Snowy Cycling

For once, before the sun has set (it sets early these days – 4:47 PM!), I manage to get out the door. Today I decide to take my gravel bike to the ravine, the same general area I did my Christmas run.

I know many of my readers live in warmer climates where the idea of going outside at all on a subzero day seems crazy let alone going out on a bicycle to ride on snowy, icy trails. But let me tell you it’s actually a bit easier than you might think at first.

First off, let’s talk about the cold. It might be -2 outside right now but that doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable. Yes, standing outside in jeans and a sweater will be no fun. But put on a thin layer of wool under your windbreaker and a pair of tights under your shorts, cover your ears and hands and you’re already half way there. You’ll be cold but not miserable. Now get on your bike and ride or start running. At first you’ll feel worse thanks to the cold wind but as your inner furnace heats up it won’t be long before you will forget that if you stay out too long your water bottle might turn solid.

Now what about cycling. Isn’t it insanity to ride on two wheels when it’s slippery? Surprisingly, it’s not as scary as it might sound. For much of the winter, roads can be clear and dry here so it’s not even a worry, but what about the trails – or roads after a storm? There are ways to prepare for this.

To start, I decided to take my gravel bike out for a spin. This bike has wider tires (40 mm / 1.6″) with a bit of tread on them. They’re also tubeless and designed to be able to run at lower pressures. And so I let a bunch of air out of them. This makes them softer and provides more surface area to contact the ground. It might give more resistance if you’re trying to go fast on pavement, but on snow or dirt it makes for a more sure-footed ride.

As I ride, the techniques I use are learned from when my father taught me to drive a car in winter weather growing up in Vermont. Go slower, plan more distance to stop and brake gently. Don’t turn too quickly – you might want to make a fast right turn but on a slippery surface you’re likely to keep going straight or your bike may just come out from under you. (But traffic aside, don’t be too scared of this. People fall all the time, a helmet will hopefully be protecting your head and you will likely be going slower anyway.

Today I go visit an old friend, the trail at Sun Valley. I’m curious to see what it’s like to ride in snow. I’m actually surprised at how easy and sure-footed it feels. I can’t zoom down the trail as fast as I can, but I manage 15-20 km/hr in some spots even as I hear the snow crunching under my tires. When there are people or dogs out (and there are lots today, the weather is gorgeous), I slow way down and give space – not just for the virus but for courtesy.

When I get to the big climb on the trail, I see that it is hard-packed snow that has, in some places turned to ice. Here I’m reminded of two more childhood driving lessons. When going up the hill I find that rather than use the lower gear that I might normally use, that ends up being too low and my tires spin. So I don’t downshift as much and grind up the hill, pedaling slowly but not slipping. As the hill gets steeper I’m reminded of another winter driving habit we were taught. When I was young, my car had rear wheel drive. The engine was in the front so there wasn’t much over the drive wheels and they’d often spin even when the snow wasn’t too deep. But put some cement blocks and kitty litter (bonus: this can be poured on ice to give traction if you’re really stuck) and the added weight helps your tires get purchase. How do I get kitty litter in to the trunk of a bike without even a rack to put panniers on? I don’t, but the principle still holds. As I am grinding up the hill in a high gear, the effort gets harder and instinctually I stand on the pedals. My bottom comes up off of my seat and instantly my tire spins. Sit back down, put the weight on the rear tire, and I’m able to move again.

At one point, though, it’s too much and even sitting down my rear tire spins. I unclip quickly and put my feet down and am shocked to find out it is glare ice. It is so slippery that my feet can barely get purchase either and I’m sliding backward before I remember another driving lesson: aim for the slushy bits on the side of the road, not the packed down icy bits where everyone drives if you’re in trouble. And so I put my foot down in the deeper snow and get purchase. Crisis averted.

But the question you all might be asking by now is why is this even something I would do? Why wouldn’t I just put my bike up on a trainer in a 25 degree room, turn on some loud music and a fan and imagine I was riding next to a volcano on a tropical island?

Here’s the answer:

6 thoughts on “Snowy Cycling

  1. I have been following your outings on IG and am amazed at your perseverance despite the weather. And you are right, as someone in a very warm location, I do wonder how you manage to do it!

    Your beautiful images from your runs/bikes do shed some light. Thank you for sharing the fruit of your determination!

    1. Thanks so much! The lesson I am learning is the persistence is less necessary once I am outside and more to get from my couch to the door. My idea of how it will be is always one hundred times worse than it actually is. I have yet to regret pushing myself out the door and am often really happy I did!

  2. I love following you in the snow. Here I still rarely see anyone biking in the winter. I do remember standing up to pedal up hills on my one speed bike as a kid. I didn’t understand the physics, but it worked.

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