How To Ride A Bike: Notes on Winter Cycling from Russia

Photographer Adams Carroll
December 14, 2010

Maybe you complain about the cold, but here in St. Petersburg where I live, it is colder. And still, everybody else in Russia lives some place even colder. To stay warm while cycling in winter, first never forget that in Syktyvkar, in Shchuchinsk, in Novosibirsk it is colder. Are you not lucky that it is only -15º C?

No matter where you are, wear lots of clothes. You don’t need special clothes, just lots of them. Wear underwear, long underwear, extra socks, shirts, sweaters, coats, overcoats, hats, scarves, mittens, gloves and more. It helps if they are made of wool and if you have something windproof on the outside. When it is -25º C, your nose hairs freeze as soon as you step outside, but the rest of your body is nice and warm, sealed up like a cosmonaut. Once you start pedaling, your woolen cocoon begins to heat up, everybody you know is literally freezing to death in the street like during the blockade, and you will be sweating.

Does it still snow in America? I hear that you have separate lanes for bicycles. How quaint! In Russia it snows a lot but does not get cleaned up very quickly. Snow becomes muddy and slushy and freezes at night. If your roads are clean, you do not need the studded tires I use in the winter, but you might consider replacing your 23cm racing slicks with as wide a tire as possible. Wider tires can be run at lower pressures, which will help you stay balanced on packed, uneven snow.

When the roads are covered in corrosive salts and chemicals, I leave my favorite bike at home and ride one that is already a piece of shit, a KhVZ Ukraina made in the USSR in the mid eighties from war surplus tank parts (tanks were made of bicycles during perestroika). It has 26” mountain bike wheels, really wide handlebars, big fenders, and nothing else. If you do not have room or time or whatever enough for another bike, no big deal. Just ride the one you already have. Learn how to lube your chain, consider getting some lithium grease and learning how to overhaul your bottom bracket and hubs. Sludge will rust your frame if your bike is made of steel and the paint is not 100%, so wipe it down periodically.

winter cycling russia

In the fairer months I prefer to ride a geared bicycle, but during the winter, I find that a bicycle with a fixed cog and a low gear ratio is best. My winter bike is a 16-42 fixed gear. Because there is no freewheel to disengage, traction is constant. The low gear ratio keeps me from going to fast. No matter what you ride or drive in the winter, you should probably be going slower anyway. In russia we say “tyshe edesh’, dal’she budesh"— the slower you go, the farther you’ll get.

In Russia, the sun rises at 10:00 and sets at 15:00. Bright front and rear lights might be the only light you encounter for months. They may also help to prevent early death, although if the cars do not kill you, exposure to the elements or dehydration probably will. In the winter, the wind always knows which way you are trying to go. It knows because it blows in the opposite direction. In the winter the wind is always hurling snow and sleet and icicles and muddy trash and literally sometimes human waste, right in your face. You will look stupid wearing ski goggles, but on certain days, you have to.

Why ride a bike in the winter at all? Basically for the same reasons as the rest of the year. Ice biking will give people the impression that you are reckless or crazy. If you are poor, winter cycling is cheap (it will not make you richer). If you like the environment, you will have the opportunity to meet mother nature’s capricious side; perhaps you will enjoy it. It is similar to the way your girlfriend is most sexy when she calls you a dickhead and throws something at you. If you are training for the apocalypse, good luck. More than likely you will decide that survival is not worth it. Regardless of why you do it, enjoy yourself— it will always be worse next winter! Udachi!

winter cycling russia

Posted: December 14, 2010
How To Ride A Bike: Notes on Winter Cycling from Russia