shoe in them,
rims glaze with ice making stopping a harrowing experience at
best. Even your shocks will act differently. And perhaps worst
of all, when it is icy, the sudden gusts of gravity increase
Is Your Shock a Rock?
In cold weather elastomer shocks can stiffen to the point of
feeling worthless. Today’s MCUs are supposed to be better
but they still don’t compare with coil spring, air or
air/oil systems. Most elastomer forks can be retrofitted with
springs, but even with springs, your air/oil damping will also
change somewhat. Once the trails have been snowed and trampled
by walkers you may find the trail to be as brutal as anything
you might ride in the summer. Full suspension makes your life
much happier in these conditions should you have still needed
an excuse to upgrade.
Ahhhh, No Brakes!!!
If it’s below freezing and you pass through some water,
or are actually riding on snow, you will quickly find that the
best rim brakes in the world are not your best friend. Your
rims will glaze instantaneous, making stopping tenuous at best.
Feather the brakes on a regular basis to heat them up and wipe
off or melt off any ice build up especially if you are coming
up on a section of trail where completely uncontrollable speed
might not be the best idea. It takes longer to stop, so plan
accordingly. If there was ever a reason for disc brakes this
would be it! When all else fails, there’s always the Fred
While iced rims can be dangerous, frozen derailleur and brake
cables are frustrating. Top mounted or fully enclosed cables
(e.g., Gore Ride-Ons) help a lot in terms of keeping the gears
and brakes moving. All front derailleurs in particular takes
a lot of crap from the rear wheel and can be very prone to freezing
in place, especially bottom pull designs. Pick a good size chain
ring-you might spend the whole ride in it.
Even after dealing with the cold foot problem, you may still
find that your clipless pedals are more like lumps of steel
on bearings. Cleats and pedals can clog up with snow, so coat
the release mechanisms with grease or spray them a light lubricant.
Many riders switch to toe clips or Power Grips and boots for
the winter. Others carry a small can of de-icer can help in
any component freezing scenario. One person --who will remain
nameless!--suggested peeing on the frozen parts.
In northern New England, once the snow falls, it sticks around
for a long time. Riders resort to riding on packed, hard, snowmobile
trails. In the Boston area, we have snow on an off-and-on basis.
When there is more than a couple inches of fresh snow, the going
is really tough as you bog down endlessly. Once it is packed,
it gets better, but one good thaw and a re-freeze and you have
ice: foot printed, rock hard, off camber ice. There is only
one answer to that: studded tires. Not only will studded tires
allow you to keep riding but they will give you a freedom you
could never imagine until you try them. With a well-studded
tire you can travel with impunity where people can't even stand
up! There is nothing in the world like riding by a dog that
is laying on the ground, all four legs splayed out, unable to
even stand. Initially it is terrifying as your brain screams
at you to be anywhere but on ice but you soon realize that you
can ride. As your confidence builds, so does the fun. You probably
won’t be able to ride the steep, technical rocky stuff
that so many of us live for but even fire roads and double track
offer a new look in the winter. Just don't put your foot down
because unless you have studded shoes on, you may end up just
like the dog!
The downside of studded tires is their weight and price. We
are talking winter here so what's the hurry? Live with the added
weight and revel in the newfound lightness of your regular tires
once spring arrives. Without a doubt the Nokian Extreme (296
studs/tire!) seems to be the best tire out there but at ~$100
a pop it takes a huge leap of faith to believe that you will
get your money's worth. People report the studs lasting well
over 1000 miles of iced road riding and since you aren't riding
on bare ground that much, the rubber holds up really well and
you can expect several seasons of use for that price. There
are cheaper alternatives (consider the newer IRC Blizzard with
~130 studs), or you can make your own. Consensus is that homemade
tires can work but they just don't do quite the same thing,
are tough to build so that they don't kill your tubes, and pretty
much suck on the pavement. There will probably only be a few
weeks a year when studs are essential and perhaps a bit more
when they will give you piece of mind so you really can do without
them but once you try them you will wonder why you put off the
purchase. If you have a cruel streak, go out with your friends
as the trails clear up and let them follow you into an ice covered
corner. As you lean into it and literally carve your way through
it, listen for their screams and the sound of their bodies and
bikes crashing through the underbrush!