We’ve all done it: overestimated the temperature outside, hammered up a climb in the cold only to freeze in our own sweat on the descent, put on that extra pair of socks in an attempt to keep feet warm only to have all blood circulation cut off from the tight fit, accidentally stayed out after the sun had dipped below the horizon. There are hundreds of ways to mess up a winter ride with more dire consequences in the winter than the summer.
There are a few classic mistakes, that when avoided, can greatly enhance a winter riding experience. This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that can go wrong, and each point has a dozen variations, but the next time you’re at the top of a climb thinking that you’re plenty warm and don’t pause to put a jacket on for the descent, think again.
1. Letting water bottles freeze and not hydrating
There is nothing worse than reaching for a bottle of water and finding it frozen solid. The freezing process can take a matter of minutes to a matter of hours depending on the ambient temperature and once frozen, bottles will take an eternity to melt. Many solutions exist to this problem with the simplest being the use of insulated bottles. While designed to keep cold beverages cold in hot climates, they also work to keep water in its liquid form in mildly cold temperatures. Another solution is to use a camelback with an insulated hose. By keeping the bladder near the body, the water stays warmer and as long as the water is blown back into the bladder after every drink and the mouthpiece tucked away, bladders can be used in extremely cold temperatures.
While running out of food on a summer ride is unfortunate and is terrible for recovery, running out of food on a winter ride and letting blood sugar levels drop can be dangerous. When it’s cold out, it’s easy to forgo eating, especially if the food you’re eating is frozen. While riding in the cold doesn’t burn significantly more calories than riding in warmer temperatures, falling behind on calorie intake is easy to do. Always bring a variety of foods that can be eaten even temperatures are freezing.
3. Allowing insulating layers to get wet
As mentioned in an earlier article concerning dressing for winter conditions, one of the crucial pieces of the warmth puzzle is keeping insulating layers dry. In most cases, this means keeping them shielded from sweat. This can be done by using a vapor barrier between the skin and insulating layers or by regulating sweat rate by controlling exertion levels and wearing materials that wick effectively. Whatever the choice, be sure that your main insulating layer (down, fleece, wool) is kept away from moisture.
4. Wearing tight fitting shoes or gloves
I have memories from my early years skiing, when in an attempt to keep my feet warm, my parents would triple sock our feet and then shove our oversized feet into ski boots. Within a lift-ride, my feet would be numb. Insulation functions by keeping heat in, not by creating heat. In the case of feet and hands, the heat that is carried to the extremities through blood flow. If circulation is diminished due to tight fitting clothing, there is less heat being given off and less heat to trap, thus numb hands and feet. The best solution to this is to size up with winter clothing. A pair of winter shoes one to two sizes too big will allow for an extra pair of socks as well as allowing for plenty of wiggle room for the toes to further increase circulation. Tight gloves, regardless of how warm, will lead to numb fingers so try lobster gloves, or if riding on terrain that doesn’t need delicate braking or shifting maneuvers, try mittens.
5. Not putting extra layers on at top of climb
As bike riders, most of us don’t like to stop often to adjust clothing layers. At the top of most climbs, it’s easy to feel warm and comfortable from the body heat produced by grunting up a long hill and not want to stop for the few seconds that it would take to put a jacket on. But generally, at the top of every hill is a downhill and the wind-chill on a sweaty body combined with the sudden decrease in power output, and thus heat output, can wreak havoc on the body. Once the core temperature has dropped, it’s difficult to bring it back up, so make a habit of adding a layer before any extended descent. You’re heat regulation will thank you for it.
6. Letting hands go non-functional
There’s only one thing worse than a flat tire: A flat tire when your hands are too numb to use tire irons and a pump. There’s always a bit of a temptation to let numbness take away the pain of coldness especially on a road or cross bike where shifting and braking can be done using whole-hand movement rather than thumb movements needed for trigger shifters on a mountain bike. It’s always easier to bring cold hands back to life than it is frozen hands (and it hurts a lot less, too) so when you start to feel the functionality draining from your fingers, stop and employ one of the many hand-warming techniques developed by skiers: the arm flap, the bear hugs, the clenching and unclenching fists, etc.
The same goes for feet. Don’t be ashamed of running for 100 steps next to your bike will immediately return circulation to cold feet.
7. Riding on closed Nordic trails
One of the most ideal locations to ride a snow bike is on groomed Nordic trails. Currently, the majority of Nordic centers do not allow snow bikes on their trails but the general attitude towards fat-bikes is changing. There are many groups working to open Nordic trails around the country to bikes so avoid placing a black mark on cyclists by riding trails illegally. Instead, if there’s a Nordic center in your neighborhood, find out if there’s an organization pushing for fat-bike consideration and join their efforts. If there isn’t a group, start one.
8. Running high tire pressure
Coming from a road racing background, I did my first mountain bike race with 55 psi in my tires. It did not end well. Since tubeless tires, tire pressures have continued to drop, and even with tubes, tires on a snow bike can be run at ridiculously low pressures. While fat bikes will run in the single digits to the low teens, even normal tires can be run in the high teens. Lower tire pressure will greatly increase the contact area with the snow, improving traction and steering control. It will also help soften out bumps left by hikers on packed singletrack trails.
9. Wearing no or inadequate eye protection
Most cyclists wear eye protection to avoid irritation from wind and to block the errant rock from inflicting damage. In the winter, eye protection shields the eyeballs from the wind and helps keep the eyes from freezing. Frozen eyeballs can lead to temporary blindness and cause long-term damage if left unchecked. In extremely cold temperatures, normal glasses will fog due to the upward motion of the breath when the mouth and nose are under layers of skin protection but ski goggles work well both to keep the cold out and to help prevent fogging. Be sure to use ski goggles and not motocross goggles as moto goggles will fog and freeze.
10. Exposed skin
For most snow rides where the temperature is above 0-degrees F, the sun is out, the speed is relatively low, and the ride two hours or less, a little bit of exposed skin won’t end in disaster. But once the mercury starts to drop into the negatives and rides get longer, any exposed skin can become a liability. According to military training manuals, frostbite can occur on exposed skin within 45 minutes in -10 degree temperatures without wind and at 0-degrees with a 15 mph wind. To avoid the dangers of frostbite, make sure susceptible areas such as earlobes and nose tips are covered. Iditabike racers annually race through -40 degree temperatures for days on end, so there are plenty of options for dealing with the cold.
Winter riding doesn’t need to be miserable or cold. With a few simple precautions, it can be made quite pleasant. The key is to experiment with clothing and layers because a system that works for a sweaty person will leave another person frozen. The riding season doesn’t have to end when the temperatures plummet and those who take up the non-gravity fueled sport of running in the winter because they think that it’s too cold to ride simply haven’t discovered the right clothing.
Check out more suggestions for how to prepare for winter riding.
Eszter Horanyi lives and mountain bikes in Crested Butte, CO. She has dabbled in road racing, cyclocross racing, and cross country mountain bike racing, but has gravitated towards ultra endurance and multi day self supported racing in the more recent past. She firmly believes that nothing tops a good ride with good friends on good trails, thus she spends her life in search of all of the above. All articles by Eszter.