Cycling the City in a Snowstorm: A Few Tips and Tricks

Here in the midst of #31DaysOfWinterBiking, it’s time to admit something that a lot of winter bicycle commuters already know: biking through a snowstorm is a lot of fun. Sure, it’s icy, slow, and treacherous, but in many ways it’s the most fun you can have on a bike. Here are a few tips to help you enjoy the snow on two wheels.

The author biking on Grand Avenue in Saint Paul, October 20, 2020. Photo by John Autey.

Sure, biking through fresh snow greatly increases the risk of falling. But falling onto a fluffy bed of snow is usually…kind of fun. The trick, if there is one, is to not try to stop your fall and let it happen. Just like getting thrown from your sled as a kid was the best part of sledding. And, unlike driving a car, if your bike ends up stuck in a snowbank, you can just pick it up and carry on instead of frantically digging snow and spinning wheels.

During a storm, cities take on a magical quality when snow scatters light and muffles sounds. Snowflakes create a Star Wars warp field effect as you speed through them. There are fewer cars on the road and most are driving a lot slower than usual. And, you’re more likely to see people out and about doing things like snowshoeing, cross country skiing, or other strange behaviors you never witness any other time.

Downtown Saint Paul and a HotTea installation during a snowstorm on January 24, 2021
Downtown Saint Paul and a HotTea installation during a snowstorm on January 24, 2021

For example, a few winters ago, my son Riley and I rode into downtown Minneapolis during a heavy, wet snowstorm in late December. We stopped on the Stone Arch Bridge to make an impromptu snowman. A group of college students were rolling their own massive snowball and it soon became clear that their intention wasn’t just a snowman. Together, we helped them heave the ball over the railing. It fell silently, then broke through the thin river ice below with a memorable BAROOMP! sound, the likes of which I had never heard before or since. It was a memorable departure from the usual routine of crossing the river.

Sometimes snow people visit the Stone Arch Bridge. December 28, 2018.

On our way home that night, though, Riley hit a hidden curb buried in snow and wiped out, bonking his elbow. One of the dangers of biking in fresh snow is that it renders a lot of obstacles invisible. It’s best to stick closely to routes you know very well. Even so, I’ve cratered several times on hidden potholes and ice ruts. Hold on tight to those handlebars!

Keep in mind, though, that conditions will affect your routing choices tremendously. Side streets, for example, are usually the worst option in the snow. The sloppy ruts carved by spinning car wheels offer little traction for a bicycle. And bike lanes? Forget about ’em. They no longer exist.

Sidewalks are often a good alternative, but they too become impassible if they weren’t properly cleared after a previous snowstorm or if they’ve already been packed by lots of foot traffic. Bike trails are usually rideable even if they haven’t been plowed. But, most of the time, you’ll need to take the lane on busy thoroughfares where car tires have created narrow tracks through the snow.

What’s the best route, guv’ner? Bike the sidewalk or ride with cars in the street? Summit Avenue, January 14, 2022.

Of course, riding with cars in a snowstorm doesn’t feel safe. Not at all. Drivers are hazardous enough on a normal day, but snowstorms seem to amplify stupidity. Expect a few close passes, a stuck car or two needing a push, and the occasional jeer. Once, while riding to a meeting at the Capitol in a snowstorm, the driver of a hatchback tried to pass me as I climbed a short hill on Minnehaha Avenue and spun out in the snow piled in the middle of the road. So it goes.

Your best defense in these conditions is a blinking rear light and plenty of patience. Pull over every once in a while to let cars pass you safely.

In general, all of the usual winter cycling tips apply during a snowstorm, plus a few more. For starters, goggles are a particularly good idea because snowflakes can feel like tiny daggers when they hit unprotected eyes. I’ve been led to believe there are fancy goggles you can buy which won’t fog up, but I’m using a pair that I found in the snow a couple of winters ago. They’re fine as long as I’m moving but when I stop they fog instantly unless I pull my balaclava down off of my nose. So, I’m constantly moving and repositioning my balaclava.

In winter, it’s a good idea to ride a single-speed, fixed-gear, or an internal hub bike. Derailleurs tend to get quickly gunked up with ice. If you’re riding with multiple gears, it’s probably best to just pick one and stick with it.

Gunked up ice makes your bike more aerodynamic!
Gunked up ice makes your bike more aerodynamic!

My snowstorm ride is a 1987 Schwinn Mirada, a flamingo pink steel-framed hybrid that I’ve modified to be fixed-gear, which gives me a lot more control on ice. It’s got relatively skinny 38-40mm studded tires, which helps me cut through mashed potato snow and grip the icy road surface underneath.

An alternative approach would be a fat bike, which has tires wide enough to sorta float on top of the snow. When we get a fresh snowfall of more than about 6-8 inches, fat bikes are pretty much the only way to go. But, decent fat bikes cost several thousand dollars and have lots of pricey components which are easily destroyed by road salt. That’s a lot of money for a bike that’s only super useful a half dozen times per year. Unless you’re itching to go winter back country trail riding, I’d recommend spending a couple hundred bucks or less on a sturdy winter beater like my Mirada.

Snowstorm in Minneapolis on November 10, 2020.
Snowstorm in Minneapolis on November 10, 2020.

Biking through snow is physically difficult! A mile might feel like 10 miles. Your range will be substantially reduced and you will sweat buckets just to get anywhere. If you’re commuting to work in a snowstorm, be sure to bring extra outerwear for your ride home. Unless you can dry your gloves, balaclava, and jacket at work, you’ll be in for a cold and wet ride home.

A fender of some sort is also crucial to keeping your backside dry. A set of full-length fenders that almost fully enclose your wheels are great for rain and most of winter’s sloppiness, but in a snowstorm they’re easily clogged by ice. Be sure they’re fitted closer to your tires at the back of your bike than they are at the front so that packed snow has a chance to clear. For really snowy conditions, I prefer a mountain bike-style mudguard that clips onto the seatpost and rests well above the wheels. These don’t work well with a rear rack, however, so I’ve bungeed a part of an old political campaign sign to the top of my rack instead.

An old campaign sign mounted to a rear rack keeps your backside dry in the snow
An old campaign sign mounted to a rear rack keeps your backside dry in the snow

Once you do get home, it’s important to wash all the ice off your bike so that it won’t rust and the brakes won’t freeze up. Sometimes, I’ll carry my bike into our shower for a complete wash after an especially sloppy ride. Use cold water, not hot, so you don’t wash oil and grease off of moving parts. In my experience, after you clean your bike in the shower, you’ll then need to completely scrub your shower.

Another option is a hand pump garden sprayer to clean your bike outside. This works pretty great as long as the temperature is above 20°F. I add a little white vinegar and a few drops of dish soap to the water. Be sure to clean your brakes, spoke nipples, the braking surface on your wheels, bottom bracket, chain, and chainstays.

After a snowstorm, expect difficult cycling conditions to persist for days or even weeks. Both Saint Paul and Minneapolis do a great job of clearing most protected bike trails within 24 hours, but on-street painted bike lanes will be filled with parked cars and frozen crud until spring. If the snow is immediately followed by a good cold snap, then side streets may be rideable with nicely packed snow and ice for a while. If not, they’ll be extremely rutted, sloppy, and nearly impassable for the foreseeable future. And, just when they seem to get better? It’ll snow again. Get out there and enjoy it!

The day after a snowstorm. February 8, 2020.

All photos by the author except as noted.

Dan Marshall

About Dan Marshall

Dan Marshall lives in Hamline-Midway, is the father of four kids, owns a retail shop in Saint Paul with his wife Millie, bikes all around town, and holds a history degree from the U of M. He aspires to create mildly interesting local content for Streets.mn readers. @DanMarStP

4 thoughts on “Cycling the City in a Snowstorm: A Few Tips and Tricks

  1. Joe Steinbronn

    One of my favorite rides ever was during the tail-end of a snowstorm that dropped ten inches of snow. I probably ate it ten times each mile, but it was so fun and painless. The snow rides I look forward to most are the late autumn snowfalls that melt on impact but still give off the hyperspace effect you mentioned. As for winter bikes, the only tip I can give is to set a low budget and stick to it. Twice now I’ve bought a steel frame beater that, a few dozen upgrades later, is too tender to take into the asphalt salt plains (“Na + 1”?).

    Reply
  2. Joshua

    Dan, where did you find 38-40 mm 26” studded tires? I ride 1.9” and would love to go a bit narrower but they don’t seem to exist in 26”
    Thanks for great winter biking write up.

    Reply
    1. Dan MarshallDan Marshall Post author

      Glad you asked! A couple of winters ago I fell and twisted my ankle on mashed potato snow over icy ruts with my studded MTB tires. So, I decided I needed something narrower that cut through the snow a little better. I swapped out my 26″ wheels for 700c, which just barely fit the frame. I couldn’t use the canti brake bosses anymore, though, so I mounted some old reliable centerpull brakes which were the only ones I could find that had enough tire clearance. The bike rides about 3/4″ higher now, which felt weird at first but works pretty well for clearing snowbanks. Some of the pics in the article show the old setup and some of them are the 700c. I don’t think this kind of hack would work on every old MTB, but it turned out pretty well on the Mirada.

      Reply

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