'Praxis'

Winter Cycling: Part 1 – Snirt Road Riding

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What is it?

Some readers might have seen the term ‘snirt’ being thrown around on FaceBook, Strava, Instagram, and CNN. But what is it? Is it computer lingo? Is it some sort of marshmallow treat? Or is it a manner of blasting phlegm from your face? It’s none of these.

‘Snirt’ is a wombo, or, more fancily, a portmanteauThank you, Marty Kellen, for introducing me to the latter term. Portmanteau refers to the combination of two words to create a new term with specific meaning. In this case, ‘dirt’ and ‘snow’ are combined to create ‘snirt.’ This isn’t evolution in full flight, it’s gene splicing.

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When dirt roads freeze and are covered in snow, a new surface is born: snirt. Snirt comes in many flavours, depending on the degree to which the dirt road is frozen, and the humidity and depth of the snow. Of course, ice cover also factors, as does the amount of sand that has been mixed into the amalgam.

And sand is sort of the key to what defines snirt. Those who ride bikes and scooters all year in municipalities like Ottawa are intimately attuned to the savage destruction salt inflicts on our machines. It accumulates, sits, festers, and destroys. Salt is at once brilliant and the stupidest thing ever. It is a paradox, a conundrum, a thorn in one’s side that holds in one’s blood.

Dirt roads are not salted. Hal. La. Lu. Ya.

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Instead of salt, rural municipalities apply liberal doses of sand to add grip to the snow covering their dirt roads. Do they salt paved roads? Yes, but not always. Do we have to ride on them? Not really.

Where dirt roads connect communities, prompt plowing is vital. What if a resident has to get to hospital, work, or Giant Tiger? Gotta plow them roads quick. In the La Peche region, around Wakefield, plowing is prompt. Plows are out there on the dirt roads getting it done, spewing their sandy goodness all over the place. Thank you, plowfolk.

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Why do it?

Riding on snirt roads in the winter is….wait for it…awesome (the most epicly overused adjective of the 21st century?). There are a few specific things about riding snirt roads that make it great:

  • Snirt road surfaces are far smoother than the rest of the year, so you don’t get jack-hammered.
  • Traction on snirt roads tends to range from excellent to pretty good with the odd icy patch. Grip tends to be about the same as dirt road riding where you’ll see hardpacked to loose and everything in between.
  • Snirt roads have far less traffic on them than primary, paved roads.
  • Snirt roads often have more shape than paved roads, and are thus more interesting and beautiful.
  • Snirt roads might be more protected by trees than more open, paved roads.
  • No salt to mangle your bike.
  • Fenders are not required. In fact, they are detrimental on humid snow, which gets picked up and catches on the fenders, spraying the bike with snirt slurry.
  • Snirt road riding is exciting, scenic, challenging, and FUN.
  • Snirt road riding gives you an opportunity to explore roads you might not try in the other seasons.
  • Snirt road riding can help you smooth out your pedaling technique, because sometimes climbs are a little slippery.
  • Snirt road riding helps you refine your bike handling skills.

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What do you need?

You might not need another specialized bike to ride snirt roads! In fact, anything you ride on rough dirt roads will likely work great on snirt roads. But there is a catch: you do not want to use slick tires. Does that mean full knobbies are the ticket? No. The same rule of thumb that applies to cyclocross racing applies to snirt roading: when there’s snow and ice, you need as many biting edges on the ground as possible. For cyclocross, this means file treads. For snirt roading, this also means file treads. Alternatively, a true ‘winter’ tread, such as Continental’s Top Contact Winter, would be a great approach. The only downside to the Conti is that it’s built for commuting, and thus puncture resistance, not snirt roading. So the casing is stiffer than required, meaning it cannot conform to the imperfections in the snow as well as a more compliant cyclocross file tread. However, the difference might be academic….I’ve yet to test the Conti on snirt roads, just in the city (where they are great on the back, I prefer studs up front).

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Volume is good, but not a lot is required, as you tend to want your tire to penetrate down to the firm base on the road. 34-35mm tends to work great. I have personal experience on the Continental Cyclocross speed (34mm) and the Clement LAS (36mm), and both work very well. Tire wear will be minimal, so don’t shy away from using a good quality casing, like the 120TPI Clement.

Braking is probably the second concern riders might have. If you ride long descents and brake a lot (i.e., drag your brakes), you could encounter issues with the rim heating, melting snow, then that melt-water freezing onto the rim. I’ve encountered this problem while mountain biking in the winter, with v-brakes. My cyclocross bike has v-brakes mounted, and I have very little braking to do on the roads we ride, so I don’t have issues. Disc brakes are better, but unless you only have access to really gnarly terrain, you will probably be fine with rim brakes if that’s what you have. As always, it’s best to control your speed into a descent, so that you don’t have to decelerate as much on the actual hill.

Gearing is the same as always: depends on what your terrain is. I leave my single ring (42t) on my cyclocross bike, and swap the cassette from an 11-28 to an 11-36 Shimano XT. Using a long cage SRAM X9 rear derailleur makes this an easy move.

Did I say no fenders? No fenders.

Mountain bike pedals are your best bet. I’d suggest you never attempt to use Speedplays in the winter. Shimano, Look, etc, ok, if necessary.

Pedals segue into attire. Here’s my best advice; adjust for temps closer to freezing. This is the stuff the works between -12C and -3C:

Head: Snowsport helmet, goggles, liner hat

Face: Balaclava for the very cold days. A variety of materials work.

Neck: neck gaiter, tube, whatever. I prefer merino, in two weights: heavy (Icebreaker), light (Mad Alchemy)

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Core: layers. The best approach seems to be a tight base layer, such as a fishnet or thin merino or polypro, then a medium base layer over top, snug. Some days, a light jacket over top is fine. For -12, you’d likely want another loose full sleeve jersey-type layer, then a shell. This way, the moisture moved away from the body, and freezes between the outer jersey and shell. Ice there doesn’t chill you, whereas using all tight layers under a shell keeps them all wet. No good. When it’s milder you can use a jacket with wind-blocking on the front, and breathability on the back

Legs: Not too complicated. I use thermal knickers (3/4 bibs), with weather resistant tights over top, and for the really cold days, another pair of mtb pants on the outside of those two layers. I recommend suspenders for mtb or XC ski pants.

Hands: Everyone is different, so you’ll ned what you need. Bar mitts are an option that makes the whole system pretty simple. You can use not-so-heavy gloves inside, and maintain full dexterity. I tend to layer gloves, using wool as the base, then different weights of gloves over top with wind blocking. Windstopper from GORE tends to work well. When it’s quite cold, I go to my heaviest option, the Black Diamond’s Guide Finger Glove, with liners inside. Whatever you do. I recommend ‘supercharging’ your hands before you begin riding. I learned from cx skiing, where your hands are always flailing to drive the poles, and subsequently, don’t get cold easily. I found that if I whipped my hands in a double-poling motion – vigorously – I’d force blood to the ends of my fingers, and kick start the circulation. After doing that, I’d rarely get cold hands. So now I do that at the start of every ride, and after a stop.

Some use chemical warmers within their gloves or mitts. I don’t see the need for them, personally, but again, everyone is different. If you can get the right coverage, and supercharge your hands, you might be able to spare the expense and garbage.

Feet: Feet are the limiting factor in winter cycling. For commuting in the city, I wear my Bogs and never have issues. But my rides are short, and I don’t care about pedaling efficiency. Out on the snirt roads, I don’t want to wear Bogs. Before the fat bike craze kicked in, there were few options for winter riding shoes/boots. When I got mine, Shimano’s Gore-Tex model was what I could afford, and more importantly, actually get my hands on. These are appropriate for spring and fall in climates like Ottawa, but they are not a true ‘winter’ shoe for around here. I’ve undertaken a few measures to make them work reasonably well for rides of 3-4 hours:

The persistent issue with shoes like the Shimanos is that heat bleeds out from the bottom of the show (entropy). To combat this, I will try to experiment with Thinsulate and 45North Aerogel insoles. Another tip I’ve seen is to use neoprene toe covers inside the shoe. I’d like to try that.

The model I’d look to as potential ideal for winter snirt riding is the Lake 303. Perhaps for 2016/17, as this winter looks like it should be tolerable with what I have. Another model Imad of Rebec and Kroes is experimenting with is the Northwave. Time will tell whether it is warm enough. The 45Nrth options will work as well, assuming one adjusts to their clunkiness. They could be the ticket for those spending time on fat bikes and snirt bikes alike.

I used chemical heaters in my shoes through the winter of 2013/14, and they worked well.  Remember to open them up 20 or so minutes before suiting up, to activate them. Underfoot seems to work best.

Where can you ride?

Really, any dirt roads that are maintained in the winter ought to serve well for riding. Here’s what to look for in a route:

  • low traffic
  • good sight lines
  • mellow elevation change, but enough to keep things interesting
  • good tree cover to reduce exposure to wind
  • regular maintenance by municipality
  • a bit of civilization should things go wrong
  • a good start and end point where you can meet friends beforehand, enjoy hot drinks and food after, and get changed into dry clothes without freezing

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Remember that in the winter it’s important to try to keep your effort consistent so you don’t overheat, sweat too much, then freeze. So take the climbs as mellow as you can, and make sure you’re dressed for the descents.

Here’s our favourite winter loop, which we ride every Sunday. It’s the upper loop from our Ride of the Damned, and is actually quite hilly. But now that we’ve ridden if during winter for a few years, we are careful to keep it mellow on the ups, and save the ripping for the descents.

Check out our snirt video from last winter:

Related posts:

Where to Ride: Lanark’s California Road

The Scoop: Embrocation

Foul Weather Riding Gear Part 1: SealSkinz waterproof socks.

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