I’ve been a transportation cyclist for 40 years. Of course, until a couple of years ago I was a commuter, then I discovered the new terminology. I ride year-round in Boulder, Colorado. For those of you who know Colorado only from the ads for ski areas, riding in the winter is not as bad as you think. We don’t get that much snow in Boulder.
Riding in winter is good for you and satisfying, and it can be a lot of fun. I’m really opposed to devotion to dogma and to Emerson’s “foolish consistency”, so I ride the bus or (gasp) drive when that suits the conditions, the mission or my mood. You don’t have to ride all the time, or even often. Just take a small dose and see if you like it.
Here are three things that will make your winter cycling a lot more pleasurable and safe.
Even though we don’t get a great deal of snow, what we do have on Boulder streets are spots of black ice that persist long after the snow is gone from the streets. Before I discovered the Nokian Hakkapeliitta W106, I used to ride the bus for several days after a storm, and sometimes for weeks at a time, during a stormy period. I’d go down a couple of times each winter, and these were mostly front-wheel falls that really hurt.
The W106 is a 700c x 35 tire with a moderately knobby tread and 106 carbide studs, located near the center line of the tire. In the five winters I’ve been using these tires I’ve rarely ridden the bus, and I’ve fallen off only once, and that was due to a brain lock. It’s worth noting that that fall, in a deep, refrozen, glass-smooth tire rut, happened much more slowly than it would have without the studs. No harm done except to my pride.
I love riding at night in freshly falling powder–almost any tire works in those conditions. Riding on hard packed roads and plowed roads with studded tires is great. But, where these studded tires really shine is on ice–if you ride sensibly they really eliminate any concern of falling on black ice. These tires aren’t the answer for every condition–riding on that in-between “breakable-crust” stage is miserable on a 700c road tire. Even a mountain bike tire will break through. You’ll need one of those monster bikes to have fun on that stuff. Luckily, this is usually only a problem here for a day, unless the weather is very cold so the snow crystals do not fuse together.
Studded tires are slower and heavier than regular commuting tires. Riding on dry surfaces is fine, but it sounds like you are riding over scattered sand grains. In fact, that’s a good way to characterize your traction on black ice–as if there were a thin layer of sand on top of the ice. You should be able to fit the W106 tires on most commuter bikes. If you are looking for something for gonzo winter riding, there are mountain bike and road bike tires with up to 240 studs each, but these need room in the fork and rear triangle. Because these 240-stud tires have studs up on the side of the tire, people claim you can ride out of big ruts and ride side hills with them.
Get studded tires at Harris Cyclery (in memory of Sheldon Brown) or at Peter White Cycles or ask for them at your local bike shop. The W106 may no longer be available, but there are other equivalent tires.
Cyo Senso and the Dynamo
When I decided to move on from my trusty Trek mountain bike (which I had fitted with a Nexus 7-speed internal hub), I looked locally on Craigslist. I was looking for a frame to build up, but I found nearly the perfect bike: a Surly Cross-Check with a Nexus 8-speed Alfine power train (I’ve been commuting on internal gear hubs for over thirty years–even that first 7-speed Nexus was a big step up from the old 3-speed Sturmey Archer.) What the Cross-Check had that I didn’t even know I wanted was a front wheel with a Sturmey Archer hub brake and a built-in 6-volt dynamo.
The hub brake was no great shakes at any time, but it was superior to iced-up rims in the winter. The dynamo, however was a game-changer. That is, once I hooked it up to a Busch & Müller Lumotec Cyo Senso LED headlamp and a Busch & Müller Toplight taillight. One ride and I knew that the lighting problem for bicycles had been solved.
The Cyo throws a long, broad, bright beam–when adjusted too high it will blind oncoming traffic. Its reflection startles me when I ride directly toward a plate glass window.
And, its power cost is, well, virtually zero. The Cyclists’ Touring Club in the UK has done a nice analysis (below) of the drag of hub dynamos: with the light off a dynamo adds drag roughly equivalent to climbing one foot in a mile; with the light on the drag is roughly equivalent to climbing six feet in a mile. The bottom line: I can’t tell the difference when I turn the light on. Rob Dean, a UK endurance racer, puts the drag of a dynamo in terms of McVite’s Digestive biscuits.
The “Senso” in Lumotec Cyo Senso means that the light has a sensor that will turn it on automatically when it gets dark (the light has a three-position switch: off, on and senso). It’s cool to see it come on in a tunnel, but, after a while I just turned the light to “on” and left it–the added visibility is worth the slight bit of additional drag.
The best source for dynamo lights (or lights of any type) is Peter White Cycles. This guy is a real Geek, who provides you with loads of data, including images of the light patterns for different lights. My exact light is no longer available, but has been replaced by much better versions.
The most expensive part of a dynamo lighting system is the dynamo wheel. I use a Shimano Alfine disk-brake hub on my current Swobo Fillmore, but the old Sturmey Archer worked fine. Fancier hubs have less drag, but you’re out there for the exercise, right (and you have an excuse to eat more McVite’s). You can find built-up wheels with the Shimano Alfine dynamo for about $220. I see one wheel with a Sanyo dynamo hub for $95. Peter White warns you away from the low-cost 1.5 watt Shimano hubs.
OMG, this jacket is shocking when illuminated. I walk into stores or offices and people startle. I’ve had two people stop me and ask where I got it. This is by far the most reflective jacket I’ve seen. The marketing photo is really not an exaggeration:
The Reflect360 performs well as a jacket. It has lots of pockets, is fully windproof and seems impervious to water. It seems to be made of a vinyl compound, probably to embed the reflective stuff, and that initially has an odor and is stiffer and heavier than the superlight nylon or polyester. It’s not racing kit. The zippers are also stiff, at least so far. As I said, it is impervious and it does not seem to breathe, so you must use the armpit zips and the front zipper for ventilation. Speaking of the front zipper, mine is a left-side zip, what I was brought up to think was used (for some reason) on womens’ clothing. This is the second piece of European cycling clothing I’ve gotten that is like this. It’s not a big problem, but just takes some getting used to.
But, whatever the small disadvantages of this jacket, it has one big advantage–It will help you stay alive.
Update on the Reflect360, December 3, 2015: Tonight an oncoming, well-lighted cyclist yelled out to me “Nice Jacket!” Last night a woman approached me to ask where she could get one. I think she might at first have thought that it had batteries. I almost feel self-conscious riding in the thing. I had a another thought while riding on busy streets the last couple of nights: Beyond making me more visible, the jacket gives me a clearly human form. This might just be the edge I need some time.
With respect to performance, I rode the loaded Swobo (with studs) out to Sparkfun today, and from there to Lynker and finally home. 22.5 miles. When you are working for a while the jacket gets moist–you might want to adjust ventilation more frequently than I did.