Welcome back to Roundabout Bicycles' tips for winter biking! In Part I, I highlighted a few features that you can choose for your bicycle to help you avoid the hazards on winter roads. Up next are some of the hazards acting on your bicycle, and what you can do to counteract them to keep your ride running smoothly and safely:
Rusting or corrosion occurs when iron (or its alloys, such as steel) reacts with oxygen in the presence of water. Electrolytes like road salt help the process along, too, making the resulting orange substance a staple ingredient of winter biking. Chains are the first component to rust and become stiff and squeaky, so manufacturers have come up with a variety of different models for greater corrosion resistance. A common feature of higher-end chains is nickel-plating, which creates a smooth and hard surface that also provides a barrier against corrosion. However, it isn't specifically a rust-prevention treatment, but rather one with purported performance benefits such as durability and faster, more accurate shifting; as a result, the chain is typically only selectively plated for the designed functions (on the outer, and sometimes inner, side plates), so some rusting can still occur from within. Then there are specific anti-rust treatments, such as KMC's "Rust-Buster" zinc/chrome coating, which is applied to all parts of the chain (including rollers and connecting pins) for all-over protection.
Our lab test with 3 chains (from left): i) Shimano HG40, ii) KMC Z8S (half nickel-plated), and iii) KMC Z51RB "Rust-Buster" (zinc/chrome-coated). All three chains were repeatedly submerged in the same solution of salt water for 1 hour, then hung to air dry, 8 cycles (left photo), and finally wiped off with a damp cloth (right photo). The standard steel chain (left) is free to rust. Since many nickel chains are only partially plated (centre), rust is still free to develop but cleans off brilliantly from the smooth nickel surface. The orange tinge on the zinc/chrome chain (right) came from being submerged in the rusty salt solution; the chain itself didn't rust at all, but its slightly textured surface wasn't as easy to clean as the nickel-plated one.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but constant winter riders may find that even a standard chain will hold up through the season as long as it's regularly lubricated, whereas intermittent riders may find the need for rust-resistant upgrades. That's because the worst conditions for rust occur when your bike gets exposed to road splash and salt, and then that moisture is left in-situ to promote corrosion without a chance to be displaced or dissipated.
Grit—dried mud, sand, salt, debris, rust particles—gets all over our bikes during the winter, and essentially acts as an emery paste that wet-sands any moving parts. Especially damaging is the grit in your chain, which carves spaces between the connecting parts and effectively elongates the chain (often referred to as chain "stretch") so that it no longer sits properly in the valleys of the gear teeth. The best defense is regular cleaning, but the daunting prospect of having to use heavy-duty degreasers or to remove the chain for soaking causes many cyclists to avoid tending to their chains altogether; in fact, even wiping off the the surface grime from the chain is worthwhile, since it removes all the grit that would otherwise eventually work its way further into the chain. Still, for those of us who ride regularly, constant chain cleaning and re-lubing isn't always practical—it's a safe bet that by the end of a winter, the chain should be checked and will likely need replacement.
Also watch out for the grit on your brake pads and wheel rims, which rapidly abrades both the pads and rims as they're squeezed together during braking. The best time to clean off excess grime is when it's still wet after a ride; also, look for a quick-release feature on your brakes, which allows the brake arms to be opened up further to access the pads. In any case, rim wear can happen very quickly under the wrong conditions, so it's a good idea to check often by feeling for any concavity of the rim's walls between your fingers, or inspecting for any curving of the rim wall while holding a ruler against it. Many newer rims feature a wear-indicating hole or groove—when the indicator disappears, it's time to replace the rim. Worn-down rim walls are weakened and can eventually split, so if in doubt have them checked out at your local bike shop.
Wet & Cold
Cold, wet conditions make for reduced braking power, especially for traditional rim brakes. Low temperatures cause the rubber brake pads to become harder or more "wooden", while the friction between the pad and rim is substantially reduced in the wet (especially for older rims made of steel!) Nonetheless, properly tuned brakes should still be expected to function adequately in these conditions, allowing more time to stop than usual.
If you are interested in an upgrade, know that wet-ready "performance" brake pads differ by using more supple compounds that provide more stopping power, at the expense of wearing away more quickly. SwissStop's green compound (for alloy rims only) and Kool Stop's salmon compound are two popular choices. They cost more than standard brake pads, but you can get more life out of them by switching them out when spring arrives.
Next, bike components really start to misbehave at 10 or 20 degrees below freezing... One of the more unpredictable mishaps occurs when your cranks suddenly pedal freely in both directions without engaging the rear wheel! At that point, your freewheel or freehub (the spring-loaded mechanism that, like a ratchet, allows the gears to spin independently from the wheel when coasting or back-pedalling, but spins with the wheel when pedalling forward) has stopped springing. Technically, this is to be expected only in temperatures extreme enough for the internal lubricant to actually congeal, but it's also commonly seen in more moderate temperatures due to the freezing of any water that's gotten into the mechanism via rain or condensation. You can have your local bike shop winterize your freewheel/freehub by flushing out water contamination and re-lubricating it with a low-viscosity lubricant.
There's no perfect answer to where to store your bicycle, and available spaces at work or home are obviously limiting factors. As a general consideration, the ideal spot to store your bike on cold days is in a dry, unheated location (such as a garage or shed). While it's certainly nice to bring a bike in from out of the cold to get the saddle and handlebars warmed up, taking a bike from outdoors into a heated environment also introduces condensation as warm, moist air hits the cold surfaces (the same way dew drops form on a cold can of pop), and cycles of this can work more unwanted moisture into your components. Additionally, on days with active snowfall, warm rims can cause snow to melt on contact, but re-freeze into a treacherous layer of ice as the rim is rapidly cooled.
Thanks for tuning in to Roundabouts' winter biking tips. You can find the products and services mentioned here at our shop; as always, installation of components is included in the price of any Roundabout Tune-up to get you going, as are valuable winterizing measures such as freewheel/freehub maintenance. Also take advantage of our studded tire sale, only until December 15th!
Welcome to Part I of Roundabout Bicycle's tips for winter biking, featuring my top 3 features of a winter-ready bicycle. Here at Roundabout's, we're also kicking off the season with 15% off select studded tires and affordable gently-used studded tires, with free installation! Please check the main page for full details, and read on below to see if studs are the right choice for you this winter.
Frost on the ground means I was dusting off my "beater bike" this weekend. The weather doesn't quite call for it yet, but still, I love tinkering with this quirky machine. Even though the frame was way too small for me, I couldn't resist buying it second-hand anyway. I've spent many hours since customizing it into the perfect winter ride.
Small frames, with a low top tube or "crossbar", are actually quite advantageous for winter biking. I recall the first time I hit a patch of black ice with this bike on a dark night: it all happened in a blur, and miraculously I found myself standing nonchalantly with the bike neatly lying on its side next to me. Because of the low frame, my legs automatically cleared the bike as it slid away below, instead of taking me with it. Even for less dramatic mishaps, the feeling of having less of an obstruction under you can give added confidence on treacherous roads. However, while intentionally choosing a small frame may suit some people, note how the seat post length has to be exaggerated to compensate, which is not recommended for heavier riders. Alternatively, step-through or "mixte" style road bicycles or modern hybrid/mountain bikes with sloping geometry can provide the same benefits.
Finally, the big question is, should you use studded tires? You can find in-depth breakdowns of this topic elsewhere online, but a worthwhile consideration is that although "winter biking" can conjure a mental image of splashing through a snowstorm in February, the more common hazards are the ones that persist from late fall to early spring, including intermittent patches of black ice and rutty, thawed-and-refrozen roads. Here, studs really make a difference, as they work by biting into the ice to provide an increase in traction, and also penetrate through softer frozen layers to make contact with the road surface underneath. On the other hand, studs can't actually do much in deep snow or packed slush that slide about without providing the needed resistance.
It's certainly been an eventful summer here at Roundabout Bicycles! In addition to the warm welcome from customers in the neighbourhood, things also got a boost when the shop was featured in The Coast's Shop Talk (thanks to Ben Wedge, who rallied the press for Halifax Bike Week and also received coverage for his bike parking consulting firm, Bike Feats).
Here were some of the more uncommon wheels that have rolled through in the last few months:
Geoff brought by his stunning Danso bamboo bike—these are hand-made in the community of Kumasi, Ghana from locally sourced bamboo and sisal fibre, and fastened with hemp fibres and bio-epoxy resin (steel shells are also held within the epoxy to receive components, such as the seatpost). And, they have a Maritime connection: the company finishes assembling the bicycles in PEI. Alternatively, Geoff purchased just the frame from a dealer based in Dartmouth, then had his choice of parts installed with the help of first Cyclesmith, then myself. This bike was very interesting to work on, given that the frame dimensions conform to industry standards, but not the most common sizes. I helped Geoff convert his 3x7 drivetrain into a "one-by" (only one gear in the front), a touch of functional simplicity which I think goes well with the humble yet elegant materials of the frame.
Janna, long-time volunteer extraordinaire of the Halifax Cycling Coalition, moved on to new adventures out west and graciously left me with her bike odds-and-ends, along with a few prized items. The bike-frame stool below is actually an HCC Bike Award for her invaluable contributions as a Bike Buddy for Welcoming Wheels, a community program that donates bikes, safety equipment and cycling safety training to refugees and other newcomers. Incidentally, these trophies were designed and fabricated by Adam Berry, who is an organizer at Welcoming Wheels. This piece of furniture has quite the provenance, and for my part I can only claim to have sat on it! Janna also parted with a real bejewelled piece of work, which now greets visitors at the shop window.
Speaking of provenances, my future mother-in-law Kathy spent a few years of her childhood in Holland and she has the bikes to prove it! I've had the pleasure of taking these beauties out of storage to tinker with over the summer, and I just had to get her story on the bicycles, in her own words:
Summer isn't over yet (there's still time for more bike rides and memories around the cottage), but as students and vacationers roll back into town, it is time for me to roll out the next "back-to-school" special: until September 15th, get a second tune-up 50% off with a tune-up at regular price! What better way to let returning friends and family know about Roundabout Bicycles than bringing a pair of bikes in for service and sharing the savings? Of course, this isn't limited to students, nor do you need to enlist a partner for the second bicycle—anyone is welcome to take advantage of this offer.