Thursday, December 13, 2007

Snow-riding tips

Wet weather has me hitting the weights again. I neglected my gym routine for more than a week, and I can notice a difference even after a short hiatus. Weight-lifting has been an interesting experience for me. It's by far the most controlled aspect of my training, and its also the area where I can best identify real gains and losses. I hate weight lifting with a drudgery that stretches beyond cycling in the sleet, and yet I can't deny its value.

That's about all I have to report on that. I made another article for the NPR blog. I'm not sure when it will be posted, but I hope they don't mind if I republish it here. This week, it's: 10 tips for riding a bicycle on snow:

1. Think surface area: If you’ve ever used snowshoes before, you know that all that mass at the bottom of your feet can mean the difference between coasting atop power or wading knee-deep in it. Snow bikes work they same way. They incorporate wide tires with a flat profile in order to distribute bulk (you) as evenly as possible, allowing for maximum floatation.

2. Fat is the new skinny. As long as there have been bicycles, there have been weight-weenie types trying to shave grams off wheels. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see a spoke-free wheel sporting tires as thin as razors. But once you slice into snow, skinny tires might as well be razors. Snow-bikers know that fat means float, and have been developing bicycles to accommodate increasingly larger wheels for years. I predict that not too far in the future, someone will build a bicycle frame with room for motocross tires. Look for it.

3. There is no shame in walking. Cyclists hate to admit when they come to a hill or an obstacle they just can’t conquer. I have seen cyclists blow out their knees and face-plant over logs just to avoid suffering the indignity of getting off the bike and walking. Snow-bikers have no such pretensions. We know that bikes are not ready-made for snow, and vice versa. If snow is too soft, or too deep, or too wet, we simply step off and amble along until we can ride again. We learn to enjoy it, like walking a dog, but without the constant slobbering.

4. When in doubt, let air out. Often, snowy trails are what we would call “marginally ridable.” By letting air out of tires, you can increase the surface area and improve your floatation. Sometimes it means riding on nearly flat tires at a pace a snail wouldn’t envy, but, despite what I said in the previous paragraph, it’s still better than walking.

5. Learn your snow types. It's been said that Eskimos have dozens of different words of snow. Snow bikers also understand the myriad varieties: powder, sugar, corn, hard-pack, sandy, slushy, and so on. Each type comes with its own challenges. But understanding the nature of the white stuff you are trying to ride atop, you can adjust your riding and wheels to meet the conditions.

6. Don't be disappointed when you fail to set a land-speed record. Snow, like sand, puts up a lot of resistance, and snow bikers are not known for their speed. I have often heard accounts of cyclists who said felt like they were careening down a hill, only to look down and see they hadn’t even breached the 10 mph barrier. In snow races, 10 mph is considered fast. 8 mph is average. 6 mph is respectable, and 4 mph isn’t uncommon. When ask to describe the nature of the 2006 Iditarod Invitational, which was plagued by cold temperatures and fresh snow, third-place finisher Jeff Oatley said, “It was about as intense as a 2.5 mph race can be.”

7. All brakes are not created equal. When contemplating what brakes to put on their bikes, cyclists have all kinds of reasons to choose between disc or rim. But snow bikers, who often find their rims coated in a thick layer of ungrippable ice, have the best reason of all: Rim brakes could mean an icy death by gravity. Go with disc.

8. Re-lubricate and be free. There is nothing that will slow down a snow biker faster than having their hubs freeze up, which is always a possibility when the mercury drops below 0. We have to lube up our moving parts with a special low-temperature grease, sold widely in cold regions like Fairbanks and Minnesota.

9. Stay away from moose tracks. Common injures for road cyclists include road rash and head injuries. Mountain bikers have problems with broken collar bones and bad knees. Alaska snow bikers are always being tripped up by the deep, narrow holes moose leave when they walk through the snow. Avoiding these minefields will help curb post-holing injuries like broken ankles.

10. Stay away from dogs. We talk a lot about fear of angry moose, grumpy bears and rabid wolves, but our most likely animal to have a dangerous encounter with remains the sled dog. They approach so quickly and quietly that we sometimes don’t even have time to jump off the trail. A collision can be disastrous - imagine tangled lines, confused canines and a lot of sharp teeth. Add to that an annoyed musher who’s likely packing heat, and you stir up the kind of fear that convinces snow-bikers to give those racing puppies a wide berth.


Also, from YouTube, we have a treasure from time: A short documentary about the 1988 Iditabike race, back when it was 200 miles and everyone rode on "skinny" tires. I'm going to try to embed part 2. It's worth watching just for the great '80s news-lite soundtrack. To view the three segments, click here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

"Bicycles on Snow"


  1. Snow-bikers know that fat means float, and have been developing bicycles to accommodate increasingly larger wheels for years. I predict that not too far in the future, someone will build a bicycle frame with room for motocross tires. Look for it.

    The future has already arrived, four years ago.

    See here.

    Think it could make the difference in a race like yours?

  2. I saw this, ,
    and thought of you.

  3. i'm looking at the video of the race. god bless you. i have no idea how people navigate in the dark!!!

    i had my first mt. biking in the snow experience a couple of days ago. and there was walking :) no traction up the hills!

    i'm confused about your tip to let air out of the tires-so do you then stop to reinflate a few minutes later?

  4. Thanks for posting the video links. What a great trip down memory lane. I really got into mountain biking about 1988 and remember the name Mike Closer. I also liked all the high tech gear. The slack geometry on the frames. Keep up the great writing, and training. I think from what I have read you are on the right track in training and working out all the bugs in your bike and gear. It takes a long time to figure out what will work for you. Good luck and keep writing!


  5. I was expecting to see the Dukes of Hazzard make an appearance in that video!

  6. Cool (no pun intended). I was looking around for information about biking, because I'd like to start biking so that I don't have to continually bum rides off people, but snow and ice is my biggest concern. So, it's recommended to always use wide tires or just in the winter? Should I have two pairs of tires?

    About the fat floats thing. When I was a kid, my father would always say that I would actually do better in the water than my skinny siblings because fat floats (alas, I still never learned to swim).


Feedback is always appreciated!