Monday, January 23, 2012

Snow Bike SOS!

Snow Bike
This morning I received an email from a reader - Elise - who left her bike locked up outside a restaurant overnight, to find it covered in snow the next morning. Upon trying to retrieve the bicycle, she discovered that "all the parts were snow-encrusted" and wasn't sure it was safe to ride, so she left it where it was and took the bus to work. Of course it then snowed again, and the bike's condition only got worse. Elise is wondering how to retrieve her bike after it's been in the snow in freezing temperatures for what has now been 2 days. 

Snow Bike
While I don't know what condition Elise's bike is in, I can share what has happened to me in the past as a result of leaving a bike out in the snow for too long, and hope that something here might be applicable: 

"frozen" wheels: Once I found that my bike did not want to roll after being left locked up outside in the snow. The front wheel would not budge, and at first I thought something was seriously wrong. On closer inspection, it turned out there was some frozen snow stuck between the fender and the tire. I cleared it out and "unfroze" the wheel. 

clogged brake calipers: Riding a bike with caliper brakes in winter, I quickly learned that getting clogged up with snow eliminates their stoping power. And since snow does seem to love settling down on brake calipers and then solidifying, it is essential to clear it out of there. Wheel rims can also get iced over and may need to be wiped down. 

icy pedals: A few times my pedals have gotten icy, to the point of making it difficult to ride the bike without my feet slipping off. When this happens I scrape them with the textured sole of my boot to break up the sleek surface, or try to rub some dirt on them. 

"sluggish" drivetrain: In freezing temperatures, it can sometimes feel that my drivetrain is slower, or not as smooth as usual. My understanding is that this is due to whatever lubricants are used on the drivetrain getting gooey from the prolonged cold. It is still okay to ride your bike like that as far as I know, but it might feel a little weird. 

Each of these things has at some point made me panic and feel that a bike was "unridable" after being left out in the snow, but they all proved to be resolvable. 

Snow Bike
Granted, other issues may not be as easy to deal with. I've heard stories of frozen U-locks being impossible to open, and of leather saddles snapping in half if ridden when frozen. And perhaps the most common problem of all is frozen derailleurs, which I have no experience with since I do not ride derailleur-geared bikes in the winter.

Whether it's about components on the bike getting iced over, or the owner feeling that conditions are not safe enough to ride home, bikes get left in the snow - which all too often turns into full on abandonment. Any tips for avoiding this would be much-appreciated. How do you deal with a snow-encrusted bike? 

56 comments:

  1. Aside from the simple answer to all of your winter riding problems - which is 'just ride a Pilen when it gets cold' - most of the winter maintenance issues get resolved on their own, assuming a half way decent bike, if you just get the thing moving a bit; moving parts will quickly dislodge and shift the 'crusty' winter add-ons.
    In general, bikes like being ridden, so when they start to move, they get happy again!
    One issue you didn't address is frozen cables - which plays a part in the temperamental braking and shifting you mentioned. It occurs when the inner cable freezes to the housing and can be fixed by, first, letting the cable thaw, and then by removing the inner cable (metal) from the outer housing (black). Blow out the housing with compressed air and then lubricate and feed the cable back through. This remedy should last for the entire season - assuming you blow out all of the water in the housing and lubricate with a good oil.
    The big killer in the winter is not the short-term issues, like bikes getting frozen, but the long term threats due to exposure, salt, etc... The only real remedy here is getting a bike that is built to last - but you already knew that :-)

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    1. "if you just get the thing moving a bit; moving parts will quickly dislodge and shift the 'crusty' winter add-ons."

      Yup, that pretty much sums up my experience. But I can also see how someone who has never seen this happen before doesn't feel safe riding the bike.

      Never had the problem with the shifter cables you mention, but this is good to know!

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  2. The bike itself can usually be coaxed into action and ridden slowly. It's useful to have a mechanic fill the cable outers with grease, that way they don't freeze as easily.

    The lock is a little trickier, I find. Lock spray like WD-40 drives out moisture and provides lubrication. I've also tried chain oil which seems to work, but it comes out and makes the lock oily on the outside too. The last resort is to bring a lighter to thaw the lock (may involve reconfiguring plastic bits).

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  3. Sort of related--can below freezing temperatures cause you bike computer to get wacky and show really high speeds like 60 mph when you are really going about 15?
    Mona

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    1. Electronics can get wacky in freezing temps for sure. I have not ridden with a cycling computer in temps lower than 20F though, and in that range it was fine.

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  4. I got disk brakes so that this would be much less of an issue, and they pretty much work as advertised.

    One problem you missed that can be difficult is if you get water in your brake or shifter cables, which then freezes. You may have enough leverage to activate the brake, but the return spring is not strong enough to pull it back. Shifting gets pretty awful. The short-term solution is to work the cable loose from the bike (this is usually an issue for cables that are not continuous-outer), flex it to crack the ice, slide the sections apart to expose the ice on the inner cable, and then crack it off. Long-term solutions include running continuous cable housing, attempting to arrange that the exposed ends are not oriented upwards or are appropriately shield, a dab of grease at the exposed ends, and running a little light oil in the cable to help keep the ice from sticking to the inner cable (light oil -- that much grease in a confined space will make your cables feel sluggish). The no-compromises approach to this problem is to use hydraulic disk brakes.

    If you have a full chain case, the older Raleighs can accumulate a puddle under the front chain ring, which can then freeze and impede pedaling. A little alcohol in a squirt bottle (70% works, 90% is better) melted it for me, straight antifreeze is another option, or windshield wiper fluid).

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  5. Just unlock it, bounce it lightly to dislodge the snow, and ride away. Pretty straightforward for the minimal amount of snow in those photos. Here in the Midwest I have to do that to ride home at least a few times each winter -- it just isn't a big deal. Leaving it for long periods will promote corrosion, which is not good. I'd also suggest locking it a bit farther from the roads if possible so as to minimize the covering from plows, car splash, and chemicals.

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  6. I hate to say it, but sometimes your only hope is to bring it home in a taxi van (or bus with bike carrier if they are available) and wait for it to defrost. The longer you leave it out there, the worse it will get.

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  7. I would just take it to a car wash, if you can find one that's open, and give it a cleaning. This is what I do when I've been riding around in the slop. Then thoroughly clean the chain and rear derailleur using WD-40, and relubricate all moving parts.
    I don't think leaving a bike out in the snow for a little while is really all that awful -- the cold temperature keeps the chemical reactions down so it doesn't rust that much. Mostly you just have to take care of the moving parts.

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    1. WD-40?! Any respectable bike shop mechanic will tell you to NEVER use WD-40 on a bike! Go to your local shop and ask them what kind of oil works best for the cold conditions.

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    2. I think if you read carefully he's advocating using WD 40 as a CLEANER, not a lubricant. It's actually a very good cleaner for removing water from parts (the WD stands for water displacement). No water= no frozen parts.

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  8. Elise - Just to be on the safe side I would bring the bike inside and let it thaw before banging, rubbing, or otherwise ruining any parts. Other than that, I defer to someone else with more knowledge to access individually "frozen" parts.

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  9. Well, in Montreal you better figure out a way to remove your bike from the sidewalk as quickly as possible. Otherwise a snowplough will make quick work of your bike...

    I've never really had a bike become totally unridable in the winter. The worst that happened was ice on the rims, resulting in zero stopping power. Riding the bike with the brakes dragging eventually fixed the issue.

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    1. In Boston it is also usually the snow plows that ruin a bike left in the snow. I've seen monstrously misshapen bicycles emerge from snowbanks in the spring : (

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  10. Lube the chain and other moving parts with Tri-Flow. make sure tires are properly inflated. retrieve bike. Dry off the wet part after you get it back home safe.

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  11. Like Hobbes, I've never had a bike become totally unrideable from being left out in the snow. Most of the time, simply picking up the bike and bouncing the tires against the sidewalk or ground takes care of whatever may have accumulated on the bike.

    However, I once saw a bike--and the parking meter to which it was parked--encased in ice after a storm. I thought about some geologist or archeologist finding it a few centuries hence. What would they have surmised about this era from such an artifact?

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  12. ...'just ride a Pilen when it gets cold'

    True that!

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  13. Elise and others should not be riding a bike with rim brakes in conditions like this in the first place. Hub brakes are impervious to snow/ice and are the safer option.

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    1. I have a fairly extensive post here on what makes a good winter bike. However, I think it would be unhelpful to tell someone who is having a problem with their existing bike that they should have gotten a different bike. It's about dealing with what you have.

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  14. The other issue here is that if a bike is left out somewhere and for the return ride there's a great deal of new snow and/or ice on the road, it might be prudent not to ride, even if the bike can be adequately unfrozen.

    The road may be more slippery and may have less cleared width, shoving bicycles and cars closer together. Even with studded tires on the bike, other vehicles may not be able to brake effectively.

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    1. BTW, have you ridden your Gates/Rohloff Van Nick in the snow? any issues with performance?

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    2. I haven't, but other than taking off the fenders, the bike would be probably be fine--Gates belt drives are designed to shed debris.

      But there's a larger issue.... many Santa Fe drivers utterly lack the ability to drive in snow, and cars end up spun out everywhere, plowed into telephone poles, and every year, into a few cyclists. Lacking a death wish, I ride all year, but only when the roads are clear.

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  15. The lubricants in the chain do get gooey but riding it a few miles won't kill it. Even if it does new ones are cheap.

    WD40 is at least as controversial as everything else in the bike world.

    I never thought about it - just bounce it, kick off the frozen stuff and ride it. Leaving it outside for an extended period out of fear is the worst thing you can do for your bike, which was once so beloved.

    I hope y'all don't treat your children the same way.

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  16. For some reason I can't use the Reply link to Anonymous 9:00 am. You would use WD-40 = Water Displacement Formula 40 for cleaning the parts and ensuring that water wasn't trapped inside. This is its intended purpose and I know lots of experienced cyclists use it in this way. After that, you would lubricate all moving parts with a recommended lubricant.

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  17. The WD-40 thing is one of the most controversial topics in bicycle maintenance, and I will withhold my opinion : )

    Reply button is still malfunctioning on and off thanks to Blogger. Apologies for the inconvenience, but there is nothing I can do.

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  18. If your lock is frozen up you can buy lock de-icer, which is basically a squirt bottle of methyl alcohol. I get mine from Canadian Tire (which um, I'm sure you don't have, but its kind of a hardware / automotive / housewares supply store in Canada).

    I've only needed it once for my bike lock (since I keep my bike indoors at home and have the option to bring it in on rainy/snowy days at work) but when I had a car my locks would freeze at least a couple of times every winter.

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    1. Good idea. I've spoken to someone who carries a box of salt with them for the purpose of de-icing their bike, but did not want to repeat this as advice!

      I've never had a bike lock get stuck due to ice, but it's happened several times to the lock on my front door. I carry a lighter in my bag in the winter and use it to thaw the lock when this happens.

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    2. re your front door lock- you probably need a bit of WD 40 in there- because you've probably got some water that's freezing. Alternately you could pretty easily dry the lock for 10 minutes or so with a hair dryer.

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    3. not if I am outside the front door trying to get in : )

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    4. Yes of course, but if you dry it out once, it should remain dry, no? I'm thinking long term solutions :) It's one of those 10 minutes of effort to eliminate a recurring 10 seconds of annoyance.

      The above assumes that your building was built with a) an overhang of some sort and b) a storm door. With the two together, once you get the water out, it should solve the problem.
      I'm also a big fan of powdered graphite in all our locks once a year- bike and house. They turn like a dream afterwards.

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  19. Alright, since I'm not averse to controversy...
    It's as Jon Webb says - use WD40 to displace water or as a light rust inhibitor, lube with your favorite when you get home.

    If you're worried about the lube being displaced, lube it again at a future point.

    Or leave your bike for snow plows. Your choice.

    You may also bathe your entire bike in it so snow doesn't even stick to it. Magic force field problem solver.

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    1. WD40 has a shellac quality if used more than once. I'd never use it on a bike chain, especially. Better to use a can of GT85 [from bike shops]. Great for putting on your bike if you leave it outside, prior to rainfall and bad weather. I can't say it would keep it from freezing but would protect the parts more from the elements.

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  20. Interesting, V -- I had no idea I was stepping in a controversy.
    I guess if you wanted to clean things without controversy you could clean with one of the many available chain etc. cleaners.
    In any case, I don't think you have to do much more than get the bike clean and relubricate. But clean before relubricating.

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  21. Henry Cutler's procedure:
    http://www.bakfiets-en-meer.nl/2010/12/08/frozen-cable-time-again/

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  22. "Good idea. I've spoken to someone who carries a box of salt with them for the purpose of de-icing their bike"
    What. The. Hell.

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  23. Here's far too much attention to a minor problem. Dust snow off your bike and ride! Good bikes are all-weather machines!

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    1. If it were a minor problem, we would not be seeing so many bikes abandoned every winter. Clearly this is something a good portion of cyclists are having trouble with.

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    2. Do you really think that a majority, or even a significant number a of bikes being abandoned in the winter are cases of "oh, my bike is too snowed in to ride it home -- I guess I'll abandon it"? That doesn't seem that likely. In Montreal it probably is mostly the lack of storage space -- if you live in a small apartment and/or don't want to have the bike in there, you're going to leave it outside, and after the winter it will be destroyed (either literally or in the sense of damaged beyond what you're willing to fix) by plow/salt/whatever and you just leave it there.

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  24. Peppy (dial 1-555-CATS-PEE for all your frozen bike needs)January 23, 2012 at 2:20 PM

    Nothing thaws a frozen cable/hub/bike better than warm cat pee. I'll be happy to oblige.

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    1. HA! I was gonna ask if anybody had ever used anti-freeze to unfreeze their locks but cat pee is much more creative.

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  25. Elise ought to have simply put her bike inside her house or apartment after getting as much snow off as possible. Remaining snow could drip on towels or newspaper while at work. The parts would thaw out and probably be fine. Some new oil on the chain and good to go. Not a big problem at all, but perhaps cyclists should try find space inside for their bikes if they have this kind of weather. Snow is clean and the bike would not have been gunked up with road goo and salt which is the scourge for winter cyclists.
    I have biked in frigid cold winters and never had problems with frozen locks, but the bike was always in a garage overnight. If it snowed during the day while at work etc I would simply dust it off, give the bike a bit of a bang and get on and ride. I
    If you can, get an internal geared (or single speed if it's flat enough) winter bike. The biggest problem with winter riding is not Elise's situation, but what happens to the drive train when riding in the grit, salt, muck etc.

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  26. I learned an old school trick to unfreeze a single speed freewheel: piss on it.

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    1. Once again I can't tell if you're joking...

      Either way, this is very sexist advice!

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    2. This is why I keep a male dog..
      badmother

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  27. Ingredients: Hot water carried in a thermos flask.

    Directions:

    1) take lid off thermos flask
    2) pour hot water onto moving parts (on the bike not yourself)
    3) move bike
    4) cycle home and say repeatedly to yourself "this aint rocket science yeehaw"

    'Yeehaw' I believe is American for whoopee but may need further translation

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    1. Well, if it's -20°C that hot water might still form a big chunk of ice on your bike pretty quickly. So better be careful...

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  28. Thinking back to childhood, Dad didn't want us to leave our stuff outside overnight. Bikes, ice skates, toys, boots, skateboards, baseball mitts, bats and balls, fishing rods, etc, etc. Big gathering-up most evenings after supper, sometimes before.

    What was he really up to?

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  29. again:
    1. Get folding bike.
    2. Take said foldingbike innside.
    badmother

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    1. Just curious, do they make studded tires for folding bikes?

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    2. Yep, Schwalbe has studded tires in 406mm. I've been considering turning my Dahon into a winter bike but because I'd have to add a dynamo-powered lighting system that would've been to costly for now.

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    3. yep...beloved Schwalbe does if your folder runs 20" (as most do). Larger sizes available for the larger folders.

      Marathon Winter HS 396

      http://www.schwalbetires.com/bike_tires/road_tires/marathon_winter

      so there :)

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  30. I think I will combine the advise from this post and the one on helmets and start spraying WD-40 on my helmet and bike to help me survive and impact with a snow covered car. I am joking BTW

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  31. @V (reply busted, in reply to GRJ's allegedly sexist ice-melting advice): http://whizzy4you.com/

    Isn't technology wonderful?

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    1. Hah- beat me to it, Doc.


      http://www.go-girl.com/

      Jim's not sexist, he's Po-Mo, yo. ;)

      Of course he's got us beat- he has his own remote-control voice-activated de-icer mounted on his XtraCycle.

      I do not live in a snowy place; instead, in the midst of a very damp temperate rainforest next to a somewhat salty coastal area. Bikes live inside here, or they rust up quickly.

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