You’ve doubtless seen the wintery pictures in the mags – bike riders shooting down ski slopes, ploughing through snowdrifts, getting all speedway on icy bits. You’ve probably concluded that they’re a light-hearted one-off – they’ve just carried the bikes up to a likely-looking bit of snow, shot photos for a couple of hours and retired to the hotel for hot chocolate and muffins. And you’re probably right. But that doesn’t mean that snowbiking isn’t a very real and achievable activity.
There’s a thriving snowbike community out there, with international newsgroups, website reviews of snow-specific equipment, and other encouraging resources. While there’s no denying that riding in snow can be challenging, with realistic goals and the right degree of equipment, preparation and common sense, snowbiking is accessible to the vast majority of riders. And falling off into three feet of fresh snow doesn’t hurt much! So wrap up warm, consider acquiring a set of snow tyres, and get out there to enjoy the different challenges that snowbiking offers.
Where to ride
One of the greatest things about snowbiking is the infinite variety of riding conditions encountered out on the trail. Even if you only have access to one suitable snowbiking route, it will offer different experiences every time you ride it. It’s like surfing; the beach is always there, but some days will be good surf days, and others not so good. Compared to summer riding, you may have to downgrade your expectations a little, as progress is likely to be slower and harder work. You should also be prepared for more frequent walks and the possibility that you may need to turn back and try another day. As ever, the more you ride, the more you will become attuned to what will work and what won’t.
It’s a bit counterintuitive but, assuming that your snowbike is equipped with studded tyres, sheet-ice probably represents your best chances of forward motion, especially if any uphill is involved. The studs provide an impressive amount of grip, which is unlikely to be bettered even by walking (unless you’re wearing crampons, and they’re not great on pedals). Hard-packed snow comes a strong second, and well-used routes are a good starting point for the would-be snowbiker. With our somewhat unreliable snow record, Britain may not seem like the best haunt for snowbikers, yet with the Alps a short trip away there is still plenty of scope when the UK winter is mild – if you’re driving out to a ski resort this winter and are feeling adventurous, consider chucking the bike in the boot too. The resort environment, with its walking and snowshoe paths, service routes, dog-sled tracks and skidoo trails can provide a range of alternatives which all may have a suitably compressed base. Consider night riding, when traffic is greatly reduced on all such trails. Ski pistes can also provide excellent snowbiking, but your right to use them is at best questionable, and they should never be attempted during skiing hours. Even at night, a careful lookout for piste-grooming vehicles needs to be maintained, and a suitably worded insurance policy would also be a good idea.
The wheel thing
Not surprisingly, wheel set-up is central to snowbiking, and perhaps the most dramatic and effective weapon in the arsenal is the studded tyre. In more temperate regions the likelihood of a midday thaw followed by an overnight freeze means that ice may be frequently encountered during the winter months. Whether off-road or on-road this is where studs come into their own. While not failsafe, they do offer a huge improvement in control. In climates where snow and ice persist through the winter, riders would tend to use studs throughout the season, whereas in regions such as the UK where ice is a more sporadic event a quick change of tyres or even better a spare set of wheels made up ready seems to be the more efficient approach.
Studs, produced by companies such as Nokian and Schwalbe, are available as off-road tyres with wide spaced lugs, or on-road tyres with a much closer spaced tread. It should be noted that being significantly heavier than regular tyres, there is increased rolling resistance (making pedalling harder), and the studs can be pretty noisy on bare roads. Sadly, these tyres also come with a fairly enthusiastic price tag, particularly the Nokians, but in terms of build quality and stud durability, you do appear to get what you pay for. If your budget won’t stretch further than one tyre, then the stud should go on the front; you are more likely to remain upright if you rear-wheel spins than if your front wheel washes out.
Having said all that, if you are never likely to encounter ice on your rides, then there’s no real need to consider studs at all; they won’t make any difference in deep snow. In these conditions the issue is all about floatation, which is in turn dictated by the footprint presented by the tyre. Wide mud tyres with well-spaced lugs that won’t pack out with snow will work just fine. Floatation is further enhanced by running a low tyre pressure, allowing the tyres to flatten out. Experts suggest you can get as low as 10-15psi although this can have a detrimental effect on tyre sidewalls – it’s worth heeding any minimum-pressure advice provided by the manufacturer.
Another trick to improve floatation is the use of extra-wide rims. The definitive snow rim, the Snowcat, is a 44mm wide single skinned rim developed for the Alaskan long-distance Iditabike race, but these rims can prove hard to come by in Europe. Downhill rims such as the Sun Doublewide are more readily available and can be used as an alternative, but are comparatively heavy.
The more deep, soft and powdery the snow gets, the more difficult it is to get a bike going. On downhill routes, the gradient can offset some of these initial problems, but in deep snow the tyres are unable to bite into anything solid, and the bike washes about like riding on sand. In these circumstances, it is difficult to do more than follow the fall-line of the hillside, and anything off-camber is likely to end horizontally. Having said all that, the more deep, soft and powdery the snow gets, the less painful it is to fall into.
During sunny weather, the surface of the snow-pack undergoes a cycle of thawing and refreezing, producing a hard crust over softer snow. This can be difficult and unpredictable to ride; the crust thickness will vary according to the amount of sun it has been exposed to, so under trees, there may be a lesser crust than in open meadows. Confusingly, as the sun initiates another thaw cycle, the crust in the meadow, which is exposed to stronger light, may be softer than that under the trees. There’s a speed trade-off in these conditions. Hit such snow at speed and it’s more likely to hold as each patch of crust has to support your weight for less time. However, if the crust gives way under the front wheel at speed, you’re likely to go over the bars in a rather spectacular manner. The best compromise is to keep the speed up and your weight back. In terms of under-wheel conditions the coldest times of the day (first thing in the morning or late at night) are likely to offer the best snowbiking conditions.
If there’s snow it’s inevitably cold, and this leads to certain health implications if you’re riding a bike in it. Exposure, and to a lesser extent frostbite, are the big problems even in the comparatively mild UK, but suitable clothing provides an obvious solution. However, there is a large surface area of the body, which although exposed directly to the air is often not considered at all – the lungs. Think back to a long hard climb on a frosty day and you will remember the burning sensation as the cold air is drawn deep down. Just what are the consequences of hard aerobic activity in a cold environment?
When exposed to cold air, some of the normal responses (such as a runny nose) are very apparent. But more subtle changes also occur, including tightening of the airways and an increased sensitivity to irritants. Such changes often go unnoticed, but some people react much more strongly than others and it seems that symptom-free people who suffered from asthma as children are particularly sensitive to this challenge. It is well known that cold air can trigger breathing problems in those already susceptible, and in fact it is used as a challenge for assessing exercise-induced asthma. Cooling of the airways may directly initiate an attack, although chilling of the nose or face may play a part. Think of how a splash of cold water in the face takes your breath away, and it isn’t too hard to believe that there is a link between skin temperature and breathing. A further complication in the understanding of this effect is that cold air is generally quite dry. On a frosty bright day, visibility is often very good for just this reason. Since dry air has also been shown to trigger asthmatic attacks, the effect of cold air may be due to its low humidity.
Leaving the scientific debate to one side, what are the impacts for the average winter cyclist? Although some cyclists may experience no discomfort, for others there is the potential for anything from a mild tightening of the chest or dry cough to a full-blown asthmatic attack. Breathing problems should be assessed and managed by your doctor, but they do not necessarily mean that you should hang up the bike until spring. Simple precautions may help those susceptible to cold-induced breathing problems to keep riding all winter. For example, a simple face mask or scarf will greatly reduce the irritant effect of cold air, whether by insulating the face or by moistening and warming incoming air. A good warm-up period may help deflect some of the problems, whilst concentrating on nose breathing wherever possible and maintaining a modest pace gives the incoming air the greatest chance to become “conditioned” before hitting the sensitive airways.
Then of course, there is the common sense “don’t run with knives” stuff that hardly needs mentioning, but we’ll mention it anyway. If you’re on medication for breathing problems, make sure the dosage is kept up to date, and if you use an inhaler make sure you’ve got it with you. Try to avoid riding alone in case it all goes pear-shaped, and make sure that your buddies are aware of potential problems and what to do should they arise. As ever, listen and learn how your body responds to different conditions, and don’t bite off more than you can chew.