Mountain Bike Tips And Trails: Prepare For Winter Biking

Part 4: Winter Bike Maintenance & Preparation

Winter can be rough on all bicycles, not just mountain bikes. So, how do you prepare and maintain your bike for winter biking? Well, that depends on the type of riding you do and in what conditions. Someone who rides only during nice winter days on relatively clear rail trails or bike paths will have different mountain bike prep and maintenance requirements than someone who plans to commute daily by bicycle or goes mountain biking often on snow covered or icy trails. A lot also depends on your budget.

The following article covers winter bike maintenance tips and biking problems you may encounter in "average conditions". Our focus is on mountain bikes, although you may find some of these tips useful for road bikes.

Before heading out on the trails or roads there are few steps you can take to protect your bike, keep it in peak condition as well as make your winter mountain bike preparation and maintenance chores easier.

mountain bike track on snow bike path

Winter biking reality check:

There is no whitewashing the fact that winter conditions are rough on bicycles. Water can get into places you didn't even know existed, causing rust in hard to reach places. The road salt used in winter is really caustic stuff. It causes bridge and vehicle corrosion. Imagine what it can do to your bike frame, brakes and other components.

Some bicyclists have a second (if it gets funky, who cares) bike that they use for winter cycling. No matter which bike you use, the key to a happy, healthy bicycle in winter is diligent, regular bike maintenance. Being slightly "neurotic" about maintenance will keep your bike around longer.

Bike Lights : Light It Up

Lights to light your way home and to allow vehicle traffic to see you. Lights are important in any season, especially in winter as it gets dark early. There are as many different lighting solutions as there are people. Handle bar lights, strobe lights, head torches, reflectors etc. How they are powered also varies -- battery powered, LED, dynamo . . . Most cyclists use a combination of one or more.

For starters, check your State's requirements. Put one or more rear red flashing strobe lights on your bike, helmet or bag and some reflective tape on your clothing. Also additional lighting, such as inexpensive handlebar mounted headlights, while not good enough for serious night riding, are fine in a pinch if you're out on the trail longer than expected. Check to make sure all batteries are fully charged.

Bike Tires

Widely spaced knobby treads are just fine for most conditions, even on granular or fluffy snow. For biking in the snow, deflate both tires to a lower PSI. Around 25 to 35 PSI is the general consensus. Remember the "balloon experiment" in your high school science class? So, factor in that cold temperatures will also reduce some air pressure in the tires. You don't want to overdo it. If the front tire is too flat, it could cause the tire to come off the rim when braking the front wheel. If you plan to ride on icy packed snowmobile trails or ice, you'll need studded tires.

Consider using a tire liner, a long strip of puncture resistant material that goes between your tire and tube to help ward off flats. Lightweight and flexible material is best. Stiff materials have been known to crack in the cold.

Clean & Lube

Clean: Clean the bike thoroughly, which you will need to do more often in wet winter conditions. Wipe down first with a soft clean rag to remove any dry dirt. If the bike is wet and muddy, fill a bucket with warm soapy water and with either a rag or soft bristle brush wash it carefully. Do not get water where it has no business being. (hubs, cable housings etc).

Wipe between the chain rings and other hard to reach places with a damp cloth or brush designed for getting into those crevasses, and then again with a clean dry cloth. When dry, lube the bike. Also check for signs of corrosion (not necessary for aluminum frames). If there is a rust spot, sandpaper the spot and then touch up with a little chrome paint. Wax the bike frame.


Drive Train: (Chain and chain ring, cranks, freewheel, sprockets and derailleurs).
Clean and lube the drive system frequently to prevent build up of abrasives and prevent corrosion. How often depends on your riding preferences. If you bike often in muddy or wet conditions, you'll need to clean and lube more often.

Chain: Use a chain lube that works well in cold temperatures. A "light" oil-based lube like ProLink is highly recommended. It is also environmentally friendly and non-staining. Some of the thicker lubes tend to goop up in the cold. While we like to use a wax chain lube like White Lightening during the summer, it stiffens to the consistency of a candle in the cold. I even had trouble squeezing it out of the bottle during the summer as the bottle opening tended to become blocked with a hardened wax clump. Very annoying!

Brake levers, all cable ends and pivot points:

Check what cable system your bike uses. Some brake and shift cables are inside nylon-lined housings, which don't usually require lube. Use a light lube that comes with a tube-like attachment that allows you to precisely place the lube. Avoid getting lube on the brake pads or rims at all costs!


In winters harsh conditions, this should be part of your routine maintenance check. When you hear loud gritty sounds while coasting, this may indicate an urgent need to re-lube the freewheel. For most conditions a medium-weight oil is fine. If you ride often in extreme cold sub zero temperatures, it may thicken and inhibit motion. Use a cold temperature grease. Lubriplate Mag-1 is highly recommended.

Bike Frame Protection

Besides washing the frame, there are several methods available to help protect bicycle frames and expensive components from the elements. Most bicyclists use a combination of methods.

Wax: the outside of the frame with a NON-ABRASIVE bike or car wax. Carnauba-based waxes with UV additives work well. We wax our cars to protect the finish, why not bike frames? This will help to repel water and mud and prevent snow from sticking to the frame.

Inside Frame: Just taking the bike in and out of a warm house, cool garage or damp basement (summer or winter) causes the frame to expand/contract, allowing moisture to enter/condense inside the frame tubes, cable housings, shocks etc. If you have a steel frame, apply an internal rust protectant or have your bike shop do it.

Tape: We have not tried this method yet but some people use tape as chainstay protectors, or wrap it around frames. 3M makes Polyurethane Long-Term Protective Tapes ( for indoor and outdoor use. (Anyone want to chip in for a case?). The outdoor variety is effective at preventing damage caused by abrasion, erosion, minor impact, and fluids. It is very sticky, flexible and can be molded to curves and fits most shapes. We heard it is fast and easy to apply. It is used extensively for surface protection applications in the aerospace industry. Sounds great.

Sleeves, shock boots: You can either buy or make protective sleeves that can be stretched over frame couplings (i.e. headsets). Shock boots prevent dirt, water and debris from getting into shocks.

lizard skin seal

Lizard Skins (shown left). A sleeve made from thin neoprene backed with foam that you can stretch over head set couplings. They also make a nice rear shock boot. Their chain stay protectors "don't stick well".

Some people use old inner tubes, cut them and stretch over couplings.

Take nothing for granted. Take them off when cleaning the bike and for periodic corrosion checks.


Index Shifters: We had barely begun a long descent on a winding trail with a scary drop off. Suddenly, without warning the shift cables on Peter's bike snapped. Thank goodness, it wasn't the brake cable! We headed to the nearest bike shop, where we found out that the shift cables had badly rusted over the winter.

Other common problems with index shift systems in cold weather is cracked or worn cable housing, water getting into the housing and freezing or the thickening of the oil or grease cable lube, all of which will either stop or impair operation of the system or shift lever.

No matter which shift system you use, check the cables. Wipe off any moisture and apply a light lube. Modern, plastic or nylon-lined cables don't usually need lube.

For frozen shifters, remember the butane lighter you packed in your winter cycling emergency kit ? You can use it to de-ice. Just be careful not to melt the plastic housing.


Whether you use a rim or disc brake system, check them often for the wear, tear and corrosion that road salt, snow and mud can cause.

Rim Brakes: In the winter, brakes pads tend to wear out quickly. Grit, road salt and the sand that is sometimes used to de-ice roads builds up on the pads. Then, every time you brake, it grinds into and wears down your rims, not to mention the pads. If you hear screaming or grinding noises when you coast, have to squeeze the levers harder than usual, or a visual check reveals the grooves in the pads are almost completely worn down, you may need to replace the brake pads.

To prolong the lives of the pads as well as rims, put a little Isopropyl Alcohol on a soft, clean cloth and gently wipe the brake pads. Remove any objects that are lodged in the pads or grooves. Keep the rims clean and free of grit and grease.

If you've been riding all summer and have not changed the pads recently, do your bike a favor and install fresh new pads.

Disc Brakes: Even though disc brakes are designed to perform well in all conditions -- snow, water, road salt, and grit can take a toll. There are two basic kinds of disc brake systems.

Hydraulic: When you brake, fluid from the reservoir is pushed through a hose which causes pistons in the disc caliper to "activate" the pads. However, it is not totally impossible for water and grit to get into the system and cause corrosion damage. The tiniest air bubble or leak in the hydraulic discs can cause a condition known as "Brake Fluid Fade", a decrease or complete loss of brake power. It won't hurt to change the fluid once or even twice a year.

Mechanical: These systems use regular brake cables and levers. They are more susceptible to corrosion caused by water and grit buildup than hydraulic systems, but are less complicated to deal with. The key to smooth mechanical disc brake operation hinges mostly on the cable and housing.

Please Note: There are more parts then we've mentioned here and different disc brakes have unique requirements. Carefully read the documentation that came with your disc brake system before attempting any repairs or maintenance. If you are not the "handy" type, have your local bike shop do a checkup at least once during the winter.

Cables: Check the cables. Wipe off any moisture and apply a light lube. Rock N' Roll Cable Magic is highly recommended. Replace frayed or rusted cables when necessary. Avoid getting any lube on any other brake parts!. For greater protection against the elements, consider installing cables with full-length housing that runs continuously from the brake lever to the brake. Bicycling Magazine recommends Flak Jacket.

Rims: In wet conditions, grit builds up and embedded objects do their part to scratch and wear down the rims. Keep rims clean. Wipe down with a clean cloth dampened slightly with a little Isopropyl Alcohol. Check and clean brake pads. If rims are badly worn, they need to be replaced.




End Of Prepare for Winter Biking Series. Now head out onto the trails: Winter Bike Trails >