One of the best things about living in Minnesota is the long cold winter!
If you don’t agree with this statement, wait until you get out and ride the bike trails in the snow! Winter riding has hit the sport of mountain biking like a snowstorm in the past few years, and MORC has been at the forefront of making it possible. Lebanon Hills was one of the first trail areas in the state to allow official winter riding! PDF trail map
Just a few short years ago, bike manufacturers started building bikes that could handle both sand and snow riding. These are now affectionately called “fat bikes”. The idea is to widen the front and rear wheel enough to be able to float on top of the snow while still having enough traction to pedal. Snow bikes can range from just over $1000 to several thousand dollars, just like regular bikes.
The bike shown to the left is just one of many different fat bikes available on the market. This one happens to feature a 9:ZERO:7 135mm frame, Clown Shoe 100mm drilled rims, Nate 3.8″ (rear) and Bud 4.8″ (front) tires, Mr. Whirley Offset Double crankset, Avid Mechanical brakes, Shimano XT group, Thudbuster seatpost and other misc. parts. (Note the deer in the background) Being 135mm hub compatible, wheels require an offset spoke pattern. This was common on the early fat bikes as you could pick the 135mm hub of your choice. The last couple of years featured 170mm rear hub compatible frames, but these have since been replaced by 190mm models. Consider avoiding the 170mm models because of this.
Recently carbon has made its way to the fat bike scene. This ultra fat sub-30 lb. bike features a 9:ZERO:7 Whiteout frame with the new 190mm rear hub spacing (providing for wider tires), Clown Shoe 100mm drilled rims, Lou 4.8″ (rear) and Bud 4.8″ (front) tires, SRAM X9 crankset, Wolftooth front gear, Avid Mechanical brakes, Shimano XT rear shifting, Thudbuster seatpost and other misc. parts. The Whiteout, and the Borealis Yampa, are the two top frames available for 2013-14.
It wasn’t always so easy. During the first years of snow riding we didn’t have “Fat Bikes” and had to stuff the largest tires into a frame as possible (often a single speed frame for more clearance). This photo was taken during the winter of 2005, which was the first year Lebanon Hills was open all year round. (we used to close for winter!) Back in these days it was common to hike-a-bike for 80% of the trail, and we had no mechanized snow grooming equipment. Often we spent more time snow shoeing than riding. I’ll never forget the year I saw my first fat bike tracks… it was like spotting big foot.
Cold weather meets workout, meaning selecting the right clothing can be a challenge. Here are a few tips on a few things that seem to work over the years from veteran snow bikers. Your preference, of course, will vary. Once you find the right mix you may want to keep a log of the temps and what you wore to make it easier the next time.
Consider the popular layering method. The three traditional layers are a next-to-skin layer that wicks away moisture, an insulating middle layer, and a weatherproof or windproof outer shell.
We will feature Pearl Izumi brand clothing for this review only because the author is familiar with it, but you can obviously go with the brand of your choice. Also consider a non-biking specific brand of clothing to save money!
We will start at the very top, with head protection. If its not cold enough for full face protection (typically around freezing) the Pearl Izumi Barrier Skull Cap is a great choice. Windproof front keeps your forehead shielded, wicks moisture, and is ergonomic in cut so it fits well under a helmet.
We will start at the very top, with head and face protection. A favorite among bikers is the Balaclava (no, not the sweet fill pastry with nuts and honey). The Pearl Izumi Barrier Balaclava wicks moisture away from your noggin and has an ergonomic fit that works well under a helmet. These are easily removed and stuffed in a pocket if you find yourself overheating.
Never. Ever. Ride without a helmet. Cold weather or not, its your responsibility to keep your head protected. As far as winter riding goes, this is another area that varies among riders. Some will go with their summer helmets, while others may chose a bike helmet with fewer vents for fall and winter riding. Another popular thing to do for colder weather is to get a Ski/Snowboard helmet, which are designed for winter weather – often with adjustable ventilation and removable ear pads to help adjust to different weather conditions. I’m rather fond of my Giro Nine MX as it sports a visor like a regular helmet, but it is hard to find. There are many helmets out there, and if you ski or snowboard just use what you already have.
Layering is the key here. Consider a good long sleeve base layer that is built to wick moisture away from your body to keep you dry. The Pearl Izumi Transfer Long Sleeve Base Layer is a good example of what to look for in this all important base layer. If you opt for a lighter weight shell as a jacket, consider multiple base layers when temps turn real cold.
Next we go with a mid layer such as the Pearl Izumi Therma Phase Top. Consider a mid-layer which is a little looser and still has moisture wicking. Many mid-layer tops can also be used alone as a fall riding top.
Light Shell Jacket
Most riders will combine the base layer(s) with some form of outer jacket or shell. The idea is to stop wind and moisture in front, and vent in back, while still exhibiting moisture wicking technology.
Medium Shell Jacket
When temps fall below zero or for those that prefer less layers, the Pearl Izumi Thermal Convertible Jacket is a good choice. It features zip-off sleeves for when temps start to warm up on long rides and can keep you warm to well below zero with just a single base layer (breaking from the traditional three layer system). I actually prefer the dual-layer system with a thicker outer jacket, but this may be too warm for some. If you ride on the road, consider something more visible than black.
Lower Half Base Layer
Tights are popular for keeping the lower body warm in winter. Just like shorts, many tights come with a built-in chamois and should be chosen using the same guidelines for fit and comfort. Tights often include weather-resistant front panels and reflective detailing for dark, winter rides. For layering purposes, some tights come without a chamois liner so they will fit over a pair of cycling shorts with no problem. Consider bib tights with good wind blocking that can be used by themselves or under a shell layer when it gets real cold. Resist the urge to overdress, however, as you will warm up during your ride.
Sometimes, and for some people, tights just aren’t enough when temperatures turn real cold. To keep on riding, consider a pair of soft-shell pants (light snow pants) as an outer layer to your tights. There are many brands out there to chose from, but I have had great luck with my Mountain Hardware Windstopper pants (now called the Sarpa Softshell Pant). Others prefer a pant that vents better in the back. Consider a pant that tightens around the ankle (keeps it out of your chain) and has zippers you can open to vent as temps vary.
Arguably the most important thing you can purchase is a good warm pair of riding shoes. While the selection is growing, the majority of winter riders will suggest Lake boots like the new MXZ 303s shown here. The boa system keeps them on tight while the velcro helps keep snow away from your feet. Good solid insulation on the bottom keeps the cold temps out allowing for nice long snow rides. Other shoes, like the 45NRTH Wölvhammer make a great option, but are typically more expensive and less proven at this time. Of course if you don’t ride clipped in, you can just throw on your favorite winter boots and use those.
Gloves may just be tied with shoes for the most important element of your winter riding. There is nothing worse than frozen fingers. Gloves are more of a personal choice since there are so many different kinds out there. Many prefer lobster gloves, such as the Pearl Isumi P.R.O. Softshell Lobster Glove. Most lobster gloves are also available in a full finger version for those that prefer.
One item that is popular is porgies. Poagies go on your bars and cover your grips, providing an extra layer of insulation for your hands. Some even ride with winter gloves in porgies. 45NRTH has a great new option allowing you to wear much thinner gloves than normal.
Many winter riders use heat packs to help keep hands and feet warm. We find Grabber or Hothands make some of the best product (lasts longer, adheres to feet better). Putting toe warmers on top of your feet often yields better results than on the bottom. You can often find boxes of these for a good price online or at a place like Costco – just be sure to check the expiration date as some will try sell you expired goods. Between seasons if you have leftovers, double bag them in sealable plastic bags and store in a cool dark place. Here is a great page with some Q&A around the use of heat packs.
Winter Safety & Etiquette
Without a bit of packing, snow riding can be nearly impossible. On a normal year we simply get too much snow to ride on without the help. This is done in the form of snowshoeing the trail (please do!) and most recently via the snow packing machine that MORC bought. We all need your help, however! Before we get into the gear, there are a few things you should know about winter riding at Lebanon Hills:
- Only ride when temps are below freezing. If you ride above freezing you leave ruts in the trail that will re-freeze. Frozen ruts are no fun and tend to last all winter. You may also harm the underlying or exposed dirt trail, which will then need to be repaired before it can open in the spring.
- While we don’t discriminate on tire size, 3.7″ or better are recommended. Cross bikes are not welcome.
- In order to get everyone back riding as soon as possible, allow groomers and fat bikers to ride first after a 2″ or more snowfall. They will create the base that everyone else needs to ride without destroying the trail for everyone. This is simple science folks.
- Allow the trail time to set-up after grooming. 12-24 hours for fat bikes, 48 hours for everyone else. Watch the Lebanon Hills Facebook page for grooming efforts
- The thinner your tires, the more your bike will dig in. If you find yourself creating a deep rut please turn around and ride another day.
- Watch for ice! It is common to have ice on the trail, especially in the beginner loop. Use studded tires as necessary. Go here to find some information on home-brew studded tires.
- If you find yourself having trouble staying in a straight line, consider riding another day.
- Yield to all other users as you cross their trails (hikers, skiers). Look both ways before crossing other trails.
- Always wear protective gear, even in winter. Helmets are required!
- Never run or hike the bike trails. Boot tracks leave terrible holes that are super annoying to riders.
- Never ride on hiking and skiing trails. Everyone must stay on their designated trail.
- If you have to get off your bike and push (common in the snow) keep your boot tracks off to the side and your bike tracks in the center of the trail. This will help groom the trail for the next person rather than rutting it up.
- Snow often provides opportunities to ride obstacles we normally would not in summer. Try not to unnecessarily cut the trail, however. Keeping to the path helps pack the trail and keeps the land manager happy. There is no skill in cutting your own trail. Stay on the trail or stay home.
- One exception to the above rule is riding on the lake in the “lake loop” (see trail review). Once the lake has set up, it can be fun to go out and ride circles in that area.
- Get out and help pack the trail. Join in on a group snowshoe “stomp” or get out there and do it on your own. If you love winter riding, give back by helping out at least once a season.
- Spread the world about fat biking. Make it fun, keep it safe.
- Be an ambassador for the sport – stay polite, educate other bikers, discourage bad behavior, follow the rules, and we’ll all have a good time this winter.
One of the biggest enemies of winter riding is frozen ruts. These are caused when riders are out in above freezing temps. Tires dig into the snow and then freeze up. Often these ruts become permanent, as there is really no way to fix them unless we get enough snow to completely pack them over. Often tires reach below the snow and ice layer into the surface of the actual trail causing damage. This damage needs to be repaired before the trail can re-open in the spring. Please DO NOT ride when temps go above freezing.
Bikers aren’t the only people who can quickly wreck a winter trail. Boot tracks cause the same issue and often are deeper and more random, creating a very bumpy trail. If you encounter a hiker or trail runner on the bike trails, ask them nicely to exit the trail and stay on the designated hiking only trails. Check out the trail to the left where both a biker and hiker left tracks on top of a melting trail. Not a lot of fun to ride through.
Lets avoid building upon the stereotype that mountain bikers are selfish and follow the examples above. Doing so will allow us to continue riding all year long and keep riders on the trail as often as possible. There is a lot of effort that goes into making winter riding possible so please consider your fellow riders and the volunteers.
Here are a few videos featuring winter riding in Lebanon Hills. As time goes by hopefully we can add even more videos. We’d love to see what you come up with!
This video was self-shot at Lebanon Hills by John Lundell in December 2012. Not your usual action video, but does a nice job of showing the calm that is riding in winter. The video was shot entirely on an iPhone and edited with iMovie.
Check out this video taken at Lebanon Hills for the KARE 11 Minnesota Bound TV show, featuring the Leb Mafia. The video is now a few years old but is good for a few laughs.
Here is a photo taken and edited by John Lundell entirely on his iPhone. The photo has been featured on sites such as fat-bikes.com as the wallpaper of the week. Feel free to download and use. (click on the image, then right click the pop-up and save to get the full size version)
More Winter Photos
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