You Don’t Need a Fat Bike to Ride in Winter. Try These Five Gear Upgrades Instead.
Whether you’re mountain biking or just commuting around town, a few key parts will keep you riding, regardless of the elements
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Last year, I wrote about the cold-weather apparel that keeps me riding outside year-round. But what you wear is only half the equation; the other part is the bike itself. Winter riding comes with its own unique demands: icy roads and trails that make for dicey traction, slushy crud that sprays all over you and your machine, and short days calling for extra lighting.
You probably don’t need a separate winter rig for winter commuting or errand riding. And while fat bikes are fun, their four-to-five-inch-wide tires shine brightest in a narrow set of conditions (deep, packed snow) that renders them useful only a few days a year for most people. Most utility, gravel, or mountain bikes can be made winter- and snow-worthy with a few key parts. Note that while some of these gear tweaks, like fenders, apply equally well to road bikes, others don’t, like flat pedals and winter-specific tires. Yes, you can ride a road bike all winter, but for icy or sloppy conditions, they’re not the best tool.
Good Winter Tires
There are two subcategories of winter riding: trail riding and everyday utility riding around town. You’ll need different tires for each.
When it comes to town riding, you really only need winter tires if you live in a place where snow on roads gets packed down, melts, and refreezes; otherwise, regular tires do just fine. If that’s the case, consider a set of studded tires, which have rows of metal spikes embedded in the lugs and siped tread blocks that help grip on ice. Schwalbe’s highly regarded Winter Marathon ($82 to $86) is a fantastic pick, partly because it comes in different diameters for gravel, utility, and mountain bikes. If you regularly encounter ice on commutes but only in occasional spots, consider Specialized’s Icebreaker Reflect Partial Stud ($51). It features studs just on the outer tread lugs for extra cornering grip on ice. The downside: it’s only available for 700c wheels. Some notes about studs: they will come out; that’s what studs do. That does not mean the tire is shot. You can buy replacement studs ($17). And be careful cornering on dry pavement, where the metal studs actually reduce traction.
The first thing to know about tires for riding snowy trails is that you may not need studs at all unless your trails are especially icy. On unpaved surfaces, fresh snow often gets churned up by passing feet and tires and mixes with dirt, which makes it a bit less slippery. In those conditions, studs don’t help. For snowpacked trails without a lot of ice or for fresh snowfall up to about six inches, normal tire widths—up to 2.6 inches wide on most modern mountain bikes—offer plenty of traction. Look for trail and enduro tires intended for loose conditions: the meaty, wide-spaced tread blocks bite well and shed snow. Good examples: Continental’s Der Baron Projekt ($80), the Maxxis Shorty ($78), and Specialized’s Hillbilly Grid Trail front tire ($70) and Butcher Grid rear tire ($60). Steer clear of most dedicated mud tires, which have big, wide tread blocks but usually come in a narrow casing that won’t offer the flotation you want.
The best full-coverage fenders do a fantastic job of keeping frigid, grimy road and trail spray off you and your bike. The downsides: they can be cumbersome to install and often reduce tire clearance, and you have to leave them on your bike. If you only need occasional protection, consider the quick-attach varieties, which work surprisingly well but install and remove in seconds without tools.
I’m a longtime user of SKS’s quick-attach Raceblade Pro ($65) setup on my road bike. It fits most bikes, and once the front bracket adjustment is dialed, the front and rear fenders are easy to put on and take off unless you’re switching bikes. For wider gravel tires, the Speedrocker ($80) uses a similar system and offers full coverage around fatter rubber. The strap attachments look a bit kludgy, but they’re secure, durable, and fast to install and remove.
It’s almost impossible to get full coverage in a mountain-bike fender, since suspension and big tires interfere with fit, and aggressive trail riding makes long fenders bounce around too much. Portland Design Works’ Mud Shovel ($19 front, $27 rear) is about as good as it gets, which is to say good enough to keep that rooster tail off your butt and prevent your shoes and shins from getting fully drenched in muddy snowmelt. Both attach tools-free in seconds.
For around-town riding, there’s a solid case for bolt-on fenders, which offer fuller coverage and are harder to steal. Planet Bike’s Cascadia ALX ($65 to $90) are some of the best, with secure mounting hardware, durable aluminum construction, and mud flaps. They come in nine sizes, including options for recumbents. Before buying, check your frame’s tire clearance and make sure it has eyelets for fender hardware. If not, you’ll need some rubber-coated P-clamps ($1.50).
During the short days of winter, you’re more likely to be out riding in the dark or at dusk. Lights make you more visible to other road users and are a key safety tool for illuminating dangerous road conditions like black ice. Look for headlights with a low setting of around 200 lumens, which provides good visibility to drivers and a “get you home” level of light if your battery is running low, and a medium setting of 400 to 600 lumens. Medium is where you’ll be most of the time and provides enough light to really illuminate your surroundings and increases your visibility without draining your battery. High settings vary widely from light to light, and you’ll wind up using them sparingly—only in true darkness, away from any sort of ambient moon- or streetlight—because they quickly drain your battery.
Niterider’s Lumina 1000 Boost ($100) is an excellent example, with settings ranging from 200 lumens to 1,000—bright enough for night trail rides—in a compact, bar-top setup with a quick-release mount. A more affordable option is Cygolite’s Dash Pro 600 ($56), which tops out at 600 lumens and has a pulsing mode to enhance your visibility to drivers without messing with the beam pattern that illuminates your path.
For city riding, you’ll also want a taillight. I’m partial to Bontrager’s Flare RT ($60), a featherweight, compact powerhouse that attaches tools-free and cranks out up to 90 lumens via steady and flashing modes. It’s an ideal daytime running light as well. A simple, low-cost option is the Flare 1 ($15), which provides a 270-degree wide beam in steady or flashing patterns and up to 80 hours of run time on two standard AAA batteries. It’s not as bright, but if the choice is between an affordable, less-powerful light and no light, get the light.
It’s hard to beat clipless pedals for a secure, efficient connection to the bike. But they have some drawbacks in winter. Namely, snow can clog the retention mechanism. As for the shoes you have to wear them with: walking traction is sometimes limited, the metal cleats conduct cold directly to your feet, and, except for spendy winter-specific models, insulation and waterproofing are scant. Enter flat pedals.
Flats let you use any footwear you like, including insulated, waterproof boots. Look for a broad pedal platform that will support even bulky shoes. Spikes, called pins, help keep your foot securely on the pedal even through snow and ice. Models with replaceable metal pins are superior to those with pins molded into the pedal body—the latter aren’t tall enough to provide the grip you need.
I’m a big fan of RaceFace’s Chester pedal ($55). Mine have held up great for several years of winter town and trail riding. Another good option is eThirteen’s Base pedal ($49). Both are wide platform pedals with a generous arrangement of tall, replaceable pins. Don’t be concerned by the composite platform material used on both models. These pedals are both designed for dirt jumping and BMX; they’ll take a pounding, and the plastic pedal body insulates against cold better than metal platforms.
Pogies originated in kayaking, but winter cyclists quickly adapted them for riding. A pogie is an insulated overmitt that encloses the handlebar grip and controls, so you can get away with wearing a thinner glove for better dexterity. Gloves and mitts aren’t great for very cold weather because the insulation between your hand and the handlebar gets compressed. What’s more, bad fit can worsen circulation issues and lead to cold fingers. Pogies avoid all that since the insulation is on the outside. Bar Mitts’ standard option ($75) uses 5 millimeters of neoprene, like a wetsuit, for weatherproof protection. The neoprene also offers some structure to keep them from collapsing if you need to remove a hand to signal a turn. The simple handlebar cinch attachment is easy to install and remove, so these are great for urban riding if you don’t want to leave items on a locked bike. They’re available in versions for both flat and drop bars. Want something warmer? 45Nrth’s Cobrafist ($150) have puffy synthetic insulation that’s good down to below zero degrees and feature inner pockets for storage. They’re for flat bars only.