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Getting ready for winter commuting

I've been commuting on an old schwinn ten speed for the last couple years. First from Brookline to Lawrenceville, now from Brookline to the Northside. I skipped bike commuting last winter, but I'd like to continue riding as much as I can throughout the winter this year. I'm looking into building up a bike to use in the snow and the slop. I got an old 80s mountain bike that I'm planning to convert to fixed gear to see how I like that for bad weather commuting. Rationale is easy to clean drivetrain and better ability to feel slippage on nasty roads. Just wondering what experience anyone has had riding around Pittsburgh in the winter. I normally ride up Nobles Ln and across Brownsville, down 18th street to the bike path on my way to work and reverse it on the way home. I'm not sure about Nobles in the winter, though. I'm thinking it might be a little too windy, narrow, dark, and trafficcy to use when the roads are bad. West Liberty to Warrington to Southern is another option, but which way to get down from Mt. Washington on a fixie with low gearing? On the sidewalk on McArdle? Finally wondering about gearing. I regularly cruise at 67 g.i. and can stand an climb Nobles and 18th in that gear. The climb back up Whited into Brookline is steeper, though and 62 g.i. is the tallest gear I've tried there. I'm thinking I should probably go with gearing right around 60 gi, but maybe even lower would be better? I'm not worried about how fast I'm going to go. I'm keeping front and rear brakes on the bike and I'm most concerned with having a stable, controllable bike if that makes sense. Oh and what kind of tires do you like? Regularly knobby MTB tires, or do you like studded? Or do you prefer skinny road tires to cut through to the pavement? I'll take any advice anyone wants to throw at me!
2014-09-04 10:44:14
I like big tires, an upright bike, fenders, and disc brakes. I didn't do much winter commuting last year and just thinking about coasting down Liberty Ave after sweating the 6 miles prior makes me cold.
2014-09-04 10:54:04
I was glad of my studded snow tires last winter. I've been using Nokian Hakkapeliitta, basically because I think the Finns must know winter. But the studs started pushing through the inner tire wall last winter and giving me slow leaks. So I'm planning to change to the Schwalbe Marathon Winter HS, where you can change the air pressure to make the studs engage with the road or not. I can see the argument for a fixie in the winter. You would want to brake with your rear wheel on icy surfaces anyway, and I guess that would be easier with a fixie. I would want a lot finer control going downhill, though, than I can get while riding a fixie.
2014-09-04 10:54:24
My plan is theoretically fixie this winter as well. I torched my geared bike last winter because I was stupid, cleaned it, got called in before I could lube it, and forgot about it outside. Yeah, don't do that. Still need to get the hang of the downhills though. See if it can feel less crazy and more controllable. If not, will probably just use the single speed side of the hub like I'm doing now, put on knobby studded tires, pine for disc brakes, but just tune my max allowable speed down based on the level of slipperiness.
2014-09-04 11:16:54
+1 for fenders. I go up 18th fairly regularly and it was mostly ok last winter except for a handful of days when it was too bad for cars too (buses have racks!). Not sure how Nobels would be, though I assume it is one of the first streets plowed after Brownsville. Also, I've never run fixed, but I would think you would want to run a lower G.I. on steep slippy surfaces to prevent wheel spin; or maybe a large G.I. is helpful during wheel spin since you dont run out of pedal effort. I'd be interested in hearing from the informed.
2014-09-04 11:24:31
My experience is that having a gear range helps engage traction in the snow from a standstill going uphill. Granted, I haven't used snow tires yet, but for regular tires, trying to start in a higher gear (or something fixed I presune) just results in the wheel spinning. I use the Finish Line Wet Lube and don't really have a problem with corrosion or whatever
2014-09-04 11:27:44
Things I like in the winter. On the bike: Disc brakes, fat tires with moderate tread, single speed (not fixed) with a low gear ratio 55 to 60ish, fenders a must. On the body: feet = wool, waterproof boots. legs = breathable rain pants over tights or jeans torso = synthetic baselayer, wool insulating layer, breathable rain jacket with pit zips. head = wool cap with ear flaps and a buff for my neck, bern watts when it's cold because it has less vents in the front. eyes = safety glasses or goggles (for those extra chilly days) hands = waterproof ski gloves with handwarmer pocket.
2014-09-04 12:58:37
Other people's advice is all good. Last winter I rode my regular 9-speed commuter with no problems. - When the snow was thick on the ground my 32mm tires cut right through to the pavement and had good grip; I was beating the cars. - But ice totally scared me; the studded tire suggestions make sense. - Absolutely take the time to wash off the salt, oiling is not enough; I lost a chain when I was off the bike for a couple of weeks and didn't (it rusted solid). I have a pair of acrylic gloves that work fine down into the teens. As a default I would go for cross-country articulated gloves. You want your fingers available. (I don't understand that lobster stuff.) Also, a bandanna around your neck (or a turtleneck, if it's in your style range) makes a big difference in really cold weather. Goggles/glasses: When the air gets cold enough it's hard to keep your eyes open. Knee-socks on the really cold days.
2014-09-04 20:23:10
I commuted in the winter on a Fixie with slick 25s and a clip on fender at around 72gi. I only ate shit once cause I was dumb and wasn't paying attention to the slickness of the bridge that goes over bates street on the jail trail. I was fine with my gearing because my climb to the east end isn't bad. I used the same gearing and bike year round...Well until I had knee surgery last year and got a fat bike. You need no skill to ride a fat bike in the snow, or so it seemed to me. I couldn't risk hurting myself again as I recovered. It would have been nearly impossible some days to get to work had I tried to ride the skinny tires in the snow we got last winter. But I did always like the feel of the Fixie. I felt really in control. Ben has good suggestions for clothing. I have snowboarding mittens with the pockets for hand warmers.
2014-09-04 20:47:53
Strong lights front and back, with long run time. Cold enormously reduces battery life. Also redundant lighting, as much as possible. I don't commute in the winter, but more because of the stupid dark than the cold. I despise the damn dark. I'm like the opposite of a vampire.
2014-09-04 21:17:27
Strong lights front and back, with long run time. Cold enormously reduces battery life.
Light on helmet with wire and battery under your jacket will prolongate battery life.
2014-09-04 21:21:01
Get 2 good sets of Moisture wicking Long Johns Tops and Bottoms creating enough heat is not a problem if you know how to regulate it , Layer what you wear and experiment with clothing til you find what works for you !
2014-09-05 05:15:15
My idea for cleaning the bike regularly was to keep a hand powered lawn sprayer (like for pesticides and stuff). They cost about $25-35 at a hardware store. use this to spray off the salt before bringing your bike inside. Now, in my infinite wisdom, I had this sitting by the door all winter, but did I ever use it? Maybe once. Dammit, I seemed like a good idea at the time.
2014-09-05 08:21:51
I wrote a page a while ago on the Wiki on Cold Weather ( It was unlinked but I've added it back to the main page. It's not definitive, anyone is welcome to update it, PM me for an account. I'll need preferred username and email.
2014-09-05 08:27:08
So much great advice! Thanks! I've got lights already, but I've been wanting to get a second rear light and a stronger headlight since last fall. That's definitely on my list. I've got a good start on my winter clothes collection. I rode on a few sub-freezing mornings last year and was fine. Just haven't tried in the snow or when it's really effin' cold. Interested in the schwalbe studded tires with sort of retractable studs. I'll have to look for some of those. I have no good spot indoors to store a bike. The bike I'm using lives on my front porch. I try to keep everything clean and lubed and haven't had anything rust up on me yet. I figured for daily getting rid of salt and grit I'd just rinse with a pitcher of warm water, dry with rag, and apply lube. I'll be experimenting a little with drivetrains. I'm going to start out with fixed 60 gi and see how I like it. I may very well drop the gear ratio a little and I may switch to a freewheel if I can't stand crawling (or spinning like crazy) down the hills. Also thought about 3-speed fixed or 3-speed coaster hub, but those would require a wheel build. I think for a winter beater, I'll start with cheap and simple and maybe move up to more expensive and more involved later if I'm really unhappy with my setup. Thanks again for the ideas!
2014-09-05 09:34:46
It definitely doesn't fall under the heading of cheap and simple, but I usually suggest that those planning on riding in really cold temps think about a dynamo hub and headlight/taillight setup. Not having to think about charging batteries is one reason, but another significant one is that dynamo lighting systems, unlike battery-driven ones, are unaffected by cold temperatures. Having one's battery runtime cut in half when the temps are in the single digits Fahrenheit is an unpleasant surprise. There's an interesting article on differing battery chemistries and temperature effects here.
2014-09-05 09:54:13
For rinsing off bikes, I use one of those pump sprayers filled with warm water. You know, the kind that people use for garden chemical spraying, like this? They're about $10 and work well to get the worst of the salt and crap off. The advantage over a pitcher or bucket is the ability to direct the rinsing.
2014-09-05 09:59:36
Be careful not to clean your bike TOO much during the winter. Although it's good to get the salt off periodically, rinsing it every day can end up getting salt and grime into nooks and crannies that it otherwise wouldn't enter.
2014-09-05 10:02:57
Good point - though anyone who has seen my bike knows there's little chance of it being washed every day :)
2014-09-05 12:30:05
I read an article about a fellow who rode a fat tire bike (Surly Pugsley) all winter in Alaska. He tasked about adjusting tire pressure for various winter conditions. What do you folks know about this subject? Will this only work for fat tire bikes or can/should it be done with more conventional bikes and tires during the winter?
2014-09-11 19:45:55
for most bikes you want higher pressure to help the tires cut through the snow to reach solid ground/pavement. of course that only works to a point, if the snow is too deep you will probably bog down. fatbikes (I just bought one, so I'm hardly an expert, but I've been reading...) have wide enough tires (4-5") to float on top of deep snow if the pressure is low enough. you can drop them down to like 5 psi. the downside is more rolling resistance and wasted energy bouncing up and down, so if you have more packed snow you can increase the pressure.
2014-09-12 18:26:30
Thanks Salty. The article to which I referred appeared in Bicycle Times, Issue 025. The tile was "One Bike for All Seasons", by Nicholas Carman. He mentions pressures anywhere from 4-8 psi. Apparently, the back streets of Anchorage become like single track from the winter cyclists while most sane people are watching TV. For more conventional bikes and tires, would we be talking about a psi of 40-50 during the snowy or icy conditions of Pittsburgh?
2014-09-12 19:52:01
Different info here: I run on about 50 psi right now with 26x2 tires I have For when it's snowy/icy (and with snow tires) Peter White recommends dropping to minimums, which for 26x2 tires is around 35 psi
2014-09-13 07:18:25
It would also depend on how much weight you're putting on the tires, their width and the surface you're riding on. You want to keep enough air in there so you don't get pinch flats. Wider tires make pinch flats less likely.
2014-09-13 07:40:56
for most bikes you want higher pressure to help the tires cut through the snow to reach solid ground/pavement. of course that only works to a point, if the snow is too deep you will probably bog down. fatbikes (I just bought one, so I’m hardly an expert, but I’ve been reading…) have wide enough tires (4-5?) to float on top of deep snow if the pressure is low enough. you can drop them down to like 5 psi. the downside is more rolling resistance and wasted energy bouncing up and down, so if you have more packed snow you can increase the pressure.
+1 And just some illusrations: This is Maxim. He had to use his fatbike as a support because if tried to stay as a normal human being then... Sasha (his daughter) is much lighter than he is, and nevertheless Deep fall. :)
2014-09-14 21:24:14
2015-01-06 10:49:58
yeah! busted out the buff and the heavy gloves for the first time this season. Kinda can't believe how warm this fall has been -- this is pretty late in the game for a first use of the really warm stuff!
2015-11-23 11:38:19
Getting ready to swap pedals and put my foil and packing tape boot shields in the toe clips. I'll probably do pogies early and debating real instead of DIY. (DIY worked great but had durability issues). Recommendations? I may do DIY studs again, but does anyone have experience with this tire?
2015-11-23 12:05:56
FWIW, my gear setup. It's evolved over a few years. I switch things up depending on ride length / type / duration. Bern Allston Helmet, front vents taped up. Goggle Clip Installed Smith IO/X Goggles with Turbofan (to kill the fog from balaclava) Coldavenger expedition balaclava. Keeps my lungs happy and my face warm, cold air hurts my lungs and makes me wheeze, so I need this thing in winter. Cheap Poly / Cotton / Rayon Tri-Blend T-Shirt Surly Merino Full Zip Jersey. Endura MT500 Jacket / Swap this out for a Columbia Ski Shell when < 15F Planet Bike Borealis gloves (separate shell/liner, keep extra dry liners in my bag) / Swap this out for Swany Ski Gloves when < 15F Levi’s Commuter Jeans Novara Stratos Rain Pants when wet or < 15F. Smartwool Wool Ski Socks 45nrth Wolvhammer Boots (feet were too cold too often lost / Sometimes my Shimano MW-81 boots if it’s a short commute or warmer.
2015-11-23 13:00:07
@Benzo - Great List, Thanks.
2015-11-23 18:37:35
Also consider a turtleneck. Or, simpler, wrap a bandana around your neck. Or a neck gaiter. If you have a (light!) fleece you can zip it up all the way, but you'll want a shell that also zips up (wind). Leggings, if they're snug, are also good (and you can take them off at the destination). Or, the long wool socks. And, depending on the affordances provided by your personal hormonal configuration, I would recommend a beard. I've been happy with all sorts of gloves. One detail: don't wear tight ones, they'll cut down your circulation. Also, when you're stopped you can ball up your fist and your palm will warm fingers up (some). Liners really win. Especially if you have to stop and fiddle with something on your bike (or, keep a pair of thin gloves in your pannier). MTB style shoes work great in winter; especially with wool socks. Finally, something I think I saw on Velominati: Add a jigger or two of brandy to your water bottle. As anti-freeze. I believe vodka is also allowed.
2015-11-23 20:20:56
I have an extra set of standard moose mitts/pogies in excellent condition. ( SO bought me some bar mitts, which I prefer. PM me if interested. My current setup: (accumulated over 6+ years of winter commuting) bottoms: softshell commuting/work pants: REI Mistral REI Novara breathable rain pants in rain or below 25 deg. feet: Chrome Industries storm truk shoe (waterproof) merino wool socks below ~25 deg. pair of doc martins and wool socks below ~15 deg. I stick in some toe warmers below zero for rides over 4 miles tops: wool blend long-sleeve workout shirt with high zip up collar (Costco) Merrell gore-tex rain jacket with pit zips in rain or between 32 and 45 deg. Marmot windstopper jacket with pit zips at or below 35 deg. I'll add a wool long-sleeve shirt under the jacket below 15 deg. hands: full-finger cycling gloves liner glove fitted over top between 35 and 45 deg. down ski glove with wrist skirt added to either full-fingered glove alone b/w 25-35 or with glove and liner below 25 occasionally use pogies below 10 deg. head: Bern watts with winter liner below ~39 balaclava instead of winter liner below 30 ski goggles below 20 On the bike: I switch to Nokian Hakkapeliitta studded tires at first sign of ice on road. They are 700x32c. If there is more than about 3 inches of snow on the road I tend to lose traction and usually take the bus. A fat bike would probably come in handy on those days.
2015-11-24 13:26:58
A lot of good advice and suggestions here, thanks. One recommendation that I can make is to use some Embrocation warming oil on the knees and joints. In lieu of that, good old-fashioned Icy Hot or Ben Gay will give a similar result. The Embrocation preparation does not have the strong, locker room "fragrance" of the others. Another product, with a more pleasant aroma is Raw Heat. These products will help keep the toes warm too. I would use a cloth to apply, as it takes extensive washing to remove from the hands. Some lip balm and a handkerchief are standard equipment for me, also.
2015-11-28 11:47:08