Winter biking in Minnesota does not necessitate a separate winter bike, but many people who ride year ’round here have them, either to save the wear and corrosion on their nicer bikes, or to better handle the winter road conditions (usually a bit of both).
I am happy to be one of those people. My winter ride is slow, relatively heavy, and feels pretty invincible in everything except loose snow (brown sugar in local cycling parlance). It’s a standard hard tail, steel frame mountain bike, with one crucial addition.
As soon as the roads get treacherous in the fall, I swap out the front tire for a 45NRTH Arcwelder. It’s over 2″ wide and has some serious tread and plenty of studs. I only put a studded tire on the front because studs are pricey, and I’ve been pretty successful in controlling the minor fishtailing that comes from having regular knobbies on the back. Maybe next year I’ll be able to spring for another stud. For the record, mountain bike knobby tires can pack up with loose snow pretty quickly.
Schwalbe has set the studded tire standard for a while now, but 45NRTH is an up-and-coming local company. I admit to being charmed by their references to Minneapolis culture, like the Heiruspecs pedals that name-check a local hip-hop group. I’m a sucker for a good name.
The bike itself was inherited from my younger brother, his main ride in his middle school days. Now he’s 6’2″, and this bike is not only way too small for him, it’s about one size too small for me.
This is not such a bad thing. Take, for example, the time I tried to see if my bike could handle 8″ of loose snow on top of a wood chip path. It couldn’t (not even a little bit) and so I just stepped off the bike. It’s easy to bail when the crossbar is nowhere near anything important.
There are lots of things I would change if I were building a winter bike from scratch (full fenders for starters) but I’ve been having a lot of fun riding this bike around this winter. There have been a few instances of plows working on hard, packed snow and ice here, leaving huge ridges of packed snow that make for a very bumpy ride. The mountain bike characteristics have handled it pretty well. If you’re thinking about a winter bike, converted mountain bikes are just one option. I’d love to build something like my friend Lowrah’s mixte.
Did I mention that this bike is slow? The mountain set up is pretty fun as long as you don’t have to go anywhere in a hurry. It takes so much energy to pedal that I warm up quickly, even when moderating my speed to deal with road conditions. One mile on this bike feels like at least three miles on a road bike with clear streets.
I hardly rode the winter bike last year. Between 2011’s weirdly mild, snowless landscape and the bike’s former, horribly uncomfortable saddle, my road bike made much more sense. This winter has called for a more stable steed, and I’m realizing that it also helps that I’m a stronger rider. Those hills, long rides, and one bike camping trip from last summer? The muscles built there are making this whole winter biking thing a lot more enjoyable.
I can’t claim that I bike everywhere in winter, or that I ride every day. I’m still working on convincing my boss that winter bike commuting is not an exercise in torture, but something that I generally enjoy. I’m biking to work at least once a week and trying to get in longer rides for errands or fun once a week. I know dozens of people who are much more hardcore than I am, but I’m pretty excited right now that I’m staying in solid cycling shape through the winter and having a ton of fun doing it.