The Search For The Perfect Winter Bike. Is it a Fatbike?

The short story on what is the perfect winter bike is whatever bike allows you to pull a bicycle snow plow. Bare pavement will make any bicycle work quite well as a winter bike.

If that is not an option, consider two different kinds of bicycles for winter conditions. I’m assuming you are using studded tires, which in my experience, is essential for winter cycling.

Narrow tires tend to slide into any grooves, bike or car tracks. Narrow tires do better at digging through snow to grip pavement underneath. As snow depth increases over 4″, narrow studded tires may be the only way to keep moving!

The wider the tire, the less sliding around in ruts there is because a wider tire has a flatter surface. Although fatbikes are touted as the best winter bikes, even fatbikes can slide in icy ruts under certain conditions, especially if there is water or snow on top of ice (but much less likely than other kinds of bicycles).

Many cyclists get through winters on 2-3″ wide tires by dropping tire pressure to about half. Fatbikes are particularly good at handling extremely low tire pressures but expect the pedalling effort to increase exponentially with lower tire pressures. At 5 psi, the effort seems about 5X higher and speed goes down to about 1/4 of normal. A typical 20kph effort then deteriorates to a high effort 5 kph ride, barely adequate to maintain balance.

Electric fatbikes have the benefit of helping you run low pressure by providing more power to overcome some of the resistance from tire flexing. However, even fatbikes have their limits and are not always the best winter bike.

Fatbikes do make decent road bikes if your tires can run higher pressure (say 20-25psi) and have no tread in the center (flexing tread creates more resistance). Some tires will have a solid strip of rubber in the middle of the tire to reduce rolling resistance (A.K.A. beach tires). Acceleration will be slower due to heavier wheels but they can still keep a good pace with commuter bikes if you are considering using one kind of bike for everything including off road riding and climbing extremely steep grades. In fact, a fatbike may be one of the few bikes with a heavy enough front end that you can keep the front wheel on the ground climbing some insanely steep hills! The heavier wheels also make riding on tricky terrain easier because they just roll over everything.

Icy conditions require really good studded tires. Think of knobby tires with lots of studs. Tires with road tread tend to clog up more quickly with snow, reducing their effectiveness. On bare ice, pretty much any studded tire will work well. Chains are very effective on ice and are particularly good in deep snow where studs and tires become ineffective.

Despite the growing popularity, fatbikes do not work well in deep snow. The wide tires push a lot of snow and after 3″ of snow they begin to act as if you are riding on steel bearings with the front brake dragging.

Where fatbikes excel above other kinds of bicycles is on packed snow which is icy. The wider tires offer better grip in conditions where narrower tires become tricky to ride, especially if there is water or snow on top of ice. Consider combinations of packed and loose patches of snow for example.

On hard packed snow, narrow tires work quite well. But hit a patch of loose snow, wheel tracks, or semi patched snow that breaks apart under the weight of the tires and it quickly becomes very stressful as the narrow tires quickly lurch sideways.

Wider fatbike tires won’t sink in to these patches of loose snow to the same extent and therefore provide a more consistent stability. When those big tires do slide, it happens much slower, allowing time to compensate without freaking out. When you have to ride through furrows of deep packed snow from snowplows, just pedalling hard and crashing through it is usually all it takes. I wouldn’t dare try this on narrow tires because they’ll often dig in and could launch you off the bike.

With all this talk about how good fatbikes are, you’d think they’d make the best winter bikes in all conditions. While this is generally true, fatbikes fail quickly in deep snow. The solution then is to install tire chains which will grip the loose snow better. When snow is mushy, even tire chains can plug up with snow making them ineffective. What tire chains do, is increase how much slush and deep snow you can safely ride through. They provide a significant increase in traction.

When snow gets deep enough to make riding a fatbike impossible (in my experience 4″ of snow), What can you do?

Think narrow. If wide tires don’t work, try narrower knobby tires with studs and tire chains. It has allowed me to ride in snow 6″ of snow vs the fatbike becoming useless in 4″ of snow. Using 2″ wide tires (half the width of some fatbike tires), can work well enough to allow riding sometimes in up to 12″ of snow. The more snow the front wheel pushes, the more likely the back wheel will spin out as it tries to force the front wheel through the snow.

And what if this doesn’t work?

Think ebike. If you can add a little power to turn the front wheel against the resistance of the snow, the rear wheel won’t use up all of the available traction. If you use too much power driving the front wheel, it will spin out because there is less weight on the front tire to get enough traction. In fact, adding weight to the back wheel helps improve traction. Riding a heavier bike or adding weight to both wheels will help improve traction overall.

And what if this doesn’t work?

The last option, in my opinion, is the K-track (a snowmobile like track that replaces the rear wheel). They provide more traction in snow than a fatbike without tire chains, and in doing so, require more effort.

Any kind of riding in deep snow requires more effort for that matter. The laws of physics haven’t changed. All we are doing is looking for the best compromise under widely differing winter conditions. No one bike can do perform best under all winter conditions but several different kinds of bicycles can provide a wide margin of safety and traction when commuting by bike all winter.

The best winter bicycle is a compromise. Having different kinds of bicycles is like having different tools for different jobs (weather conditions).

Having the right kind of winter bicycle is how winter cyclists have fun when they’re not supposed to.

{:~)> <(~:}



Burley Travoy Ebike Expedition

Last year I added a Power In Motion ebike kit to the Bicycle Snowplow bike. The motor was useful on my camping trip to Rockyford last summer, especially on the way back when climbing the hills.

Now I’d like to introduce you to another addition to the ebike camping scheme, a Burley Travoy trailer also available at Power In Motion for under $400.

The photos show the trailer with only the lower bag installed. There are also 2 kinds of upper bags available. I bought the netted produce type bag because it is the right size to put two ebike batteries side by side in it. You can also get a computer bag that clips on.

The ebike batteries are about 9lbs each and an extension cable connects the batteries to the bike wiring to power the 500 watt motor. One battery used as power assist for hills had power to spare for the 86km trip. This year I’d like to increase the bike range with an extra battery to about 100 miles range. When hauling weight, level ground or down hills are no problem but uphills can slow you to a crawl.

The top bag can carry 20 lbs. The lower bag… 40 lbs for a total of 60 lbs.

You may also remember I broke a rear axle on my Trek hauling 65 lbs on that bike. The problem with (non touring) bikes is overloading the rear axle. Non touring bikes are very close the GVW with 40 lbs of gear. If you are doing self supported touring and camping, it will be a struggle to carry tents, clothes, food, water, tools and keep the weight down.

You are left trying to put as much weight as possible on the front wheel. Bulky items like tents and sleeping bags are very difficult to fin enough room to strap them on a bike.

In my case, about 40lbs on the front and about 20ish pounds on the back. Even with less weight on the back, a bearing race cracked on the back axle. Fortunately, it did not interfere with riding.

So this year I want to put as much weight off the bike and onto a trailer. With the ebike kit, empty bike weight is already at 76lbs. The cruiser style bike has no front rack and the front is already heavy enough with the motor and handlebar bag.

Since I had replaced the 44 tooth crank with a 40 tooth crank, I’ve had good results riding the heavy bike. I’ve grown to enjoy riding heavier bikes because they ride a lot smoother. Experience has shown that having a top gear that allows pedalling at 80-100 rpm at around 27-30kph works quite well. Any faster and air resistance becomes significant, increasing the effort to maintain speed.

Low gears on a 3 speed leave something to be desired because they aren’t low enough for serious hill climbing, especially when hauling camping gear. That’s where an ebike motor is great. I can stay in top gear and climb most hills at my cruising speed of about 27kph with a light load. With a heavy load and very steep hill, I can use low gear and switch to low power assist which cuts out about (15-17kph).

Testing last year showed good range improvement by keeping the speed down to about 23-25kph in the high power setting when using the motor. Battery drain can be reduced a lot by setting the power level and pedalling to increase speed by 3 kph over what the motor achieves over level ground.

With the 3 power settings, the motor will provide speeds close to 15-17 kph, 20-22kph (great for pathways), and 27-30kph with a 26″ wheel. A fully charged battery will produce higher speeds. A partly discharged battery will produce lower speeds. More testing to be done later this year.

Extra weight on the bike does reduce range somewhat when climbing hills which is to be expected. An additional battery is therefore a useful addition to camping but is by no means a mandatory requirement since pedalling can provide sufficient range even with a dead battery. Battery power could be conserved for just climbing hills and headwinds.

Bulky camping items like sleeping bags can be carries in the lower bag or strapped on. There is plenty of space in the large lower bag of the Burley trailer for a tent, sleeping bag, camp stove plus room for other items. Extra straps come with the trailer to strap down bulky loads like a dog carrier.

The trailer allows me to use rear panniers and still carry about 20 lbs on the back of the bike without overloading it. The hitch weight of the trailer is only a few extra pounds on the bike.

For a description of features of the Burley Travoy trailer you can see it in this video:

One thing that was not mentioned in the video… on the lower bag there is a draw string. This is for pulling the sides of the large lower bag in so the sides don’t rub on the wheels when the bag is empty.

There are several good reasons to combine an ebike kit and a bike trailer besides camping trips and the points I already mentioned.

1) Hills and wind (not the favourite conditions for many cyclists).
2) To maintain a lower and more stable heart rate over hilly terrain which can be helpful for people with health problems like heart conditions. Personally, I am not much of an advocate for high heart rates during training because there is mounting evidence that suggests sustained high heart rates can cause long term heart damage in athletes.
3) To provide power when fatigue sets in at the end of a long ride or when going for longer rides than one is accustomed to.
4) To get people out cycling more often.
5) For extra power when hauling more weight or building endurance (lower but more consistent effort).
6) To provide a more consistent speed for commutes.
7) To make it easier to pull snowplows and trailers with a bike.
8) Convenience: trailer can be used as a shopping cart or for avoiding the dreaded and time consuming unloading of panniers etc.
9) Loaded trailer can easily be pulled up stairs.

More posts later when summer camping starts. Let you know how this setup works. :-[]


A Space Age Fable

The old Star Trek series is like a modern day space age Aesop’s Fable. In one show, the Enterprise visited a peaceful planet to prevent the violent Klingons from using the planet as a strategic launching point for attacks.

The two opposing forces, Klingons and the Federation, could not understand why the people of the planet did not react either to death at the hands of the Klingons nor the promise of protection from the Federation. The Klingons were portrayed as a negative force. The Federation as the positive force.

As the Klingon and Federation captains began their battle of will with each other, they both began to realize the one thing they had in common was the way neither could tolerate the peaceful planet inhabitants who’s behaviour was most puzzling. Both sides were engaged in their own destruction. The inhabitants did not seem concerned about the actions of either side.

Both the positive and negative forces realized they had more in common with their opposing views than they did with the inhabitants. They both preferred to use force than to sit idly by as the inhabitants remained non-reactive. They both preferred displays of courage and conviction than peace.

The inhabitants were not physical beings so they had no concern for their survival.

This is an important fable because it shows that we can either exist in a negative or positive state. Or we can choose to exist in a spiritual state and be non-reactive to displays of force. We think of ourselves as powerful beings because of our displays of using force. As Captain Kirk said, “It is unsettling to discover we are wrong.”