Start Winter Commuting Part I: The Bike

This Bike, Not Necessary!

Want to start riding through the winter? We are going to take a look at a different aspect of winter commuting each day this week, with the goal of getting you on your bike and out into the snow!

Part I – The Bike

Today we are going to examine bicycles, what works, what doesn’t and why the bike currently hanging in your garage might be just right for a winter ride.

The Myth;

To be able to commute through the winter, I need a special bike, one that can handle all conditions, and I can’t afford another bike.


It doesn’t take a special bike to ride through winter, it might take some small modifications and extra attention, but you can do it with the bike that you have now.

Know yourself;

Geared for Slop

First you have to decide what you are legitimately going to ride through, be honest with yourself, is your goal to ride everyday, or are you going to hop in the car when snow is falling?

Each choice has its own considerations.

Want to ride every day no matter what? Good choice! Depending on how far away from work you live, you may find that it is actually fast to ride on snowy days then it is to drive.  Even medium size snow falls like we have today (3-6 inches) seriously slow down the commute for cars, but doesn’t necessarily change the amount of time it takes on a bike.

If you are going to stick to non-snow days only, you will be surprised at how clear the roads are, even after only one or two days of plowing.  This means that you are safer with skinner tires, and are going to have a cleaner ride there and back.

Bike selection;

Single speed, multi-speed, it doesn’t really matter, the key is to have your bike geared appropriately so that you can spin your pedals.  Those of you who want to ride everyday – make sure that you can spin your pedals at a higher cadence, also known as granny gear. You want to be able to stay seated when you ride, and keep pedaling when you hit snow-covered streets (we will have more riding techniques on Thursday in Part IV – the ride). Bottom line, you can ride pretty much any bike, be it a road bike (with appropriate tires), mountain bike, hybrid or cruiser, although to be honest you don’t see too many recumbents out there on the winter trails.

What to watch out for;

When you ride on roads through the winter time, it is important to remember, it isn’t the snow or water that is going to get you, it’s the salt.  Salt might be the friend of dry and ice-free roads everywhere, but trust us, it is the enemy of your bike. Salt is like that bully from high school, that not only beat you up but they also took your lunch money.  When it snows, the Twin Cities dump enough salt on the roads to give you high blood pressure. Of course, once it mixes with the ice, it turns into a salty, slush, which clings to your bike parts and starts to eat through them.  With this is mind, it is important to know that when it comes to beating salt you have one of two choices;

1) Clean you bike after each ride – Just starting out riding?  Why not try it on a bike that you are comfortable on?  This method requires more maintenance and a warm place to store you bike, but unless you make a lot of money an hour (thus time spent cleaning is money lost), it will be cheaper than option two.  Each day when you get home from work, put your bike into a warm place (basement, or slightly warmer garage) and then get settled in at home.  After about 20 minutes the crust that has built up on your fork, brakes, bottom bracket and crankset, will begin to melt and fall off of your bike.  Use some old rags and wipe down your bike head to toe.  Your rags will get soggy fast, so have an old t-shirt or two ready.  The most important part is to be sure to wipe off the components of the drivetrain (crank arms, chain, rear cassette, and chainrings).  These parts will go south fast if you let salt sit in them and on them.  We will repeat this for emphasis, if you do nothing else, wipe down your chain!  We have seen chains go from brand new to rust in a matter of a few rides, without proper care.  After wiping it off, re-lube it and you are ready to go for the next day (if you own a bike but do not own a bottle of chain lube, fix this immediately).

Sound like too much work? You can always just spray it off with your water bottle to get at the salt or;

2) Get a winter beater bike. – Didn’t we just tell you that you don’t need a special bike to ride through winter? Yes, we did, but this is by far the less time-consuming method, and once you work you way up to riding every day through winter, this is the way to go. Easiest way to find a winter beater bike?  Check out one of the Twin Cities, many, many used bike shops; here, here, here, here, and to do it yourself of course here.  Let them know what you are looking to do and what your price range is, they will be able to help.  Remember, you aren’t looking for a pretty bike, just one that will look winter in the face and spit in its eye.  Now, just because you have a winter beater bike, doesn’t mean that it is zero-maintence.  You will still need to perform the occasional cleaning especially to the drive train (see above) to keep you bike carrying you safely through winter.

Let it warm up, then clean it off.

Tire selection;

When it comes to choosing the right tires for a winter commute, remember one thing – keep the rubber side down!  With that in mind err on the side of caution with a tire that is a little bit wider, and has a little bit more tread.   The number of tire choices for a winter commuter are mind-boggling. With the recent rise of cyclocross specific parts, the options for tires has continued to grow.  700c (road bikes and hybrids), 26in (mountain bike), 29er (700c wheels on mountain bikes), commercial studded, homemade studded, this list of tire choices goes on.  Instead of re-inventing the wheel we will direct you to this website on IceBiking tire selection, if you can ride it on a frozen lake you can ride it on the streets.  Look closely at what you have on your bike now, it might work perfectly (just don’t inflate it all the way).  Last piece, staying upright on your bike during winter is as much about how you ride as what you ride (more on this later), but a good set of tires is the right place to start.


This post is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, there are so many resources out there for each of our topics this week, it would be impossible to post them all.  If you want to know more, here is a good place to start.  Next step?  Get tips from the local experts over at the MPLS Bike Love Forum.

Sound off in the comments if you disagree with any of our tips, have helpful resources, or just want to ask more questions!

Be sure to check back all week for parts II-V, and starting getting your bike ready to ride!

This entry was posted in Gear, Salute to the Winter Commuter, Tips and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Start Winter Commuting Part I: The Bike

  1. Are all 4 of those links really supposed to direct to Sunrise Cyclery?

  2. @esagor says:

    I ride just about daily and leave the bike frozen in the garage, hoping the salt will do less damage that way. But my brand new chain is quickly looking rusted and old… Don’t want to bring it in every night but I need to do something. Like the suggestion to spray off the chain with water.

  3. shovelfoot says:

    Capital Deals on the west side of saint paul has a rather large selection of used bikes as well.

  4. Pingback: Start Winter Commuting Part II – Getting Dressed for Winter Success. | Cycle Twin Cities

  5. Pingback: Thursday Give-Away: Freewheel Gift Card | Cycle Twin Cities

  6. Chris Warren says:

    A good set of lights, front and rear, are really great to have too. It’s easy to turn in to a bike ninja, especially when the sun is down by 5pm.

  7. bb says:

    Fenders and lights are definitely must-haves for winter biking. I have my lights on all the time, even when it’s not dark out, just so I’m as visible as possible to drivers who aren’t expecting bikers on the roads.
    I also love the disc brakes on my bike in the winter. They work awesome even in snow, slush, and water.

  8. Reuben says:

    I definitely recommend the winter beater route. I simply don’t have the time (or desire) to wipe down a bike every night. I take the opposite route and just do virtually no maintenance all winter. Come springtime, I have to replace the entire drivetrain, but that’s more palatable than trying to do maintenance in a 10 degree F garage over the winter. I recommend lubing the chain about once a week, but I’m not honestly very convinced it does much other than keep the squeaking down. This can be a little pricey – replacing the chain and derailleurs, and maybe even a cassette or some cables will end up costing $100+ come springtime, but I guess I’d rather do that than try to maintain the bike through the winter.

    I think the best place in town to buy a winter beater bike is totally the MPLS police auctions. Tons of solid, generic mountain bikes that are more-or-less in working condition are selling for anywhere from $30-60. I wrote a little bit about that here.

  9. Randall says:

    I’ve been riding a single speed cyclocross bike all winter. For tires I’ve been using the end of my race tires from CX season; Challenge Grifo clinchers. They have wide spaced knobs that shed the snow and have a great round profile for running at low pressure. I don’t wipe down after every ride, but I try and lube up every couple days. Lube inside cable housing is also a good move.

  10. Randall says:

    One last comment on tires: Skinnier is better then fatter, especially on days where there’s lots of crud. Fatter tires, like on a mountain bike, will float around and be harder to control then something that slices through the snow to the pavement. Just be sure that there’s some knobs for extra grip.

  11. Pingback: Start Winter Commuting Part IV – The Ride | Cycle Twin Cities

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