Tale of an Outcast: Surviving the Midwest Winter
Winter bike riding can challenge even the hardiest people. Read on to see how a soft West Coast native has learned to face the cold and come out on the other side.
I’m not a Midwesterner. In fact, I’m about as removed as you can be. My life, up until recently, has consisted of the West Coast. From Hawaii to Oregon to Fiji to Oregon to California to Oregon and back California, I’ve never lived with a mountain and an ocean more than an hour and a half away. This has been paramount because my life has always revolved heavily around sports associated with these features; surfing, mountain biking, climbing, hiking, snowboarding and more.
Recently, we moved to Central Illinois to follow my wife’s career as a physician. I was happy to follow her dreams for a career because she has worked insanely hard to achieve them, and I am never going to make my wealth in the cycling industry. Before moving out I had several panic attacks (I’m being dramatic or maybe I’m not) about how I was going to cope for the next 4 years of my life. I wasn’t all that panicky about my career and the changes that would come with relocation. I was really freaking out about how I was going to cope without riding the mountains and ocean that I loved. I feared the flat. Well, that and the crazy cold temperatures.
My Current Life
Fast forward a bit. I have now been living in the Midwest for about a year and a half, and I can tell you that my assumptions were… partially right. I miss the big mountain descents of the West Coast. I yearn for lift-access parks. I dream of the year-round riding conditions of SoCal. But, after being here for a while I can tell you that my assumptions were mostly wrong. Midwest riding is epic in its own right. My West Coast wide bars are a bit of a disadvantage (I can’t quit them) here because the trails weave endlessly through tight stands of trees. My long-travel enduro bike might be a bit overkill, but it is still really fun and has saved my butt in a few very techy situations. I have traded in all the super long climbs and bombing descents of the West for rolling elevation, tight trees, gut-busting short burst climbs, rocks and roots and super hero dirt. Further, I keep discovering new trail systems that make a strong case for relabeling the Midwest as an epic ride destination. From Arkansas, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, and more there are destinations that have opened my eyes to the grandeur and diversity of riding in the Midwest.
Don’t get me wrong, it is not all sunshine and roses. In fact, that is one of the Midwest’s main downfalls. As I sit here writing this, I have not seen consistent trail riding in several months due to the intermittent weather. The fall has been brutal on trail conditions, and, so far, winter has not been much nicer. My West Coast friends all assume that I’m not riding because of the cold weather. To be honest, I yearn for the temperatures to stay consistently below freezing.
The problem is the freeze/thaw cycle. This is pretty much the worst thing for the trails, your bike, and your car. This cycle causes the soil to be ultra-porous because the water expands in the soil while frozen, and then leaves more room for moisture when it thaws. The more cycles that happen, the more porous the ground gets. This also affects days where it is not below freezing, but is otherwise dry. The soil becomes hyper-saturated and takes weeks of dry and windy weather to begin to be solid enough to ride. If you do ride in these conditions the damage to the trails is major, the mud shortens the life of your drivetrain and suspension, and it is a huge effort to keep all of that muck out of your car. So, I find myself scanning the weather report for cold days where I know the ground will be frozen solid. Frozen ground rides a whole lot like blue groove dirt so it can satiate that need to go fast.
There is another follow-up problem that comes with the freeze/thaw cycle. That is the final thaw. When Spring rolls around and the sun is shining its warmth into the days, you’d expect it to bring happiness to all the trail riders weary from cold and snow. Nope. That’s all great if you ride road only, but if you are anxious to get back on solid dirt it will be a long and generally wet wait. Thanks to our rich soils and substantial moisture, when the day finally comes that the dirt is dry you will likely face a barrage of overgrown foliage that often includes nettles, thorns, and poison ivy. Thank the heaven’s for trail advocacy groups that help to make moderately short work of clearing back the trail!
You may find yourself asking yourself why I would even bother with riding in the winter when I have to face cold, long waits between rides, and often companion-less excursions. Well, because it is just a whole lot of fun! Riding in winter can range from fast and flowy rides to deep snow adventures that allow you to take in a new version of nature’s beauty that you may normal miss. Don’t just take my word for it. Check out the video above from Red Bull that shows just how fun riding in the winter can be.
My Bike Solutions
While I haven’t rid myself of my enduro bike, I have bolstered my stable with a steel hardtail 29er, a mid-travel trail 29er, a cyclocross rig and BMX bike. Eventually, I see a fat bike or a 27.5+/29+ bike in my future for the deeper snow days, but so far the tire volume on my trail bikes seems to be plenty efficient for light snow days. These additions allow me to diversify my riding based on the conditions, location, and my time. If I don’t have time to drive to trails, I pull out the cross bike, fly down the bike path and spin a few laps of small woodland trail in town. If the dirt isn’t solid but the day is dry, I can hone my bike handling skills at the skatepark while proving to myself how bad a BMX rider I am. A diverse selection of bikes really allows me to work on my riding skills by changing the way I have to respond to trail obstacles.
If my arm were twisted and I had to choose just one bike for the Midwest it would be my Ibis Ripley (or other similar mid-travel trail 29er bikes). This bike has enough travel and wheel size to eat up the roots and chunk that can be found in the Midwest while still maintaining speed enough to blast the more XC-style single and doubletrack. It is also incredibly nimble, especially for a 29er, which is immensely useful on the the tight, winding trails one will find out here. And, while the Midwest is not known for elevation, you will often find yourself facing short, gut-busting climbs and this bike handles those with ease and dignity. Lastly, I’m not hesitant to take the rubber off the ground with this bike. My enduro bike may be more at home on big hits, but this bike feels smaller than it’s wheelsize would suggest, light in the air, and stable upon reentry. The only drawbacks to a rig like this during the winter is that, as temperatures really dip (10°F and below), things that utilize hydraulics tend to slow down or stop working. Your suspension is less plush, your brakes become less modulated, and some dropper post remotes can quit working. In all reality, this only effects the coldest days of my rides, and I’ll often elect to ride a bike with more mechanical bits and less suspension in these instances or I’ll just stay home and drink coffee (code for bourbon) by the fireplace.
My Gear Solutions
Beyond an expanded quiver of bikes, I’ve learned that I can dress warm enough, and outfit my bike with the proper gear to deal with snow, ice, and wind. I’ve added Bar Mitts (pogies), more winter clothing layers, and studded tires into my accessories mix. Not all of these items are needed everyday, but being prepared definitely ensures the ability to ride more often and for longer.
The main trick to year round riding in the Midwest is layers, and a larger than normal hydration pack to store take-off pieces. Finding the balance between cold and sweaty is a bit of an art form, and is hard to predict before leaving the house. It’s better to bring more than you need than to find out you don’t have enough. Any gram counting goes out the door for me on cold days as I just want to make sure that I am comfortable for as long as possible. Since moisture is one of the biggest enemies of staying warm and happy in the cold, the layers allow you to manage, not only outside moisture, but also your own sweat. Get too hot, pull off a layer. A bit to cold add a layer back on. One last trick that seems to simple to work is to use antiperspirant spray. A bit of that on places like your hands and feet eliminates any sweat from your extremities which helps to fight back the encroaching cold. So, here is my apparel checklist for winter readiness…
Winter Gear Guide
This is where your whole cold weather kit begins. Base layers should be made with materials that breathe easily to remove moisture and keep heat in. Generally you will want form fitting pieces so that you can easily layer on top of them. I like to use sleeveless tops so that I keep my core warm, but can cool myself by reducing layers on my arms.
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Warm extremities are happy extremities. As such, these are absolutely key to riding in the cold. Wool is one of the best materials for keep your feet dry and warm. Also, it is a natural anti-microbial material which helps to battle that foot funk smell. I personally layer 1 pair of thin socks under 1 pair of thick socks.
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Layering up is crucial to being able to regulate your temperature. Windchill can multiply the effects of a cold day immensely. As such, a good windbreaker will keep the chill out and warmth in. I recommend a lightweight and packable jacket with removable sleeves. A versatile garment like that will help you regulate temperatures with small adjustments.
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Arm & Leg Warmers
These are not necessary on every ride, but can prove very useful on moderately cool days when paired up with a standard jersey and shorts, or as that wee-bit extra on the ultra cold days. Plus, they are easy to remove and pack away letting you manage your body temperature so as to not to get too cold or overheat.
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Non-Vented Cycling Shoes, Toe Warmers or Booties
I have a mix of shoes that I ride with depending on the temperature and the conditions. For deep snow days I like a good flat soled snow boot with flat pedals so I can easily hike if necessary and don’t have to worry about the cleat getting clogged with snow. When snow isn’t an issue, I prefer the efficiency of a clipless shoe with minimal to no ventilation, or a winter specific clipless shoe. Little tricks can help keep your feet happy. I double up with 2 pairs of socks (thick and thin), and make sure my shoes aren’t too tight. You can also utilize tricks like sandwich bags over your toes, toe warmers, and a bit of antiperspirant to keep the moisture at bay.
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Warm Gloves or Pogies
My first few rides I wore big snow gloves that kept my hands nice and toasty. However, I found that they created a non-engaged sense to my riding and shifting. I quickly ordered up some pogies, handlebar sleeves to keep your hands protected, and ditched those thick gloves for much thinner, light winter gloves. Now, my dexterity is much better and my hands are still warm. They may look awkward, but they are one of my favorite winter gear pieces.
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Winter Skull Cap, Neck Warmer, or Balaclava
Depending on the temperature I will mix these up, but if I had to choose just one to own it would be the balaclava. That is because a balaclava can be any one of the above items depending on how you where it. Keeping your head, face, and neck temperature regulated is one of the easiest ways to manage your heat and keep you riding comfortably for a long time in the cold. Just remember that you will need to adjust your helmet size to accommodate the extra material.
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If you choose to ride in a normal winter boot or shoe, a flat pedal is highly beneficial for snowy days. When the trail surprises you with a spot of extra slipperiness it is easy to quickly foot dab and resume pedaling without skipping a beat, and you can pair just about any good snow boot with them. Further, you don’t have to worry about clogged up pedal mechanisms that might make it tough to clip back in.
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A larger than Usual Pack
I highly recommend taking a pack of moderately high volume. This will give you a place to carry any tools and room to pack away garment pieces if you should need to shed some layers. You can also carry emergency gear should you find yourself in a tricky situation in the cold. Depending on the temperature, you may have some challenges keeping your hose and valve of your hydration pack from freezing. There are some tricks to ease this such as filling it with warm water, neoprene hose covers and blowing water out of the hose between drinks. The more often you drink the less likely it will have time to freeze as well.
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Goggles and Glasses
I personally choose to ride with goggles most of the time. I like the fact that they keep my face warm, keep snow away from my eyeballs, and can reduce snow glare (which can be really intense). Glasses work well too, but do not provide nearly as much protection from the wind and cold. I recommend something with interchangeable lenses. Winter can switch from dark and gloomy to painfully bright on any given day, so this allows you to match your lens to the conditions you’ll be riding in.
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The Final Word
While I’m still not a Midwesterner and I miss my West Coast roots, I’ve found a spot in my heart to cherish the things that the Midwest has to offer. There is a grit that you earn here by facing the brutal winter and overcoming the challenges it brings. There is terrain that is new, interesting, and challenging even after years of riding in top notch locations. My wish is that I’ve inspired you to take on the hurdles of your own area, whether it be harsh weather conditions, limited terrain, lack of a cycling community or any other obstacle. Facing these challenges will be rewarding, bring new appreciation for the world around you and maybe just make you smile a bit more regardless of where you live by choice or not.