Friday, January 4, 2013

Winter Cycling: the Good the Bad and the Ugly

Every winter, cyclists must decide if they are going to ride inside or out.

For those who choose to stay inside, there are options like spin classes, stationary bikes, trainers, and my personal favorite: rollers. Rollers are just what they sound like: a set of drum "rollers" connected by an elastic band that one rides their bike on top of. It's like a treadmill built for bicycles. I like them because it's the closest thing to actually riding a bike indoors. Because you're riding on top of drums, and not physically connected to anything, you not only have to balance but steer your bike to remain on the drum. If you ride off the drums, well, that's where it gets interesting. Can you bunny hop an ottoman? Yeah, pretty good.

It can be intimidating at first, but after a session or two, it ain't nothing but a 'thang.  If you're interested, Mike Munson is selling a set for $75 bucks right now.  That's a great price. You can use them for a few seasons and sell them again for at least that much.

If you ask me, your best bang for your buck is investing in good cycling clothing to ride outside. I mean, you can get by with a lot of stuff you have already. I've seen folks riding in fleece pullovers and snow pants. It's doable. But it can be a lot more comfortable and enjoyable if you start investing in cycling specific clothing.

There are lots of benefits to riding outside. For one, riding indoor sucks. I know that's not a benefit for riding outdoors, but let's face it, the only thing worse than riding a stationary bike|trainer is running on a treadmill. And that's not far behind.

Riding outdoors in the winter is fun. It's that simple. Just fun. Ah, that deserves it's own paragraph.

It's fun because it's more social. Social because you'd be an idiot to ride fast in cold weather. You ride slower so as to not overheat and sweat when  it's 3°F outside. As a result of slower speeds, the pack tends to stay together. That allows more time to dawdle. Besides triathletes, who doesn't enjoy dawdling?

Another benefit is the scenery. The snow changes everything. There have been many occasions that I've ridden familiar roads as if it was the first time on them.

For others, it's facial scenery. Take for example our own ginger, Lucas Marshall. For him and others alike, one of the major winter cycling benefits is to show off your ice beard. As one breathes, exhalation condenses and freezes onto facial hair. Apparently snot does, too.

In a word, ick.

Anyway, despite all of its benefits, some resist winter cycling out of fear of the unknown.

After seeing this picture that Fred posted on Facebook, a friend and newbie cyclist sent me a message inquiring if cycling "was possible in the snow and how safe was it?"

Now that was a curious question to ask me, since the picture clearly shows that it's possible to ride a bike in the snow. But was it safe?

Sure, there is an element of risk here. But it's manageable risk with some basic winter riding skills.

I've ridden for many years now and still marvel how a bicycle can stay upright over a sheet of ice. It's turning an braking where things can get a little dicey.  On a recent ride I got going a little too fast on a descent. I panicked and squeezed the back brake too hard, locking the wheel into a skid. The wheel got squirrelly beneath me. That spooked me enough to keep me from touching the front brake. This only made the situation worse as I kept accelerating down the hill. I starting passing friends, one by one. On both sides of the road were drainage culverts. At the bottom, the road junctioned with another gravel road that had its own ditch on the far side. While passing, I told Rafal that it was nice knowing him, then pointed the bike toward a band of snow along the shoulder with the hopes of getting traction there. Fortunately, my plan worked and I didn't dump it. What a rush of adrenalin that was.
My rendition of East Jefferson Avenue and Mudhollow Road, Iowa
For the record, that was the hill that Lucas said he'd like to put on a pair of Carharts and just let 'er rip and see what happened.  Also for the record, Shim said that he didn't touch his brakes at all. He probably clipped out for a one legged-drill. Soft-pedaling of course.

So that's the worst it can get. From this experience, I learned a few things, like not panicking, looking for snow for better traction and how to effectively feather the front brake. I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have gotten this same experience riding a trainer while watching the movie Predator.

Is winter riding risky? I suppose it can be. But riding on your rollers over your cement basement floor can be risky, too. Heck, I saw Shim crash on a trainer before a cyclocross race this year. And he never crashes.

But with a little precaution, riding outside in the winter is not only possible to do so, but it can also be safe.

Happy Winter Riding Everyone.


  1. I think it's also important to remember that you are invisible and everyone in a car is blind, drunk, impatient and stupid. Nice rendition, by the way.

  2. if nothing else crashing in the winter time is less painful as you have more clothes on... or so i heard :D