Friday, February 14, 2014

Bike Talk: Winter Commuter Bike Considerations

Kenney writes:

I don't know if you're still offering up cycling insight, but I do have a question.

Bicycle commuting and salty roads.

I've been riding my ultegra friction shifting, don't ask, commuting bike on the salty roads of the Midwest.  I clean and lube the chain and derailer more frequently, spray the drive train down with a hand pump squirt bottle and plain water after every salty ride, and I also ordered Chain-L which is on the way.  So far so good.  I was just wondering if there is anything else you think I should be doing?

I used to ride fixed which is almost zero maintenance, but my commute gained miles and hill climbs so I switched to gears.

Research on the internet states:

-Get a winter specific commuting bike. Which I don't want to do.

-Get a cheap drive train that you'll replace after every couple winter seasons. Again no.

-Drive a car and wait until spring.

I don't know if you have already written on this subject or not, I couldn't find anything on your blog.

Thanks Kent.

-Kenney from the Arctic state of Indiana.


I reply:

Hi Kenney,

Well, you've already ruled out a several of the most cost effective solutions for winter riding (a fixed gear, a serviceable but inexpensive bike and less expensive drive-train components), but let's see what you can do.

First off, it sounds like you're doing the right things cleaning-wise. Pay particular attention to rims and brake pads, BTW, I've found KoolStop Salmon pads to be the best for winter & wet riding.

Keep an eye on chain wear. Be real proactive on changing chains to prolong the life of your cassette & chain rings. I know you like the Ultegra stuff, but I've never found any usable difference between it and 105 level stuff. And I run SRAM chains with their quick-link instead of Shimano chains. Works fine & saves money.

Even if you do everything right, you may wear out rims. Around here, it just takes a couple of wet years of hilly commuting to wear through a set of rims.

You probably don't want to hear this, but think again about the fixie. Years ago my friend Peter came into the shop with his lovely Ultegra-equipped titanium Davidson for a tune-up. It was his do-everything (brevets & commuting bike). While I had it in the stand so I could do an estimate on what all it needed I pointed him to a Bianchi San Jose (single speed/fixed gear). "Take this for a spin while I do tally up the estimate." Peter test rode the bike and liked it but "it's not as good as my Davidson." "No, it's not," I countered, "but it's $600 and you've worn through that much in chain-rings, cassette, rims, brake pads and the labor you'll spend for me to fix up your Davidson." Peter got his Davidson all fixed up AND bought the Bianchi. He still logs more miles on that fixie.

Of course, you knew I'd tell you something like this. I'm not exactly the guy to listen when someone says it's too far or too hilly for a fixie!

Ooh, one other thing, make sure you blast some lube like TriFlo into your cable housings.

BTW, the best winter bike I ever had was an old Schwinn American with a Bendix 2-speed kick back hub and a coaster brake. No cables to freeze and super-wide cruiser bars which gave me great leverage for coping with snow and ice-ruts.

I don't know if I've been much help, but that's my 2 cents.

And for gosh sakes don't get a car. That's just crazy talk!



Kenney replies:

Thanks Kent, always appreciate your input.  

My goal was to get rid of bikes and not have a designated "winter" bike.  I wanted to get by with just one road bike, mountain bike, and folder.  It may be time to re-think this.  

I'm not dedicated to Ultegra, it's just what I had in the tool box when I built my most recent bicycle.  I may be the only person that has a friction shifting Ultregra groupset.  

 I have an old Fuji 12 speed and a track rear wheel lying around, I'll build a new commuting fixie this weekend.  This is probably my best option.  My current commuter gets covered in salt and it makes me cringe.

I work nights so my bike sits outside in the elements for 10 hours.  The other morning it was -2degF when I hopped on my bike, it didn't take long to realize that all of my cables were frozen.  I didn't have brakes or shifting. Why have them when you can't use them?

A couple years ago I was looking into the kick back shifting hubs, but from my research it seems the new ones aren't reliable, so I never pulled the trigger. 

Thanks again Kent, looks like fixed it is.    



I reply:

Cool. If you get a chance,send me a picture of your fixie commuter.

BTW is it OK if I post our email exchange on my blog? I'll cut out your email info and just refer to you in the "no last names" way like Tom & Ray do on Car Talk.



Kenney replies:

I'm always happy to share a picture of a bicycle.

Of course you can post our email exchange on your blog.  

Now off to scrap the salt off of my bike.  



He also adds:

You didn't ask, but here's a recent picture of my current commuter. 1st year using studded tires and they're working great.  



Here is a picture of my new 30 year old fixed gear commuter.  I was only able to commute on it two days this week.  My first day of work the bike wasn't complete and the second day we had a bad ice storm so I chose not to ride.  Even though I didn't get a full week of commuting on the bike I feel I have had enough ride time to give an accurate review.

After two days and 44 miles the bike worked out very well.  Gear ratio is 42:16 and so far I think this is a good choice.

The climbs are tough but not bad.  Momentum is your friend.

Of course the main advantage and the reason for the bike build was the ease of cleaning and maintenance. Two days of snow, slush, mud, and salt proves it.

I forgot how beautiful a simple fixed gear bike ride is. I'm pretty sure when the snow and salt are gone I'll still be on this bike.

Thanks Kent for the little nudge back to the fixed gear side.



Charles said...

I think keep warm of your feet and hands is the most important thing when bike commuting in winter.

So I wear lobster glove once I'm on that bike.

Kenneth Smith said...

I have a pair of fleece wind proof gloves that work great. About 50 minutes in -2degF weather and my hands never were cold. My feet, however did get cold, possibly slightly numb, but bearable. For my feet in this weather I wear a base wicking sock, wool sock, light weight Red Wing leather boot, and NEOs. I also wear a balaclava and ski goggles for my face. No skin can be exposed to the elements in this weather.


Mike C said...

Winter commuting makes me think about things that otherwise don't appear on my radar... Belt drive and disk or even drum brakes look and sound pretty good at this time of year.

- Mike in salty gritty Boston

Mitch Bob said...

Any thoughts about aluminum frames for winter riding? Or about components, including thread-on freewheels, that hold up well in the wet? Someone gave me a 1987 Cannondale ST600 touring bike a while back that could be a good winter ride if it ever rains here again.

Mitchell in too-sunny Berkeley

Doug said...

I've been experimenting with this for 10 years in Duluth, MN. I first tried a fixed gear to help decrease my drivetrain replacement budget. We have 7 months of salt and sandy grit here. We also have hills. While the fixed gear was great for summer, it didn't work well for winter when I had to stay in the saddle on hills to maintain traction on icy/snowy streets. I switched to internally geared hubs, first a Shimano Nexus, and then a Shimano Alfine. That worked great. Later I modified my frame so I could use a Gates Belt Drive. This further decreases the need for daily maintenance during sloppy months. Now I'm getting tired of replacing rims every two years. Since I don't own a car, I spend more on my commuting bike than most people would. I've ordered a custom made stainless steel drop bar commuter bike with IGH Rohloff Speedhub specific drop-outs, belt drive, and disc brakes. My idea of the ultimate all-season commuter. Plus it will be able to mount front and rear racks allowing me to replace two of my other bikes, the belt drive Cross Check and my Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike. Why buy a cheap winter bike when I don't own a car and winter lasts 5-7 months. I've decided to spend the most money on the bike I ride most often, my commuter.

Kent Peterson said...

Hi Mitch Bob,

If you keep things clean a steel frame will last just fine but yeah Aluminum or Titanium cope well with the crud.

The problem with freewheels is that pretty much everything has gone to freehubs. There are cheap freewheels that aren't sealed nearly as well as most modern freehubs. White Industries makes a real nicely sealed singlespeed freewheel, but it's spendy. Something like an old-stock Shimano 600 freewheel was a joy darn near forever. Smooth, solid and it wouldn't break the bank back in the day. Of course, they haven't been made for years.