Winter bikes

What is a “winter bike”? If you have one bike and you ride it in the winter, that’s a “winter bike”. If you have a nice bike and you ride it a lot and you don’t want to beat it up in bad weather, it may mean something else. That’s where we’re going today.

I started riding in the winter on January 1, 1966, when I got my paper route. I rode 364 days/year. After some time off (because I was close enough to walk to work for a long time) I have been back to riding to work every day (in a wintery clime) since January 1995. I don’t count riding in the San Francisco Bay Area as winter riding. I have had a few dedicated winter (or bad weather in general) bikes in those years.

The images below (except the Spot) are not my actual bikes but roughly representative.

  • “Western Flyer” by Western Auto. When I got my paper route, the guy I took over for said I could have the bike for ten bucks. It was what later came to be known as a “Balloon Tire Bomber” and is a lot like what subsequently came to be known as a “Beach Cruiser”. These were also the first mountain bikes, when mountain biking consisted of riding downhill as fast as possible, then walking back up. Steel frame, 26x 2.25 inch tires, single speed, New Departure coaster brake, Ashtabula cranks. It came equipped with giant steel baskets. The rears were long and deep enough to hold newspapers folded in half (papers were bigger in those days) and wide enough to fit papers further folded in thirds. The front was big enough to hold papers laid flat, or hold the over-the-shoulder newspaper bag stuffed to the gills. I equipped it with a center-mount kickstand (like on a motorcycle). Traction was not an issue carrying that much weight, and streets were plowed earlier and more frequently in those days. Pro: indestructible, simple. Con: heavy.
Western Flyer image from eBay
  • Schwinn “Varsity”. I inherited this bike from my dad around the time he died. Steel frame, ten speed (2×5 Huret Allvit, labeled “Schwinn Approved”), sidepull brakes (Weinmann, labeled “Schwinn Approved”) with “safety” levers (which I removed), 27 x 1.25 (?) tires, steel rims. With derailleur cables mounted on the downtube, and no fenders, they tended to ice up from the slush kicked up by the front wheel. The bike became a single-speed in whatever gear I was in when it froze. Rim brakes on steel rims are terrible when wet. Skinny tires are lousy in the winter. Some folks say they will cut through the snow right down to the pavement. Some folks are wrong. Pro: cheap (free). Con: heavy, poor traction, poor braking, frequent gear failures, wet feet and back.
Schwinn Varsity Image from HRDS India
  • Specialized “Globe”. This was the first bike I bought for bad weather. It was a great concept. The execution was poor. 7-speed Shimano Nexus internally-geared hub, rear roller brake, front V-brake, fenders, chainguard, generator lights, built-in lock, 26x 1.5 tires. The rear brake worked great in all weather. The cheap steel chainring teeth broke off readily. The mounts for the fenders and chainguard broke. (I was able to fabricate new ones from low-temperature thermoplastic scraps I keep around the house, because replacement parts were not available.) The lock jammed frequently, so I stopped using it so it would jam in the unlocked position. The lighting system (which cleverly used a copper strip running along in the inside of the rear fender to bring power to the taillight) never worked right. The rear light had to be rewired before I took the bike home from the shop. The front light burned out frequently – my guess is they did not appropriately match the output of the generator to the input need of the bulb. I came to carry a redundant lighting system and spare bulbs at all times because it would fail so frequently. Then the light mount broke and it just fell off while riding – luckily, not into the spokes. The riding position was upright, with the rider’s weight on the rear wheel. The wheelbase was long. As a result, the bike was unstable in turns in dry conditions, deadly in wet. I made frequent visits to a mechanic on the way home from work, with quick repairs made while I waited. I don’t know how many chainrings I went through. Finally, there was a catastrophic failure of the rear hub while crossing a 6 lane divided street pulling my kids in the trailer. I found the cranks spinning effortlessly (and ineffectually) and jumped off to run the rest of the way across the street. The mechanic opened up the hub, thinking he could weld the cog back onto the hub body. He said it was not repairable – just not enough metal in there to weld. A new hub would cost almost as much as the bike. He then opened up a newer one and said I must not have been the first to have this failure, as the newer hub was beefier inside. He suggested I contact Specialized and Shimano. I gave Specialized a list of the problems. They put me in touch with the bike’s designer. He essentially said, “You’re right. The bike isn’t made for the way you use it. Too bad.” (See paragraph 3, previous post re: testing.) Shimano didn’t respond at all. Pro: Interesting concept. Roller brake simple and effective. Fenders, lights, generator, chainguard, rack, internally geared hub. Con: Doesn’t work. Frequent repairs. Catastrophic failure. Heavy. Poor handling.
Specialized Globe image from Road Bike Action
  • Raleigh “M60” Mountain bike. My first foray into the world of mountain bikes. Aluminum frame, front suspension, V-brakes, 3×7 gearing (low-end Shimano Acera). I figured if I equipped it with fenders, lights, rack, and studded tires for winter, I could ride it in all weather. It had a crankset with cheap stamped steel chainrings. The right crank and rings were welded together as a unit so the rings could not be replaced without replacing the crankset. I did that several times, as the whole crankset was cheaper than good rings. I had to replace the wheels, as the braking surface wore down from winter grit (sand and salt). I eventually bought a second set of wheels so I could swap wheels seasonally instead of changing tires. The wheels I bought had aluminum spoke nipples. They crack under load. Luckily I had saved all the brass nipples from the trashed wheels, so I could replace nipples as they failed. Anodized aluminum spoke nipples may look cool, but they are worthless. I replaced the derailleurs multiple times due to winter’s toll. I finally overhauled it thoroughly and gave it to my son before I had to spend any more money on it. I had gone through at least 3 drivetrains and wheel sets. Pro: generally reliable (meaning it didn’t break down in use, it just needed frequent overhauls), top tube cable routing keeps them out of the gunk. Con: Expensive upkeep.
Raleigh M60 Image from Bicycle Czar
  • Spot Brand “Five Points”. Aluminum frame, steel fork, Sram 3 -speed hub, Avid Elixir hydraulic disc brakes, Gates Carbon belt drive, 700x40c tires. (700×32 studs in winter – narrower so they would fit under the fenders despite the studs) All of the experiences above led to my current bad weather bike. The internally-geared hub of the Globe was a good idea but the more gears you put in a hub, the heavier it gets, the more fragile it becomes, and the more expensive it gets to replace. I briefly considered the 14 speed Rohloff hub, which I had heard great things about. I considered the NuVinci CVT (continuously-variable transmission). I went with a 3-speed because Sturmey-Archer has made 3-speeds longer than I’ve been alive and some of those older than I still work. I need a lower gear in the snow than I do in the rain, so I didn’t think a single speed was the best choice. 3-speed it is. (I looked at two-speeds, where you backpedal a tiny bit to shift gears – a system I recall from Schwinns in the 60s (and still made by Sturmey-Archer) – but decided to go for 3 speeds and disc brakes instead of a coaster brake. Disc brakes seemed to be the way to go for reliable braking in all weather. The rotor is farther from the wet roadway than the wheel rim so it gets less wet. It has a smaller diameter so braking friction dries it more quickly. If it wears through, it is cheaper to replace than a wheel. Cables can freeze up. Hydraulic brakes have been in use on cars for a long time. They use DOT brake fluid (not mineral oil, as do some bike brakes), so I figured if I’m going to ride when it is -30 degrees, I want what works in cars when it’s that cold. I spent a lot of money on chains over the years and a lot of time cleaning and lubing chains at least weekly in the winter. To clean the belt means bringing the bike into the basement and slowly pouring a bucket of water on the belt as I turn the cranks, then letting it dry overnight before I ride it the next morning – and that’s only so the water doesn’t freeze. That made a belt drive the only way to go. Five plus (almost six) years later I don’t regret the decision. I have replaced the belt once so far. Seeing how it failed, I know what to look for in hopes that I can replace it before failure but not too soon. If I had to do it again I would get better brakes than the Avid Elixirs. Each time I change tires or remove a wheel for any reason I have to re-center the brakes. The pistons tend to stick so one caliper will drag. Lubricating pistons is fiddlier than lubricating a rim brake pivot (and needs to be done much more often). Bleeding hydraulic lines is more time-consuming than changing cables. Pads on disc brakes are much thinner than those on rim brakes, so they have to be replaced more often and cost more to replace. The original front pulley (AKA chainring) was plastic. The teeth wore down and I had to replace it. The replacement is aluminum so I hope it lasts longer. This may be the last winter bike I buy; at least while I continue working. Pro: Light, reliable, low maintenance, well-equipped, works in all weather. Con: brakes could be better.
Spot Brand bike

All studded tires are not created equal. Some studs are too soft and wear down quickly. Some studs pop out of the tire. I use only Nokian/Suomi – from Finland, where they know snow) or Schwalbe (from Germany). There are many studded models from Suomi/Nokian – the more studs, the better the traction and the higher the weight.

One decision to make is: Do you want inexpensive components so you can replace them as they wear out, or higher quality in hopes they will last and/or be rebuildable? I have chosen cheaper components for winter. The Raleigh above was equipped with Shimano Acera. I went through derailleurs every couple of years. My Bruce Gordon has Shimano Deore XT derailleurs that are still going strong after 30+ years. Is that because I sprung for better parts, or because it stays inside all winter? I suspect the latter is a bigger contributor.

I have never owned an E-bike. One could be a winter bike. Battery life is greatly reduced in cold weather. Unless your commute is long, that should not be a problem.

For more winter biking tips, click the links in this sentence. Each will open a in a new page.

You may notice a fat bike is not on this list. I’m told that a fat bike is the way to go in “brown sugar” – the mixture of melted and refrozen snow mixed with sand and salt that tends to collect in intersections and at the edges of roadways. Fat bike is the way to go through unplowed streets or trails. Fat bikes are heavy (and even heavier if you put studded tires on them – fatties work in snow but not on ice). I wouldn’t want to ride a fat bike in summer rain – it would probably be a strictly winter bike – that would make three commuting bikes instead of two. I can’t justify that to myself. If I want to head out on trails in the winter, I’ll put on my skis.

What’s wrong with this bike?

Image from Competitivecyclist.com

How about this one? Maybe a closeup will help.

Image from Competitivecyclist.com

If you said “nothing”, you’re right. There is nothing wrong with these bikes…as long as you have about $6000 to spend.

On our FAQ page, we asked and answered the question “Is it cheating to ride an e-bike?” The world of e-bikes is changing. Some are 75 pound behemoths that drive themselves – until the battery dies. The two pictured above weigh around 26 pounds – about the same as my Bruce Gordon touring bike. Even when the battery dies, pedaling these bikes is no big deal. Where is the motor? you ask. Nearly invisible, in the rear hub, I answer. A close look between the cogset and the brake rotor and you might see the hub diameter looks a bit large – sort of like the 3 speed hub on my Spot Brand bike – but small enough to be virtually invisible.

the Bruce Gordon

E-bikes are now a lot like other bikes – available as commuters, cruisers, mountain, gravel, and road bikes. They can be pedal-assist, or can have a throttle like a motorcycle. Top speed is governed in multiple classes – you get to pick. With the motor not assisting, you can go as fast as you want (or can). Possibly the ultimate niche for them is the cargo bike. I was going to include some images, but there are too many variants – just search the term.

Would I ride an e-bike? No. It might be like a jet ski or a snowmobile or crack cocaine. Once you try it, you don’t want to give it up. Or so I’ve heard; never having tried any of them. Though the e-bike doesn’t have the societal costs of the others. A half-fast friend recently went bike shopping. His partner wanted an e-bike and bought one. He tried one and almost did it – but the Colnago won out and he couldn’t afford both. (But, as you see below, it was a false dichotomy – don’t tell him.)

This might qualify as bike porn – pictures of $5000+ bikes that most readers can’t afford and maybe have no business riding even if they can. We’ve all seen the stereotypical e-bike. Today, we just wanted to say the market has expanded. There are lots of choices. Just get out and ride; or do whatever it is that you love and will get you off the couch. (And no, I don’t have links for you to click to buy these and get me a commission. If you want to buy a bike, you’re on your own.)

As we said in the FAQ – if e-bikes get people riding who wouldn’t otherwise, we’re all for them. If they’ll get you out more, more power to you. If it’s just another expensive toy, don’t you have enough already?

A funny thing happened on the way to the

clinic. The main road there is torn up and there was a Detour sign for bikes. I followed the sign, which led me onto a bike path. There were no further signs to direct me back to the road I needed to be on. I eventually found my way there. With the temperature 88 degrees F (31 C) and dewpoint 73 degrees (23 C) I was pretty sticky on arrival.

To avoid the detour, I took the scenic route home. What is normally a 15 mile round trip ended up as 30 miles. Along the way, I didn’t think I was in Kansas anymore.

A suburban retention pond in Wisconsin…bears would be a stretch; but alligators?!?

https://ytcropper.com/cropped/1N5efa2b6ec33f4

On the way home I stopped to check the cherries on the tree by the middle school. I hoped to pick another pound or three. The tree is dead. Now I know we’re not in Kansas.

I saw someone in a t-shirt that said “achiever” on the front. I wondered if that were a true statement, or aspirational. I wondered about being required to wear shirts that label us, maybe even honestly, or maybe with our family’s judgments, and what they would say: “Underachiever”; “I coulda been somebody”; “Never lived up to my potential”; “I told you you should have gone to med school, but no – you wanted to be a plumber”; “I lie – but mostly to myself”; “My bike deserves better”; “Too much money and not enough sense”. The last two are for people riding bikes that are faster than they are. Your comments/additions are welcome.

Detours were the theme of the week. On our continuing “Wednesday Night’s Greatest Hits” tour, we did the “Mt Horeb South” ride. Screaming downhill at 40+mph we came upon a “Road Closed 1000 Feet” sign, then a “Road Closed 500 Feet” sign. The road ended (with an escape route to the right) in a pile of sand (that we could have turned into a ramp to jump the closed section but I couldn’t talk anyone into doing it while I took pictures). The creek is tiny but the trench was pretty deep and a lot wider than the creek, with steep and muddy banks; not to mention lots of heavy equipment and a crew working. The once and future bridge was nowhere in sight. Some “Road Closed” signs are only suggestions. Rivers can be forded or maybe have something to cross on. We’ve had highway crews welcome us to cross a partly-finished bridge when we asked nicely. This was clearly the end of the route. And of course there was no cell phone service and our map had an inset covering the spot where we were. There was only one way to turn so it was an easy choice. Then it was just a matter of making our way back north and east by any means necessary. This was not the Royal We. I rode with two other people for the first time in a few months. We didn’t share air. or beer.

E-bike commercial

Early in our ride, I saw a car and a bike approaching from the rear. Both were clearly going to overtake us – three men in bike clothes on road bikes, going about 20 mph. The bike came closer and closer. As she pulled around us on the left, she was sitting bolt upright, wearing pedal pushers, and rang her bell, passing us effortlessly. I had to look for the battery. Indeed, it was an e-bike.

I’m not sure which would have looked funnier – three guys close to 70 in bike clothes, or three guys closer to 20 being passed by a middle-aged woman sitting upright on a step-thru frame and passing without breaking a sweat on a 90 degree day. I wanted video. One of my friends thought it would be better were she passing Tour de France riders climbing L’Alpe d’Huez. At any rate, at least one version would make a great commercial.

This being July 4, I have to say something. I can’t think of this holiday without re-posting a history lesson:

While the myths we’ve been raised on are “Give me liberty or give me death”, “No taxation without representation”, and “Don’t tread on me”, the reality is a bit more complicated. Genocide against the current inhabitants was already well under way. Imperialism was a central founding principle. While the term “manifest destiny” had not yet been coined, the US was already expanding, and by the time independence was recognized by England in 1783, the US had claimed land to the Mississippi River and beyond. We had already brought people to work as slaves on our plantations. We enshrined in our constitution that a slave was equal to 3/5 of a person, not to acknowledge that they were more than half human and allow them to vote, but in order to increase the representation of the slave states in the House of Representatives and increase their share of taxes. Were three of every five enslaved people counted, or 3/5 of each person enslaved? At least they were acknowledged as “Persons” as well as property.

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

US Constitution: Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3.

An open letter

to my Cycle America community. To jog your memories, there will be one photo from each week, none of which have appeared here before:

Dear Friends,

trailer loaded, ready to head to ride start-WA

We have now been back in our respective real worlds for longer than we were away in our circus world. We used that metaphor during the trip because it seemed apt – we rolled into a new town every night, set up our tents, and were gone in the morning before most people were up and about. We didn’t put on much of a show, but…

Einstein in Jackson, WY

It’s also timely because I spent three days of the last week in Baraboo, home of the Ringling Brothers and the Circus World Museum. It was also where, for me, the two worlds intersected. My friends, my son and his wife, and my boss all came to Baraboo when the Cycle America Circus rolled through. It was my reminder that our circus world was fleeting, that the other world beckoned. It was the best of times…

Devil’s Tower, WY

And now we’re scattered across the globe doing whatever it is we normally
do; though even that is new for some – Ally went from being a student to being a nurse during those nine weeks. Mike stayed away longer than the rest of us to ride down the west coast of the US. How’d that go, Mike?

Did anybody do a Johnny Paycheck when going back to work?

Needles Highway, SD

I miss that world. I missed the daily routine of riding already by the first Monday I was home. I had my day of rest and was ready to ride again. I’m still looking for anyone who wants to pay me to ride my bike. From the headwaters of the Mississippi to the delta seems like a good route. Who’ll drive sag?

The jersey that got us in trouble in Belgium-Northfield, MN

But I also miss all of you. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get all hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya on you. If we all lived in the same town it’s not like we’d all be hanging out every night after work (those of us who do still work) or be drinking coffee together every morning at the corner cafe (for the retired among us).

Wind farm – Pepin, WI

But we had a community for those nine weeks; a loose-knit one, perhaps, but we shared something I will never forget. We shared fun, we shared miseries, we shared deeply transforming moments.  We found out what we were made of. Some of you, who had done this before, may have had no doubts about it. But I bet most of us had moments when we weren’t really sure what we had gotten into, weren’t really sure we could do this. But we did. And we probably knew that all along but it seemed too arrogant to say out loud, just as voicing the fears seemed too insecure to say out loud.

100 miles is just a number – almost a century in Ontario

We ate some great food and some food that we may not have eaten had we not just ridden 80 miles. We saw the USA in a way that most people never will. We didn’t fly over flyover country. We didn’t cross the plains at 80 mph (~130 km/h for those of the metric persuasion), staring at the ribbon of pavement and ignoring all else. We did wake up sober in Nebraska (or close to it – Nebraska, I mean). Climbing mountain passes didn’t mean just stepping harder on the accelerator.

Cycle America International Bobsled Team – Lake Placid, NY

We did all that, and we did it together. I, for one, already think about a reunion. It’s entirely possible we will never see each other again. I know some of you are friends in real life and do hang out. The rest of us? Maybe we’d feel awkward, not knowing what to say. Maybe we’d need a long ride together with margaritas to follow. Maybe a short ride, but actually together as a group, like the brief stretches when we were together for ferry crossings or through construction zones.

End of the road, Gloucester, MA-only one way to go

And maybe doing it again in 2020 doesn’t sound crazy after all. (Don’t tell anyone here I said that!) If those of you with the wherewithal to do it again do it, I’ll meet you in Baraboo with a case of beer. Or we can find an Irish pub and Mike can show the bartenders the proper way to pull a pint of Guinness.

See you on the road!

Love,

Steve

Maybe a motor next time?

Maybe Hogwart’s next time?

maple
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