Winter Road Biking in Minnesota

By Brian Fanelli

For many people biking in Minnesota, the first snowfall represents the beginning of fat bike season: mountain bikes with five-inch tires that roll over snow-covered trails with aplomb. But for others, yours truly included, winter is still road bike season.

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Photo by Ben Hovland

Make no mistake, road biking through a Minnesota winter will challenge your mind and your body. Vast snow-covered expanses of tundra and frigid headwinds are the norm, and road grime will try to devour your drivetrain whole. But for all its challenges, winter road biking in Minnesota is also strikingly beautiful. To my mind, a sunny, 20-degree day in January is just about the perfect day for a road ride. And that may sound like an exaggeration, or an outright lie, but it’s the truth. Winter road biking in Minnesota is absolutely spectacular.

The Bike

There are a wide variety of bikes that will excel in a Minnesota winter, and in typical bike industry fashion there are a dizzying amount of categories those bikes fall into: all-road, gravel, cyclocross, monster cross, hybrid, endurance, etc. We won’t cover the differences between those categories here, but rest assured knowing that your Local Internet Message Board (LIMB) is full of many rousing discussions on the topic. For brevity, we’re just going to lump them all together as winter road bikes. Sorry not sorry.

The ideal winter road bike will have three defining characteristics: Wide tire clearances, fender mounts, and disc brakes.

  • Tire clearances: Aim for at least 30mm of tire clearance and ideally 35mm or greater. There’s a good chance you’ll want studded tires, and those are only available on 30mm tires and up.
  • Fender mounts: A good set of full fenders will keep snow off your bike, off your back, and off your feet. What’s not to love?
  • Disc brakes: Discs improve your stopping power, extend the life of your rims, and prevent brake pad residue from mucking up your rims and tires. Yeah, I used to ride with cantilever brakes in the winter too. Now let us never speak of that again.

Winter road riding is certainly possible on a bike without one (or any) of those characteristics, but if you’re starting from scratch we’d recommend looking for a bike with all three. There's no shortage of off-the-rack winter road bikes, either. Minnesota brands like Surly Bikes, Salsa Cycles, All City Cycles, Handsome Cycles, Advocate Cycles, Framed Bikes and Otso Cycles all have bikes that fit the criteria.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of features to look for, and there are some important characteristics we didn’t cover – like bike geometry, gearing choices and handlebar setup, for starters. If you’re interested in learning more about those topics there’s a good chance your LIMB has you covered. For this feature, I just wanted to touch on what I consider the three must-have structural components of a good winter bike – wide tire clearance, fender mounts, and disc brakes. If your bike has these three things, everything else is gravy.

Accessories

Did I say gravy? Let’s talk gravy. Because now that you’ve got the right bike, you’ll want the right accessories: studded tires, lights and fenders. Almost no off-the-shelf winter road bike will come with these accessories pre-installed, but for your safety and comfort you’ll want to make some additions before heading out.

  • Studded tires come in many different sizes and tread patterns, each optimized for different types of winter riding. No studded tire feels quite as good as a non-studded tire, but the 45NRTH Xerxes comes close. There are other winter tires with more appeal for commuting or mixed-terrain rides, but from a pure winter road biking standpoint nothing can touch the Xerxes.
  • Lights. You may intend to never ride in the dark, but this is a Minnesota winter we’re talking about and your good intentions mean nothing to a 4:30 sunset. If you can swing it, a set of dynamo-powered (hub generator) lights are by far the best route for winter riding. If that’s not an option, a set of USB rechargeable lights is almost as good. In either case, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of a good light set.
  • Fenders. Like I said earlier, fenders keep slush off your butt and help your drivetrain stay clean. If your bike has fender mounts, use them. Planet Bike (PB) and Portland Design Works (PDW) both make fantastic sets of full fenders in a variety of sizes and materials, with my personal favorites being the PB Cascadia ALX or the PDW Full Metal Fender.

Dress For Success

Winter-Bike-Expo-21The golden rule of winter in Minnesota? No bad weather, just bad clothing. Although casual winter riding gear can easily be acquired with a few trips to the thrift store, a dedicated winter riding kit will make sportive road riding more pleasant. And, wouldn’t you know it, two Minnesota-based companies have got you covered. Literally.

Based out of Bloomington, 45NRTH is your one-stop shop for all things winter cycling, including clothing solutions for even the harshest of Minnesota winter conditions. Pair their new Naughtvind system with a set of their Wolvhammer boots and Sturmfist gloves, and you’re pretty much in the clear. Thanks to a wide distribution network through Quality Bicycle Products, many local bike shops stock 45NRTH products – try some on today!

Or for a more custom approach, look at winter apparel from St. Paul-based manufacturer Podiumwear. Every piece of Podiumwear’s high-quality apparel is designed and manufactured right here in Minnesota, including a variety of winter-weight arm and leg warmers, jerseys and jackets. And because Podiumwear employs an in-house design team, custom graphics are available (and encouraged) at no extra charge.

Emergency Kit

Whether you're biking in the spring, summer, fall, or winter, it’s always a good idea to have an emergency kit on hand. But unlike during other seasons, when your emergency kit may only contain a spare tube and some CO2 cartridges, in winter you’ll want to add a few winter-specific items to your kit.

Bring a set of chemical hand and foot warmers, because your extremities will get cold quickly once you stop riding. Pack some latex gloves, because you’ll need some manual dexterity to perform repairs but exposed flesh is still a Very Bad Thing. If your pannier or saddle bag is large enough, pack an extra layer or two, as well. If you’re dressed for biking, you’ll be cold standing around fixing a flat. And finally, if you’d rather not mess around repairing your bike in the cold, bring a bail-out option like a bus pass, or the number of a taxi service or agreeable family member with a bike rack.

Now Go Ride

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Artwork by Adam Turman

Getting outside to embrace winter is a point of pride in Minnesota. And although there are countless ways to enjoy the season, winter road biking is a special kind of wonderful. Thanks to innovations in equipment and clothing, it's easier than ever to gear up and head out for a ride - no matter the conditions. The weather outside is frightful? No, the weather outside is calling.  

Share your favorite winter road biking photos with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram by using the #PedalMN tag, or just send us an old fashioned email.