ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- The first time I rode a mountain bike in winter was quite by accident.
I was in college at my boyfriend's house. It was late. We had a fight. In an oh-so-collegiate and melodramatic way, I stormed out of the house to leave but forgot I hadn't driven.
Go back inside and swallow my pride or make my way home five miles on a snowy, 20-degree Virginia night?
I grabbed my boyfriend's bike next to the garage and pedaled into the inky darkness. My hands and feet froze, and the bike slipped out from under me a half-dozen times.
I arrived home cold, angry and with scrapes on my elbows. But I had my pride.
That year was 1989, when winter mountain biking -- or any cycling for that matter -- seemed ludicrous to the masses. When the mercury plummeted we headed to our indoor trainers, switched to racquetball or ran laps in the gym.
But just a few years later things began to change. I noticed as my brother, an avid cyclist who turned me on to biking when I was barely a teen-ager, began training earlier each spring and continued to ride late into winter. Occasionally he'd talk me into going with him, and I realized that unlike that first, frozen, miserable night in Blacksburg, Va., this time it was pretty darned fun.
Here in Alaska, avid cyclists ride in the cold not so much by choice as necessity. Unless you can get your fill of mountain biking in the five or six months of snow-free weather (and who can?), you've no choice.
''People are realizing that if they want to stay on their bikes, they have to buck up and get their cold-weather gear and just go outside,'' said Tony Lombardo, a shop technician at Alaska Mountain Bike Source. ''If you're an Alaskan, you pretty much have to accept it.''
Off-road mountain biking has gained momentum the past 10 years.
In 1990, the National Sporting Goods Association didn't even track the sport's popularity. But by 2000, an estimated 7.1 million people took to the trails on their fat-tired bikes. So, it's no surprise that winter mountain biking -- also called snow biking -- is becoming more popular, too. As cyclists better learn to handle their bicycles, they are more willing to experiment in cold weather.
''I'd say (snow biking) has been growing pretty steady for at least the past three years,'' Lombardo said. ''We're also seeing an increase in technology with winter gear for mountain bikes, which is making it easier for people to get out. There are a lot of good studded tires out there.''
With this year's early arrival of snow, there's even more reason to get out and try riding on the white stuff. It's really not as hard as it may seem. So long as you ride within your limits and dress warmly, it is, in fact, exhilarating.
''Last year, with all the ice, it was a very strange year,'' said REI ski and bike shop manager Travis Reier. ''But it was ideal weather for riding your bike. It was the best sport going. The trails in Bicentennial Park were perfect, so I think that added to the sport's popularity.''
Studded tires, a good indicator of how many people take to the trails in winter, have been selling fast everywhere. Reier said REI is having trouble keeping enough tires in stock. Rose Austin from Paramount Cycles is seeing the same thing.
''This season we've already gone through dozens of pairs and talked to lots of people who are gearing up for the Susitna 100 and Iditasport,'' she said. Austin says those two February mountain biking races draw a diverse group of riders, from the intermediate to extreme.
Also, she said, many people use their bikes for commuting, for environmental reasons or out of necessity.
Getting started is pretty simple, really. When snow conditions are hard-packed and firm, just let a little air out of your tires, to about 10 to 15 pounds of pressure, to increase surface area. Fat, nubby tires are best.
Snow Cat doublewide rims are an option too. They are available at most bike shops, but all come from a Fairbanks store, All Weather Sports, which specializes in winter cycling (1-907-474-8184).
In ice or for commuting, studded tires are a must. There are all sorts of studded tires out there, and many people even stud their own tires. But in general, buy tires that have at least 296 studs each. Any fewer, and you'll lose too much stability.
''We don't even carry the lower-count tires,'' Reier said, ''because we realized they just aren't any good.''
Studded tires are a bit spendy -- Nokian Extremes, one of the most popular styles, sell for about $100 each. But, as Austin says, ''think of it this way: You'd spend a lot more than that in the emergency room.''
At Alaska Mountain Bike Source, studded-tire guru Bryan Kennedy is working on a new, Kevlar-beaded tire with studs placed through the tread without puncturing the inside of the tire. If it sounds complicated, it is, but Kennedy isn't revealing any of his trade secrets.
As for clothing, use common sense. Dress in layers, use gear with lots of zippers for ventilating and avoid cotton. The extremities, especially your feet and hands, are particularly vulnerable, so avoid the spandex. All Weather Sports suggests wearing boots and extra-wide toe straps in extreme cold as well as mittens instead of gloves. Balaclavas are good for wearing beneath helmets, especially the kind that flip up into headbands if necessary.
Other things to consider: Use slow, controlled movements when steering and pedaling, and don't use the front brakes if the bike begins to slide. Be careful to keep ice from building up on cables and brakes, and always make yourself visible with lights or reflective clothing.
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