If you live in the midwest or northeast, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s been a tough winter for biking. Minneapolis saw more than 50 days below zero, with plenty of snow and recently, two solid weeks of the worst roads I’ve ever seen (bumpy sheets of ice sprinkled with loose “brown sugar” snow all over the Twin Cities). Frankly, I’ve found it hard to write about with anything resembling positivity.
BUT, now that winter’s back has finally been broken and the streets are ice-free, I did learn a whole lot of stuff this winter, much of which was related to improvements made to my gear. I figure it’s worth sharing, if only so that it’s available on the internet in time for next winter.
1) Lobster mitts are not for me. When I first started winter biking, I thought I needed lobster mitts to be able to operate my bike properly. This is only necessary with integrated brake and shifter levers. If you’ve got bar-end shifters, grip shifters, downtube shifters or a single-speed, you don’t need Lobster gloves, and you’re losing valuable finger warmth that is possible with mitten technology. Just make sure your mittens are wind proof and aren’t so baggy that they interfere with braking or shifting.
2) Practice makes bike-handling perfect (or at least better). During a brief 40 degree reprieve in January I rode bikes with a friend who’s probably been biking winters in Minneapolis for longer than I’ve been alive. He rolled right over 2-inch deep, rutted, slush-ice death traps, where I slowed, floundered and fought to keep my bike upright (but didn’t crash!) My friend was very kind when I asked if it was me or the bike that was the problem, but the answer, as I figured, was that my winter handling skills needed some work. Two months later, I am happy to report that I have worked them, and they are better. They have also been helped by…
3) TWO studded tires are better than one. I added a studded rear tire this winter. Best decision. Studded front tire = I might fishtail, but I’m not going to die.
Two studded tires = I’m not worried about fishtailing, which lets me relax, which improves my bike handling! Also, I can ride up hills!
There have been several times this winter where I’ve felt the back tire slip on the ice, felt the shuddering as the tread and studs skid over the slippery surface, and felt the bike right itself as the carbide studs grabbed hold and kept everything moving forward. So grateful. Sidenote: 45NRTH no longer makes 26″ studded tires, so I bought a Schwalbe. It’s holding up well, but I wish there was a 26×2.1″ option.
4) Full Fenders are worth it. I initially ordered SKS quick-release fenders for my Long Haul Trucker but they were too fat for the fork. They just barely fit, width-wise, on the Trek 800 that I’ve been using as a winter bike, but still allowed plenty of tire clearance. Such a big improvement over the clip-on style fenders! I joined Grease Rag for their International Women’s Day Ride last week, and we rolled through sand, salt, slush, and puddles that looked bottomless. I wore jeans and stayed dry. Thanks fenders! Everyone riding behind me thanks you, too.
5) I love Toe Warmers. I’ve bought toe warmers and carried them around during previous winters as a just-in-case, but never really used them until this year. Colder-than-normal temps conspired with winter boots whose linings are wearing out and need to be replaced, and I was grateful for my toe warmers on many occasions. The hand warmers are less helpful for biking, because they’re designed to be gripped and lack the adhesive backing that lets toe warmers stay in place. In the future, I will only buy toe warmers, and will use them for my hands if needed. Hot tip: the chemical reaction in these things is air activated. Stick ’em in a ziplock bag to stop the chemical reaction for a bit and keep them going strong for the ride home.
6) My back rack is not working for my mountain bike. I love panniers and dislike carrying lots of weight on my back, but this bike doesn’t feel the same way. It tackles Minneapolis pot holes no problem, but put 30 pounds of groceries on the back and ask it to traverse an icy bike path, and you’ve got yourself an unpleasant, squirrely ride with unpredictable handling. Lesson learned.
P.S. For a more enthusiastic look at winter-positivity, go read Lowrah’s series on Loving Minnesota Winters on the Grease Rag blog. For more details on my winter bike before this year’s tweaks, read this post from last year.