Preface: This article covers my DIY winter city bike design. After years of trying to find a setup for riding in Minneapolis during the cold months I came upon this unique, custom solution. I stress unique — this is one weird bike, and one that few people will want to ride. It has no brakes and no extra gears. It’s equipped not with the en vogue fat tires but with skinny wheels that slice through snow. Regardless, take or leave my opinion here on what works for winter riding, but I happen to love this bike and have had a blast on it this winter. The post below outlines my experience.
By STEPHEN REGENOLD
This winter, I got skinny while many of my friends got fat. I’m talking bike tires, to be sure, not waistlines. Fat bikes are all the rage for riding in snow. The 4-inch-wide (or more) wheels can be run at low pressure and will subtly “float” on snow or plow through slush on road and trail.
I went the other direction with my winter whip. 700c wheels with 30mm studded tires (45Nrth’s Xerxes model) served to keep me upright and riding fast on snowy roads.
Skinny tires slicing through snow are hardly the only oddity of my winter rig. The Franken-bike, built with help from mechanic Graham Olson at One on One bike shop in Minneapolis, is based on an old steel mountain bike frame.
It’s a singlespeed bike with no brakes, a fixie that skids to a stop in the snow with back-pressure on the pedals. Sounds wild, I know, but the knobby, studded tires dig in and grip with force when I need to decelerate or stop.
I ride fixed-gear all year ‘round for city commuting and am used to the configuration. On snow, you can brake easily with a fixed-gear, the pedal-controlled connection from chainring to rear cog acting almost like a coaster brake.
Flat bars give a wide grip and better balance and control. I ride up to 12 miles a day on a relatively easy and flat city commute, though each week I get out on longer rides and occasional races in the city.
A bling wheelset comes from Aerospokes. The brand is known for its star-like spinners with only five large spokes. I picked the wheels for their simple design, which is easy to clean when the winter grime and road salt builds up on the rims.
The wheels look neat and get more comments than anything I’ve ridden on, along the lines of “Check out those spinners!” from an average person waiting for a bus. They have been solid for commuting and city riding. Downsides? They are very heavy, weighing about 1,600 grams each.
My frame is heavy, too. But overall, despite the weight, the bike is fast on winter days. It’s stable across a range of conditions, from fresh snow to slush to hidden ice on cleared roads.
I have crashed twice this year, funny enough in the exact same spot on an icy curve in a path near my office. Otherwise, through a few hundred miles this year my “snow fixie” has been stable and just plain fun.
It is streamlined and simple. There are no cables on the bike, as there are no brakes and no derailleurs. Maintenance is easy, and cleaning off the bike is, too. Winter riding wrecks bike parts and makes for cleanup nightmares as road salt, mud, snow, and ice conceal into a special sludge that can clog up anything that moves.
My bike eliminates most of this concern simply by having fewer moving pats. I clean and lube the chain a couple times a week. The frame and wheels are quick to wipe down. Otherwise, there’s nothing more to do.
A rear fender keeps slush from spraying up my back. I keep a Serfas Thunderblolt blinker light on the seatpost. Plus, I put a pad on the top tube made by Timbuk2. It’s a gaudy reflective yellow that sparks when car headlights grace it at night. Those are the only extras.
How’s it ride? The bike is fun on my daily commute in the city. In snow the tires slice in for traction. They roll fast on cleared roads. I can crank up to 25mph with the 46/18 gearing.
Overall, the bike feels more stable than any winter build I’ve been on save for a fat-tire Pugsley. Each day I look forward to my ride to work.
To test its capabilities beyond simple commuting, I raced in the Stupor Bowl last month. This alleycat bike race is one of the biggest in the world, with hundreds of competitors.
Race day was cold (around 10 degrees F) and snowy. The roads were typical mid-winter Minnesota — narrow, snow-choked, slushy in places, rutted, pot-holed, and with hidden ice.
We rode for hours on a course that stretched 50+ miles around Minneapolis. My snow fixie was a champ, keeping me upright and relatively fast.
For a singlespeed, the bike is a lug, weighing around 24 pounds. This is on account of the old frame and the heavy wheels. On hills I notice the weight in a big way. For everyday riding the heft does not bother me, but during the Stupor Bowl lighter bikes were flying by.
A final test this winter involved a frozen lake. I recruited a friend and an industrial-strength snowblower from Toro, the Power Max model. Its maw, equipped with an 11-inch serrated auger, can cut through 20-inch drifts and toss snow 40 feet.
We hauled the Toro and my bike to a lake in the city. Our objective was to build a temporary “trail” across a section of the lake, the snowblower serving as our tool to cut through snow down to the glare ice.
An hour of work yielded a narrow lane. I clipped in to my pedals and put the bike’s studded tires to yet another test. The carbide studs bit into the ice and crunched as I cruised the lake path. I rode back and forth for 20 minutes, smiling at the sheer oddity of it all.
Winter biking is not natural. But for years I have tried to embrace pedaling all months. Snow riding has more appeal for me this year than ever. It’s no longer a chore. I credit my Franken-bike as a large part of the shift.
It’s now March and my “snow fixie” is a mess. It needs a good cleaning and a new chain once the snow melts and the salt is washed off the city streets with spring rain.
I’ll put the bike away in my garage in a month. I will take out lighter and more nimble rides. My snow bike will be waiting for me, waiting for the snow to fall again next year on Minneapolis for another few months of unusual winter fun.
—Stephen Regenold is editor and founder of GearJunkie. A special thanks to Graham Olson at One on One bike shop in Minneapolis, the mechanic behind the custom snow-fixie build