Monday, December 1, 2008

Snow's Coming! What's A Commuter To Do?

OK, most resourceful, wise, and experienced Omaha cycling community, how does a beginning, but rather dedicated cycling commuter deal with riding on snow and ice covered roads?

I started bike commuting back in July, having logged over 1,300 miles of combined commuting, errand, and pleasure rides. I'm having so much fun, that I can't stand the thought of giving it up just because of some frozen precipitation. I don't know that I'd want to try to plow through fresh snow, or try to ride during a storm, but even when it's clear out, ice patches can form, especially on the side streets I utilize for my commute.

With daily morning rides in the 20s to 30s (F) for the better part of a month, I've already proven to myself that cold is no problem with proper clothing (and my new lobster claw gloves). However, the thought of wiping out on ice really frightens me. I also am concerned about dealing with sharing the roads with cars having a hard time keeping their own course.

According to the National Weather Service, Omaha has seen anywhere from 20 to 30 inches of snow for the past few years. Despite that, I want to keep riding. It's fun. It saves money. I like the free downtown parking. It helps keep me from getting too fat.

In my reckoning, there are a couple of ways to handle this.
  • Build an ice bike
  • Outfit my existing bike for ice riding
Build an ice bike - pros
  • save wear and tear, salt and sand from my normal Trek 7300
  • can use alternate geometry for better handing dangerous condition. Ie: a shorter frame to be closer to the ground in event of fall or slip
  • if all the ice clears up, can easily switch back to regular bike
  • could build as single speed, or with lots of money, internally geared hub
  • could build with drum brakes for easy braking without damage to rims, discs
Build an ice bike - cons
  • I like riding my regular bike
  • have to obtain a new/used bike. Cost of tuning it up.
  • have to customize with new accessories. Ie: fenders, rack, lights, etc
  • if going with fancy hubs, drum brakes, etc, could get expensive
Outfit existing bike for ice riding - pros
  • I like riding my regular bike
  • no need to buy new accessories, just studded tires
Outfit existing bike for ice riding - cons
  • risk of damage by salt, sand to frame, rims, drive train, etc.
  • can't easily switch back to regular riding during dry spells without changing out studded tires for regular
  • regular bike is tall. Falling might hurt.
  • not sure if studded tires will clear my fenders
  • I've read accounts of shifters, derailleurs freezing up with frozen mess
So, bike dudes, please reply back with your stories and advice on how best to handle the winter commutes. Even if you trade the bike for a bus or car on select days, I'd still like to hear from you. Even if I ride the bus in, that's still a day I don't have to deal with driving downtown, so that's still a win to me.

Photo credit:


munsoned said...


I'm not much help because I'm lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it) enough to ride down major roads. They are the first to be plowed/salted, so my bike does get kinda salty, but it stays upright. The 2 blocks from my home to Center can be bad at times, but I just ride slower till I get to better ground. All last winter I rode my Bianchi road bike commuter with skinny 28C tires(like this but 28C width). I had a couple of slides, especially when it had just snowed, but I didn't fall. I just rode slow and deliberate. I've never tried studded tires, so I'm not sure how that would work. That's my experience at least.

One option instead of a whole new bike is just new wheels with studded tires on them. I'm pretty sure you can get studded tires in almost any size. True, salt and crud will make your bike messy and wear out the components, but that's the price to pay for a familiar ride. Whichever route you go, you could take the bus when it first snows and/or is really icy, then ride when you feel more comfortable. That's my plan also.

brady said...

1,300 miles? Golly! That's quite a lot, Redd. What kind of average gas mileage do your vehicles get? That's got to be at least $200 in gas savings alone.

As for winter riding, I follow Fredcube's general rule of thumb: as the weather gets worse, at least pick the best day of the week to ride. Anything beyond that is bonus.

That being said, I'm going to attempt to rack up those bonus rides as much as possible this year. I've got better gear and a winterized bike more suited toward it.

Speaking of bonuses, you may want to ask Eric more about his experience with studded tires. Also, here's a good article on winter maintenance to chew on with your next hot bowl of steel-cut Irish oats.

Scott Redd said...

Hi Munson and Brady:

Thanks for the info. I'm thinking now that the logical approach might be, like you say, pick the best days, and multi-mode commute the next best. Then I'll bus or drive in on the worst days. Despite the 20-30 inches of snow, we can have dry spells where all moisture and ice evaporates, leaving the roads clear for long periods.

There's a part of me that wants the studded tires, anyway, for fear of black ice on otherwise clear streets. I really don't want to fall.

Here are MapMyRide's "Green Stats" on my profile page:

Total Workout Days: 116
Distance Traveled: 1,383.06 mi.
Gas Saved: 76.84 gallons
Money Saved: $267.39
Carbon Offset: 1,487.6 lbs. of CO2

Also, if you figure $3/day for parking on 100 of those days, then that would be another $300 saved.

I wouldn't count pleasure rides as gas-saving rides, but since the majority of my rides are for commuting and errands, we'll go with those figures.

I should do up a spreadsheet to more accurately track the savings, and debit out the cost of the bike and accessories. It'd be cool to point at a calendar and say, "That's was the day that I paid off my bike." Everything after that would be gravy to put in the bank.... or, don't tell my wife, money for a new bike. :)

Scott Redd said...

Well, I did the snow ride this morning. I did make sure I had bus tickets and allowed enough time to get to a bus stop if I changed my mind. I also packed a fleece sweatshirt and hand warmers in case I needed to wait at the stop.

The lightly falling snow wasn't much of an issue, except when riding right into the wind from the north. I stopped and pulled my balaclava down over my face and neck.

Most streets had enough traffic and/or salt that they were only wet. A few back streets had a dusting of the wet snow. I didn't encounter any slick spots.

It looks like the snow will be stopping soon, but with temps below freezing all day, we might have to deal with slick roads on the way home.

The early start, combined with the bad weather contributed to very few vehicles on the road. In all, it was a pleasant ride.

munsoned said...

NICE!! You rode when I bailed. Congratulations! Since you made it through this morning, I think you'll be good to make it through most of the winter. Usually, it's the mind that makes it difficult to get out there. Once you're out there, it's not bad.

Scott, I sure hope people find your blog as inspiration to give bike commuting a try. It's been fun hearing about your experiences and resourcefulness when encountering new issues. Keep up the great work!

brady said...

Like Munson said. Good job, Redd.

Frank said...

That's a nutso commute, but kudos to you for doing it. I figure your warm clothing can be your wipe-out padding, stud the tires, light yourself up like a Christmas tree and make sure your insurance is up to date! Good luck.

Scott Redd said...

Thank for the comments, Munson, Brady, and Frank. I am sure I will trade the bike for a bus if it gets much worse.

It's funny though, that once I start pedaling in the cold, I think, "This is fun. I'm glad I decided to bike it." Like Munson said, the mind makes it difficult to get outside.

I've got to pick my daughter up from school tomorrow and take her to her drama class. I won't have time to bike or bus home to fetch the auto, so it looks like I'll be driving into downtown in the morning for the first time in months.

Scott Redd said...

Brady's comment sent me to MOD's blog post about the Innova studded tires. I visited the Trek Omaha store where MOD works and he showed me his Innova studded tires on his Simple City 3 commuter. I went ahead and ordered a set, which I hope to receive and get installed for next week's snow accumulation.

Once I've ridden on them, I'll make another post.

So, as it stands, I don't plan to ride in storms or in massive accumulations. However, the studded tires will give me the grip and confidence (but not overconfidence) in riding in conditions that, while mostly dry, might hide patches of black ice that would spoil an otherwise nice commute.