Setting your bike up for riding in the snow and ice this winter doesn’t require much. You will usually get by with your original set-up, but let me throw some tips out there, just in case you are just getting into snow biking, or would like to.
When it comes to riding in snow, tires couldn’t matter more. This seems like an obvious statement, because it is. The looser, softer, and slicker the surface you are riding your bike on, the more you are going to notice the difference your tread makes.
Slicks are out of the question. Most mountain bike tires will be adequate. The fatter they are, the better, because they can be run at lower pressures, and the wider footprint will aid in flotation, giving you an obvious boost when trying to propel your bike over a snowy surface that is still a little soft. You should also be using a tire with tall, widely spaced knobs. Tires designed for loose dirt and mud conditions are probably the best you will find for riding in the snow too.
There are studded tire options available for mountain bikes. The best I have seen come form Nokian, Continental, and Schwalbe. They cost a lot more than a comparable tire without studs, and the higher the stud count, the more money you’ll pay. On ice, studded tires are really the only hope that you have, but if you do not encounter any ice, or really hardpacked snow, then you really aren’t going to see very much advantage to running studded tires at all. They are a lot heavier than your regular tires, and chances are while spinning out up a loose snowmobile or cat track, you will notice that weight more than you will notice any increase in traction. So, if you have money to spend on some tires with studs, then it may be a good idea, but you don’t really need them to have a good time out there.
You can ride clipped in if you want, but you may prefer to change your clipless pedals out for a good set of platforms with aggressive pins. Being clipped in is going to be nice for maintaining an even pedal stroke, which will help keep traction on the rear wheel while climbing. You spin out a lot on snow, and every time they slip, you waste big time energy. But, despite the pedaling benefits, I still prefer to have my feet free for a couple of reasons. The first one being that while riding those narrow trenches of singletrack, It is all to easy to ride off the edge of the packed trail, resulting in the front wheel sinking hub deep in the snow and throwing you over the bars. This may happen a dozen or more times on a ride if the trail edges are punchy and post-holed by dog walkers and large mammals!
The other reason I opt for platforms is I can wear a sturdy high top shoe or boot, which helps hiking through sections of the ride that are too soft to climb, and my feet are always warmer this way than when they are in SPD shoes, even with the neoprene shoe covers.
Ultimately, the pedals and footwear you choose depend on what kind of trail and weather conditions you will be riding. I have friends who always clip in, even while snow biking, and they seem fine with it. Others, like myself, prefer to ride unclipped when messing about on the snow and ice.
There isn’t too much to talk about with regards to changing your bike set-up. One piece of advice I could give would be to lower your saddle just a little bit. When you mess up on the trail and need to put a foot down you will appreciate the extra space over bike. When snow biking, the trail surface may be hard enough to ride on, but the edges are usually soft. You will often loose your balance if you put a foot down into soft snow and it sinks. When that happens, you will appreciate any extra stand over height you can get!
Apart from that, I have never encountered any serious issues riding in the snow. It is better than mud, because it doesn’t get into anything. It doesn’t mess up your cables, or your brake pads, or your drive train. It just melts away after the ride at most leaving a little rust on the chain if you haven’t kept it lubed.
You may encounter some issues with freewheels and hubs sometimes if the temperature is really cold. When the grease inside moving parts gets cold, you will notice that it really slows things down. Sometimes this leads to your freehub temporarily slowing down or even getting stuck open (which sucks) It can usually be solved by bringing the bike in to warm up and dry out. I think a lot of problems arise when moisture gets inside your bike somehow and then turns to ice. This has happened to me inside cables, and they wouldn’t move until they warmed up and dried out. To prevent most cases of freeze up, it is a good idea to store your bike in a warm garage or inside the house, to give it a chance to thaw out and evaporate any moisture that may have gotten in there while riding.
Get out there and give it a go!
Long story short, if you already have a mountain bike, you can get some riding in this winter even if there is a thick blanket of snow on the ground. It is quite challenging at times, but there may not be any better way at improving your balance on the bike. The only thing you need to do now is find some places to ride.
Have a great Winter!
Some companies offer really fat tired bikes (and i mean really fat!) specifically for biking in the sand and snow, you can check them out here:
Surly Pugsley, Surly Moonlander, Fatback Bikes, Salsa Mukluk
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