The best way to get a foot in the door with winter biking is to never stop riding in the fall. When the thermometer starts to dip, dress a little warmer that morning. Concentrate on when you're on dry pavement and when you're on ice and snow, and practice riding on each. Keep lightly colored clothes on (or a reflective vest) so as the days get darker, you remain visible to drivers. Last of all, keep your bike in appropriate shape for winter so you can concentrate on the ride and stay safe.
This may be more of an art form to some, or a weather-dependent list to others. For most of the winter, the issue isn't keeping warm, but keeping from getting too hot and sweaty. Biking, especially up the hills we have on campus, produces a lot of heat. The issue with this is if you become to warm, you begin to sweat, and once you cool off again, you are all wet and may become extremely cold. The goal is to find a balance in which you stay comfortably cool, yet vent as much moisture as possible. Here are some simple clothing tips:
Torso and Legs: Layer clothing. Wearing many small layers is much better than one large puffy jacket and snow pants. This allows you to stop and adjust how much insulation you have while riding. After some practice you'll be able to know, depending on the weather, exactly what you need to wear before hopping on the bike.
Face: The wind can be brutal on our ears and eyes. A thin scarf wrapped around your head and neck under a helmet is all many people need during brisk fall days. For colder weather, try a balaclava (face mask) that covers everything but the eyes. Use non-metal wrap sun-glasses or ski goggles to protect those.
Feet: During fall when the temperatures start to dip, regular sneakers with wool socks works well. As the snow starts to fall with the thermometer, changing to boots of some kind is a great solution. Sorels, or similar footwear, in combination with thick wool socks will provide enough warmth for most people.
Hands: The easiest part of your body to get cold is your hands as they end up taking the brunt of the wind chill and are wrapped around a cold handlebar. Thick lobster claw gloves allows better warmth than gloves while still allowing adequate brake control. For the UAF Green Bikes fleet, we have pogies. These are large 'mittens' that go over the ends of the handlebar to cover the rider's hands, shifter and brake controls. In combination with lighter gloves we have found these work best.
We would like to put forth that a large budget is not necessary to stay warm. You can find a lot of the necessary clothing to stay warm at local thrift stores and winter outfitters like Value Village and pawn shops. For those who are looking to spend a little more, Beaver Sports and The Prospector are in-town options.
Control and Braking
Fairbanks has an excellent network of sidewalks and paths, most of which are maintained in the winter. Save for just after a huge snowfall, these paths are plowed. When it is icy, pump the brakes, ride more slowly, keep your weight on the back wheel, and don't lean into turns as much. If you do start to fall, try to lean away from traffic and resist putting out your hand to break the fall; it’s often better to take the impact flat along your forearms. After a storm, deep snow that has been pushed off the road can be nearly impossible to ride through. There’s no shame in walking with your bike through rough patches.
To improve traction, studded tires are made for your bike, available at Goldstream Sports and Beaver Sports. These are tires that have deeper knobs with inserted metal studs. While they do provide extra control on slick surfaces, they are not a save-all. Riding with studded tires on bare ice is like using summer tires on sanded ice.
During fall and spring when the snow is either not sticking or melting, keep an eye out for metal (such as sewer covers and grating) and paint striping on the road, as these become very slick when wet.
Visibility and Safety
The last things drivers expect to see in the depth of winter is someone on a bike. So be seen! Use a bright white front light and red rear light (or two or three), preferably flashing, to keep drivers alert to your position. Bright colored and reflective clothing and taping could save you from having a vehicular encounter. A great rule of thumb is to assume that drivers cannot see you, even if you think you make eye contact. Cyclists are often invisible in the canyon of shadows created by street lights and car headlights. Keep an eye out for cross walks in intersections, as there is often glare ice from people sliding in their cars.
When riding on a sidewalk, keep an eye out for pedestrians and always yield. If your adventure into work takes you on a path-less road, ride on the right-hand side of the road and stay as far to the edge as possible. Here it is more important than ever to have a variety of reflectors and lots of lights so drivers know you are on the road.
Effects On a Bicycle
A bicycle reacts to the cold much like everything else in Fairbanks: it slows down. You may notice some extra pedal resistance as the grease in the bearings thickens, the steering may become slightly sluggish and the brakes and shifting may seize up, and spinning the pedals may even be futile. Before you go start commuting in colder weather leave your bike outside for a cold night and see how it rides in the morning. Unfortunately, there are no engine heaters for your bike to plug in at night, so if you're having issues, the bike shop should be the next stop.
One of the most important items to put on your winter commute checklist is to get the rear wheel's hub winterized. You only have to do it once, and it is a big safety issue. As mentioned earlier, grease gets thicker as it becomes cold, and this can limit some small parts in the rear wheel working. The main symptom of this that pedaling forward does absolutely nothing, or it feels like your gears are slipping as your pedals lurch forward unexpectedly, possibly causing a fall.
What we recommend to start out on is an inexpensive mountain bike. Suspension is irrelevant is it stops working in the cold anyway. The upright riding position of a mountain bike allows you to maintain balance and control on varying surfaces during your ride, as well as being in a better position to catch a fall. If you are nervous about slipping on the ice, lower your seat until you can put both feet on the ground.
Warning about suspension: If you are taking your expensive mountain bike out on really cold days, keep in mind that you may destroy the delicate suspension internals! If you are concerned about this, feel free to ask us.
Our winter fleet is outfitted with winterized grease in the rear hubs, studded tires, pogies and front and rear lights. If you have questions about where we sourced the products or services, feel free to ask!