Welcome back to Roundabout Bicycles' tips for winter biking! In Part I, I highlighted a few features that you can choose for your bicycle to help you avoid the hazards on winter roads. Up next are some of the hazards acting on your bicycle, and what you can do to counteract them to keep your ride running smoothly and safely:
Rusting or corrosion occurs when iron (or its alloys, such as steel) reacts with oxygen in the presence of water. Electrolytes like road salt help the process along, too, making the resulting orange substance a staple ingredient of winter biking. Chains are the first component to rust and become stiff and squeaky, so manufacturers have come up with a variety of different models for greater corrosion resistance. A common feature of higher-end chains is nickel-plating, which creates a smooth and hard surface that also provides a barrier against corrosion. However, it isn't specifically a rust-prevention treatment, but rather one with purported performance benefits such as durability and faster, more accurate shifting; as a result, the chain is typically only selectively plated for the designed functions (on the outer, and sometimes inner, side plates), so some rusting can still occur from within. Then there are specific anti-rust treatments, such as KMC's "Rust-Buster" zinc/chrome coating, which is applied to all parts of the chain (including rollers and connecting pins) for all-over protection.
Our lab test with 3 chains (from left): i) Shimano HG40, ii) KMC Z8S (half nickel-plated), and iii) KMC Z51RB "Rust-Buster" (zinc/chrome-coated). All three chains were repeatedly submerged in the same solution of salt water for 1 hour, then hung to air dry, 8 cycles (left photo), and finally wiped off with a damp cloth (right photo). The standard steel chain (left) is free to rust. Since many nickel chains are only partially plated (centre), rust is still free to develop but cleans off brilliantly from the smooth nickel surface. The orange tinge on the zinc/chrome chain (right) came from being submerged in the rusty salt solution; the chain itself didn't rust at all, but its slightly textured surface wasn't as easy to clean as the nickel-plated one.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but constant winter riders may find that even a standard chain will hold up through the season as long as it's regularly lubricated, whereas intermittent riders may find the need for rust-resistant upgrades. That's because the worst conditions for rust occur when your bike gets exposed to road splash and salt, and then that moisture is left in-situ to promote corrosion without a chance to be displaced or dissipated.
Grit—dried mud, sand, salt, debris, rust particles—gets all over our bikes during the winter, and essentially acts as an emery paste that wet-sands any moving parts. Especially damaging is the grit in your chain, which carves spaces between the connecting parts and effectively elongates the chain (often referred to as chain "stretch") so that it no longer sits properly in the valleys of the gear teeth. The best defense is regular cleaning, but the daunting prospect of having to use heavy-duty degreasers or to remove the chain for soaking causes many cyclists to avoid tending to their chains altogether; in fact, even wiping off the the surface grime from the chain is worthwhile, since it removes all the grit that would otherwise eventually work its way further into the chain. Still, for those of us who ride regularly, constant chain cleaning and re-lubing isn't always practical—it's a safe bet that by the end of a winter, the chain should be checked and will likely need replacement.
Also watch out for the grit on your brake pads and wheel rims, which rapidly abrades both the pads and rims as they're squeezed together during braking. The best time to clean off excess grime is when it's still wet after a ride; also, look for a quick-release feature on your brakes, which allows the brake arms to be opened up further to access the pads. In any case, rim wear can happen very quickly under the wrong conditions, so it's a good idea to check often by feeling for any concavity of the rim's walls between your fingers, or inspecting for any curving of the rim wall while holding a ruler against it. Many newer rims feature a wear-indicating hole or groove—when the indicator disappears, it's time to replace the rim. Worn-down rim walls are weakened and can eventually split, so if in doubt have them checked out at your local bike shop.
Wet & Cold
Cold, wet conditions make for reduced braking power, especially for traditional rim brakes. Low temperatures cause the rubber brake pads to become harder or more "wooden", while the friction between the pad and rim is substantially reduced in the wet (especially for older rims made of steel!) Nonetheless, properly tuned brakes should still be expected to function adequately in these conditions, allowing more time to stop than usual.
If you are interested in an upgrade, know that wet-ready "performance" brake pads differ by using more supple compounds that provide more stopping power, at the expense of wearing away more quickly. SwissStop's green compound (for alloy rims only) and Kool Stop's salmon compound are two popular choices. They cost more than standard brake pads, but you can get more life out of them by switching them out when spring arrives.
Next, bike components really start to misbehave at 10 or 20 degrees below freezing... One of the more unpredictable mishaps occurs when your cranks suddenly pedal freely in both directions without engaging the rear wheel! At that point, your freewheel or freehub (the spring-loaded mechanism that, like a ratchet, allows the gears to spin independently from the wheel when coasting or back-pedalling, but spins with the wheel when pedalling forward) has stopped springing. Technically, this is to be expected only in temperatures extreme enough for the internal lubricant to actually congeal, but it's also commonly seen in more moderate temperatures due to the freezing of any water that's gotten into the mechanism via rain or condensation. You can have your local bike shop winterize your freewheel/freehub by flushing out water contamination and re-lubricating it with a low-viscosity lubricant.
There's no perfect answer to where to store your bicycle, and available spaces at work or home are obviously limiting factors. As a general consideration, the ideal spot to store your bike on cold days is in a dry, unheated location (such as a garage or shed). While it's certainly nice to bring a bike in from out of the cold to get the saddle and handlebars warmed up, taking a bike from outdoors into a heated environment also introduces condensation as warm, moist air hits the cold surfaces (the same way dew drops form on a cold can of pop), and cycles of this can work more unwanted moisture into your components. Additionally, on days with active snowfall, warm rims can cause snow to melt on contact, but re-freeze into a treacherous layer of ice as the rim is rapidly cooled.
Thanks for tuning in to Roundabouts' winter biking tips. You can find the products and services mentioned here at our shop; as always, installation of components is included in the price of any Roundabout Tune-up to get you going, as are valuable winterizing measures such as freewheel/freehub maintenance. Also take advantage of our studded tire sale, only until December 15th!