Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I will bike until hell freezes over

Winter biking – why and how to keep those wheels turning when everything goes cold.

Minnesotan winters are typified by biting cold, howling wind and icy streets. Why and how does one bike in those conditions? I bike because it gives me at least a half hour in the outdoors everyday. It is great exercise. It is an adventure. It saves money. It gives flexibility with time and places you can go as compared to riding the bus. It helps me avoid those crowded buses, which by the way are prime spots for catching the flu. Sometimes it is an ego thing, the I-ride-my-bike-in-Minnesota-winters thing.

My favorite winter biking conditions are 30F temperatures with light snow and no wind. But you will probably get 2-3 days a year with such weather. This winter there were winds upto 30mph, temperatures of -20F and snow storms. So how to bike through the extreme weather conditions? Here we have a self proclaimed certified winter biker (me) to help you out.

Use an old mountain bike. Mountain bikes are more stable and have better traction that road bikes. I do not use studded winter tires because they are too expensive. I use the usual tires on lower than normal air pressure. I recommend an old bike because the sand and salt on the streets will wreck your bike unless you have the patience to clean it every night. Its also good to have lights because a fair bit of riding is done in the dark. Always check the weather before stepping out to decide on the layers you will need. Make sure to add a 10mph wind (your riding speed) to forecast conditions.

Before riding out, check the brakes to make sure the cables are not frozen stuck. Coming to winter riding itself, ice is the biggest threat. Ride in a low gear. Never use the front brake, especially when you suspect ice on the road. I don't have a front brake. Avoid braking at all on ice and keep the bike as straight as possible and stop peddling. Even if there is no ice, the snow can also be a little slippery. And that's the fun part. You can do all those skids shown on the videos. You can actually use controlled skids on turns because it is better to turn with a skid (where the rear wheel is steering) than bank sharply on the turn when you are moving fast. The aim is to always keep the front wheel straight, upright and rolling. Your rear wheel may slip and slide. It doesn't matter. If you are not confident of the skidding turn, skid before the turn on a straight stretch so that you are sufficiently slow before the turn. If you lose control, let go of the brakes and straighten the handle bars.

All in all, winter biking is an adventure. It is like dirt biking, with all the slush, slipping and sliding. Who says winters have to be boring? Gear up now and go make friends with the Minnesotan winter.

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