WINTER BIKING GUIDE
This short guide is for winter biking, there's lots of sites to go to for summer biking information not to mention your local bike shop. I'm not going to go into great detail as there are other sites out there with winter biking information and my experience is limited to Alaska and our generally dry winter weather. On the Icebike site www.enteract.com/~icebike you will find information from numerous sources all over N. America. Icebike offers tips for mtn. biking and road biking-commuting. This is a great site with good information on all aspects of winter biking plus nice pictures and stories. For anyone interested in learning about winter biking Icebike is the place to go. They also have a mailing list that has hundreds of members and is a great source for anything you can imagine related to biking in winter. There is also good information on the All Weather Sports site www.allweathersports.com home of Snowcat rims.
DRESSING AND DEALING WITH COLD
So what's left to share? I won't go into much about clothing as it's something that has to be learned and everyone has different needs. The two most important things that make winter biking work so well are the wonderful clothes and Snowcat Rims, more on the rims later. There is a wide variety of wicking fabrics that do a good job of keeping you warm and dry. Someone that has experience cross country skiing has the basics down to properly dress for winter biking. Standard rules for winter biking are like any other strenuous activity in the cold, wicking layers next to skin, insulating layer next and then wind-waterproof layer on the outside. Temperature, how hard you're working, and most importantly your own metabolism will determine what works for you and the only way to learn is to do it try different strategies. I rode for years with cotton sweatpants and while I now use high tech polartec pants (Icebike Tights from Gekko Gear) the sweats worked ok. I favor lightweight polypropylene balaclavas for my head, lightweight polypropylene or thermax glove liners under my heavier gloves and lightweight polypropylene-thermax socks for the first layer on my feet. Here in Interior Alaska it stays cold enough that we don't have to deal with wetness from the outside so breathability is more critical that waterproofness but again prepare for the conditions you ride in. By the way Gortex stops working below certain temperatures. Moisture can't wick when it's frozen.
One common thread amongst winter bikers is cold feet, this is a tough one but there are a few tricks to keep in mind. Loose, loose, loose, can't stress enough the importance of using footwear that doesn't constrict. There is an old saying in cold climates, "cotton kills" and that's a good rule, stay away from cotton. It's biggest problem is that it loses almost all it's insulating qualities when wet. Wool, fleece or a number of newer fabrics work well as socks. I'm going to punt at this point and recommend a visit to the icebike site for different strategies for keeping your feet warm.
A couple of last notes on keeping warm on the trail. Eat, I'm a firm believer in having a bellyful of high caloric food if you're out in the cold. Drink, keeping hydrated will help keep you warm and a well hydrated body uses the food put in it more efficiently. If you're out on the trail and your feet start getting cold get off the bike and walk it for a few minutes, this works amazingly well and the sooner the better. Be aware of your body and deal with getting cold immediately, it can make the difference between discomfort and serious problems. No matter how well you dress there could always be a situation where all the clothes in the world won't make a difference, this is when you must have the means and knowledge of how to build a fire. I always carry waterproof matches, a couple of lighters and a small candle. The candle makes a great firestarter. If you don't know how to build a fire learn how before venturing out some trail in the cold. Conservation of energy is a basic strategy for dealing with cold. I try to ride in a conservative consistent manner to limit sweating and breathing hard. Cold air (especially below -10F) can be very irritating to your throat. The colder the temperature the more careful I am about not pushing myself. I've reached a point where I can ride in temps approaching -40F and be comfortable but this is the exception. Usually I consider the "fun range" of winter riding from about 25F to -20F. At temperatures above 25F things start getting wet and I'm spoiled with our dry winter weather.
BIKE AND EQUIPMENT
Snowcat rims, hmmmmm, don't know if I'd go half the places I do without them. They work wonderfully well and make riding down a snowpacked trail almost like a dirt trail. Hard to describe the difference they make but if you plan on riding snowpacked trails they are a must. Running tires at low pressures is also a must and is something that needs practice to learn what works for different trail conditions. It's not unusual for me to change tire pressure numerous times during a ride. Tires made for mud work well and there are now non-studded tires made specifically for snow, see www.allweathersports.com for more info on tires and rims. If you deal with icy trails or roads studded tires work well but expect to pay a bit for good ones.
Unless you ride in extreme cold most summer lubes work fine for winter, again I'll punt and refer you to www.allweathersports.com for information on lubes. Some suspensions don't work well in the cold, elastomers simply stops working under certain temps, air and oil shocks can lose efficiency and seals are easily damaged by cold. Many local winter riders switch to rigid forks for winter. I ride a full suspension AMP and love the way it works on snowpacked trails. Like in summer, braking, climbing and general handling are improved and I think suspension helps you from breaking through the trail surface.
Like in summer always carry a tool kit. Beside a patch kit, basic tools I carry a couple of boot laces, a bit of duct tape, spare tube (although riding on snowpacked trails flats are rare) emergency blanket, candle, matches-lighters, polypropylene bandana, pain pills, Swiss army knife with saw blade, extra food. For winter riding camelbak type water carriers work well. I wear extra large outer shells then can carry the camelbak next to my body so it stays thawed out even during daylong rides. Always drain the drinking tube after use and in extremely low temps I stick it under my thermal top to keep it thawed. Any trailside repairs made in summer can be done in winter although it might take a little more care and time. Tire pumps are a bit sticky in cold temps and often a minute of brisk stroking before pumping the tire will warm up the seals and improve performance. I always carry chapstick (not just for lips, it works on your nose, cheeks and fingers too) which serves as a dandy emergency lube for seatposts, etc.
With Snowcat rims and a good trail winter mtn. biking is much like summer mtn. biking. My experience is from winter riding in interior Alaska so conditions could be much different where you are. We are blessed with heavily used trails, long winters, dry snow and rare thaws. Once there is enough snow (usually about a foot) for the snowmachines and mushers to set trail we are in business.
Unlike summer biking there is no need to know much technique as there are no rocks, stumps, ruts, washouts or other obstacles to negotiate. I like to call our trails "sidewalks thru the woods" and this is not much of an exaggeration. For the most part the trails are easy but do have their own set of things to watch out for. Like summer biking many difficult trail conditions can be "cleaned" by keeping your speed and momentum up, getting in the right gear and pedaling thru. Small drifts, short sections of soft trail, areas where a moose has punched big holes in passage, these can usually be cleaned by pedaling thru.
Keeping appropriate tire pressures for trail conditions is crucial. Even with the wide Snowcat rims you need to run tires at lower pressures than when riding on dirt. Pressures as low as 5-10 psi for when the trail is really soft but with good trail 20-30 psi usually works well and under the best of conditions you can runs tires above 40 psi. It runs against the grain to let air out of tires as we think high pressure=lower rolling resistance. When going down a trail and only occasionally and slightly punching thru letting a little air out makes an amazing difference. I usually let a little out and mount up, if need be let a little out again or even again until you feel the rolling resistance lower. If the trail firms back up, stop and put air back in. It's not unusual for me to change tire pressure numerous times during a ride.
Because you depend on packed snow for traction, steering and braking keeping the front end light is a good idea in some situations. Like in summer if your front tire gets over something the back will usually make it too. Going downhill at speed I exaggerate keeping my weight back to lessen the chance of the front end punching thru, digging in or washing out.
Sounds become much more prominent and important in winter. A hollow sound lets you know just that, the trail has a air space under the surface (this can happen for various reasons) and you need to lighten the front end, put your thumbs on top of the grips so if the front tire breaks thru you lessen the chance of spraining them when you endo or get off and walk. Lack of noise (the constant crunch-hiss-crackle of snow under tires) means there is ice under the snow and care should be taken.
Trail conditions make or break winter biking and there are more variables than you can imagine that change trail conditions. Temperature, temperature when snow fell, temperature when trail is first broken, moisture content of snow, type of snow, type of user to first break trail, amount of use, time since last use and on and on. A fresh snowfall of up to 5-6 inches can be wonderful to ride thru (well powder snow like we get) but if a snowmachine passes you it will turn into a get off and walk ordeal or at the least you'll have to let air out and work much harder. Snow need to be unpacked or well packed there's not much in between. After a good snowfall I wait for a weekend to pass so the snowmachines have packed the trails and they've had a chance to set up.
On the introduction page I mention overflow and dealing with it. Unless you use studs (if I rode in town I'd use them but don't on the trails) ice is very hard to ride. When it's perfectly flat it can be ridden but if there are any bumps or unevenness it's almost impossible to ride. A layer of frost often develops on ice and can provide great traction but until you've got some experience on different ice conditions you're probably better off dismounting as when you go down on ice you almost always go down hard.
Odds and ends. On a marginal snowmachine trail it often works better if you can ride the ski tracks on the sides of the drivetrack as they are usually firmer. When on a long downhill run watch out after stopping, your rims will be wet from braking and depending on temperature will freeze when stopped. Starting down again be sure and ride brakes hard for a few seconds to melt the ice on the rims. Be very careful about going down a trail that you have to climb back up. A trail that's fun going down can be unridible coming back up. It doesn't take much of an incline to produce this effect.
Well that's about all I can think of. As with most things experience is the best teacher and like previously stated these tips are from my experience in Alaska and conditions could be very different where you are. I've been told that overflow as we know it here is rare if not non-exsistant in other cold climates. It you have any suggestions for trail riding tips please send them to me.
MOUNTAIN BIKE SAFETY
1. Always wear a helmet. You can significantly reduce your chance for serious injury by doing so.
2. Know your limits and ability and stay well within it. If your are new to mountain biking do not attempt a difficult ride.
3. Always carry first aid supplies.
4. Bring the following minimum repair kit with you on every ride. Chain tool and spare links, tire patch kit and pump, bicycle tire irons, 3-4-5mm Allen wrench, screwdriver, small adjustable wrench. Check with your local bike shop for more information regarding trail repairs.
5. Do not ride alone. Always tell someone where and when you are riding.
ODDS AND ENDS
We're the new kids on the block so I always pull over for other trail traffic. Dogteams are fast and quiet and seen to appear when least expected. Never stop on a blind corner. When approaching someone from the rear (you'll be passing skiers) call out "trail" and let them pull over. Always let someone know where you are going and approximate time of return, along these lines carry a watch (in extreme cold digital's don't display so I use watches with hands) and note how long trails take for future reference. This can also be important during short winter days. Keep an eye on the weather especially in the mountains. Bring more food and water than you expect to use. Keep batteries warm for cameras, flashlights etc. Most energy bars turn solid in the cold but you can stick one (or other food items) inside the top of a camelbak to keep it warm, batteries too.
If you're new to winter biking talk to someone at your local bike shop, visit the web sites I've mentioned, e-mail or call me at (907) 457-1498. I'm always happy to talk winter biking.