BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) -- It's winter. It's cold. You're cross-country skiing or maybe snowmobiling up a frosty creek bottom trail when you look ahead and see Emmett Purcell riding his mountain bike. What the ...?
Yep, a small contingent of bikers like Bozeman's Purcell don't let a little snow and cold get in the way of their biking.
It's no wonder. Winter in these northern climes can sometimes stretch to nine months of the year. Restless bikers aren't going to let winter stop them from two-wheeling.
Besides, ''It's a hoot,'' Purcell says.
Winter mountain biking's popularity gain is due to several factors, says Dave Bagley, owner of Top of the World Cyclery in Leadville, Colo. Televised images of the Winter X Games, where mountain bikers careen down ski slopes on radically studded tires, and by the Iditasport Extreme Mountain Bike Race, a grueling 320-mile trans-Alaska contest, have fueled the sport's climb.
Bagley's bike shop has latched onto the niche, touting itself as a winter mountain bike specialty shop and by sponsoring a less-extreme winter race series in Leadville.
But it is these extreme sports and their participants that have led to the development of specialized winter biking gear. For example, mountain bikers riding on snow can purchase doublewide aluminum tire rims, such as the SnowCats, that provide a wider footprint for better floatation and traction in snow. Finland's Nokia manufactures bike tires with carbide studs, or try the Velociraptor that boasts steel or Kevlar studs.
Studs not radical enough? Pick up a pair of steel tire chains to ensure your traction on snow. These mechanical developments are not limited to racing. College engineering students even created a cold climate bike suitable for Antarctic researchers.
Bike shop workers in Montana and Wyoming admit they move very few such winter specialty items.
''It can be very dry in the winter here,'' said Doug Shinaver, owner of Olde Faithful Bicycles in Cody, Wyo. But regional bike shops can special order winter gear.
Mike Robichaud, of Bangtail Bicycle Shop in Bozeman, says the low demand for severe gear is due to the fact that most Montana winter bikers are commuters, people just looking to get to-and-from work or school without going into a lay-down slide on the ice.
Bagley agrees, estimating that extreme winter riders make up only about 1- to 2 percent of the total number of cyclists. ''But there's a huge commuter group'' that use their bikes the year around. And like their more extreme counterparts, the commuters can make use of the new gear.
Chains, about $60 to $100 a set, can help riders through snowpacked streets. Studded tires (starting at $50 each) improve traction on ice. Wheel bearings, packed in cold-climate lubricants (about $90), turn freer.
Winter biking is not a new concept. Bagley said historic Leadville photos show winter bike riders at the turn of the century. And the Iditasport boasts that in the 1890s, pioneers and trekkers made use of bikes to cross the rugged Alaska terrain. The only difference between then and now is the improved gear. Riders still have to brave the same frigid elements.
To help out, special winter biking shoes with neoprene cuffs and insulated toe boxes can be purchased for around $200. Another option that Bagley recommends for winter riders is buying regular biking shoes two or three sizes too big to allow room for extra socks. Or convert the bike's pedals to the standard platform model and use insulated boots, he suggests.
For the low-tech alternative, Purcell puts a plastic bag over his warm socks to keep out winter wetness. When it's really cold, he'll add a pair of overboots. Other than that, he uses no specialized winter biking gear.
For the body, Bagley recommends riders dress like Nordic skiers -- in synthetic layers with a windproof front panel. In really cold weather, he advocates Pogies, an insulator that fits over the handlebar grips allowing riders to wear thinner gloves underneath.
Since winter riding can mean dirty streets and trails, Nathan Wold, at The Bike Shop in Billings, says regular bike cleaning is key to maintaining the machinery. Mud, sand and dirt buildup can prematurely wear out bike components, he notes. Grunge Guard makes a molded rubber cover ($13) to protect derailleurs. To keep brakes from freezing up, Purcell uses a silicone spray on his cables, guides and derailleurs.
For mountain bikers, Purcell says well-packed snowmobile trails provide perfect places to ride, slide and glide. Purcell also rides the trails at the Bohart Ranch Cross-Country Ski Center where he works as a ski guide in the winter. He seeks out firm snow conditions to avoid ''punching through,'' which can make the pedaling a serious workout.
''You really find out how to ride your tires,'' he says of the balance that is required of winter pedaling. He recommends cyclists lower the air pressure in their tires to about 25 to 30 psi, depending on their weight and the snow conditions. As far as riding posture, he suggests keeping your weight back a bit and the bike perpendicular.
''You find ways to use a light touch on your bike,'' he says. That's because a sudden move, extreme lean, or too much brake on icy trails or streets can send a biker sprawling.
The thought of such crashes, extreme equipment needs or just the sheer cold undoubtedly deters many winter bikers from saddling up. But a full moon night ride across the snow with the Bridger Mountains in the background more than makes up for any small inconveniences, Purcell says.
Or, as he puts it more simply, ''It's a hoot.'' And he's guaranteed to have it all to himself.
On the Net: For more on the Iditasport Extreme Mountain Bike Race, check out mountainzone.com's Web site.
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