About this time each year, as hunting season begins to wind down, some of Missoula’s most devout cyclists are gearing up for snow biking season. Yes, you read that correctly: snow biking—as in riding one’s bike down snow-packed trails and roads. It’s a curious thing, really.
While the rest of us are either hitting the slopes via chairlift or dozing in front of the late-afternoon banter of mainstream television sportsdom, some die-hards like Eric Cline are huffing their way to the top of Blue Mountain in search of mountain bike thrills usually reserved for western Montana’s more cycling-friendly summer. When pressed for his motivation, Kline reflects, “I was sitting at home a few winters ago and my bike was just sitting there being unridden. I guess I was curious to see if it was possible to ride the same trails I rode in the summer.”
What Kline and many other snowbikers discovered is that most of the same trails are rideable in the winter, which results in an experience unique to cycling at any other time of the year. It’s a whole different deal than the summer. There’s no one else on the trails, the pace is much slower, and the terrain demands extra attention, as a patch of ice can turn a normally easy climb into a Sysiphean feat. Plus, there’s the relative calm and serenity that accompanies nature’s quiet season.
In order to cope with the change from dirt to ice, a few modifications are necessary to prepare a bike for winter backcountry travel. The first and most obvious problem is traction. In order to keep the wheels from spinning out, Kline replaces his standard tires with wider ones equipped with small protruding studs. While the studded tire, available at several shops around town, seems to work well, Kline notes that he’s heard of a few people using modified tire chains that fit much like the chains you put on your car. “The studded tires work well on hardpack conditions that you find on logging roads or snowmobile tracks,” he says.
And despite the extra work it takes to get geared up for the sport, it seems like Kline is not the only one who’s gotten turned on to snowbiking. Marlana Kosky, another long-time snowbiking aficionado and owner of The Bike Doctor, has seen more and more people coming into her store looking for equipment to help them out in winter weather. “I usually recommend that people replace their clipless pedals with flat ones—that way you can wear big boots with lots of socks,” she says. “And the pedals won’t clog.” But both Kosky and Kline acknowledge that common sense is the best guide when trying to dress appropriately for long, cold day on the bike. “Bring a backpack and always bring more clothes and food than you think you’ll need,” Kline says.
This same sentiment is echoed by Open Road co-owner Dan Dahlberg. “Nothing can make any winter riding experience more miserable than being cold and wet,” he notes. Dahlberg sees a lot of overlap between the clothing used for Nordic skiing and winter cycling. “Obviously layering is very important,” he says. “A good base layer made out of polypropylene, accompanied with a mid-layer and a wind-proof shell works best.” Dahlberg also points out that several clothing manufacturers such as Cannondale, Sugoi and Peal Izumi make winter-specific cycling jackets with vents to prevent overheating.
But perhaps the most subtle adjustments you have to make when delving into the snow-covered world have to do with your technique. When ascending, easier gears are recommended in order to keep your butt planted firmly on the seat. The temptation to stand while climbing usually results in a sudden loss of traction, which in turn leads to an unwelcome impact with the bike’s top tube. Heading downhill, meanwhile, requires a careful balance of alertness and relaxation. As Kline notes, “You need to stay loose, especially on ice—any sudden braking or steering can send you over the bars.” Wrecking, however, is inevitable according to Kosky. “You’ve gotta be ready to wreck, but the snow is way more forgiving than dirt and rock,” she says. “It’s actually pretty fun when you go down.”
And just as it is with mountain biking in the summer, Kosky and Kline both say that there are some underlying courtesies that bikers should extend to other trail users, namely cross-country and Nordic skiers. Riding in the ski tracks or on groomed ski trails found in Pattee Canyon and the Rattlesnake is not great idea, they point out. After all, as Kosky says, “skiers work hard to break in those trails, so it’s not cool to ride on them.” Blue Mountain offers the best mix of snowmobile and foot-packed trails that work best for snowbiking, they say. So get your gear, make a few tweaks and then head out there to make the most of winter. And here you thought biking season was over.