What Works in Winter

On a recent snowy night, Justin and I had one of those spectacular mountain bike rides that makes a cold nose a small price to pay for a frosty frolic in a winter wonderland. As our conversation turned to bike tech, as it invariably does on such Dirt Rag staff excursions, we shared our respective thoughts on what works in the winter. Our conversation gave me the inspiration to share some of my winter set-up tips.

What Works for Winter

First up, the obvious: K.I.S.S. Keep it single speed! I’m sure you’ve heard that suggestion before—no derailleur nor cables to freeze up, and all that jazz. But I’ll go one step beyond and recommend running a freewheel that’s one tooth larger than your normal. During winter I switch from my normal 34/20 to a 34/21 ratio, and find it’s easier to churn through deep snow and claw my way up slippery hills with lighter gearing. Not to mention easing the strain on my knees while plowing through the powder.

You don’t need to invest in a singlespeed bike. I converted my bike to singlespeed with a rear wheel built around a White Industries Eric’s Eccentric ENO rear hub. A chain tensioner on your existing rear wheel is a less-expensive option that will work just fine. If you have zero budget, Mother Nature can oblige by turing your rear derailleur-equipped bike into a Poor Man’s Singlespeed by freezing the rear derailleur into a fixed location. Just be sure to start the ride in the desired singlespeed gearing, and wait for nature to take its course.

I match the simplicity of the singlespeed drivetrain by ditching the suspension fork and going fully rigid during winter. Any of the trails that I’m brave enough to hit during snowy/icy conditions are rideable on a dual-rigid bike. Suspension adds complexity and hence something that can break down in the middle of a cold ride. Reliability is key.

Next up: tires and traction. Studded tires provide great traction, but at a significant weight penalty. My answer to this dilemma is to run a studded tire in front and a conventional tire in rear (currently a Kenda Klondike and Bontrager Jones ACX tubeless). The front tire is much more important for control, steering and generally keeping the rubber side down, so the studs go up front. For the most part, any aggressive tread in the rear (preferably tubeless, run at low pressure) will hook up on wintery tails. In either snow or dirt, I want my front tire to stick better than my rear. This is especially important in fast corners, where I want the rear tire to start drifting before the front, giving me a bit of warning before the dreaded front tire washout sends me arse over tin-cups.

What Works for Winter

Speaking of cornering I’m about to share my favorite technique for hard cornering in the snow, but you have to promise to only use it on snow and never, ever on dirt. Promise? Good, here’s the tip: tap your rear brake hard enough to lock your rear wheel for an instant. The rear wheel will skid on the snow, whip around slicker than snot, and rocket you through the turn. With a little practice, you’ll be able to snap off very tight turns on snow. Never skid your wheel on dirt—it damages the trail and makes you look like an idiot.

Speaking of brakes, discs are the top choice in winter, duh. If you’re like me, and your bike collection is from the V-brake era, don’t fret, there is still hope. The next time you are due for rim replacements, upgrade to ceramic hoops. Matched with Kool-Stop ceramic-specific brake shoes, ceramic rims provide outstanding braking in snow, not to mention sloppy summertime conditions, I’m running both Mavic and Bontrager ceramic rims on multiple bikes. The only time that I find my ceramic rims are overmatched is when riding in the mercifully rare combination of standing water and below-freezing temperatures. Water splashing on cold rims and brakes can turn to ice, and then it’s game over.

In the photos of my bike you’ll notice that I’m running a very short and tall Salsa stem. That compact, upright control center helps shift my weight rearward, over my rear wheel. The rearward weight bias helps with rear-wheel traction, when mashing the cranks and trying to keep forward momentum. Additionally, I find that a lighter front end will float over the snow and not bog down as often. Whenever the situation calls for more weight the front wheel, I simply bend my elbows and lean forward.

When winter deals out sloppy conditions, the old school Crud Catcher on the downtube and SKS X-Tra-Dry clip-on rear fender deflect most of the spray kicked up by the wheels.

There you have it. Now you know all of my winter riding secrets. So get out there and ride!

Click on thumbs below to enlarge:

ice  drivetrain  crud catcher  front view