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Icebiking

Icebiking (also referred to as snowbiking or winter biking) is the activity of cycling in cold winter weather on roads and paths covered with snow, ice, and slush. In addition to the challenges of cold weather and slippery road surfaces, winter bikers also face other issues, such as the corrosive effect of road salt on their chains and the freezing of brake and dérailleur mechanisms.

Techniques and equipment

Staying warm

Types of climates and riding

Winter cyclists use different types of clothing to stay warm, depending on what type of winter climate they are facing. In cool, wet winter climates in coastal areas such as Oregon, Scotland, and Maine, there is a great deal of cold rain, heavy, thick snow, periods of quickly forming ice. Cool dry prairie areas have high winds and drifting snow. Very cold areas such as Canadian prairies, Interior Alaska, Greenland, Interior Norway, and Finland have dry powdery snow, gusting winds, and extreme wind-chill effects.

Another consideration is the length of the ride, and the remoteness of the setting: whether it is a 30-minute commute in a city or a day-long outing in a wilderness area. In a city area, even if a winter biker has a flat tire or a mechanical problem, they can warm themselves up at a fast-food restaurant, and lock up the bike and get home in a bus or taxi. In a wilderness area, if a winter biker has to dismount to solve a mechanical problem, they may get dangerously chilled during this period of inactivity.

In moderate winter climates, such as in the US midwest, the main cold issue faced by winter bikers is keeping the extremities (feet and hands) warm. In these climates, the body core and limbs can be kept warm fairly easily by layering insulation layers and wind resistant shells. In more extreme winter climates, such as in northern Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavian countries, where winter temperatures may drop to -30 Celsius or lower, it can be more difficult to keep warm while winter biking. Winter bikers may use thick, insulated winter outerwear designed for other winter sports.

The amount of insulation needed depends on exertion level and metabolism, and so typically must be determined by experimentation by each individual. Typically the right amount leads to feeling slightly cold for the first few minutes, after which the exertion leads to a comfortable temperature. In winter weather, it is important for cyclists to stay dry, because the body loses heat faster when it is wet. There are two sources of moisture for winter bikers: self-generated moisture from perspiration and moisture from icy rain or slush thrown up from the road.

To avoid getting chilled from perspiration, winter cyclists should wear clothing in layers, so that they can remove outer shells as they become warmed up. As well, the type of material is important. Cotton absorbs perspiration readily and loses its insulation ability once it is wet, and it also dries slowly. Both wool and synthetics such as pile and fiberfill retain much more of their insulation capability when wet. Inexpensive waterproof shells may not be able to vent moisture properly, as with a basic uncoated shell or a more expensive waterproof-breathable shell. It is hard to keep the feet dry, because they are constantly being sprayed with tire spray and spray from passing traffic. This can be remedied with fenders, shoe covers, and Gore-Tex sock liners.

Outerwear and accessories
Keeping feet warm can be more difficult than in other activities such as snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, because the feet tend to be less active in cycling. In areas with moderate winter temperatures, ice bikers may wear sandals with a number of layers of wool socks. In colder climates, cyclists may wear thermal overshoes, thick snowmobiling boots, or oversized shoes with several layers of thick socks. Another option is to use battery-operated electrical foot warmers or chemical heating pads.

Keeping hands warm can also be challenging. This may be because a tight grip on the handlebars and brakes both inhibits circulation and allows heat conduction into the ice-cold handlebars. Types of gloves and mittens are discussed in a separate article. If it is really cold, some cyclists use pogies-- insulated covers that fit over the handlebars of a bicycle. The rider puts their hands into the open end and has full access to the bike’s controls. The rider can use pogies either barehanded or with normal riding gloves. They are a common sight in Alaska during the winter.

Keeping the head and face warm is challenging because of wind on the face and because a helmet is often worn for safety, but cycling helmets are usually designed to maximize ventilation for hot-weather use. Helmet covers can be used to close the vents. A thin knit cap or technical beanie can fit under a helmet to increase insulation; thicker insulation under a helmet requires adjusting the helmet or switching to a larger size helmet. Balaclavas made for use with helmets that have a thin top portion and a thicker lower portion can be useful.

Many icebikers use ski helmets, which often have adjustable ventilation and come with warm linings and ear flaps, and are designed for use with goggles. Ear flaps are also available for bicycle helmets. Ski goggles and neoprene face masks are useful for keeping the face warm and protecting from frostbite in very cold weather. In very cold climates with extreme wind chill effects, a snowmobiling helmet with a face visor may be used. (Snowmobiling helmets are preferred to motorcycle helmets because they have features designed to prevent fogging of the face shield.)

Control and braking

To maintain control of a bike on icy roads, cyclists need to use a different riding style than they would use during summer months. In the summer, cyclists usually turn by shifting their body weight and "leaning into" a turn. On an icy road, angling the bike even to a small degree may lead to a loss of control and a fall. As a result, winter cyclists riding on icy roads tend to ride more slowly, and more upright on turns.

As well, on icy roads, riders need to change how they use their brakes. In summer weather, on a dry road, a cyclist can stop quickly by using both brakes, with much of the braking is accomplished by using the front brake. In the winter, the brake pads and rims may be covered with slush and snow, which means that it may take a lot longer to stop the bike. As well, on an icy surface, any use of the front brake can lead to a loss of control and a fall onto the roadway. Some winter cyclists prefer to use the rear brake, which tends to cause a controllable skidding effect on an icy road. When a bike goes into a skid during rear-tire braking, the skid can be controlled by easing up on the rear brake and by using a foot as a stabilizer or "outrigger."

In some extreme conditions, such as black ice, any use of the front brake may lead to a loss of control. In these conditions, it is best to use the front tire exclusively for steering, and use the back tire for cautious braking.

For riding on ice, studded tires greatly increase control. Turning or braking on ice without studded tires can easily lead to falling. Nokian Renkaat, Bike Nashbar, Innova, and Continental provide studded bicycle tires. On snow, studded tires are not needed, except for the possibility of hitting icy spots which are hidden by snow. In deep snow, wide, low-pressure tires, sometimes on special wide rims, improve the ability to "float" on the snow. With relatively little snow on the pavement, narrow, high-pressure tires can "cut through" the snow and grip the pavement better.

Visibility

Winter brings shorter daylight hours which frequently means riding in dusk or dark conditions. Winter weather such as snow flurries and blowing snow can make it harder for drivers to see cyclists. Moreover, windshields and side mirrors may be obscured by ice and snow, and the inside of the windshield and rear window may be fogged, which makes it even harder for drivers to see cyclists.

There are two approaches that winter bikers use to deal with the fact that drivers have reduced visibility. The first strategy is to bike defensively; specifically, to cycle in a manner in which one assumes that the driver cannot see the cyclist and is not aware that they are there. In practice, this means that winter cyclists should stay three feet (one metre) away from the doors of parked cars, thus avoiding the door zone. As well, cyclists should avoid passing cars on the inside, since drivers normally expect vehicles to pass them on the outside and may not see a cyclist on the inside. Cyclist can also increase other road users awareness of them by clearly signalling their intentions with a hand signal and/or by using a horn or bell. To avoid being rear-ended, cyclists should never dodge towards the center of the road to avoid a hazard without checking for cars, either by shoulder check or a mirror.

The other strategy for being more visible is to use lights, reflectors, and other items. Rear and front lights and reflective tape applied to the helmet, clothing and bicycle can greatly increase your visibility to drivers on the road. Reflective orange and yellow vests such as those made for construction workers can make a cyclist much more visible in the winter, not just in the dark, but also in the daytime. Lights with external rechargeable batteries such as those that fit in the bottle holders offer much better visibility than smaller, self-contained ones. Some cyclists also use safety flags, either mounted on horizontal fiberglass stems (which encourage drivers to leave more space when passing), or on vertical fiberglass poles (which makes the cyclist easier to see in heavy traffic).

Effects on bicycle

Salt and sand

In many parts of Canada and the northern US, municipal governments use salt, sand, or gravel on the roads in the winter. Salt corrodes unprotected steel rapidly, and wet sand and gravel can clog moving mechanical parts. This is particularly a problem for chains and other exposed drivetrain parts. Winter cyclists may have to clean and re-lubricate their chain and drivetrain more frequently in the winter. A front fender with a large mudflap helps decrease the amount of salt spray, gravel, and other debris reaching the chain. Bikes without derailleurs (single-speed or with internally-geared hubs) can tolerate more chain wear, and so can be a good choice. They also work well with chainguards or totally enclosed chain cases, which can protect the chain. "Rustbuster"-coated chains and stainless-steel chains are also available and can help.

Snow and ice

After a bike is ridden in snow and slush, it quickly becomes caked with ice. The bike will work better if the bike can be brought inside to warm up once a day, so that the ice can melt off. Once the ice has melted, the bike should be dried, and the mechanical components should be cleaned and re-lubricated. The least expensive way of lubricating a bike is with oil lubes, which also have the benefits of not freezing displacing water. However, oil collects dirt and debris such as road sand, which will wear down the chain and sprockets over time.

Another problem with winter biking is frozen cables, due to the water in the brake and dérailleur cables freezing. This can be remedied by using expensive Teflon-lubricated cables or by using a dry lubricant such as White Lightning.

Bicycle selection

Because of the effects of salt and sand, icebikers generally avoid using expensive lightweight bicycles. As well, the precision mechanics of an expensive bike can be of little use in a winter biking setting, when the derailleurs are caked with chunks of ice and the cables are shrouded in ice. Older mountain bikes or hybrid bikes, colloquially called "beaters", are a popular choice. Some high-end commuter bikes are available with internally geared hubs and chainguards or cases. Where salt and sand are not used as heavily, some icebikers use the same bike they ride throughout the year.

The effects of wear can be mitigated by frequent cleaning of the chain and other exposed drivetrain parts. Aluminum frames are preferable, being less susceptible to corrosion than steel. While not as important as the drivetrain, aluminum frames should also be cleaned frequently. Mileage will vary greatly depending on specific winter conditions.

Types

Types of icebiking include road biking for sport or utilitarian purposes such as commuting; trail or mountain bike riding (usually on snow); and riding on frozen lakes and rivers.

Commuting

People use their bikes to commute for a number of reasons. In some cities, traffic is so congested that it is faster to commute by cycle. Another reason for commuting by bike in the winter is that it can be easier and less expensive to park a bike in a downtown area than a car. Other winter cyclists may use their commute as a way of getting exercise, or as a way to be environmentally friendly.

Winter commuting in areas that get snow and ice poses several challenges. In the winter, snow is plowed to the side of the road, which often covers the shoulder of the road and makes the available road surface more narrow. As a result, cars and bicycles have less space to share on the road. As well, winter cyclists have to travel in a variety of conditions which change greatly between a morning and evening commute, from freezing rain to gusting icy winds. As a result, a winter biker may need to bring a variety of clothing in order to be prepared, such as additional outerwear and goggles.

Depending on factors including the climate, the length of the commute, and the plowing schedule, some icebikers wait for the streets to be plowed before setting out. Other winter bikers bike through snowdrifts, which takes a great deal of energy, as a way of getting a vigorous workout.

Off-road riding

Off-road biking on snow is easiest on well-packed snow such as snowmobile trails. To ride off-road, many cyclists use mountain bikes that can be mounted with wide tires, and the tires are often underinflated, so that more tire surface will be in contact with the road. Some off-road cyclists use expensive specialty tires which are designed for very low inflation pressure, as little as 20 PSI (1.3 bar).

See also

External links

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