January 7, 2013

What's with Winter Bikes?

On any given winter weekday morning, it is easy to spot Madison’s sizable contingent of “winter bikers,” who are actual people beneath layers of winter bike gear: balaclavas, goggles, breathing masks, construction-style reflective vests, winter Lycra, and wrist-deep Bar Mitt handlebar gloves. While it is encouraging to see so many people out biking year-round, as I have written in previous posts, such as “Riding a Bike in the Winter Isn't Extreme,” all of the specialized gear is not a prerequisite to biking in the winter. I believe this extends to the bike you actually ride: You don’t need a “winter bike;” you just need a decent bike for year-round transportation.
Winter Biker Myth #1:
Winter will destroy your nice bike, so put it away till springtime. For the winter, you need a “winter bike:” an old, junky bike to ride, typically an old mountain bike with knobby tires, basically a disposable bike.

Wait a minute, if it’s a crappy bike to begin with, of course it won’t hold up to the elements! Isn’t this just propelling the myth that winter kills bikes? It seems to me that there is a huge flaw with a transportation cycle if it cannot be used year-round.  Shouldn’t I be able to rely on the bike I already own, the one I prefer to ride?

I’m not arguing that snow and salt don’t rust some parts, but I’d rather use my bike and accept that it will require maintenance and need parts replaced throughout its life. My economical, upright Dutch bike has held up as my main mode of transportation during the last two winters. The winter is the time of year when you need a safe and reliable bike the most, not a time to store your trusty bike and downgrade to a “winter bike.”
Winter Biker Myth #2
You really need studded tires in order to bike in the winter.

Some folks have flat out insisted that without studded tires, I will wipe out for sure. For the record, I’ve wiped out once in four winters of riding and I’ve never used studded tires. When Madison’s cross-country skiers are lucky enough to get snow, we’re fortunate that the bike paths and lanes are quickly cleared.

Studded tires are still no guarantee against slipping and falling on the ice; commonsense caution is still your best defense. When it's slippery, I take it slow, sometimes walking my bike over icy patches. This isn't really much different from walking or driving a car during the winter.

Studded tires are a drag; literally, they make pedaling more work. The impracticality and expense of switching out regular tires for studded tires and then back again seems like an unnecessary hassle.

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