It was only three days ago I posted about going for a fatbike ride with super snow conditions. Since then, we’ve started another big thaw. With near record temps yesterday around 50F degrees. And then this today:
This warm of weather doesn’t normally happen until late April. Riding today felt like late April. Feeling the warmth, the snow quickly…very quickly….melting. People out everywhere. People out on their Harley’s. It didn’t feel like a February day that’s for sure. I’m not saying winter is over. You never know here. I’ve ridden snow on the Pugsley well into April a few years. I can also remember 2012 when we had a thaw in mid-February. One of the warmest March and April months ever seen here followed that. March is typically the snowiest month. So we will have to wait and see which we get this year.
Sooo, on a February day when I would typically head out in the bitter cold to ride some snowy trails on my Surly Pugsley, I instead rode some roads on my A-train.
I feel for the businesses that make a living off of winter sports, winter activities, and snow. Winter is becoming unpredictable in a place where winter was nearly always guaranteed.
Today is Wednesday. My place of employment sent me home after a half day of work. Things got slow. It was perfect timing for me. Yesterday we had a snowstorm that dropped 4-6 inches of fresh snow on us. It was followed by temps dropping below zero last night. That’s a recipe for good fatbiking.
The local mountain bike club did did some grooming of their trails this morning. Normally I’d head for those. But I wasn’t convinced those would be firmed up yet. Since it was a Wednesday afternoon I didn’t expect there’d be many snowmobiles out. So I opted to ride the local snowmobiles trails instead. They too were freshly groomed. And by the looks of it I just missed seeing the groomer. I ended up riding for 3 hours. The sunshine, the fresh snow, and the promise of another warm-up by Friday. I took full advantage of my afternoon off.
I’ve been a cross-country skier for 38 years. But the last 11 winters I’ve averaged one ski day a year. Why? That’s how long I’ve had my Pugsley. All my outdoor time playing in the snow is now done on a fatbike. These freshly groomed cross country ski trails were calling to me, but I was on my Pugsley.
By the time I got home the sun was setting and I was exhausted. It was a good day on the fatbike.
I had high hopes for getting in some good fatbiking rides this weekend. After the two week long January thaw there was nothing but ice everywhere. Earlier in the week we got a 3 inch snowfall. That was just enough to cover the ice. A dip in temperatures down around zero, and below, insured it would compact nicely onto the ice. Mid-week the local mtb club posted they had done some grooming. Things were looking up for getting back out onto the trails without having to worry about ice. The loop in Brewer Park was one of the sections that was groomed. Saturday I left the house and rode the one mile to the trailhead to access the Brewer Park trails.
It was quite pleasant with warm temps, 20F degrees, and no wind. Dense cloud cover made for low light conditions. It was hard to take photos. I was somewhat disappointed with the conditions. It wasn’t what I was expecting. The trail was covered in frozen footprints. If you’ve ever ridden over frozen footprints, you’ll know it’s not fun. Even fat tires don’t smooth those out. The fatbikers that use the local trails are good about not using the trails when they’re too soft. The walkers and runners don’t seem to be aware they’re leaving depressions. If you’re leaving depressions runners and walker’s you need to use snowshoes or stay off the groomed trails. I felt pretty beat up by the time I was finished with the loop. Here’s some more pictures from the day:
I didn’t feel like repeating the beating I took on Saturday, but I still wanted to get in a ride on snow. The first 9 years of owning my fatbike I rode the local snomo trails. Two years ago is when I switched to riding mostly mtb trails. That’s when the building of mtb trails came to my neighborhood. Plus, as the popularity of fatbikes exploded the Minnesota DNR strongly suggested fatbikes should not use snomo trails for safety reasons. Today being Superbowl Sunday, I figured many people would be at pre-game gatherings rather then out on their snow machines. I was correct. In two hours on the trails only 12 snomo machines passed me. I ALWAYS yield to them by stopping and stepping completely off the trail to let them pass.
Today was completely different. The sun shine was bright and fantastic. The February sun is warm enough to stay comfortable when stopped out of the wind. The temp was 15F degrees and the wind was light. It was just about perfect conditions to be out on the trails. It felt great to be out on the trails I spent 9 years on. It’s where I did all my training for the two Arrowhead Ultra 135’s I started. Over the years I put in over 7,000 miles of fatbiking on snow on these trails. It was glorious to be back out on these trails once again.
It’s January and I should be spending all my bike time on groomed bike trails through the north woods. After a incredibly late start to winter things were finally settling into normal winter riding conditions two weeks ago. That weekend was spent hiking and winter camping instead of taking advantage of the nicely groomed trails.
And then the weather changed again. We had nearly two weeks of above normal temperatures and rain. Rain in January is extremely rare here. We had a record high, or two, with the temps running 30 degrees above normal. It felt like April.
The groomed trails disappeared or became covered in ice. I hear many of them were still rideable, but studded tires were required. I’ve been riding my Surly Pugsley on snow for 11 winters and have never felt the need to spend money on studded fat tires. In normal years it gets cold enough we don’t get a lot of freeze/thaw cycles that cause icy trails except in the late Spring. I would estimate I have felt the need for studded tires on off-roads trails less then 1% of of the time over the 10,000 miles I’ve ridden on snow with my fatbike. But the past few weeks that would have been the only way to ride and stay upright. I might reconsider the need for studded tires on my fatbike if our winters become milder like this year.
With icy trails I pulled out the all-weather A-train this weekend and rode the streets of Duluth. Ironically this bike has studded tires. No need for the studs because the roads were clear and dry.
This is a series of posts aimed at the beginning winter rider. More seasoned riders may also pick up a few tips along the way. It contains tips and strategies for staying safe and warm when enjoying the outdoors during the most beautiful season…winter.
So you’re new to this bicycle commuting thing. You started riding in May when the weather was nice. Over the summer you increased the number of days commuting by bike, per week, from one or two days to five days a week. Congratulations! That’s a big accomplishment and it’s makes you feel amazing. You feel like you can now ride through anything. You enter the Fall months. It’s gets colder and wetter and less fun. But over time you figure it out. You’re still feeling good about it but you know winter is coming. You’d like to try riding through the winter, but how do you do it? To try and get more information you do an internet search for winter bicycling commuting tips. And a picture like this comes up:
Now take all of this with a grain of salt. Dressing for winter is a very individual task. The clothing and equipment that works varies from person to person. The money you can spend on clothing and equipment can be astronomical. Or you can use other outdoor gear you have laying around. I cringe at the picture you see above. I have been commuting in harsh winter conditions for many years and I can honestly say I have never, ever, looked like the picture above. I wore a balaclava (an item every list mentions) once…..I repeat….once on a bike commute and swore never to wear one again. I felt like I was suffocating inside the thing. My nose runs in cold weather and there was no easy way to to blow my nose with it on. It filled with my own snot….yuck! I wear a neck gaitor I can easily pull down to vent or take care of a runny nose. Balaclavas are not easy to get on and off if you are getting to warm.
My head runs very hot, even in sub-zero weather. If I wore a balaclava, ski goggles and a hood over it all, my head would be soaked with sweat by time I reached the top of the first hill.
Googles? I’ve worn them twice in blizzard conditions. I find it quite un-nerving the way they block my peripheral vision. Specially when riding in traffic. I felt like I was in a fishbowl. In the winter I rarely wear eye protection because of my hot head. I can fog any lens in any temp below 50F degrees. Yet, I have never frozen my eyeballs. Not even when I’ve been out in sub-zero temps for 10 or 12 hours during some winter ultra races. On rare occasions I will wear eye protection. Usually when there is sleet coming down. Or I’ll put them on for longer downhills if there is any type of precipitation falling from the sky. Also for winds over 30 mph (we get those a lot in the shoulder seasons living next to Lake Superior). I wear these:
These wrap around safety glasses offer as much protection as goggles without blocking any of my field of vision. And they only cost 7 bucks.
Another tip I’ve noticed on multiple winter cycling lists is: Don’t bring your bike inside where it’s warm. Keep it outside so that any ice or snow doesn’t melt. Bringing it back and forth between cold and warm air causes condensation inside your frame. My response is, “Yeah, so what”!! If that’s a problem then you should also add to the list: Never ride your bike in the rain. What happens when you ride in the rain? Water gets inside the frame. That’s a non-issue. Of course it helps if you have your steel frame properly treated with Frame Saver or some other rust inhibitor. But even if you don’t, it would take 15 or 20 years before a frame would fail due to damage from condensation.
If you never bring your bike inside, then you’re probably not cleaning it. The one single thing that will help your bike survive winter more then anything else is frequent cleanings. Any day that you ride in wet conditions, winter or summer, your bike needs to have the chain cleaned, dried and lubed. If you are using rim brakes, your rim sidewalls and the brake pads need to be cleaned as well. If you leave your bike outside and never clean it, components will start to work less and less efficient each day. In harsh winter conditions they will begin to not work at all. Derailleurs will fail to shift and brakes will not stop you. To properly take care of your bike in the winter, bring it inside.
Another one from those lists: Buy a beater for riding in the winter. This one can be good advise, but it’s not the only way to do it. A beater can be good for many reasons. If you lock up in a high theft area, or you have a short commute. If you live where winter is short.
I tried a beater for some years. The idea is not to expose your expensive summer bikes with expensive components to winter conditions. Many locales use salt and/or sand on the roads. This can destroy components. But guess what kind of components it destroys the quickest. Cheap stuff. I learned you can extend the life of components if you clean them properly. It takes a whole different level of commitment though. Of course my definition of beater and your definition of beater may be different. My beater was a 1987 Specialized Rock Hopper. An old mountain bike. After many years of winter riding, it is still in use. But I’ve replaced it with a different bike for winter.
I define the length of winter based on when the first snowfall happens and lasting until they clean the streets of all the sand and salt in the Spring. Where I live winter can start as early as the last week of October and stretch until the last week of April or first week of May. That means winter can be six months of the year in Northeastern Minnesota. I got tired of riding a beater daily for six months out of the year. I wanted to ride a bike that rode nicer then a beater. Over the years I learned to build up bikes with components and drivetrains that were impervious to the salt and grit. I ended up designing a bike and having it custom built specifically for use in the winter. When it was all done, my winter commuting bike became my most expensive bike I ride. The exact opposite of a beater.
This bike can run all winter without having to be cleaned thanks to an internally geared hub, a belt drive, disc brakes, sealed BB, sealed bearing headset and a corrosion resistant frame made from aircraft quality stainless steel tubing. Yes it’s over the top. And yes, I want to make sure I have a secure spot to lock it up wherever I go. But it’s an extreme example to show you that you have other options other than riding a beater around all winter.
Can you tell I’m not a fan of “lists”? I suggest you use the lists as a starting point. And then find out what works for you.
The first full weekend of 2017 included more of this:
Sunday was much more overcast but just as fun.
If things go as planned, next weekend report should be a bit different. Winter camping is being planned. No bikes, we’ll be using snowshoes and pulks. It’s been 6 or 7 years since I’ve had a friend interested in trying winter camping. This trip is one we planned almost one year ago. I ended up cancelling that one at the last minute due to windy conditions with temps in the -20F degree range. Not the best conditions to take a first time winter camper on. I’m really looking forward to this one.
Four seasons of cycling. I’m fortunate to live in a place that has four distinct seasons of weather. Winter lingers the longest in our climate….as long as six months out of the year. That’s okay because winter is my favorite season. In 2016 I continued to ride bicycles through all four seasons, in all kinds of weather. However, the way I ride has been shifting for several years. With a job change and physical complications, I have moved away from using bicycles as transportation. I use them more for recreational pursuits these days.
Back in the years between 2005 and 2012 I wrote another blog. It had a good following. I won’t mention the name of the blog because it isn’t out “there” anymore. Although there are a few backdoor ways to see some of the posts. I didn’t have a particular theme when I started writing that blog, other than bicycles. It ended up chronicling my transformation from a three season bicycle commuter into a hard-core-ride-in-any-weather four season commuter. Also in 2006 I was one of the first people to buy into the concept of fat-tired bikes. My number of views on blog posts would multiply by 5 times when I wrote about fat-tire biking on snow back then. With that blog I became the guy who would ride to work in any weather no matter what, every day of the year. I once had a streak of riding to work every day that lasted 22 months. The streak only being broken by my wife’s serious illness that required me to drive to work several days while she was hospitalized.
2016 is the year I finally came to the realization I’m not that guy anymore. I’ve always have had a hard time recovering from hard efforts. This dates back to high school when I road raced in the summer and ran cross-country in Fall. I ended up quitting both due to my inability to recover. I recall being so burned out from three years of road racing I needed to take a break. I never went back to it. I quit the high school cross-country team in the middle of the season in Senior year because the coach had us running competitions twice a week and interval training on two other days. I couldn’t bounce back from the competitions, let alone the competitions plus intervals. I told the coach this. He didn’t listen. I quit.
In my mid-20’s I decided to run a marathon. I trained for a year. At the peak of my training I was running twice a day, 20 miles per day, six days per week. I was also working a 12-14 hour night shift for a trucking company as an Operations Supervisor. I got so burnt out that one night my body shut down. I overslept for 8 hours. In the process I turned off the snooze alarm every 9 minutes, in my sleep, for 8 hours. My work was so concerned when I didn’t show up for my shift they sent someone over to my apartment to check on me. I slept through their knocking on my front door and bedroom window. I slept a total of 16 hours.
I mention all these examples, there’s many more, because as soon as I say I have a hard time recovering, people instantly provide me with the name of the latest recovery drink that works for them. This includes my doctor who is a cyclist. I have this conversation with him once a year at my Annual Physical Exam. I’m sorry, but this isn’t solved by a recovery drink. I don’t have a clear reason why this happens. I have many theories that go through my head: it’s hereditary, it’s complications from years of un-diagnosed Celiac Disease, I’m not a natural athlete?? Who knows.
What I do know is that it gets progressively worse as I get older. Two years ago I started to discover I was having a hard time feeling fresh for my weekend recreational rides after five days of work commutes.
Not only was I not feeling like I had fresh legs, I was exhausted by the end of the week. At that time I decided to put more of a priority on my recreational riding. I haven’t owned a car since July of 2002. The use of our one car in our household wasn’t an option because my wife uses it. I decided I wanted a little more freedom then the local bus schedules allowed for without buying a car. In May of 2015 I bought a new bike that had a motor other then my own:
For the past two summers I’ve done a mix of commuting on this and my bicycles. It has changed the way I ride. For the first time in many years I felt I had fresh legs when I headed out for a leisurely ride on the weekends. I wasn’t riding my bicycles as often, but every ride I did was fun, rather then a slog.
A job change occurred that further changed the way I use bikes for commuting. After working the same job for 14 years and having a secure place to lock up my bike, and a place to change and keep my clothes, I now work somewhere without any of that. The only bike that works for this job situation is my folding Brompton. But even then I take a chance where I’m leaving it during the day.
2016 was the first year in as long as I can remember that I didn’t log my daily miles. I always had a goal in mind of the number of miles I wanted to do each year. This led to a lot of rides I would do just to keep my daily average up. Removing the pressure of a yearly goal also increased the “fun” factor of the riding I was doing. If I felt like going for a 10 or 15 mile ride instead of a 30 mile ride, that was fine. This was a whole new way of thinking for me. It really set me free in way. The reason I know that is because for the first time in a decade or more, I enjoyed my riding. Every ride became enjoyable. I tried new kinds of rides. With the huge expansion of mtb trails into my part of town, I was able to enjoy some dirt rides. A form of riding that would definitely cut into my yearly mileage goals in the past. I found a lot of pleasure being out in the woods on a bike.
In the end, these were huge changes. I honestly can say I miss my daily bike commute I did for 12 years. I long for it for like a lost love. But I’ve come to the realization my body is changing with age and I can’t do what I used to do. I can’t even do what other fit people my age can do. I made the conscious choice not to compare myself to what others can do and to what I used to be able to do. I focus on what I can do today. The important thing is, I still love my bicycles and I still love riding them. I’m looking forward to many more fun rides in 2017.
Turns out the last two rides of 2016 were on snow with the Pugsley. My favorite kind of riding I do all year. I had been feeling a bit under the weather all week. Other people around me have been sick. Susan had a cold virus and several co-workers were sick, but were at work. I never had full-blown symptoms, but I wasn’t feeling quite right and needing a lot of sleep.
Over Christmas we had a storm that brought lots of rain in our neighborhood, sleet and some wet snow. I thought for sure the good snow conditions we had on the local mtb trails would have been gone. Replaced with a layer of slick ice. As the week went on I was hearing reports of prime riding conditions. A layer of crust had formed from the mixed precipitation. It was supposed to be excellent riding, no studs needed. Here’s one report in particular. This report says: “the conditions are freakaliciously sweet!” To top it off the three amazing pictures in the report were taken on the trails less than 1 mile from my house.
With the weather forecast calling for a chance of significant snow in a few days, I knew I had to get out and enjoy the current conditions. It just so happens I worked a half day on Friday, the 30th. As I left the house on the Pugsley it started to snow pretty steady. The reports were true. The riding was amazing and the snow coming down was an extra wintery bonus. I rode The Duluth Traverse through Brewers Park and the Piedmont Trails and back. And then down Keene Creek, where the pictures in the above link were taken.
Today, the 31st, the sun was out with temps around 20F. Yesterday’s snow amounted to about 1 inch. I headed in a different direction to see if the new trails between the Zoo and Spirit Mountain Ski Area were in good riding condition or not. They too were in excellent shape. Only a handful of tracks in the fresh snow. I only saw one other person on this section. One and half miles of this section I have never ridden. It was built just this Fall. It was an incredibly nice stretch of trail. Here’s today’s photos:
Winter came on with a blast just before this past weekend. Bitter cold with a few dustings of snow. People think I’m crazy because I get excited about the bitter cold. As an avid winter fatbike rider with over a decade of experience riding winter trails, I know what a good Arctic blast of cold air can do to firm up the trails. Sure you can have fun on winter trails at 20 or 30 degrees fahrenheit, but the really good riding doesn’t start until you get below zero. Minus 10 or minus 20 is even better.
The local mtb club got out with their groomer on Saturday just before the overnight temperature dipped into the high teens below zero. Despite very little base, probably 6 inches or less, the grooming timed with the drop in temps created some nice conditions. I headed out late Sunday morning when the temp was still -7F degrees. The trails were firm, but not perfect. A few more snowfalls and a few more groomings are needed to make great conditions. But after the long warm Fall, it was great to be out in the bitter cold riding snow.
The bitter cold was brief. By Monday it was warming into the low 20’s again. I wasn’t needed at work and had the day off. I managed get out before it warmed up too much. Even though the temps were in the low 20’s, it had been below zero over night. This second night of bitter cold firmed up the groomed trails even more. The conditions had improved overnight. I had a great day of riding with the Brewer Park and Piedmont trails all to myself. Here’s some of the pictures I took Monday.
Today the temps rose to 40F degrees with sunshine. I have to admit the good trail conditions will have disappeared. I will have to wait until another snowstorm and cold temps comes around to get back out on the trails.
Note: Internet access issues prevented me from posting this last evening. I also had more to write. But I’m going to post what I have so you all can enjoy it before the week is over.
Yesterday was Wednesday. I got sent home from work after a half day. I took the Pugsley out with just enough snow on the ground to make it worth riding.
I was specially excited to get out into the cold air we have right now. Snowbiking conditions get better as the temperature drops. When I headed out the temp gauge was reading 4*F degrees. With a 20 mph wind it made it the coldest air I’ve ridden in this season so far. With many years of experience of riding in bitter cold I knew what to wear to stay warm.
The trail conditions were “okay”. A narrow packed area was ridden into the singletrack. As long as I could stay on that I was okay. Ride off that narrow ribbon and I was washing out. It may be my choice of tires more than the snow conditions. Regardless, I had the trails too myself. It was good to be out in the snow covered woods riding my bike.