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I have been thinking about making the ultimate winter bike. Here are some of the things that I have been thinking about. What else would you think about when building a good winter bike.

I am specifically building this bike for Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The average January temperature is -10°C (12 °F) but it can get as cold as −30 °C (−22 °F). I am interested in making a bike that will ride well in both urban and more rural areas. It should be able to handle snow and ice.

Frame

  • Road frames generally have less clearance for wide tires, mud guards etc.
  • Even when the roads are mostly clear in the winter I often encounter snow filled streets and icy patches. I am leaning towards a mountain frame because I think that it would be better suited to this kind of semi-technical riding.
  • I have never used drop bars in the winter before I really liked having a long handle bar. I found that this really helped to balance on slippery roads. Seems like if you want drop bars it is best to start with a road frame because adding drop bars looks like a pain.
  • Corrosion - An aluminum frame will hold up better than a steel frame in the winter. I think that the salt will do a number on steel, aluminum should hold up better.

Suspension

Last winter I decided that I want to get a new fork this winter without suspension. In the summer I feel totally comfortable jumping off ledges on my bike. In the winter I would not want to jump off anything that required suspension because in winter it is too hard to guess what the traction will be like when landing. I also found that my suspension froze so even if I had wanted it it would not have helped.

Tires

  • Studs help grip on ice but will not help in snowy weather.
  • Wide tires help to float the rider on top of the snow. If you want to have really wide tires you need to get wider rims. You can find rims up to 44m wide.

Brakes

I love my disk brakes. They are very reliable and I trust them. I have not used rim brakes in the winter but I know when they get wet they grip less well.

Since I want no suspension and disk brakes it is tricky to find a fork.

Lights

In Ottawa the sun can set as early as 4:30. To see and be seen serious lights are required.

Mud Guards

Last winter I did not use mud guards. I found generally everything was frozen so I did not get too wet. I think after I remove my suspension I may add some.

Conclusion

  • Aluminum Mountain Frame
  • Disk Brakes
  • No Suspension
  • Studded tires (wide if going in deep snow)

What else would you think about when building a bike for the winter? I am hoping to get a used frame and used parts when possible and make the studded tires.

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Are there specific areas of this you're concerned with? It looks like you have a killer bike planned already and you've mostly answered the question in the title. –  Neil Fein Jan 13 '11 at 0:26
    
@neilfein, I am mostly just trying to make sure that I don't forget anything. I only have one season of winter biking under my belt and I want to make sure that I don't leave anything out. I am sure that there are many golden nuggets of winter building tips that have eluded my internet searching. –  sixtyfootersdude Jan 13 '11 at 2:56
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Edit the top of your post to describe your riding conditions. Below freezing / short days / wind? / traffic? / city vs. country? / considerate drivers? –  Jay Bazuzi Jan 13 '11 at 3:54
    
@Jay, I added a short description. –  sixtyfootersdude Jan 13 '11 at 12:39
    
Nice, recently moved to Ottawa and will consider this list if I ever get into winter cycling. –  darkcanuck Jan 13 '11 at 20:06

9 Answers 9

  • panniers with lots of winter clothing (to keep you warm in case if you would have to repair a flat tube), windbreaker etc
  • spare flashlight

update: according to freiheit, I did not provide enough reasons, so here they are:

1) winter could be a very cold season - take extra clothing!

2) during winter months the daylight time is shorter than in summer -> take extra flashlight!

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We're looking for answers with more detail. Please give us some reasons and explanation, not just a one-line answer. A short answer like this with no explanation is likely to be deleted. –  freiheit Dec 28 '12 at 23:19
    
@freiheit : I hope the updated version will satisfy you; please let me know if you need more details –  Steve V Dec 28 '12 at 23:24

Your list looks pretty good and I'm in Ottawa as well. Would you prefer something with derailer, hub geared, or single speed? The ultimate frame for a winter ride would be titanium because it won't rust or more importantly, corrode from salt. But that will cost you 800-900+. That being said I'd agreed the aluminum is likely the best overall price/performance balance. Titanium is only cool if you have a proletariat's privilege.

My Ottawa winter bike build so far is:

  • Aluminum hybrid mtb frame sized for 700c (paid 20 bucks used)
  • Rigid cyclocross fork for 700c disc ready, but has bosses
  • Lasco 46T Crank "used" but really new for 30 bucks from a local shop (I think it's steel alloy so should rust and need replacing in years to come) Will go aluminum next.
  • Single speed aluminum cog and spacers
  • Chain tensioner to accommodate vertical dropouts
  • 20c wheelset with freehub and sealed bearings on order
  • 30c wide mud/slush slinging cyclocross tires
  • Linear brakes with wet condition pads due to lower cost than disc, plus familiarity
  • Studded spare wheel ready for the odd extreme ice days.

The bike should run me 300-350 once all is done and well under 20 lbs, likely 17 or so. I'll be going with linear brakes like Avid 5s with special pads this winter due to cost, familiarity and maybe adventure of squirreling around with some skill. I'd like to go disc, but I'm on a Canadian peasant budget. I might go disc on the rear if I find a cheap set...this would be ideal.

For warmth, I'm planning on dressing for skiing, so fleece face bandana, ski goggles, have 2 layer bike gloves, tuque and ski jacket with hood and waterPROOF pants above fleece pants. I'll be using my rear pannier bags to store my change of clothes and add a little weight traction to the rear. Jacket and pants both have venting, which helps the hot body core, as skiing and cycling have taught me can be an issue.

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What else would you think about when building a bike for the winter?

I got flat tires twice, when commuting in summer (on the bike's original 700x32 tires). I changed the tires to Marathon Plus, and haven't had another flat since. Getting a flat tire wasn't a big deal for me because I was cycling near public transport routes; but especially if you're "in both urban and more rural areas", consider getting tires that you can really depend on: the tires seemed to me to be the least reliable part of my bike.

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I'd suggest a cyclocross (CX) frame over a mountain bike. CX frames have wider stays to take wider tires, and most have fender/pannier mounts. A CX frame can be lighter than a mountain frame, and most are made to be packed on the shoulder if necessary.

Disc brakes on CX frames are a lot more common now - mechanical for the most part, more hydraulic options within a year or so (and frames are typically setup to handle either). Road forks are unsuspended, and it's easy to find disc forks -- chromoly are available, cheap, and heavy.

If corrosion is a big concern, titanium makes the ultimate winter bike. No corrosion concerns, strong as steel and comparable weight aluminum (if not better).

I don't see an issue with lights -- most seem to use o-rings to attach, so they can be taken off easily if need be.

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I live in Ottawa as well, seems as though there are a few of us here. My best recommendation after riding until end of December last year when the snow came is to get a bike that you don't care if it gets rusted out. With all the salt they put down here, the drive train is going to get destroyed and you will probably want to have a new drive train (or many new parts) each winter. My freewheel cassette no longer freewheels after riding it until last December (was planning on a new bike anyway).

Unless you are in a particularly hilly section of the city (there aren't many) I would probably go with a single speed or fixed gear as there's just less parts to replace next time around. I got a cheap fixie off Kijiji that I plan to use until the snow comes. There's another cyclist around my office complex who rode all winter last year and he has single speed as well. The frames seem to hold up well enough either with aluminium or steel, but the drive train and any kind of bolts seem to undergo a terrible amount of corrosion. You might want to cover all the bolts in a layer of grease. It will make working on it a little messier, but will protect them from the elements a lot more.

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I would actually recommend a cyclocross or touring frame. In my experience, skinnier tires cut through snow a bit better and you end up with a tire that's actually touching the pavement instead of riding on top of a layer of snow. With a cyclocross or touring frame, you'll have enough clearance for cyclocross tires with a little bit of lug to them (you don't want regular slicks), fenders, racks, and whatever else you want to do. You can also set it up with either drop bars or risers, just make sure to get the appropriate brake setup for whichever bar you choose.

A cyclocross frame would solve your disc brake problem too. Disc brakes are becoming standard on cyclocross bikes. You see them on touring frames too, but not as often. As I understand it, they make it harder to mount racks but I don't have any hands-on experience with that.

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Surly Disc trucker - Great winter bike, Great touring bike, Great commuter bike. –  Benzo Nov 13 '12 at 16:40

In that sort of environment I would be looking for minimal external parts - something like a kona dr good?

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Reflectors: a red rear reflector can backup your rear light to keep you visible & legal on roads: Ministry of Transportation’s cycling guide, Highway Traffic Act. (I can see when my front light loses power; Tail lights are trickier to observe when in motion.)


For you, not the bike: goggles to protect eyes. My eyeglasses do not stop my eyes from tearing on cold days or fast rides. Weak sunglasses can help reduce the glare from oncoming headlights.

There is an Ottawa specific article at icebike.org

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Good for you, to think of riding as a year-round activity.

I would choose an older steel frame (Specialized Rockhopper from 1994?). Steel is very durable, and the older frame is less to be worried about with salt. Put a little FrameSaver on the insides, and don't worry about it. (I'm not an expert on these, just a Grant Petersen fanboy).

You really don't want to get stranded in an Ottawa winter. Add some storage, and carry:

  • a plentiful toolkit, including a multitool, pump, and spare tube.
  • cash for bus & phone
  • spare batteries for your light
  • compact warm items, like a balaclava, gloves, and a wool hat

The trick to rim brakes in the wet is to dry them out before you need them. When you anticipate a need to stop (approaching a driveway or intersection, for example), lightly apply the brakes. After one rotation of the wheels you'll have most of your braking power back. After a second rotation, they'll be in great shape.

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great points. Just out of curiosity is there a reason that you would prefer steel over aluminum or are you just commenting that it would probably hold up well? –  sixtyfootersdude Jan 13 '11 at 12:01

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