CONFESSIONS OF A WINTER CYCLIST
ABOUT THE BLOGGER
Greg Sutyla is the electric bike specialist at United Sport and Cycle. He has worked at United Sport & Cycle since 2014, and in the cycling industry since 2003.
Greg rides both mountain bikes & road bikes and has been a daily bicycle commuter for the past 8 years. He is the mountain bike group ride leader for the United Ride Club, and is also involved with many large cycling events including the 24 Hours of Adrenaline and the MS Bike Tour.
You can usually find Greg out on the local bike trails or working our bike service shop.
Winter Biking in -40°C Weather
When I left for work on Tuesday morning it was -33.6°C and—with the windchill—it felt like -44°C outside.
I wasn’t too worried. The previous night when I had ridden my electric fat bike home it had been a balmy -28°C so I figured it wouldn’t be that big of a difference to ride with it at -34°C.
I was wrong: that extra 5 degrees of cold made a biiiig difference when it came to my fat bike functioning properly.
An overheating electric bike motor?
First things first, the Bigfoot 2 VLT electric bike did not like the extreme cold. It made it about 2 km before it gave me an error message and the motor stopped providing pedal assistance. According to the error code, the motor could no longer contribute as it was starting to overheat.*
Now, an overheating motor may seem like an odd problem to have in extreme cold… but the grease that lubricates the moving parts of a bike starts to get quite hard as temperatures approach -40°C. With an electric bike, this increases how hard the motor must work to keep the e-bike moving. And this, in turn, can cause a motor to overheat.
Unfortunately, having the electric bike motor stop working before the halfway point of my commute left me 100% manually pedaling a 50+ lb. bike with hardened grease in the hubs.
I eventually realized that this was going to leave me riding slower than walking speed, so I was left pushing my fat bike the rest of the way to work.
*Now don’t think over-heating motors in extreme cold is specific to e-bikes. An overheating motor due to extreme cold is a common problem with cars as well: typically, because the coolant fluid freezes up rather than circulating normally. Where I live, it’s not uncommon to see a few cars in flames on the side of the highway whenever we get hit with a -40°C cold snap.
A non-electric fat bike to the rescue!
That said, once it warmed up inside my office at the bike shop, the electric bike began to operate normally once again. I spoke with our local Norco rep about the issues with my VLT 2 e-bike not functioning in the extreme cold snap and he immediately came to the rescue with a standard, non-electric, Norco Bigfoot 1 fat bike to get me through the next few days.
However, on the ride home that night I had similar issues even with a regular fat bike. After 2 km the grease in the hubs of my “acoustic” fat bike became so thick from the extreme cold that the fat bike crept along slower than usual. The wheels would not keep spinning and shifting gears would leave the cable temporarily frozen in place inside the housing. I was going nowhere fast.
I did manage to pedal all the way home, but it was a chore and I arrived home hotter and sweatier than I ever expected I would be in those cold temperatures.
Throwing in the towel on biking to work
I admit that the next morning I decided I would take public transit to work instead. As it turned out, a normal 40-minute bus ride ended up taking 80 minutes in the cold… With no lack of irony, I realized that it would have been much quicker still—even with cold-hardened grease—to fat bike to work.
I want to take this moment to give a shout out to the other cyclists I saw out commuting in the bitter cold. There was probably at least a dozen people I got to say hi to when I was out riding on Tuesday and most of them were struggling just like me.
We weren’t going fast, some were pushing their bikes, others were just going at a slower pace than usual—but they were out there getting it done during this cold snap. Props to all of them. It is no easy feat to get out there in the bitter cold and ride a bicycle.
A possible cure for cold temperatures!
If these extreme cold temperatures were more common on our winter season, I am sure most of my issues could have been solved by getting my fat bike prepped for the winter with a grease better suited for -40°C—and I am sure I would have had a much better experience.
However, with temperatures now returning to our regular seasonal averages, I am happy to say I am back commuting on my Norco Bigfoot VLT 2 electric fat bike, with a big smile plastered all over my face.