How to stay cycling in the snow
SARANAC LAKE — Saranac Lake is a bike-able place for many, with nearly a third of the population working in the village employed in the downtown area, according to the village Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant application.
This can mean short commutes. Maybe you’re interested in biking to work for both the health and environmental rewards. Regardless of why you bike, the snow is coming, so how do you and your bike prepare for winter?
It comes down to five key elements, according to John Dimon, owner and operator of Human Power Planet Earth bicycle shop. First — safety.
Commutes on roads with heavy traffic and shorter, darker days demand increased precautions. Head lamps, reflective vests, flashers on the front and back of a bike — all of these things are recommended additions to a commuter’s everyday gear.
“You will see people commuting from here to Lake Placid on a bicycle,” Dimon said. “And when it’s dark, and you’ve got a black bike, against a black jacket and black asphalt — cars don’t see you.”
“A good light is very important, because the street lighting is not great,” Marijke Ormel said. She bikes a 5-mile round trip to the Adirondack Medical Center for work, even in winter weather. She said the light is not just to make yourself visible to motorists but also to see potholes and other obstacles. She said she’s been biking nearly every day since she was 6, and used to bike to Lake Placid from this village regularly for work in the summer.
“I’ve learned how to bike in every occasion,” Ormel said. “I had to bike as a kid to school — 8 miles a day.” Ormel moved here from Holland, where she said most people bike for transportation.
“It’s a little more effort. I think it’s faster. I don’t have to scrape, I don’t have to plow my driveway,” Ormel said. She added that the only thing that goes into her prep is setting out her clothes and checking tomorrow’s weather. “It’s so much more community oriented.”
She said with everyone tucked into their cars and houses, there isn’t much face-to-face interaction outside in the winter. Being on a bike, you see and meet others braving the frigid climate.
Another part of winter bike safety is choosing your route, Ormel said. She takes Old Lake Colby Road to get to the hospital. Both Ormel and Dimon advised that a cyclist shouldn’t be afraid to take it slower on a sidewalk.
Next, find yourself some fenders.
“Fenders make all the difference in the world,” Dimon said. “When you ride on a slushy day, and you’re going to see those very soon, you’re going to see slush all over the place. People that ride to work without fenders, you’re going to look and the whole bike is covered with slush.”
This can cause a couple problems for a commuting cyclist — in spattering both the rider and the bike. The slush can freeze on the bike frame and cause serious rusting. The rider, now splattered with frozen muck, might have to pack an extra pair of clothes to be professionally presentable.
“I always think in terms, can a person go to work and be very quickly be ready to work,” Dimon said.
Third — studded or knobby tires can offer increased traction on slick surfaces. Tires with their treads studded with metal inserts can run you $100 apiece, but offer stability and bite on slick surfaces.
“People see them and are like, ‘Oh my gosh, they cost like four times as much as my regular tire.’ But you know what? You have them for years,” Dimon said.
He estimated that a pair of studded tires could last a cyclist a decade if they switch them out in the spring and summer. Ormel said that she’s used her studded tires for around five years now. She switches over in fall and changes back to her regular tires in March.
“A lot of people bring their bikes in and they say, ‘Switch my tires over,'” Dimon said. “It’s almost like people go to the tire store and say, ‘OK. Can you put my snow tires on?'”
Fat tire bikes, which became popular over the last decade, can also help to navigate wintry conditions. “It’s not mandatory but it certainly helps,” said cyclist Chris Gosling. He said a standard mountain bike tire can handle 2 to 2-and-a-half inches of snow, but a 5-inch tire like those on fat tire bikes can handle most of anything.
“Fat tires work like snowshoes,” Gosling said, “and while you’re never fully on top of snow, it helps you from sinking down in it.” He said he’s been biking in the winter for the last four years, since climate change projections showed him that skiing throughout the snowy season might not be a possibility in the future. Chris said he still wanted to get out and exercise, and when fat tire bikes became popular, he saw his opportunity to do so.
Ormel said she would consider getting a fat tire bike in the future, but with how expensive they are — their studded knobby tires can run upwards of $200 apiece — and how fast salt and slush can destroy a bike, she hasn’t made the switch.
She said she’s tried a couple different strategies for winter biking. One was buying a cheaper single-speed bike from Dick’s for winter riding. She said it rusted out after a couple of years.
After that, she traveled back to Holland to get a German-made winter bike with a stainless steel chain enclosed by a plastic shield, along with the gear mechanisms. She admitted that it was expensive, but worth it if you’re biking near every day like she is.
Staying warm, the fourth key to winter biking, is probably the easiest for most — because people who live around here already know how to layer, Dimon said.
“I kind of dress as I would for cross-country skiing,” Gosling said.
“You gotta keep your head warm, you gotta keep your hands warm, and you have to keep your feet warm,” Dimon said.
A warm cranium can be achieved with a skull cap or balaclava — anything tight enough that a helmet can still fit your head correctly, Dimon said.
“If it’s really slushy and wet, boot covers. Windproof gloves. Windproof, breathable jacket. Wind pants are easy,” Dimon said.
Both Gosling and Ormel will sometimes use windproof mitts — larger sheaths for your hands on the handlebars that can allow you wear a thinner, more articulate glove.
“Keep your bike clean; clean your drive train clean,” Dimon said. “Lubricate it like once a week. And just don’t leave any excess lubrication on it.”
Once you’ve lubed your chain, and left it to sit and soak for a couple of minutes, it’s wise to wipe off any lubrication lingering on the outside of the chain.
Once it’s soaked into the inner links and the pins — that’s where you need it, Dimon said. Anything on the outside of the chain doesn’t help lubricate it any better. It draws in the sand used to keep roads passable in the snow.
“That sand can abrade and wear the drive train needlessly,” Dimon said.
“Clean your bike through the winter,” Dimon said. “Keep the slush and the salt off it. And if you do that, it’s just as doable as going out on your snowshoes or cross-country skis around here.”