While viewing the weather forecast today I came to a realization. If I were currently a daily bicycle commuter here in Duluth, like I’ve been in the past, tomorrow would be the day. The day I put off as long as possible. The day the studded tires would get put on the winter commuter bike.
Why tomorrow? The first snow with temperatures below freezing will be happening. Followed by consistent low temps in the teens. That’s a recipe for slick, icy roads. I don’t like to fall off my bike. I have a plate and screws in my right arm to prove why I feel that way. The accident happened 14 years ago this month, November 8th to be exact. That was the day I learned I don’t bounce, I break things when I fall hard. Rather, I “munch” bones, to quote the Emergency Department doctor who treated me at the local hospital.
So tomorrow would be the day. I try to hold off as long as I can. Once the studded tires go on I would keep them on until April most years. Winters are long here in northeastern Minnesota next to Lake Superior.
I had a similar way to determine when the studded tires get taken off. Again the extended weather forecast would help me decide. If the forecast called for no below freezing, 32F/0C degrees or lower, low temperatures for the entire extended future forecast period, this would be my green flag for summer tires. Since the city of Duluth is situated on a hillside overlooking Lake Superior, all water from snow melt runs downhill towards the lake. It continues to trickle long after any visible snow is no longer left on the ground. It runs across roads and will freeze at night if the temps drop. It only takes one patch of ice on an 8 mile commute to cause a wipeout and munch a bone. I never took a chance.
And to all those bicyclists who say you only need one studded tire on the front…. I say good luck. When the non-studded back tire hits a patch of ice and slides out from under you, there is no front studded tire that is going to save you from going down hard. I recall Russ from Path Less Pedaled YouTube channel having this happen to him after employing some winter riding advice. If I remember correctly he was fairly banged up and required time off the bike to heal.
Despite my lack of risk taking when it comes to winter weather and studded tires I pedaled through every imaginable winter weather condition Duluth could throw at me for 15 years. I loved every minute of it.
Our current weather cycle of almost Spring, followed by Winter….and repeat, continues. The snow from a winter storm earlier in the week was gone by yesterday. The city had the street cleaners out sweeping up a winter’s worth of sand. It was looking more like Spring again. Today we woke to another 2 inches of wet snow. Flurries continued to fall all day long.
The temperature rose to barely above the freezing mark. The wind was that bone chilling damp wind coming off the Big Lake. And the snow flakes were as wet as rain. Not much to draw one outside. Regardless I knew any ride was better than staying cooped up inside. I finally got motivated late in the day to get out for a short ride.
I had a realization today. When the weather is like this, damp windy cold, I tend to choose a route with a good amount of climbing. Climbing keeps me warm. So that’s what I did today as well. Only 14 miles, but I climbed over 1300 feet total during the ride. Here’s my route today: //ridewithgps.com/trips/8286132/embed
During a normal winter I would still be running studded tires. I took them off a few weeks ago when we started warming up faster than other years. Today was a bit sketchy without the studs. Not to the point that it was scary. It required more attention to my speed, stopping distances and taking corners. The temp dropped to freezing during my ride. Between that and the fresh sand on the roads I didn’t take the downhills at my regular speed. I definitely didn’t want to do any panic stops while descending. The wet roads with sand combined with a bike that has disc brakes that tend to lock up in conditions like this made it a day not to push my luck.
As always. Once I got home I was glad I got out for a ride despite the less than ideal conditions.
One week ago today I was riding my Pugsley in the snow. Today there was little sign of winter and temperatures were 30 degrees above normal. It was 62degF at my house today. This was the unusual March view of Lake Superior and the Duluth Shipping Canal:
Here’s a more typical view of the Shipping Canal and Lake Superior (from the hillside) in March. This is from March 16, 2007:
There should be ice. The ice will stay as late as Memorial Day some years. It’s a weird year for weather. Although I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my ride in the sun today. But I do feel like I’m being cheated out of a month’s worth of fatbiking.
Another unusual sight is my winter commuting bike in mid-March with no studded tires on it. I took them off this morning. The earliest I’ve taken off my studded tires since moving to Duluth in 2001.
My route today: //ridewithgps.com/trips/8126290/embed I rode out onto the sand spit. The temperature was only 49degF out there. A thirteen degree temperature change on a 20 mile ride. It required adding and removing layers as I went.
When I got back from my ride today I noticed my neighbor working on his bike in his garage across the street. He was a three season commuter when I moved into the neighborhood. Thanks to my bad influence he’s pushed into four season’s riding his bike to work. He rides a nice Surly Long Haul Trucker. I didn’t know this until today, but he bought a second set of wheels so he could easily move back and forth between studded tires and summer tires. He just swaps out wheels. Not a bad idea in the shoulder season like we’re having now. He had switched the wheels sets out yesterday and was having shifting problems. I suggested to him it was his chain and the cassette on the swapped out wheel not cooperating. He doesn’t clean his drivetrain often enough. I helped him swap out the cassettes so he would be using the same one on the swapped out wheelset. I think it’s still easier to move the cassettes then have one wheelset and change the tires every time the weather changes.
I’ve spent the last 12 years learning to commute in every weather scenario Mother Nature could throw at me. I’ve commuted in temperature extremes from -32degF to 104degF. In torrential rain, ice storms, snow storms, a few blizzards, and high winds. I’ve learned what works for me in terms of equipment, clothing and accessories. For example (above), my first Gates Belt drive + IGH experiment. I often write about equipment and clothing. However, there are accessories I use everyday I seem to overlook or take for granted. This post is about one of them.
My favorite accessory item came about to solve an issue I was having with my heavy winter gloves, and to some extent my winter riding boots. On a typical winter day I would adjust how I would dress for the day based on the morning weather. During the seasonal swing months of March and April it’s not unusual to have a temperature differences of 20 or 30 degrees from morning to afternoon. Often this would mean I would be appropriately dressed for the morning commute and overdressed for the afternoon commute. I could easily leave off a layer on my torso, legs, and head. This was not always an option for my hands or feet. I would wear the same gloves home even if they were too warm. This meant my hands would perspire and the gloves would absorb this perspiration. The next morning I would find the gloves did not dry completely. The inside of the gloves would be wet and clammy.
I had a similar issue with boots or shoes. During the Spring melt or during rain storms there is only so much water even the best fenders can stop. Fenders are great for keeping the water and grit off most of you. But feet aren’t always protected from even the longest fenders. Water spray can come around the fender and still soak your feet. Water can seep in the top of boots and shoes as well. Again, the same as the gloves, I would find my boots not drying completely overnight.
And then I found this on the REI website:
It’s the DryGuy Boot dryer. It’s been redesigned a bit since I bought mine. But is essentially the same item. I really had a hard time with the price point. I tried a couple different boot dryers in the $15-$20 range. They barely worked. They didn’t have a heated setting and neither lasted an entire year. I finally broke down and bought the DryGuy several years ago. It has become my most used winter accessory off the bike. Sure it dried my wet and damp boots and gloves. No more clammy gloves or boots in the morning. It also stopped any bacteria growth and increased the time between washings on my gloves.
The biggest plus of buying this boot dryer was something I never thought about. I keep all my gloves and boots in our basement. The temperature of our basement in the winter is about 55degF. Or more like 52degF for the boots sitting on the floor. Putting on boots that are 52 degrees to ride in much colder conditions doesn’t give your feet much chance of staying warm. I used to bring the boots upstairs every morning and set them next to the hot air register to warm them up. After buying the DryGuy I started putting my boots and gloves on it about 30 minutes before leaving for work in the morning. What a difference it made leaving the house with warm boots and gloves. Now I always leave the house with warm hands and feet. My feet and hands stay warmer longer when starting out with warmed gloves and boots. You’re not expending any of your heat to warm the items you’re wearing. I can’t even imagine putting on cold gloves and boots now.
When I began this blog I started to write my series of posts on Fourth Season Skills. So far I’ve only written three posts. I hope to continue this series despite the fact that many of you are experiencing Spring-like weather. Look for them throughout the month of March.
I know I keep saying every ride is the last snowbike ride before winter ends. I thought my ride on Tuesday was going to be the last. We had a few warm days with lots of melting. Then yesterday we had a fast moving snow storm drop a quick 2 inches of snow on us. Overnight temps dropped below freezing. And apparently there was some freezing rain overnight. The fresh snow, and everything else, had a quarter inch of ice covering it this morning.
I’m not normally a get-up-and-get-out-to-ride kind of person. Today I realized if I could get out early before the temps rose too far above freezing the snow biking might be pretty decent. Decent despite the lack of base and a packed trail. But decent considering the warm weather we’ve been having.
Turns out it was a perfect morning to be out on the trails. I chose the snowmobile trails because it would have been too soft on the mountain bike trails. I didn’t expect to see any snowmobiles in these conditions. Although I did see one.
And I was passed by two other fatbikers who seemed to have the same idea. While up on Spirit Mountain I could see some dog sled races on a parallel trail. They all had teams of four dogs and were flying. I tried to snap a few photos through the trees, but they were going so fast it was hard to capture.
You have to look really hard to see them in this picture. Four blackish colored dogs and the front end of a sled just behind them. You know winter isn’t over yet when you run across dog sleds.
The forecast for the next ten days calls for 40’s and 50’s. Not normal for us. So this may really be the end of our ride-able snow. Although, if I get out really early tomorrw I might still get in one more ride.
After a sunny 50degF/10degC day last Saturday I didn’t expect our snow cover to survive. We lost a good amount of snow, but not all of it. The warm spell only lasted a day. Winter came back Sunday. We had temps in the 30’s with a burst of snowfall during the day. It only amounted to an inch or two. It was just enough to cover up the icy spots from all the melting on Saturday.
Then last night we had a low around 2degF/-17degC. The snow that was still left really set up nice in the overnight cold. With a warming trend coming I thought I’d better get out today to see if there was still snow to ride. To my surprise, it was in great condition. The Brewer Park Trails on the ridge above my house were freshly groomed. Again when I least expected it, I find fantastic riding conditions. When I got home from work around 4:00 the temperature had risen only to 22degF/-6degC.
I got in a short ride. Enjoyed the solitude of the trail all to myself. Great views of the Aerial Lift Bridge and Lake Superior beyond. And some wonderful, late in the day sunlight on the trails.
It was just what I needed. To all those local fatbikers who weren’t out there, man did you miss out on some fast trails today.
I worked half a day today. When I got home I knew what I wanted to do. Get back out on the Pugsley while we still have snow. It’s supposed to be in the upper 40’s tomorrow. It’s going to make quite a bit of our snow disappear. It was above freezing by noon today with plentiful sunshine. That meant I wouldn’t be able to get back out on the freshly groomed mountain bike trails I had ridden yesterday. Too warm. Riding in warm, soft conditions leaves nasty ruts. The alternative was to return to my old stomping grounds. The snowmobile trails of Western Duluth. Fatbikes have been banned from snowmobile trails according to recent DNR policies. But I figured I wouldn’t see any other snowmobiles on a day like today. I was close. I only saw three the couple of hours I was out there. I still consider these trails within the city to be mutli-use trails. I saw more dog walkers then snowmobiles on the trails today. And one cross-country skier. Are they banned too?
The first and last mile were on-street riding. The remaining 12 miles was completely on snow. I made my way down to the Munger Trail. Took a side trail up hill to the Magney Snively area. It was a steep hike-a-bike out of the St Louis River Valley. Then a short out and back to Bardon Peak. Followed by a trail around Spirit Mountain and back home. It’s a very picturesque route and spectacular on a late winter sunny day like today. Sometimes it’s hard to believe all this beauty is within the city limits of Duluth.
I can never ride past the Bardon Peak overlook without snapping a few photos.
I realized how much I miss riding these trails. I enjoy cruising along on the snowmobile trails so much more than the twisty narrow single track mountain bike trails.
I’ve been saying this for 10 winters, ever since I bought my Pugsley, these kind of winter rides are my favorite rides of the year. With the warm temps I was able to ride without any ear or neck covering. My jacket was unzipped most of the ride and I still was overheating.
Wish you could all join me for a winter ride Northeastern Minnesota style.
I’m not sure if anyone watches these, but here’s three separate rear view videos from my Cycliq Fly6 taillight/camera from today’s ride:
Just when I think the trail conditions couldn’t be any good, I have another great ride. The weather has been cycling between above normal and normal conditions for the past month or more. We have a warm spell and loose 2 -4 inches of base snow. Then it turns colder, snows, and we gain back 1 or 2 inches. We had some sloppy wet snowfall earlier in the week. I thought for sure the trails would be icy and deteriorated. Then today I get off work early. I saw a Tweet that the trails on the ridge above my house were freshly groomed and in pretty good condition. That’s all it took. I know very well from past experience this time of year that if you don’t go when the conditions are good you may not have another opportunity until next winter. Up here the opposite is also possible. We could be riding snow well into April. I don’t expect that though. Not with the warm winter we’ve been having.
The trails turned out to be quite exceptional. I’m soooo happy I got myself out even if I had to cut it short to attend a community meeting about the local bike infrastructure.
Here’s another Cycliq Fly6 tailight/camera recording. It’s ten minutes worth of the ride from about mile 5 to 6. At minute 7:30 to 9:17 I stop to talk with Tim Ek. He’s a local endurance rider sponsored by Salsa Cycles. He has wonderful way of putting his adventures into words on his blog. He’s also a full time, year round bike commuter. For years our daily bike commute crossed paths. He used to be the only other winter rider I’d see. Nowadays we have quite a bit more company out there during the winter months.
With unusual warm weather and rain over the past several days, it appeared winter was retreating early. After the above freezing temps and rain yesterday I thought for sure the trails were done for. Then I awoke to light snow and temps a few degrees below freezing. As the day went by the lake effect snow continued to fall as did the temperature. By the time my wife and I got home from an early afternoon movie I was itching to get out and play in the fresh two inches of snow that had fallen.
What I discovered where trails that were still in prime condition. Somehow they had survived the warm spell and rain. It was like a gift. Just when I thought winter might be gone, it reappeared and seemed like it never left.
Again I had to relearn the lesson: “You gotta get out when the gettin’ is good”. And today was Good!
This time of year, mid-February, I am normally enjoying the best snowbiking of the year. Usually there is a base of accumulated snow 2-3 feet deep. The trails have been packed in for six or eight weeks and we would be experiencing the coldest temps of the season. Last weekend we were seeing less snow then normal, but we had a cold spell that firmed things up. And then this week happened. Above freezing day time temps. That is rare. Rain yesterday and today. And the world was engulfed in thirty different shades of gray.
I really needed to get out for a ride. So I dressed for the conditions and headed out. It was 36degF/2degC. The first half of the ride was rain.The second half was mixed rain and snow. Less than ideal conditions. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years is, it’s how to dress for less than ideal conditions. I chose a route that would help to generate warmth. If you click on the link you can see an elevation profile.
It’s a route which includes quite a bit of climbing. Nothing gets me heated up more than climbing. The first 5 miles was relatively flat. The next 13 miles were mainly uphill. Or at least it seemed like all I was doing was climbing. It had just enough breaks in the climbing to keep me from overheating too much. I tried to take some roads that aren’t part of my usual route to keep things more interesting. I passed a lot of historic homes. Something I enjoy looking at.
Here’s another 10 minute look from the rear of my bike of my ride. Recorded with a Cycliq Fly6. It’s starts at the stone archway from the picture at the top of the post.
Another good example of the incredibly nasty and cruddy streets we have during the winter. The rain is turned into salt water from all the winter salt on the streets. It turns the sand into a cruddy mess. The best part is having my A-train Ultimate Commuter to ride. The internally geared hub combined with the belt drive just laughs off these component eating conditions. It helped turn a ride in awful conditions into a pleasant mid-winter ride. I’m looking forward to more tomorrw.