Once upon a time, people parked their bikes while hibernating during the snowy months and dreamed sad dreams of the joys of riding. Those days are history, thanks to two modern innovations: studded tires that can be swapped onto most bicycles for snowy treks, and fat-tired bikes that allow us to scoff at winter’s supposed hazards.
The old “off-season” is now one of the best seasons to ride.
Just ask Alexandera Houchin, all-round extreme bicyclist. Among other races, she’s won the 2,745-mile Tour Divide from Canada to Mexico over the Continental Divide — twice, that is, in 2018 and 2019 — and been labeled a “force of nature” in ultra-endurance racing. A citizen of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northern Minnesota, she’s also a devotee of winter biking.
“I appreciate winter cycling as a means of transportation, for sure,” Houchin says. She’s a confirmed year-round commuter and exerciser, and a former bike messenger.
But along with snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, she loves just getting out in the winter wonderland and ripping. “The solitude of biking on a snowy single-track trail is magical.”
Many snow-laden cities now boast miles of well-kept bike paths and separated bike lanes; groomed off-road trails are carved through parks and forests. And winter bikers know these routes are often plowed before car lanes — and they stay clearer, because they’re not encumbered by salt or chunks of snow.
Best of all, much of the time you’ll have these routes to yourself — or enjoy a sense of camaraderie among the other winter riders you do meet.
Those two innovations mentioned earlier? They offer different ways to get through the snow.
Winter tires feature knobby treads (for dealing with the white stuff) and steel studs (to get a grip on ice and other slippery terrain). You can fit studded tires onto your summer ride or buy a cheapo second bike to use only in the winter.
Single-speed, cyclocross, and mountain bikes are ideal. These skinnier-tired bikes knife through snow — but they can get bogged down in snow deeper than the bottom bracket.
Fat-tired bikes come with or without studded tires. They compress and ride atop the snow . . . most of the time. They too can get stuck in deep drifts, and then they’re a workout just to push.
“Winters make us all a little tougher,” says Houchin. “One way to get through the season is to really get outside and appreciate it. Cold weather isn’t bad, it’s invigorating. If we can thrive — and not simply endure — in the wintry bliss, we come out stronger.”