Cold Weather Cycling
Cycle touring in extreme Arctic conditions may not be as appealing as spring in Spain, however, with proper preparations it can be quite enjoyable. Bad planning can quickly lead to disaster. Below are some tips to help prepare for cycling in temperatures below -30 Celcius.
Steel Frame vs. Aluminum in the Cold
Steel is more flexible than aluminum meaning it can bend or flex more without fatiguing (or breaking). It is also easier to weld, so if it does break, it is much easier find construction workers or villagers with the equipment to fix it.
Aluminum has a higher weight to strength ratio, meaning lighter frames can be created with equivalent strength to steel.
Despite the fact steel has characteristics that might seem good for cold and remote locations; aluminum is actually the better choice. The reason is simply because very few quality steel bikes are available anymore due to limited market demand. There are two types of steel bikes presently available on the market; the low-end K-mart variety that are suited for gentle use, or very high end bikes that are created for a niche market that enjoys springiness of steel. The latter variety is not suited for the rigours of expedition riding either.
Aluminum bikes, on the other hand, are manufactured in great variety so that it is possible to find frames of such strength that issues such as flex, fatigue, and ease of welding are not part of the equation. During our expedition through Siberia we used Norco Bigfoot bicycles. These bicycles have overbuilt frames which are virtually unbreakable in any temperature.
Various tires are manufactured for different winter surfaces. Sheet ice is navigated easily and safely using studded tires. Nokian tires in Finland makes high quality carbide studded bike tires. Studs are not necessary if the surfaces are mainly soft snow. For riding on snow, it is best to have tires as broad as possible to maximize the snowshoe effect. The limiting factor will be the bike frame size, so keep this is mind when purchasing the bike.
Low pressure in the tires results in a broader, flatter imprint which will help keep the bike on top of the snow. Due to the fact that rubber becomes harder and smoother in cold temperatures, low-pressure tires (and tubes) will sometimes spin on the rim causing the valve to shear off. This problem is solved by gluing the tire to the rim with a few drops of crazy glue.
Cold Weather Mechanical Issues
A series of finger-like pawls exist in your rear hub as part of the ratchet-type system to engage the cassette (the reason why your drive chain isn’t forced forward when you stop pedaling). Tiny springs force the pawls into their engaged position allowing the pedaling forces be transferred to the wheel. In cold weather (below -30) the grease in the pawls becomes thicker which can prevent the pawls from springing outwards. When this happens the drive train will not engage the rear wheel, and the pedals will spin uselessly.
This problem can be solved by stripping the grease from the pawls, and replacing it with light oil. This can be a tricky job and is best done by a bicycle mechanic.
Plastic becomes extremely brittle in the cold, and should be treated like glass. Brake and cable lines invariably shatter, and other plastic components are liable to break. Because of this, hydraulic brakes are liable to rupture and are not recommended. Bring spare brake and cable lines on extended trips.
The key to dressing for extremely cold conditions is breathable outerwear. Semi-breathable membranes such as Gore Tex are not good because they do not allow sufficient air exchange, and moisture buildup can become a real danger. Additionally, water resistant qualities are unnecessary in extreme cold due to the fact all liquid is frozen. Tightly woven garments that cut the wind, but allow good air exchange are ideal. The Helly Hansen Chrono Prostretch line is ideal. Suitable inner garments include polypropylene or Merino wool underwear (such as Helly Hansen’s Lifa line) and fleece or wool mid-wear. Baffin boots are excellent for keeping your feet warm, and are rated as low as -100 degrees centigrade. Enormous puffy mitts with synthetic insulation will keep your hands warm. During our Siberian expedition we had down pogies, but found the Primaloft mitts to be superior. Be sure to wear thin inner gloves, so you can withdraw your hands to perform jobs that require more dexterity.