Thursday, January 29, 2009

Winter Riding

So we finally got our first "real" snow here in the DC area. And yes, for those of you in the midwest, or New England, or the Rockies, well, it's pretty lame. Even one of Obama's kids commented on that. But you'd be amazed just what turmoil ensues with the slightest trace of snow here. Motorists in particular just can't seem to cope with it. A few flakes appear and everyone panics!

The snow started on Tuesday, early in the morning, and really only added up to a couple of inches. The tricky part was it was followed, as it so often is in this region, by freezing rain. So by the time all was said and done, we had a hard crust on top of a thin layer of snow, and a pretty fair amount of ice on the roads, sidewalks, and paths around here.

Monday I brought my Miyata 210 commuter (shown above, in the woods on my ride today) to work, so I could mount my studded tires, since the forecast was calling for snow. I joked to John, my boss, that since I was planning on putting the tires on, we would end up not getting any snow at all. Well, at the end of the day, I hadn't gotten around to mounting the tires... and at about 4 am the next morning the snow started. To the DC area as a whole, I apologize, it's my fault.

Since I neglected to deal with it on Monday, and Tuesday was a day off, Wednesday found me walking to the shop to finally put the studs on the bike. I rode home on residential streets, which were pretty clear by then, so the tires really didn't make a big difference.

Thursday morning, however, was a different story! As you can see in the photos here, the multi-use trail I ride was covered in a hard, frozen, bumpy crust. And the dirt path I ride to get to the trail was just as bad. I was really glad to have the studs this morning, as the hard, frozen surface would have been difficult if not impossible to ride otherwise. It's pretty remarkable how well the studs keep your wheels stuck to the ice as you ride. If you look at the tire photo above, there are 106 of those metal tips in each tire. They don't look like much, but they make a huge difference. My ride is only a little over a mile, but I've done longer rides on the same tires, and have never really felt like the bike was going to just slip out under me. Sure, the traction can get a little weird, especially when the surface has been made irregular by footprints and tire tracks, but as long as you stay relaxed and just have a little faith, you can roll right along without mishap.

Two other features make this bike particularly suited to winter commuting. First, as you can see in the final photo, is the internally geared hub. This particular one is a Shimano Nexus 8 speed, which gives a really nice range of gears and works really smoothly and reliably. An advantage to all internal hub gears is that you can change gears when standing still or coasting, unlike a derailleur bike. Unlike some internal hub gears, the Nexus will also shift while you are pedaling, making it a really versatile gadget, and well suited for riding in traffic. Finally, all of the workings of the hub are protected from the elements by being inside the hub shell, while a derailleur system has all of its bits and pieces exposed.

The other items that I find really handy for winter riding are the pedals. You can see in the photo, they are big, wide BMX-style pedals with pins that grab the soles of your shoes. These are ideal for winter, because when there's snow on the ground, I tend to ride in light hiking boots, and with my size 13 feet, you really need a pedal with a large platform for your foot. And the pins are a godsend when it's slippery out, due to rain, snow, or ice.

The observant bike geeks will wonder why I have two chain rings on the bike when there's no front derailleur. Well, when I first set up the bike, I thought I'd like to have a smaller chain ring for lower gears in winter, bigger ring for higher gears the rest of the year. It's easy enough to slide the wheel in the frame to adjust the chain tension, but honestly, once I put the chain on the small ring last winter, I never bothered to move it back. So now the bigger ring is basically a chain guard. A chain guard with sharp, pointy teeth, so not that useful as a chain guard either.

Anyway, if you've never tried riding in winter, in snow and ice, you really should give it a try. Buy yourself a set of studded tires and have a go. Or if you're really adventurous and have patience and time on your hands, you can make your own studded tires. Information on this and more information than you ever imagined about winter riding in general can be found at:


beth h said...

1. I've never had the guts -- or the wallet -- to try studded tires (and frankly it doesn't usually snow enough here to warrant the hassle anyway). I might be inspired to try it next winter after reading your report.

2. What is up with the Rhino hanging from the back of your saddle? That IS a Rhino, yes? Please explain.

I'm throwing my annual Groundhog weekend breakfast this Sunday and GOSH I'll be bummed that you can't be there. Enjoy the snow.

Tim said...

1. It's well worth trying, but you're right, Portland gets so little snow typically.

2. Ah, well you'll have to wait until my "beater bikes" post... coming soon!

I'm bummed to be missing Groundhog weekend with you too. One day you'll have to travel back east and we can celebrate in Punxatawney, PA.