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Here is some of my experience in riding all year long here in Northampton, Massachusetts for Pedal People. The brand names here are ones I have experience with, but others may work as well. Temperatures are in Fahrenheit degrees. ~Alex
Cold – above freezing
Cold – below freezing
Some of us get by for most of the winter using mountain bike tires with some tread. As long as you understand how a bicycle behaves on snow and ice and ride carefully, studded tires aren't necessary in most conditions. I use a different bike with studded tires for more extreme conditions, but find this is only necessary for a handful of days a year. Here in Northampton most of the main streets are plowed well within hours of a storm, though side streets can get very rutted and icy.
Some of us ride studded tires all winter long. This allows for a much more confident riding style, especially at night where the ice is harder to see. I would recommend this for those new to winter riding. Although studs will give you significantly increased traction on ice, you can still slip, so make sure to test your stopping ability until you are familiar with the tires.
Make sure you get carbide studs. Otherwise riding on pavement will wear down the studs very quickly. A good brand for studded snow tires is Nokian.
Bicycle outfitting tips from Mike Hagans
I prefer to have 2 bikes. One is a mountain bike with a solid front fork & the other is a cyclocross (road) frame. The purpose of the two frames is the mountain bike frame's geometry is a little more "relaxed" than the cyclocross geometry so on heavier days I'll use that to give my body a break. However it's a fine line because the cyclocross frame rolls easier thus it’s faster so I choose carefully.
One more reason for the two different frame types is during the winter I put studded tires on the mountain bike and cyclocross tires (knobby road tires) on the other bike.
Obviously we should only be using 32 spoke wheels for hauling but there are a few other things we can do. For my mountain bike I use the standard 32 spoke system but for the cyclocross frame I in the past had used a 36 spoke wheel set. However I recently built a wheel set for Pedal People that is a 32 spoke wheel. For added strength I used a high profile rim with a rim sidewall height of 42mm. This is a very strong road wheel.
If you have ever experienced free hub freeze (as in it does not engage), chain slack when backpedaling, loose bearings, wobbly wheel or grinding bearings then you can appreciate my frustration with cup & cone bearing hubs. Now if properly adjusted and maintained you should not have most of the problems but if water gets in the free hub, even on my real nice Shimano XT’s, I still had free hub freeze and chain slack on days below freezing.
For the stated reasons this is why I now run only sealed bearing hubs on my wheels. As a starter the bearings (which look like a shrunken version of the bearings on our trailer wheels) should last for many years and when they do finally start to go it takes about 30 seconds to change the bearings. Also last winter on my sealed hubs for the first time I experienced no hub freeze and no chain slack plus none of the popping sounds associated with prawls trying to engage. This is a boost for me personally for I cannot be having hub freeze at 4 in the morning while working.
I am highly opinionated on this subject so bear with me. Now there are many very nice rim-braking systems and they work very well in most applications, however I think Pedal People and the business of bicycle freight hauling is one area for the biggest reason of safety where we should only be running disc brakes. Discs work by a spinning rotor attached to the hub with a caliper affixed to the frame that when actuated by the brake lever squeezes two very hard material brake pads on the rotor. Braking even with a modest load on the trailer is exceedingly responsive and speed diminishes in haste.
The other very big plus to running disc brakes is dirt, grime and water or mud does not get in the way of braking for the fact that grime should almost never get onto the rotor and if the rotor is wet it only affects braking responsiveness in the slightest manner.
There are two options for disc brakes. One is hydraulic disc brakes and the other is mechanical disc brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes like the ones that I operate use DOT 5.1 non-silicone formulated brake fluid. This type of brake fluid is good to have in these applications as it absorbs water thus making it hard for steam lock to occur (when water gets in the brake line and under heavy braking boils, produces steam within the line, and makes braking very difficult.)
I recently went 1 year and 3 months with no and I mean no, none, nada maintenance on my disc breaks which get used very hard many times a week. So the plus of disc brakes is that you have to do almost no maintenance. When it came time I had to "pressure bleed" them which means forcing any air out of the line while pressure injecting new fluid into the line. The brake pads should last for years.
The other and less expensive option are mechanical disc breaks which like any rim break use a cable to actuate the braking calipers. These are just as good stopping wise and maintenance is much simpler on these systems.
Now I do realize that most of these options range from a modest investment to a substantial one and I realize that as individuals not everyone can afford it and for people that do not do much hauling the investment does not make sense. This is why I think in the future when bicycle freight hauling takes off more profitable companies or ones that choose to place their surplus into equipment should be providing work bikes much like a trucking company provides a truck for the employee to use.
I feel very strongly on the subject of brakes. I know from experience the fear of being cutoff by a pedestrian and having my brake cable snap (this has happened twice). Also the feeling of an iced up rim or a dirty rim with almost no braking and 500 lbs behind me I no longer find acceptable.
Hope you enjoyed my perspective on the mechanical aspect of our job.