I started winter biking 5 years ago and each season begins with pronounced tentativeness. While negotiating the ever changing arrays of ice ruts and asphalt, a continuous stream of thoughts flows through my brain like: “This is impossible!” or “This is crazy!” or simply “This sucks!” Soon enough I find that it is certainly not impossible, it is only half crazy, and sometimes it is quite a jolly mode of transport.
Still, winter biking is not without its perils. A guy I know moved to Minneapolis last winter, took up winter biking, and promptly broke his wrist. Of course his wife slipped and broke both elbows while walking the dog–no bike to blame in that injury! Each season though, my biggest problem is an acute fear of breaking my wrist which would be a tremendous nuisance and could permanently effect cherished activities like playing guitar.
My buddy Stephanie gave this big endorsement for studded tires. Keep in mind, “Winter” is her last name:
“This is my third winter of biking. The last two were hard. Last year, there was snow all winter, it didn’t melt and come back or anything, it just stayed. The winter before was the opposite, but that meant it was very icy a lot of the time. Last winter was my first with studs, and I’ll never bike through winter without them, there’s a world of difference! Biking is slightly slower with studs, but feeling more secure on the snow and ice is way worth it.” -Stephanie Winter
After my very trepidatious maiden ice voyage last week followed by a 2-day retreat into bus commuting, I have started to feel a little cooped up. I miss that nimble mobility of bike travel. I decide it’s time to give studded tires a try.
Fortunately, Midtown Freewheel is running a special: Buy one, get the 2nd half off. While many opt for studs on the front wheel only (to save money and because studs in front make the greatest difference) I knew Stephanie got a pair so I am committed to going whole hog.
I check the weather on this Brookstone weather gadget my dad gave me, and start to suit up.
Today I wear a brace on my left wrist for luck. You might consider borrowing someone’s rollerblade wrist guards when you first start out winter biking, just to give you confidence while you are getting the feel of it. Most likely they will feel too restrictive for long term use.
My mom got me these fancy lobster mitts–especially for winter biking.
The coat doesn’t need to be warm for biking, just waterproof and wind resistant. I have a breathable gore-tex shell with welded waterproof zippers. It has ventilation zippers under the arms and is a great rain jacket for all seasons; I just add layers underneath in the winter.
The ski goggles are a huge asset when the temperature dips below 25 degrees farenheit, or when snow and sleet is flying. I find it much easier to concentrate on riding when my eyes and face are protected from bitter winds.
Not Hitting the Road
My second trip on the ice is feeling better than the first. What I didn’t realize before I started winter biking is that the laws of physics generally keep your bike upright, no matter how slick the surface you are riding over. In fact the faster you are going forward, the greater the force keeping your bike upright. Like a penny rolling across a table. Wipe outs occur mostly when you are turning or braking. You need to take turns very slowly, and avoid braking suddenly on ice.
My friend Jim Ruiz first got me into winter biking:
“I have been winter commuting now for more than 10 years. I remember the wisdom used to be that you should have narrow tires that cut through the snow and get to the pavement quicker. I sort of have medium width tires, Schwinn C-7’s I think. Riding a bike in winter is a lot like skating. I haven’t fallen since my first couple of years when I broke a rib. I think you fall when you forget it’s winter. You just need to ride slower and respect the ice. Oh, and your bike will rust, so don’t ride your darling bike unless you are prepared for that.” -Jim Ruiz
One speed is all you need
Jim also encouraged me to convert my bike to a single speed, which is much easier to maintain for winter biking.
The only times my bike has gone down were extremely slippery days when cars were also sliding all over the roads. I was braking and I felt my bike go down, but I stayed upright and suddenly I found myself just jogging down the street. I turned around to pick up my bike. This happened to me twice, and I was totally unharmed.
I have been told that if you are wiping out you should hold tight to the handlebars and let them be your roll bar, rather than putting your arm out to break your fall. That is how you will break your wrist. But this is such a matter of instinct, I don’t know if I’d be able to think that quickly while I’m falling.
I’m glad to see the Greenway bike path is mostly clear of ice. I reach Midtown Freewheel and tell the fellow at the repair counter I want to talk studs. The guy at the cafe counter chimes in, “yeah, it’s getting slippery out there!” “Do you use studded tires?” I ask excitedly. Yes he does!
His co-worker asks the size of my wheel, but I can’t remember. He invites me to bring my bike in and stay a while.
Defeat and Disappointment
Before I know what has hit me, my clerk has identified a fatal flaw in my plan. I have an unusual 27″ wheel, which Fuji made for a short time in the eighties, and studded tires are simply not available in this size. Anywhere. Sensing my utter shock he says, “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”
I quickly google ’27” studded tires’ on my phone and the first result I see is a studded tire distributor saying “Please don’t write or call us asking for 27 inch studded tires.” Staggering in disbelief I ask the Freewheel clerk who’s helping me “Do you use studded tires?” “Yes,” he says apologetically. “I don’t know what to say.”
A Glimmer of Hope
Finally, a long awkward pause pries from him an interesting solution–the zip tie method. Apparently zip ties do an excellent job adding traction, the only problem is that you must cut them all off if you get a flat. I may try this at least once and see how far I get.
It is also some consolation that many experienced winter bikers willingly forego the fuss and expense of studded tires, relying instead on sensible caution and good riding skills. As Jim says, it’s like skating. You get the hang of it with practice.
Thanks for reading the Wednesday Post.