It is cold. It is dark. Studded tires scrape ice and low-pressure tires leave prints in loose snow, lights piercing the dark forest. This is what makes winter riding in Alaska unique. Years ago people simply didn’t ride bikes in winter but studded tires changed that several decades ago, and more recently fatbikes have changed the way we look at winter transportation and recreation in a big way. However, there are some challenges to winter riding. Staying warm is one challenge, and special attention to hands and feet is required to remain comfortable on the bike. Lights are required as we experience barely 6 hours of daylight near the winter solstice. Studded tires and even 4-5″ wide fatbike tires help keep our bikes upright in changing winter conditions. In extreme cold, our bikes also behave differently and may require some special treatment and tuning.
If you have any questions regarding winter clothing, equipment, or tuning visit one of our three locations in Anchorage: The Bicycle Shop on Northern Lights, The Bicycle Shop Dimond, and Paramount Cycles in the Huffman Business Park in South Anchorage. Enjoy the ride!
Clothing and equipment to stay warm
Hands: Conventional gloves and mittens work in many conditions, but they can trap moisture as you sweat and lead to cold hands, which is why pogies are preferred when temperatures dip below freezing. Pogies are oversized handlebar mitts designed for bicycles which block wind, provide necessary insulation, and generally vent moisture better than gloves and mittens. Favorites include USA made pogies from Dogwood Designs and Revelate Designs.
To mitigate the conduction of heat away from fingers and hands many winter cycling enthusiasts choose insulated brake lever covers or composite brake levers. Compared to metal components, non-metal components insulate better and do not feel as cold. Carbon handlebars may also help to keep heat from being drawn away from the hands, while also damping vibrations from rough trails.
Feet: Regular winter boots are often well suited to winter riding. However, we do not create much heat at the foot while pedaling as we do when walking or skiing, and we are constantly compressing the boot against the pedals which can conduct heat away from the body. When buying boots for winter riding it makes sense to select a boot with some extra room for thicker socks, and to prevent sock insulation from becoming compressed. Plastic platform pedals, as compared to metal pedals are often recommended to limit the conduction of heat away from the foot. Insulated insoles such as those fro 45NRTH and Lake are available to modify an existing boot which will increase warmth. Cycling-specific winter boots are available in multiple temperature ranges if you choose to use a clipless pedal system. The best brands for winter cycling boots are 45NRTH and Lake, especially the 45NRTH Wolvhammer, which is well-suited to Anchorage riding temperatures and conditions. For extra cold conditions check out the 45NRTH Wolfgar boot which is rated down to -25F for comfort. No matter which kind of boots you wear it is always wise to bring extra socks on long rides in case your feet get sweaty and wet. Gaiters may also be a useful piece of equipment, especially if you expect to be walking in deep snow.
Outerwear: Cycling can be a high intensity activity so you need to make sure your clothing allows moisture to leave your personal atmosphere. Avoid waterproof outer layers when conditions are dry and you are pedaling hard, instead choose a breathable soft-shell layer. Pack a lightweight waterproof layer for any wet precipitation, or as a backup layer in case you get really cold or the wind kicks up. Wool base layers also help manage moisture near to the skin, while zippers and vents in outerwear help move moisture away from your clothing. Wet clothing does not insulate the same way dry clothing does, which is especially true of down layers. Wet down is almost useless when wet.
Pants: Most of what is described above is true of pants for winter use. Be sure to keep snow and water out of boots, either by wearing ankle-height boots or using gaiters to keep out snow. Most cycling specific pants feature an articulated knee for pedaling comfort, and often the seat of the pants may include some kind of elastic fabric to move with you as you ride. Vents may be found on some waterproof pants while soft-shell pants will feature varying levels of insulation for warmth.
Lights and visibility
Get lights that are bright enough and will burn long enough for the riding you plan to do. In the winter we do not always needs a ton of light as the snow will reflect a lot of light, often 200-400 lumens is sufficient for the riding we do in Anchorage, especially on dark wooded trails when snow is present. On busy city streets you may choose to use a lot more light to make sure you are easily visible amidst the bustle of the winter urban environment, and during the shoulder seasons when there is no snow you may need more light power. Use the lower settings on you light to achieve longer burn times, ensuring you have light through the duration of your ride. If you ride for more than a few hours, consider a light rated with a very high lumen count– something like the Serfas 1200 or 2500– which will provide many hours of light at lower output modes. The most common sized battery lights we sell are between 500-1000 lumens. Some of the smaller handlebar and helmets mounted lights also feature the option of a replaceable battery. Bring a fully charged backup battery for big day rides, or just bring a battery pack and your USB charging cable.
Dynamo lighting can be useful for some riders, but at slow speeds output will suffer. A dynamo hub is an electromagnetic power source which can produce enough power for lights and some USB powered devices, but the power output is related to the riders speed and in winter our riding speeds are often lower than in summer. The Sinewave Cycles Beacon solves the problem by also allowing the rider to plug a battery into the head unit to augment the dynamo source, thus providing a consistent 750 lumen output, like any standard battery powered light.
Studs and fat tires
Fat tires and studded tires serve greatly different functions and are not mutually exclusive.
Fat tires provide flotation over soft snow, sand, and gravel. These larger tires can be run at lower pressures for increased flotation as needed, such as when riding in fresh snow or as melting begins in warm afternoon sun. Metal studs gain tractions on ice. In some urban conditions narrower MTB tires do well as they cut through snow down to hardpack and pavement, but in most winter conditions the fatbike stays on top of the snow and keeps the rider moving forward most consistently. On any tire lower pressures can improve stability in the snow by widening the tire footprint and improving flotation.
If you want to ride every day of the winter the optimal winter bike would simply be a fatbike with studded tires, providing adequate flotation and traction in all conditions.
When buying studded tires take note of the unique stud designs used by different companies, such as the concave-tipped stud used on some 45NRTH tires or the three point crown tip on Terrene tires. Most conventional studded tires simply use a pointed stud tip. High-quality studs these days are made with a lightweight aluminum base and a hardened steel carbide tip for years of use. For unique tire sizes where studded tires are not available, Grip Studs are available which are threaded into the tire from the outside, although the tire must have substantial lugs to accept the Grip Stud.
Studded tires for mountain bikes start at around $80-120 per tire depending upon tire size, and around $150-175 for fatbikes.
Maintaining the bike for the cold
Maintaining a bike in winter is not much different than in the summer, but there are a few key differences. Keep any brake or shift cables lubricated with a lightweight lubricant to prevent freezing. Cable housing can collect moisture during the wet fall season which can freeze when winter hits, making brakes hard to operate or affecting shift performance. A lightweight oil such as Tri-Flow is recommended.
Sealed hydraulic systems may also be affected by extreme cold, including air suspension and hydraulic brakes. They should work in most Anchorage temps, but hydraulic brakes may swell as temperatures dip into the teens and single digits causing the pads to rub on the rotors which may emit an audible metallic scraping while riding. Cold weather seal kits are available for Rock Shox Bluto forks. Bikes with air suspension should be in heated storage during winter, such as in a garage or in the house. Extreme cold is not good for rubber seals and suspension internals.
Freehubs can stick and slip in the cold, as the factory grease thickens in the cold and prohibits free movement of the pawls. If this occurs, a lightweight grease or a medium-heavy freehub oil is recommended. Check out Slick Honey grease or Dumonde Tech Freehub Oil.
For any questions, call or stop by one of our three Anchorage shops! We hope to see you out on the trails!