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Making The Nature Scene: How to winter-bike like a pro

Demystifying the tricks of those hardcore cyclists.
A winter-ready bike shines a light on a snow-covered Quarry Park. Photo from Black Saddle Bike Shop. Illustrated frame by Maggie Denman.
A winter-ready bike shines a light on a snow-covered Quarry Park. Photo from Black Saddle Bike Shop. Illustrated frame by Maggie Denman.

Demystifying the tricks of those hardcore cyclists.

In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area (and beyond), and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.

Madison has a comforting schedule of seasonal constants. In the spring, fuzzy ducklings and goslings toddle clumsily around the lakes and Yahara River. Summertime unicyclists of all ages defy gravity on city streets and sidewalks. In fall, the feisty squirrel population chubs up and stashes nuts. And then there are those hearty, bundled-up winter bikers, sometimes braving the paths and streets when temps dip to single and negative digits. 

When I was a new Madisonian, winter bikers seemed hardcore and superhuman to me. Twelve years later, I strive to join their ranks. So I sat down with my friendly neighborhood bike shop owner. Mitch Pilon of Black Saddle Bike Shop on Commercial Avenue near North Sherman Avenue, shared his insight and experience on a handful of important winter biking topics.

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Bikes

“The ideal winter bike is the bike that you have,” Pilon says. “A really good winter bike is going to be something you are not afraid will be exposed to salt, dirt, and grime.”

Single- and lower-speed bikes are easier to maintain because the parts are less expensive. A stable bike that you feel comfortable riding is more important than, you guessed it, a fat bike (with a matching price tag), Pilon says. These two-wheeled monster trucks are heavy, which can inspire confidence in winter cyclists. Plus, they make a fun whirring sound when you pedal! But they’re not necessary.

Almost any bike can be winterized with studded tires. Their tiny metal spikes grab on to the environment they’re rolling over. Studded tires cost more than regular ones, but last longer because you only use them part of the year. They’re priced around $75 and up. You could buy one and use it on the front wheel, Pilon says. Do note that studded tires can make riding on dry pavement feel a little slick. 

Gear

Fenders are the first line of defense for winter bike gear, Pilon says. “They will save your butt and your back and your feet and your legs from being wet.” Front and rear fenders can be clipped on or bolted on, ranging from about $15 for one to $45-ish for both.

And don’t forget front and rear lights to keep you visible, especially with more dark riding hours. 

Clothes

“Staying dry is, in my opinion, the most important thing. Dry equals warm,” Pilon says. 

At the same time, cycling clothes are spendy. Pilon rides in rubber-soled boots sourced from Farm & Fleet. A base layer—merino wool, if possible–underneath your regular shirt and pants and topped off with rain pants will help you stay warm and dry. 

A good set of gloves and mittens go a long way too. Another option is pogies, which are mittens that attach to your handlebars. That way, you can access your gear shifters and brakes without exposing your skin. 

For extra safety, don a high-visibility neon vest or some reflective gear. 

Routes

“Always choose the safest route. Even if you’re late, don’t rush it, don’t take a chance. If there’s ice present, you should be slowing down,” Pilon says. 

Give yourself more time to gear up and navigate slippery streets and bike paths and always choose the safest route. Luckily, Madison keeps the city’s bike paths clear. 

“If you ride alongside motorists, you have to be more alert and be aware of their behavior. Because if there’s an accident, the cyclist is going to be the one that suffers the damage over a motorist’s vehicle,” Pilon says.  

Activities

If you’re up for some winter biking and biking-adjacent activity, weather permitting, Pilon hosts a crew at Black Saddle at 6 p.m. on Thursdays. Bikers at every pace are welcome and included. They never wander too far from a spot to get warm, and might end up just grabbing dinner and gabbing about bikes, he says. 

Want to bike in a group for good? Check out the Wisconsin Bike Fed’s Santa Cycle Rampage MSN on December 10. The family-friendly ride—seasonal costumes encouraged—raises money for the Bike Fed’s Safe Routes to School Program in Dane County. The community ride rolls out from nine locations around the city and converges on Library Mall around 11 a.m., then heads out together for another five-mile trek. The group is also collecting new and gently used winter clothing items to distribute at Madison Metropolitan School District schools. Good cheer!

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