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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.