Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Winter Biking in Alaska

While I stomped back and forth between the office and the lab yesterday the snow finally stuck. Ingrid and I went sledding last night and it's supposed to fall until Thursday. I've gotten two phone calls since the snow started from summer bikers interested in pedaling through the winter. There are lots of great winter biking resources out there (check out the Fairbanks Cycle Club's site as a place to start) but everybody does it a little differently so I thought I'd show you what works for me here in Fairbanks Alaska.
For the torso and legs, you need less covering than you probably think. Heat buildup can be just as problematic as heat retention so proper venting is as important as insulation. I basically wear the same outfit over my core from 20 above to 50 below. I put on whatever I'm going to wear at the office and then put this stuff on top (from the top clockwise): 
  1. Marmot winter jacket. A real winter shell with pit-zips is better than a rain jacket or windbreaker because the fabric doesn't get brittle in the extreme cold. 
  2. Stoic Softshell pants. I like softshell pants because they stretch and breath (and keep the naughty bits from dangling too far in the frosty air).
  3. Safety vest. Brightens any ensemble.
  4. Patagonia R3 fleece. Any breathable midlayer will do.
Your hands and feet will need more protection than you think. I tried all sorts of mittens and boots and finally settled on this setup.
  1. Michael Jackson shiny liner gloves. The tinsel in these is supposed to reflect your body heat back. I just think it adds fabulous when you do jazz hands. Any thin glove will work.
  2. OR Alti Mitts. Lots of people use Pogies (overmitts that attach to your handlebars). I have a couple different bikes that I switch between and none have flat handlebars so I prefer mittens. I called up my friends Chad and Christie who had just climbed Denali and asked for the warmest mitten they knew of and they recommended these. My fingers still get a little cold below -30 but I have XLs and they are big enough that I can make a fist to warm the digits. I also just picked up a pair of Mountain Hardwear Masherbrum mittens that seem like they will be as warm as the Alti Mitts, though they are a lot bulkier.
  3. Addidas neoprene overshoe. Pretend like you're the cool kid on the block and keep your toes warm. I add these below -20.
  4. Lake insulated winter cycling shoes. The key here is room for socks. I got a size 13.5 (I usually wear size 11) and they are perfect with a thin sock liner, one normal pair of wool socks, and one mountaineering pair. They also look like Batman's personal cycling shoe. If I ever get tired I just look down and pretend like Bruce Wayne is pedaling the bike. 

  1.  After snotting in a plethora of balaclava's I finally found one that worked for me made by Turtle Fur. Key features are: an eye opening small enough your goggles will cover it, a breathing flap that blocks the wind to your lips but allows free air flow, and a neck long enough to tuck into your fleece. This model had all those features, though I did sew a twisty tie into the breathing flap to keep it from clamshelling shut in the wind (you feel like a drowning scuba diver when your air gets cut off and your hands are covered). On a side note, many people claim you can frostbite your lungs. Given the tiny volume of air and large thermal volume of mouth and lung tissue I think this is physically impossible. I think that some people have problems breathing in extreme cold due to the desiccated air (cold air can't hold much water) which dries out their mouth and throat. A mouth flap will trap some warm moist air near your lips and do a world of good. I wear this setup when it's lower than 15. Warmer than that I wear normal sunglasses with a piece of windproof material duct-taped to the bridge as a nose guard, and a headband to protect my ears. Lots of people wear less than I do on their face/eyes but my skin is sensitive.            
  2. Scott goggles. The key here is that they interface with your helmet and cover the whole Balaclava hole (I ended up with cute little triangle frostbite on my temples when I tried to skimp). 
  3. Giro Omen helmet. I like using this ski helmet because it has adjustable vents you can open and close even with mittens on. Lots of people just use a conventional bike helmet over their balaclava. Most helmets are adjustable enough that you won't need to size up to fit your thin hat or balaclava.
Me with my custom nose flap glasses. See, cold weather safety can be functional and fashionable.

Lots of different lights out there. I wanted something bright and rechargeable that works at any temperature.
  1. Cygolite Hotshot. This is the best taillight out there in my opinion. It recharges with a USB cable and lasts for weeks on a single charge. It also has an adjustable blink (you choose how fast you want it to be). It's twice as bright as anything in its price range. You can usually find one on Amazon for $30.
  2. Ultrafire C1 from www.dx.com. Bike specific headlights can cost $500. This flashlight costs $17.70 and ships for free. It takes 18650 rechargeable lithium ion polymer batteries so you have to pick up a pair of batteries and a charger (an extra $10). It puts out almost as much light as a car headlight and lasts two hours on a charge (on high mode). Make sure to get a bike mount for it so you can put it on your handlebar or helmet. The C1 isn't the only one that works from dx, just find something that is well reviewed and it will be fine. The first time I went to the site I was sure they were going to steal my credit card number but they are actually totally reputable (though shipping from Hong Kong does take several weeks). They also make bike specific lights that review well.
  3. I also put together a helmet mounted light with a battery pack that I can put in my pocket. I like having a helmet light so I can see around corners and flash cars that I think don't see me.
  4. Third Eye Pro helmet mirror. Get one. After using it you'll feel naked without it (and naked at -40 only feels good for a minute). This lets you watch each car as it passes and decide if you need to get farther off the road. Seriously, get one.
  5. Another Cygolite for the helmet. I had a man stop one time and tell me he thought I was a cop because of all the flashing. People slow down when they think you're a cop.

The last item of discussion is your bike. You don't need a fatbike or a 29er to commute through the winter. A normal mountain bike (or even touring bike) will be totally sufficient if you pay attention to two things.
  1. First thing is your tires. I rode my first two winters on studded tires (Nokian extremes) and my second two on conventional mountain bike tires. To be honest I didn't notice much of a difference. Here in Fairbanks where we encounter more packed snow than ice normal mountain bike tires work fine. They also work better than studded tires if you're going to be riding on snow-covered trails as well since they are softer and stay on top of the snow better. You do want something with aggressive tread, and if you get into mucky stuff remember to let some air out (lower pressure will vastly improve handling).
  2. Second is your freehub. What's a freehub you say? It's the part in your rear wheel that lets your bike coast. Take away your freehub and you've got a fixed gear bicycle (and nobody wants that right). In extreme cold the grease in your freehub sometimes gets so thick that it starts acting like a fixed gear (your pedals will rotate as you roll forward even if you aren't pedaling). Most hubs won't fail even at very low temperatures, they just get stiff. If you're not picky about how your bike rides you are probably fine. As a bike snob, in my opinion it is worth changing the grease in your freehub. You can do this yourself conventionally (freehub winterization) or with Morningstar's Freehub Buddy but either option is mechanically involved. If you're not comfortable taking apart your bottom bracket and front hub then don't mess with the rear hub. It'll cost you $30-50 bucks to have a bike shop do it but it's money well spent. 
I remember the first time I biked to campus at -30 along Farmer's Loop. Road conditions, air temp, dark, and big mean pickup trucks had me super intimidated and nervous. It's normal to feel that way at the beginning but you'll find after just a couple rides that with a little preparation, biking at -40 can be a comfortable and fun adventure.


  1. Thanks for all the helpful information, Ben! I'm planning on biking through the winter here in Vermont, not quite the same as Alaska, but I'm sure I will experience some new challenges!

    1. Awesome E! I bet Vermont is more extreme in some ways than Fbanx. Here the snow comes slow and stays snow (instead of fast with slush/ice). Be safe and have fun!

  2. Ben you are crazy - this stuff looks kind of expensive, I wonder how it compares to buying a car? But definitely inspirational buddy keep trucking

    1. True Jeff. Over four years I spent $900 on this stuff (including the coats/pants/mittens that I use for other stuff). How much does it cost to buy and operate a car for four years ;) ? At the end of the day I'm in it because I'm vain and biking makes you beautiful. Burn fat not oil! Love you.

  3. Thanks for the info, Ben. Lehi is nothing in comparison, and as such you've inspired me to get back on the saddle even during the winter months.

    1. Nice! Another benefit of winter commuting is you'll dominate on the spring group rides (not that you wouldn't have anyway).

  4. WOW! This is such good information and I'm not even into biking during the winter. It makes me kinda want to though! :o) Ride on and I'll honk as I pass you.... or knowing my granny driving in the winter, you'll have to honk as you pass me (you might want to add a horn to the ensemble).

  5. Ben, awesome post. I almost wish Ohio had severe enough weather to warrant some of that gear, but then again -40 is really cold so maybe I'm fine with our winters. About fixed gears -- yes, nobody wants that for winter commuting in those temperatures but they sure are fun in other conditions (e.g. no real hills, with hand brakes, etc.). Much love.

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