When people ask me why I moved to Madison from western New York last fall, "I wanted to sell my car and ride a bike instead" is one of my top three responses. But if you'd told me last summer that in six months I'd be whispering "YOLO" to myself (ironically, of course) while pedaling the studded tires of my mountain bike through a snow drift in minus-10-degree weather, in a snowstorm, I might have gotten a little nervous about the whole thing.
Yet Madison's active winter cycling culture won me over, and I've found myself branching out beyond the bare-minimum winter commute to embrace snowy parks, trails and, as soon as I get up the nerve, one of the beautiful frozen lakes. I've lived in cold climates most of my life, but for the first time I'm finding myself looking out the window at fresh snow and thinking how much fun it will be to ride it.
I've learned that playing in the snow can be incredibly fun on a bike, thanks in part to the work of advocates like Earl Serafica at Revolution Cycles, 2330 Atwood Ave. His passion for mountain biking comes through in year-round group rides, bike building and consulting, and occasionally one-on-one mentorship, all fostering a local excitement for this rugged and adrenaline-filled sport. And it flourishes in the winter, when Madison's copious snow and easily accessible parks and trails make a beautiful playground for amateur and experienced mountain bikers alike.
Winter is also fat bike season. Fat bikes are large trail bikes with wide wheels popularized by models like Surly's "Pugsley" and Trek's "Farley," and they're gaining a following within the mountain biking community. "Fatties" are basically the monster truck of the bicycle world, rolling through snow and over frozen lakes like a Jeep.
Revolution builds and works on fat bikes for many customers who love chugging through almost all terrain. As a result, "trails for fat bikes have really exploded," says Serafica, who describes the bikes as "empowering." Whether you're riding on official mountain bike trails, beaches or frozen lakes, they're perfect for central Wisconsin's variety of terrain.
But you don't need a bike the size of a tractor to enjoy winter mountain biking. "It really comes down to the conditions of the trail," says Serafica.
Thanks to Capitol Off-Road Pathfinders (CORP), an area trail-builders' organization, local trails are generally well maintained year-round. Packed-down snow, courtesy of hikers and dog walkers, is ideal for snow biking, but depending on snow depth, fat bikes themselves can also pave the way.
Winter cyclists are used to the principle of layering, and since mountain biking through snow or on ice takes extra effort, it's best to wear a little less than you normally might. Three-quarter waterproof pants or shorts will work for medium-cold days, and many are adjustable to full-length for very cold weather. A base layer and jacket may be all you need on top.
Winter wind makes goggles a frequent necessity; snowboarding goggles work well and can be worn at night. And bar mitts, or "pogies," for your handlebars will keep your hands warm and dry without getting them too hot. Waterproof riding shoes or boots are excellent, and wool socks underneath will protect your toes.
If you have a mountain bike, you're already off to a good start for winter cycling. Consider lowering your seat to lower your center of gravity, invest in good fenders, and clean your chain regularly to protect it from rust. I found a pair of studded tires to be one of the best cycling investments I've made: they cut through ice easily, rendering puddles or frozen water a piece of cake.
There's something about a peaceful, nearly silent snowfall in a park or on the lake that makes you feel like it's just you and your bike, cutting through the white drifts like a velocipedal hobbit.
On the other hand, riding with friends through cold gusts or a blizzard, laughing and falling all the way, is an entirely different, but no less enjoyable, way to spend an evening. It's no surprise mountain bike group rides often include bar stops and food destinations. The emphasis is on exploring and enjoying the scenery and company, rather than competition.
Serafica's regularly organized rides blend multiple skill and experience levels; he says that's the point. "We want to encourage people to ride with better riders," he says.
Revolution-led rides (announced via the shop's Facebook page) frequently include options for an extension, or a beer break while more skilled riders take an extra loop. Serafica's advice to novice snow-riders is simple: Whenever you see new terrain, "just ride it," he says. "And don't be afraid to ask questions."
Quarry Park, in Madison between Stevens and Harvey streets, is a close and fun option. "In the winter, dog walkers and hikers pack down the trail, so you don't need a fat bike," says Serafica.
Quarry Ridge, in Fitchburg, caters to a range of skill levels. "It's always well maintained, summer, winter, spring," Serafica says. There's a main loop and several tangents that vary in difficulty.
CamRock County Park is along the Koshkonong Creek between Cambridge and Rockdale. Trails range from beginner to advanced, and there are grill spots for group hangouts after riding. Maps for both Quarry Ridge and CamRock can be found at mtbproject.com.