I’ve been biking year round since the late 80’s in both Minnesota and London England so I have a lot of experience biking in cold (what many would consider extreme cold) weather as well as rain and snow. Since this question comes up very frequently on forums I follow and some of my ideas run counter to the current trends I decided to write a post that collects my thoughts on winter commuting. I’ve also been asked to separate this post into three separate ones so I can expand more on each area. So I’ll start with the bike itself and in subsequent posts I’ll look at the Gear and elaborate on how I ride differently in the winter in order to remain safe and comfortable.
Here in MN the fat bikes are all the rage but the $2000+ fat bike is the Hummer of the bike world and is overkill for the vast majority of commuters. If you are looking for a bike that will be a fun and functional winter commuter your cheapest option is a mid 90’s mountain bike on the used market. Avoid suspension bikes or anything too fancy. My personal preference is the early to mid 90’s Trek MTB’s in the 800 and 900 series. At current market prices I could buy a new used MTB every year for the next 30 years before I equaled the price of 1 new Fat bike.
These are rock solid bikes that are not sought after much these days so they are under valued. In Minneapolis It is common to see even the earlier USA made steel Treks going for less than $200. Some of the competing bikes from the era are also cheap, E.g. Schwinn, Bianchi, etc…although the Specialized and Bridgestones that are comparable in quality to the Treks are not as abundant around here so those tend to be priced higher. Spend some time scanning Craigslist to figure out what the best values are in your local market.
If you are covering greater distances or looking for the best all around, year round bike and willing to spend a bit more money take a look at the new breed of “all-road” bike or a cyclocross bike. My current cyclocross steed is an All City Macho Man with a dedicated set of winter wheels and tires. Another alternative would be a touring road bike that has enough clearance for wide tires and fenders. Finally, if you are a mountain biker and want to ride trails in the winter that is when it is time to consider either a 29+ ride or a full blown fat bike.
There are those that will suggest you need to modify the drive train for a winter bike, As far as I am concerned single speed bikes are as much about fashion as they are function. I have ridden a number of mid level MTB’s through lots of winter commuting, trail riding and general abuse and had very few drivetrain component failures or issues of any kind. All that is required for a winter bike is paying more attention to keeping the bike drive train clean and lubing the chain and cables a little more frequently.
If you are totally maintenance averse then a single speed might make sense but in winter the value of having gears actually goes up varying your torque and pedaling effort will improve both your traction and help you regulate your effort level and body temperature.
If you need to commute in all kinds of weather including snow and ice cosider investing in studded winter tires, which are the most valuable modification or upgrade for winter commuting in colder climates. I’ve spent many years riding the Nokian Hakkapalita although this year I am going to try out sme of the new lighter tires from either Schwalbe or 45North. A winter bike should also have fenders and there are lots of options, I prefer the full coverage plastic models but I also have used the clip on seat post and down tube mounted ones with pretty good results. The best quality and selection in fenders comes from the German company SKS.