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Say you have any type of bike available (BMX, Trial, MTB, etc.) and you can ride them all on the same level, just for the sake of the argument. What bicycle would be best to choose to ride in the city (short distances, traffic, people) in a very bad winter condition (snow, ice, etc) and why would you make such a decision?

UPDATE

I'm asking this question because I have both a BMX and an MTB bike available and since I plan on riding a lot during the winter, I could go as far as buying another type of bike especially for that purpose. Both my BMX and MTB bikes are newly bought 2011 models, so they have all the today's features of a standard bike.

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Do you plan on riding it at any other time or for any other purpose? –  GuyZee Aug 24 '11 at 18:08
    
@RIMMER - Questions asked on these sites are meant to relate to specific, real-world problems. They're not meant to be primarily hypothetical questions. However, the "why" component of this question is a nice touch. –  Neil Fein Aug 24 '11 at 19:10
    
@Neil Fein: So what is unreal on this question? That you can own 5 types of bikes? I don't see that as so unreal to down-vote this question. –  Richard Rodriguez Aug 24 '11 at 19:12
    
Of course not! I own several types of bikes myself. What's unreal is you're not allowing people to relate this to any real-world situation, like considering possible other purposes for the bike. Why do you want to know this? The more details we know, the better an answer we can give. –  Neil Fein Aug 24 '11 at 19:15
    
OK, Neil, I will update my question right away. –  Richard Rodriguez Aug 24 '11 at 19:17
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6 Answers

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In general, you want a drivetrain with low gears, the ability to fit snow tires (and maybe fenders), and a bike that's agile and maneuverable yet able to stay upright and steady with little effort.

What tires are good for snow? Wide tires are good, knobbies are good, but studded tires will help you on ice and packed snow (and maybe on fresh but wet snow, although that's debatable).

Here's my run-through on various types of bikes and how they'd fare as snow bikes:

Road bikes generally take skinny tires and are unsuitable for ice and snow, although there are exceptions. The drivetrain will have those low gears, mostly, but these are built for speed, not slow riding. Road drivetrains are relatively fragile and would be more likely to be harmed by road salt and ice.

Touring bikes can be fitted with snow tires, and they usually have room for fenders and those studded tires (although they may get an accumulation of snow packed in between the tire and fender). They're quite sturdy and can take a beating, and the drivetrain will handle road salt well as long as you clean it from time to time, but you get what you pay for: a food steel touring bike is heavy and expensive. These will have clearance to mount fenders. Touring drivetrains are built with low, low gears to climb hills with a load of camping and cooking stuff - and low gears like this are great for traction on ice.

Folding bikes are amazingly useful in the city, as they pack up small (think: storage in a city apartment, and taking them on city transit). Small wheels can be hard to find studded tires for, but are amazingly nimble. My Dahon Curve with 16" knobby tires does a respectable job in the snow. Downside: A bit more expensive that a bike of comparable quality, as they're more complicated machines. Because, well, they fold. An upside is that these bikes often come with internal hubs, which are amazingly resistant to snow and road salt.

Mountain bikes are built for trails and dirt, come with 26" tires - easy to find snow tires for, and stock knobbies can already handle light snow and ice fairly well. There's usually room for fenders as well. Mountain drivetrains will have the low gears you want for traction on slippery surfaces. Whether the drivetrain can take a winter depends on the bike, but most should be comparable to a touring bike.

BMX bikes - Not sure if you can fit fenders on these, but I'd guess that's touch-and-go. 20" studded tires aren't unheard of. Would make a good snow bike if you can find tires and fenders for it. My experience with small-wheeled bikes leads me to guess that these might be a little twitchy on snow - but the low center of gravity might compensate for that. Anyone have a comment on this?

Cruisers are kinda like mountain bikes with a long wheelbase, a more upright and comfortable position, and they're not build for speed or hill-climbing. Unsuitable for snow or ice, unless you live in a very flat area and are okay with going very slow. Cruisers often have internal hubs or even a single-speed drivetrain, great for dealing with snow and road salt.


In the end, unless it has a very delicate drivetrain I'd go for using the mountain bike for snow and ice. These bikes are already built for rough conditions and, importantly, you can get 26" studded tires fairly simply. BMX bikes usually take 20" tires, which are harder (but not impossible) to find studded tires for.

If you want to keep your new bikes in better condition and will buy a bike specifically for winter riding - hardly unreasonable, many riders do this since winter riding is hard on a drivetrain - consider a used steel or aluminum hardtail mountain bike. The hardtail frame will give you incredible control. There's a question about flat bars vs. riser bars (as well as stem length) right here. (That bike will be used as a winter bike as well as a bike for gravel trails in the summer.)

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There's another kind of bike for commuters called "Performance Hybrid", where "hybrid" I guess means "neither road nor MTB": no suspension, flat handle bars. Also, I have 700x32 with very closely-fitted fenders (to avoid "Toe Clip Overlap") and though I rode through several snow storms I don't remember the fenders being any other than a blessing (not getting jammed with snow ... but my tires are treaded, and not studded). –  ChrisW Aug 26 '11 at 4:01
    
I can't confirm that, specifically, studded tires are good on snow. Wider tires, yes, e.g. 32 better than 23. With treaded (not studded) 700x32 tires, riding on fresh snow is similar to riding on a wet or rainy road. You (on snow, unlike on just wet) need to reduce acceleration and braking to allow for the reduce traction; but so long as there's enough (traction) to spin the wheel and to not slip sideways, you can ride on it. –  ChrisW Aug 26 '11 at 4:07
    
@ChrisW - I think my studded tires give me a little more traction on a thin layer of snow, hard to tell. –  Neil Fein Aug 26 '11 at 4:25
    
@ChrisW - An inch or three of fresh, fluffy snow - is that wht you're thinking of? Tires make little difference then, the snow just parts as you ride through it. Of course, riding and turning fast on any snow is silly and dangerous. –  Neil Fein Aug 26 '11 at 4:29
    
Yes riding while it's snowing, it's more or less wet. 700x32 tires with tread (but not knobs) and a 165 lb rider often cut through to the wet road. Roads here are salted and ploughed. A more important problem is that the roads are narrower: ploughs push snow to the sides of the road. –  ChrisW Aug 27 '11 at 0:02
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I've commuted through two winters in the Pacific Northwest and I have learned how to be prepared for winter wet, snow and ice. In general, my advice:

  • fenders...or love your mud stripe, in fact, I extend my fenders with panels cut from milk jugs

  • ziplock pogies if you need them

  • glasses (keeps the rain out of your eyes, and car splash too)

  • a full sized bike with a rack really helps because you have a place to put your layers or a change of clothes

  • if you expect ice, which loves to live on shady, unplowed residential streets, a pair of studded tires is a wise investment (I have a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Winters)

  • lights: winter commuting puts me on the road before sunrise and after sunset, I need to be visible

  • your patch kit and pump: I have had more flats in wet weather because wet rubber cuts far more easily than dry rubber. Sharp gravel, nails, beer bottles, whatever it is, I'm more likely to get a flat in wet weather.

I have not found that tire size, or tire tread has made significant difference to me, I have learned you cannot ride on a snowy shoulder, you want to ride on the least snow or ice possible, otherwise you might just slide into the gully. Studs don't help with snow, deep tread might. For plain old wet weather, I have had no trouble with road tires, I didn't get any advantage from knobbies, in fact I replaced my MTB tires with road tires.

Good luck with your commute!

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After a few winters working as a Bicycle Courier in Toronto I have become a big fan of the "fixed-gear conversion" for general heavy-duty-all-weather ridding, but especially in the winter.

All you need is a decent old road bike frame with horizontal drops that you don't really care about, a tire with medium tread and, a hub and rim that you feel comfortable with on the back. And of course some decent brakes. I prefer to use a 1/8th inch chain/cog/chainring as I find that its more easy to quickly clean winter sludge out of, and tends to freeze less.

A good fender on the back is also a wise decision.

I find that with the exception of big storms and very early mornings (before snow get cleared) that the old road bike frames while rather light when striped of derailleurs and rear cassettes still have enough heft to blast through a few inches ( 4ish so so inches ) of snow while still being light enough to be agile enough to allow you to safely ride with traffic.

But mostly I find that the fixed drive offers two major advantages, both which are useful for staying alive. Firstly, hand breaks after a few good stops I find tend to ice over and significantly reduces your breaking power. Secondly, being able to feel how your tire is engaging the road through the drive really helps control your traction, That will help you not fall down in less then ideal road conditions.

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For reliable winter braking I like my hydraulic disk brakes. Even with gears I can feel the road traction. More important, I'm guessing, is the tires. –  ChrisW Aug 26 '11 at 3:51
    
Agreed. Hydraulic Disk breaks are phenomenal! Although they can be quite an investment for a setup that will be constantly exposed to rather corosive conditions & maintenance can become rather complicated. (Also they require your wheel set to have special hubs with mounts for the disks.) –  Don Graziano Sep 6 '11 at 18:17
    
Apparently not all frames can easily fit disk brakes, conversely some bikes are already equipped with them. The disk itself doesn't seem to corrode (is shiny). I have an aluminium frame. I bought it last February, the only corrosion I've seen so far are on the screws for the bottle cage. As for maintenance I heard that hydraulic disk brakes are not user-serviceable. I have free service for two years from the LBS where I bought it. Yesterday they replaced the front pads (which were making a noise and sucking) and the chain, after the first 6 months which was 5000 km (of stop-and-go in traffic). –  ChrisW Sep 7 '11 at 11:38
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No type of bike in particular. It all depends on the tires:

If you're riding in light slush or wet roads: regular tires with fenders.

If you're riding in packed snow, heavy slush: wide knobby tires. Fender probably won't fit so you need one of those clip-on mudguards that attach to the seatpost to keep the rear wheel from constantly flinging cold slushies on you butt.

If you're riding on ice: Don't do it. Although I have heard of studded tires.

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I'm no pro in bicycles, but physics says the lower your centre of gravity is, the safer your fall will be. Therefore, I expect a BMX bike to be the safest of all. I hope other people can clarify on this, or maybe you can edit your answer. –  Richard Rodriguez Aug 24 '11 at 18:59
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If you're expecting to wipe-out several times per minute during a ride like kids in youtube videos, I suppose the low center of gravity would help?? Otherwise, your mountain bike will be a far better choice for riding in the city than a BMX regardless of conditions. –  Angelo Aug 24 '11 at 19:53
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Studded tires exist, and they're great if you expect to see some ice. –  lantius Aug 24 '11 at 20:04
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Actually, I'd say : if you're expecting ice--don't walk on the sidewalk. I find my studded tires more faithful than yak-traks (another good thing to keep in your winter cycling kit). –  memnoch_proxy Aug 25 '11 at 20:44
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Much to my surprise my Dahon 20" wheel folding bike did very well last time it snowed here. The low step-thru frame and nimble, small wheel size worked a treat. I was even able to lower the seat (it has a quick-release) and make it down a sledging run.

Snow is the exception rather than the rule in these globally warmed times for most cities. The city riding benefits of the small-wheeled folder to me seem to be:

  • Nimble wheel size works well getting through traffic.
  • Can park it in reception, under a desk or under a pub table so it does not need to be parked where the thieves roam.
  • Upright position is good for seeing what is around you.
  • Comes with a rack to carry stuff.
  • Comes with a set of mudguards to keep you clean.
  • Folds up so you can take it on any train, underground lines and buses.
  • Also goes in taxis and friends' cars.
  • Quick away from traffic lights as the small wheel size and light weight helps acceleration.
  • No need to put your feet down at traffic lights as center of gravity is massively low.
  • Can be carried up and down staircases very easily.
  • Small wheel acts as a deterrent to taking pavement short-cuts.
  • Can put feet up on top tube when free-wheeling.
  • Can surprise other cyclists that expect 'shopping bikes' to be slow.
  • Twist-grip gears without there being too many of them suit city riding.
  • Most importantly, fun to ride. Not really aware of the bike as you don't see a huge wheel in front of you or have a 'country gate' to straddle. More like a magic carpet.

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My Dahon 16" bike did surprisingly well in light snow. It might be my favorite bike for snow and ice if I could find ready-made 16" studded tires. –  Neil Fein Sep 4 '11 at 6:49
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I ride my BMX in the snow every year and i havn't had any trouble with it, they are indredibly robust so they will put up with most anything you can throw at them. the small gear ratio does help in icy conditions and especially when ploughing through fresh snow. it isnt hard to find a nice tyre that will work in the snow as BMX's are so universal with other kinds of their practice dirt tyre's work fine. Furthermore it is possible to fit normal fenders to the rear of a BMX via the seat post but is less likely to work for the front as of the reduced down tube length.}

most importantly get out in the snow, and have some fun on your bike.

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I've thought about riding in the winter (in Ottawa, still going this year, but alas, no snow) It never occured to me before, but a BMX seems to be a great idea. Has all the required features. Single speed, easier to bail when required,fewer parts, more heavy duty chain, relatively cheap. Maybe even a coaster brake would be a good option, do you have any experience with those, or do you use rim brakes? –  Kibbee Dec 16 '11 at 14:04
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