Winter biking conditions ideal

For many this might come as a surprise, but conditions on the roads and trails right now are ideal for biking.

Factor in the unseasonably warm temperatures, and a winter bike ride can be a good alternative to skiing and other winter activities.

"This year the riding has been really good," said Michael Hayes, a veteran of winter biking since 1989. "Most trails in town aren't open to cross country skiing and the warm weather has made it nice."

Hayes, who regularly commutes to his job at The Motorcycle Shop on Dowling Road during the winter, offers a few tips for those who want to enjoy the season on two wheels. "Studded tires and lights are a must," Hayes said. The light allows you to be seen and for the cars to see you, he said.   

The most popular studded tires are the Nokian Extreme 296. These tires are made in Finland and feature a special rubber compound that stays soft in the cold. They also have 296 metal studs to grip on the ice. Hayes has been riding the same set of studs for five years.          

"As long as you keep them properly inflated to keep from cutting the sidewalls, they will last," Hayes said. Jeremy Bell, now in his second year in Anchorage after moving up here from Seattle, said studs are easier to maintain balance on ice than walking in shoes. As a staff member of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Bell lives near the university and commutes daily to his job at Paramount Sports and around campus, so he does a lot of winter riding.

"This has been a great year because it has been so warm," Bell said. He prefers the Chester Creek trail for the half hour ride to work because, "motorists just ignore cyclists." Bell also rides with studs. “I rode for about half the winter last year without them, but I finally broke down and bought a set," Bell said. Patrick Hoosier, an engineering major at the University of Alaska Anchorage rides every day, "because cars cost too much." Hoosier, who has been riding in the winter for two years now, also uses studs and strongly recommends them.

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"The ice tends to slope toward the road," Hoosier said. "The studs work better on the ice; it's like dry pavement." Hoosier's daily commute to the university only takes him about 25 minutes from the Dimond Center.

"I ride right on the main roads," Hoosier said. "The sidewalks never get cleared very well and they just turn into snow banks. Get some fenders too; they keep the gunk off of you when it's wet."

For some the cost of the studded tires can be an issue because they are about $100 each.

"They cost about the same as an inexpensive pair of skis," said Rose Austin of Paramount Sports. Austin makes the daily seven-mile commute to the West Northern Lights shop from the Baxter area. "The weather this year has made it a much faster commute," said Austin, who will typically ride to work unless the snow gets too deep. "Fresh snow over six inches makes it tough. When conditions are good, my commute is 50 minutes, and when they are bad, it can take an hour and a half."

Marta Zegzdryn, a geology major at UAA, has a car, but prefers to ride her roommate's bike instead. "It's faster. I like the convenience of parking close to class," she said.

Zegzdryn is only a few minutes from the university and is in her first year of winter riding.

"Everyone should do it. It's good exercise and good for the air," she said.

Cost keeps the Zegzdryn from using studs.

"I can't go too fast," Zegzdryn said. "I have had a couple of bad spills, but I always wear a helmet," she said with a smile. "Sometimes it's embarrassing, but oh well."

Zegzdryn also wears grippers on her shoes to try to prevent falls.

"I lived in France and bikes were more respected, but they were everywhere," Zegzdryn said. "The streets here are an unfriendly place for bikes. At night I ride on the roads with reflective gear. I have to really watch out for cars because of so many close calls."

Hayes offers a few more tips to make the winter ride more enjoyable.

"Glue one side of the tire to the rim to keep it from moving and shearing off the valve stem when pedaling," he said. That could leave you stranded on the trail with a flat tire.

"You have to stay hydrated too, many people need to force themselves to drink in the cold, Hayes said. "If you take food with you, keep it close to your body so it doesn't freeze."

For protection from the elements, Hayes recommends something that is breathable to prevent overheating, waterproof and protects from the wind.

Neoprene booties to keep your feet dry and warm are also a good idea. And because falls are inevitable, always ride with a helmet.

So if the skiing stinks, take the money you have saved from not skiing, break out your bike, slap on some studs and go for a ride.