Grease Rag's guide to winter biking in the Twin Cities

Year-round bike communter Lee Penn is ready for winter. Photos by Karen Hollish.

Only the most brutal, ice-encrusted conditions can keep commuter Lee Penn off her bike.

"If my pedals can't clear the snow pack," she said Sunday, "then I pull out my skis and ski to work."

Penn was one of nearly a dozen hardy commuters huddled at Sunrise Cyclery for the second annual Winter Skill Share. The event was hosted by Grease Rag Ride & Wrench, a social, supportive group for women, trans and femme bikers.

During the warmer months, Grease Rag puts on casual group rides and communal wrenching sessions. And now Grease Rag gives us a primer to staying warm, safe and upright on our bikes this winter.

Getting the proper equipment

"Personally, I like a full set of studded tires," said Kat McCarthy, one of the Cities' few female bike polo competitors.

Studded tires cost about $60 each, she said, but they're worth the investment. Their metal studs provide much-needed traction on icy pavement, and they last a long time.
If you don't have the cash, you can make do with knobby mountain bike tires, she said.

She also favors a full set of fenders for winter riding, because they keep your body dry and prevent slush from mucking up your components.

Which brings us to...

Maintaining your ride

"The most important thing is to keep your bike cleaned, lubed and greased," said mechanic Shayne Stahlmann, who recommends cleaning your bike after every winter excursion because salt, water and sand can age your steed.

At the minimum, she said, you need to do a thorough cleaning once a week. Pay particular attention to the chain and sprockets.

"Keeping the chain clean is key," Stahlmann said.

Use an old toothbrush or a Q-tip to get into tight spaces, such as under your fenders. Clean your spokes with chain lube, as it will protect them from the elements, and take off your wheels to get them completely clean.

Go here for more of Shayne's maintenance tips.

Keeping warm and dry

You don't necessarily need specialized bike clothes to ride comfortably through the winter, but there are some core guidelines to keep in mind.

"Keep your feet, your hands and your head warm -- and keep yourself dry," apparel designer Carly Schoen said.

Schoen prefers wool layers, but she knows others who rely on silk or polyester. Windproof insulation is key, as is bringing extra base layers with you on your commute.

Avoiding moisture-trapping cotton, Schoen and her fellow Grease Rag ladies said.

"Cotton will kill you," Schoen warned.

Below, Schoen sports a prototype of fashionable winter biking pants she's developing.

Schoen

Riding safely

New riders should head to a relatively flat and low-traffic area, such as one of the city's many parks, lower their saddle and practice riding through the snow.

"You will be shocked what you can ride in," Penn said.

Be visible with bright clothing, lights and reflectors, and keep these handling tips in mind:

  • Brake slowly and steadily downhill, as "panic braking is usually a disaster."

  • Corner more slowly than you do in better weather to "maximize contact of your bike with the ground."

  • Opt for main roads instead of side streets, as they tend be better maintained. Some off-street trails -- like the River Road, Light Rail Trail and Midtown Greenway -- tend to be kept pretty clear, too.

This guide should get you started. But what to do about motivation, or rather the lack of it, that causes some of us -- OK, me -- to stick closely to our couches in the dead of winter? How can we maintain our enthusiasm for self-propulsion, when it looks so damn nasty inside?

Just keep this in mind, McCarthy said:

"Biking makes you warm. You build up a core temperature, and just being outside and being active makes outside not suck," she said. "Just walking out to start your car sucks -- but once you get get moving and you're warm, you can enjoy it out there."

Grease Rag girls

From left, Grease Rag gals Schoen, Penn and Laura Kling cruise home after the successful skill share.

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    But where are you going to clean your bike after every ride?

    I keep my bike in my garage. If it's ten degrees outside, it's maybe 18 degrees in my garage. Am I supposed to hose the bike down? Where? There's no running water in the garage and even if I brought the bike into the house....i.e. through the kitchen and downstairs to the basement.....even then, where would I be cleaning up the bike after every winter ride? The bathroom? The bike wouldn't fit. The laundry room maybe? Yuck.

    Who really cleans a bike after every ride? Or could we just supposed to run a towel acoss the chain, park it in the garage and call it a day?

    Just wondering. Most other stuff in the article made sense.

    Thanks for writing this. Maybe it will inspire me. I've thought about getting studded tires for a few winter now......

     

    Coming soon, to the Grease Rag blog!

    Re: Cleaning your bike

    This was a question asked at the skill-share, and there will be a blog post coming up about this topic.  Put us in your feed or check back in a week:  www.greaseragmpls.wordpress.com

    Basically, the advice is to wipe the bike down after every time you ride.  It is also recommended to keep your bike cold, because the more more your bike freezes and then melts, the more opportunity corrosive chemicals (road salt) are going to have to attack your bike.

    Re: Studs

    There is also a post coming up about tires.  I didn't ride with studs last year, but I am going to try them this year because I am concerned about safety, and I have heard nothing but good things about riding on ice with studs.

    If there are other questions about winter riding or topics that we covered in the skill-share, we'd love to hear and respond to them on our blog, or email greaseragmpls [at] gmail [dot] com.

    Thanks to Karen Hollish for braving the icy roads and writing this great summary of our event.

    Thanks,

    Low + Grease Rag Ride & Wrench

    www.greaseragmpls.wordpress.com

    hosing your bike down

    You should never "hose" your bike down, and what I mean by that is don't use pressurized water near your hubs, headset, bottom bracket, pedals, cables/housing  etc. You can use the hose to rinse it off gently, and only when the water won't freeze. Frozen water in your cable houising can cause brakes to fail.  I never use the hose on my bikes myself.


    What I do with my winter bikes is:


    1) use frame saver to protect the steel from rust.


    2) Using a damp cloth I'll wipe off excess salt and sand.


    3) putting a fender on your front wheel will protect your drive train from salt and sand kicked up by the wheel. If you don't want a full fender  you can install a mudflap or a piece of cardboard to stop the spray.


    4) oil my chain with wax based lubricant (after having cleaned all the oil based lubricant off) and oil it frequently.

    Right on!

    Totally agree with you, Poorimpulsecontrol.  (Consider commenting on the Grease Rag post about Winter Maintenance?)

    4.  I know that wax protects better, but I really hate how dirty it gets, so I use Phil Wood oil.

    Maintenance and Cleaning

    http://greaseragmpls.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/winter-skill-share-recap-maintenance-and-cleaning-with-shayne-plus-online-resources/

    Hi, Lynnell!

    The maintenance and cleaning post is up, and I specifically responded to your questions.  I hope you check us out and respond in the comments!

    Thanks,

    Low + GR

     

    My cleaning routine

    Bike maintenance in the winter is about balance. On the one hand, you want to keep your bike cold by storing it outside all the time. If you bring your bike inside during the workday, moisture can condense and then freeze when you take it outside to ride home. This causes different moving parts to freeze mid-ride. This happened to me several times until I finally saw the light and kept my winter bike cold 24 hours a day. 

    On the other hand, you want to clean it regularly, and in our harsh, northern climate, if you clean it outside with water it will freeze. Plus, who wants to be outside in their garage for 30 minutes cleaning a bike when it's 10 above?

    Here's what I do. I take it inside every Friday night and, while drinking a beer, fully work it over with a degreaser, rag, old toothbrush, etc. I then relube. I then keep it inside for the entire weekend so that it fully and completely dries off. 

    I've normally gone with a wax based lube like White Lightening but this winter I'm trying out an oil based lube. I also have had success with Tri Flow, which I squirt right into my freewheel hubs and other friction points. Tri Flow forces water out of the hubs. 

    One more thing. I'm a big proponent of MTBs for winter riding. You can get a good quality secondhand MTB, they're all over the place if you're standard size like me. MTBs keep your weight mostly on the rear wheel, which helps with ice handling.

    Great article and pictures! A

    Great article and pictures! A lot of practical advice, however I admit I usually don't clean my bike as often as I should in the winter (never)--it still works, thankfully. 

    Karen thank you for this. I

    Karen thank you for this. I have family living in the twin cities I visit often. I try to visit them in the summer, not the winter, but this definitely makes a compelling case that I should not avoid them when it gets colder.