Many people shake their heads in disgust (actually jealousy, admiration, or awe) as they pass me in their cars as I'm riding my bike during the winter months. The fact of the matter is that I feel far more secure and often more comfortable riding my properly equipped winter bike than I would feel sitting in a car.
This brings to mind my favorite high end technical apparel sales line, "It's never too cold, you just don't have good enough clothing". Cheesy as it sounds it's true. With that said, clothing is a whole other topic, and we're focusing on the bicycle for winter riding today. Stay tuned for a future story here at cyclovaxc.com on how to dress for winter riding.
The first thing to keep in mind when riding in the cold Midwest Winters is that your bike will roll slower than it normally does. This is due to the fact that the grease in all of your bearings is stiff; your hubs, bottom bracket, and even chain all take more energy to spin. On top of that, the rubber in your tires often have more rolling resistance when cold (you'll also likely have bigger, knobbier, and maybe even studded tires on).
Now that you realize you won't be setting any record times during the cold months, let's talk some practical tech! First off, keep it simple stupid!
If you're riding in snow, slush, ice, road salt, etc, you don't want to be riding your good bike. Find an old trusty bike that you're not afraid to exposing to some gnarly elements and beating up a bit.
If you live in a relatively flat place as I do (Minneapolis), a single speed (or fixed gear) setup is ideal. Derailleurs, shifters, and cables are all things that can be damaged, become frozen, or even break in extreme cold - potentially leaving you stranded. Not good. Find a single speed gear that you can lug up the steepest hill of your ride, yet will allow you to move along at a descant clip on the flats.
If you're a mere mortal like I, you'll want some extra meaty tires for winter riding. I personally love riding Cyclo-Cross Tires during the winter and have also ridden thousands of winter miles on Nokian Studded tires. If you're not comfortable with slipping and sliding around a bit, studded tires are the usually the best call. While they do have more rolling resistance, they are unbelievably stable in any type of ice/snow situation. With a good pair of studded tires, you can literally take corners on glare ice as agressively as you would with a road bike on dry black top!
When riding in snow, slush, and rain, note that a good set of fenders is an absolute must! I have fenders on all of my bikes, with the exception of my race bikes. I've realized that often times when riding in the rain or slush, you can stay surprisingly dry, comfortable, and warm when using good fenders. Don't worry, you can still be cool and fashionable with fenders on your bike (and you won't have a brown "rooster tail" going up your back side!
Safety should be every cyclists absolute top concern. With that said, it's dark during the winter months and you NEED to have some very good front and rear lights on your ride! Again, remember that it's very cold out so batteries don't last as long as they normally would. Try out some new high tech super bright LED lights such as the Light & Motion Stella or even a dynamo system (a generator front hub).
Finally, realize that winter riding is hard on your equipment and often times at the end of your ride, you will have pounds of snow and ice sticking to your bike! Having the luxury of indoor storage where your bike can "melt off" is fantastic in this situation. Allowing the snow and ice to melt off of your bike will make for a better next ride and help to avoid making a discovery that your crank arms are frozen in place, or your chain is frozen stiff, etc. After your bike has "melted off", be sure to lube your chain, as it only takes a few hours for the road salt to begin rusting your chain!