By Jim Langley
I’m writing my column from Boulder, Colorado, where I’m spending the week to attend meetings at one of my company’s offices. So far on this trip the weather has been beautiful for a mountainous area. But on past winter visits to this bike mecca, I’ve marveled at how nothing — not snow, or freezing rain, or iced-over pavement, or hurricane gusts that have left normally clogged roads car-free — will stop Boulder’s roadies from getting their rides in.
It got me thinking about their bikes and the beating they must take. I thought I’d offer a few easy and simple steps to help you care for your baby if you’re as dedicated as Boulder’s cyclists and are riding right through winter.
The following guidelines are for all road rigs regardless of whether they are made of steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon or some of each. Of all of these materials, however, you should know that steel is at the greatest risk.
This goes for steel frame tubing and steel components. It always depends on the conditions you ride in, but for steel frames and parts, be sure to inspect them regularly and keep them clean, lubed and waxed throughout the season. (If you’re not sure what material a part is made of, only steel attracts a magnet.)
Tip: It’s easy for water to get inside frames, and it’s a common cause of rusting on steel frames (there are no such worries with aluminum, titanium or carbon frames). Since you can’t see it, it’s hard to realize it’s happening, and because the inside of a frame is hard to access, there’s not much you can do about it once it occurs. The trick is to coat the inside of your frame with a preventive like J.P. Weigle’s Frame Saver.
Everyone has their favorite chain lube, so use the one you like, but pick one for the winter that’s up to the riding you’re planning. You don’t want a so-called dry lube or one that’s quickly thinned and washed off by moisture. You can try a lube specifically designed for wet/winter conditions (it’ll be marked as such), or if you’re not sure, ask a riding buddy what he or she likes. Or you can ask your local bicycle shop.
I don’t ride in “real” winter conditions, but we do get a lot of rain in Northern California, and I like Chain-L lube, which goes on thick and lasts and lasts.
Tip: If you’re not sure what lube to use, use whatever you’ve got, but put on a heavier dose, and check your chain to see how the lube is holding up to the conditions. It might not be the best lube for the weather, but if you can at least keep some lube on the chain at all times, you’ve won the battle.
Be sure to keep your brake and derailleur pivot points and cables lubricated throughout the winter, too. And, make sure your hubs, bottom bracket and headset are lubricated and prepared for the weather. These parts should turn smoothly with a slight hydraulic resistance from the grease inside and there should be no lateral play. If you’re not sure, a mechanic could check in only a few minutes and advise you.
Probably the best way to protect any bicycle from winter-riding wear and tear is to install fenders. And the great thing is that there are fenders available now to fit a wider variety of road bikes so it’s likely you can find a pair that’ll easily fit your corner-carver.
It’s not obvious looking at them, but good fenders keep water spray from the front wheel from blasting the grease out of your headset, bottom bracket and even pedal bearings, plus off your expensive shoes (booties, please!).
And the rear fenders save you taking an icy cold back shower, but more importantly stops it blasting the back of your seatpost where on many bikes it can make its way right down into the frame and bottom bracket. The rear fender helps keep the spray off the chain and chainrings, too.
Waxing your frame and components adds a protective layer that sheds moisture and debris and helps ward off corrosion, too. You can use something quick and easy that you spray on and wipe off, like spray furniture polish. Or you can go for a paste wax that you wipe on, let dry and wipe off. The latter lasts longer.
I know aluminum, titanium and carbon won’t rust, but if winter nasties like road salt and grit hang around on the frame, they can eventually corrode aluminum and scratch and chip the finish/decals. Waxing makes it harder for these things to stick, so it’s a good safeguard for all bikes.
I also wax the rims and get it on the spoke nipples while I’m at it. I believe it helps keeps the rims from corroding and the nipples from corroding onto the spokes, making wheel truing difficult or impossible. I wax the components, too. But don’t goop too much paste wax anywhere that it’s hard to polish off or you’ll have to spend way too much time finishing the wax job. Stick to the wide, easily accessible pieces.
When you return home from a winter ride, give your bike a quick wash and dry. If you keep a bucket and sponge at the ready, you can simply fill it with soapy warm water and sponge the crud off your bike and components, rinse it by dribbling (not spraying) water from above and wipe it dry in about 15 minutes. That step will go a long way toward your bike reaching spring in excellent condition.
These are more winter riding tips than bike-care tips. But they can save you being stranded on the side of the road, which is much more likely to happen during the winter when the roads are so much worse and there’s debris hidden by water, snow and earlier darkness.
The first trick is to carry two spare tubes in your seat bag instead of one. It’s much more common to get two flats on one ride in the winter, and that extra tube might save one of your buddies, too, making you the hero. While you’re at it, make sure you’ve got a tire boot to patch a tire gash, and check your pump to make sure it’s in working order. I like and carry Park Tool’s Emergency Tire Boot.
If you don’t normally carry tire levers, toss a couple of those in your bag, too. If your hands are too cold, you’ll still be able to remove the tires with levers. Also, be sure that any valve nuts (those knurled rings at the base of the valve) aren’t too tight or else you may not be able to loosen them with numb fingers.
Tip: If you can fit it on your bike, I recommend carrying a mechanical full-length pump in the winter. The longer length means quicker inflation, which is a hands-saver when it’s freezing. And a pump you actually pump avoids CO2 inflators’ tendency to freeze on the valve when it’s frigid outside.
Jim Langley has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for 38 years. At RBR he’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop and moderator of the technical forums on the Premium Site . Check his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter.