Warmer than walking: Students fight the cold with winter biking

Ian Larsen/Sun Star Reporter
Nov. 15, 2011

Chris Wilson behind a winterized bicycle he rented from UAF Outdoor Adventures for transportation between classes. Nov. 9, 2011. Fred Monrean Jr/Sun Star

Even through the snow and below freezing temperatures, it is common to see UAF students and faculty commuting to classes on their bikes. While this mode of transportation seems out of the ordinary in the wintertime, with the right equipment it is possible to travel around on a bike even on the coldest of days.

“Winter biking is a good alternative to driving; I refuse to buy a car, and biking helps reduce our carbon footprint,” said Mike Stanfill, an Outdoor Adventures employee and three-year winter biker.

The Outdoor Adventures office rents winterized bikes through their green biking program.  Bike rental requires a Polar Express card, a $500 refundable deposit and a helmet. All the winter bikes come equipped with studded tires, Pogie hand warmers, lights and disc brakes.

“We currently have 15 winterized bikes and are working on winterizing 15 more by January 21,” Outdoor Adventures employee Michelle Sutton said.

“I normally ride from the dorms to class, but my longest trip has been from West Ridge to Gruening,” said UAF student and first-year winter biker Chris Wilson. Wilson rents one of the Outdoor Adventure winter bikes. “It’s definitely warmer than walking.”

People also bike around town during the winter.

“About 50 to 60 percent of winter bikers live off campus, and I even have a friend who lives seven miles off campus who bikes here every day,” Stanfill said.

“It’s definitely warmer than walking, if you’re smart about what you’re wearing,” Sutton said.

Regular winter bikers recommend reflective clothing, dressing in layers, and avoiding cotton. In addition to warm layers, a couple pieces of equipment can mean the difference between comfort and agony on winter roads.

“Pogies are like -50 degree sleeping bags for your hands,” said Chris Daul, an 18-year veteran of winter biking and manager at Beaver Sports in Fairbanks.

These waterproof, insulated mitts slip over handlebars to keep the bars dry and the biker’s hands toasty.
“I didn’t even have to wear my gloves on the way to work today because of these,” Daul said.

Handlebar mitts vary in price from about $15 for Cabela’s version (made for ATVs and snowmachines) to $80 to $160 cycling-specific versions manufactured by Anchorage-based Dogwood Designs and Fairbanks-based Apocalypse Design.

While keeping warm is a top priority, keeping visible is just as important.

“A decent set of battery-powered front and rear lights normally costs between $20 and $30,” Dauel said. “It’s hard to see bikers who only have reflective tape on during the winter. You should try to light yourself up like a Christmas tree.”

Finally, it’s good to have your back tire winterized. Normal bike grease will change viscosity in the colder temperatures. For about $50, a bike shop can winterize the rear gears.

“We used Mag 1 grease,” Dauel said. “It’s better grease than what they use normally, and it stays the same viscosity in hot and cold temperatures.”

New winter bikers should try to “stay off the roads as much as possible,” Daul said. Instead, he recommends using bike paths and snow machine trails. “Sometimes it’s unavoidable. In that case make sure to use hand signals, and have studded tires on your bike.”

In the end, winter biking means good exercise, a fast commute and — with the right gear — warmer travel than walking. It works for the student on a budget, and is a cleaner alternative than driving.

For more information on the green biking program, and winter bike rental contact Outdoor Adventures at (907) 474-6027, or their website www.uaf.edu/outdoor.

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