Winter Commuting in Alaska:Things don't always work out as we plan

Continued from “Learning to Ride In the Wind — Real Wind

Since this is the first year that we don’t have a car, we have had to learn how to pack things home, and have had quite a few mishaps along the way.

I knew that without studded tires, I had to walk over the flooded areas that spilled over onto the trail and froze. However, I had forgotten how far down the trail these areas went and ended up riding on the ice in the dark.

Shanna Ladd: flooded areas that spilled over onto the trail and froze
Flooded, frozen trails with studded tires.

I fell. The impact broke the zip ties on my crate which in turn went flying off as I landed on my knees. I got up, put the loose items in my backpack and strapped the crate back on with bungees.

But this didn’t work well. The bungees somehow ended up wrapped around both sides of my bike chain. This turned into a finger-freezing moment as I tried to untangle the mess and mentally added a knife to my mandatory pack list.

Sometimes you’ve got to just cut things loose. I became afraid that I would fail this commute-by-bike challenge as I struggled on the trail in the dark, subzero weather. But I kept at it and the bungees finally came out.

I turn on my music and turn it up. I start walking, with a little limp, giving myself permission to relax and de-stress from the situation. I had time. The snow was bright. I got to work early.

Packing and Securing my Load

My bike is equipped with one back rack. So I end up piling all of my things high onto the back wheel. This presents a problem for me when riding in high winds. I have had to take my load back to my office and leave it there because it is too windy to make it home safely with everything piled so tall on the back.

Shanna Ladd: Crates piled high on the rear rack
Gear piled high on a crate on a rear rack

A front rack and a way to distribute weight evenly is on our list of must-haves.

However, we have found that as we change from driving a car to biking, sometimes it takes time and experimenting to determine what you need and how to get things set-up right.

What really seems like a good idea is to actually weld a front and back rack to the bike frame so it is all just part of the bike. However, for now we avoid shopping and having to bring groceries and other supplies home when wind is in the forecast.

We have found that having a little bit of a stockpile at home is important for this reason, again considering that we cannot control the weather.

Air Pressure

When the first real snow fell this winter, I rushed out in great excitement and jumped on my Pugsley. I hit the trail, the bright white snow was beautiful and made everything quiet and peaceful as I headed to work, a smile pasted on my face.

However, not far down the trail did I find a new lesson waiting. As I hit the four-wheeler trail, I slipped into a rut and flew off my bike!

Shanna Ladd: Rutted Road
Adjusted tire pressure helps to deal with rutted roads

In fact, I went flying multiple times on my way to work, making me concerned that I would not be able to keep up this commute-by-bike. I was afraid of injuring myself. It was a rough and scary ride to work, trying to keep on my bike seat.

After work I went over to the Alaska Bicycle Center to see if the chains were in. Not yet.

Richard asked me about the air pressure in my tires. I didn’t know at what what pressure my tires had been set. He let air out. They were at 20 PSI, great for a summer ride on paved trail; this was not summer anymore! He put them at 11 PSI.

He said letting air out will give the tires more grip. On my trip home, I was still worried about falling and injuring myself. My fingers were wrapped tightly around the grips, shoulders tense, watching my front wheel that fit just inside the four-wheeler tracks waiting for an inevitable slip.

I rode through the bumps and the hills. When I got to a pile of snow, I would stand up and lean forward. I had more power and I didn’t slip. I was relaxed. My tires were “gripping” and I began looking around me and enjoying the beautiful snow.

My commute was again possible and, as I thought about it, I seemed to remember reading something about “grip” on this Website, but had forgotten about it until today.

My Feet Get Me There Too

As part of our plan to commute by bike thru the winter, we bought chains for the fat bikes. We paid for them in advance because this was such an essential part of our winter transportation needs. In Alaska, studs or chains were essential when I drove a car and since my bike is my vehicle, this was still a requirement.

Shanna Ladd: Knee Pads and Waterproof Shoes
Knee Pads and Waterproof Shoes

Our routes pass over flooded and frozen over areas as well as waterways. We can also get freezing rain in the winter. Without chains or studs, we have to walk certain stretches of the trail. This means that I take longer to get to and from work.

The chains came in. Richard has spent time putting chains on a fat bike at the shop. He says the chains aren’t a perfect fit, and while there may be some way to make them work, they are not a perfect fit.

So we changed to studded tires.

Although this is difficulty that I didn’t plan on, I purchased knee pads and cleats and we are doing a lot of walking. Things don’t always work out as we plan. I still get where I need to go. By making myself get out and do it, I learn.

Shanna Ladd: "The world is beautiful."
Click to see a high-resolution version of this image.

The world is beautiful. I have time to enjoy the stars. I am learning the routes I can take so when I do get studs and/or chains, I will be able to ride my bike.

My feet get me there too, just a little slower. I guess you could call that cross-training!

To be continued…

Shanna Ladd is a car-free bike commuter in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley (a.k.a. “The Mat-Su”), north of Anchorage.

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16 thoughts on “Winter Commuting in Alaska:Things don't always work out as we plan”

  1. Michael says:

    Well I enjoyed reading this, not only because it smashed my preconceptions (as commuter with a road bike) about what constitutes a sensible tire pressure!

  2. Matt H says:

    I am impressed by Shanna’s perseverance. A lot of folks would have given up on the first fall. I’m sure that abandoning the car – and thus the *necessity* to ride – has a lot to do with sticking with it.

    As I was reading about the struggle with packing the bike, I couldn’t help but wonder whether a trailer was a good idea. I don’t know whether a single or dual wheel would be better for the conditions, but it certainly would solve some of the stability issues.

  3. Maybe you all know it, but for those who don´t I strongly recommend the WorldWide Cycling Atlas!!!


  4. Graham says:

    I was thinking the same thing! I would probably suggest the one wheel trailer simply because in my experience they are much easier to negotiate on trails. Two wheels are going to find ruts and stuff that you’ve already dodged.

  5. Jack in Seattle says:

    You have Rule #9 firmly in your pocket.

    It will get better the more you do it. Just watch out for those Bears!


    1. Ted Johnson says:


      Is the Rule #9 of which you speak?

      Rule #9 // If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period.
      Fair-weather riding is a luxury reserved for Sunday afternoons and wide boulevards. Those who ride in foul weather – be it cold, wet, or inordinately hot – are members of a special club of riders who, on the morning of a big ride, pull back the curtain to check the weather and, upon seeing rain falling from the skies, allow a wry smile to spread across their face. This is a rider who loves the work.

      I’m not sure I agree — but I think those rules are meant for racing maniacs, not for commuters.

      If I were to come up with a list of rules, this might be one (and I think Shanna might agree):

      Rule #9 // If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a prepared. Preferably.
      Fair-weather-only riding is the limited view for those think of bikes only as recreation and sports equipment. Those who ride in foul weather – be it cold, wet, or inordinately hot – are people who understand that no matter the weather, the benefits of cycling outweigh the benefits of the climate-controlled alternatives with their short-term comforts. In the morning, before any commute, these people check the weather and say to themselves, “I have gear and a plan for that.”

  6. BluesCat says:

    Shanna – I was thinking, maybe, rather than piling everything up on top of the rear rack, that you get a nice big set of panniers.

  7. Tim Sherman says:

    Maybe a lower center of gravity and panniers would help in the wind or make falling less of an event. Take a look at this concept. Fat tires on a recumbent that will carry packs or panniers.

  8. Shanna Ladd says:

    Matt H
    At the beginning of winter, I listed out my top barriers: Fear of the dark, Dislike of being cold, Lack of courage. The wind didn’t occur to me. After I sold my cars & truck, I had to face my fears and barriers. I’m very glad I did.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      With the trails and conditions of your commute, I wouldn’t trade in the ability to stand on my pedals for the benefits of a recumbent bike.

      I agree with the advice to try and get your load lower on the bike with some panniers — bear-proof or not.

      I wouldn’t start thinking about a front rack until you have maxed out your practical ability to carry cargo on your rear rack and frame.

      Revelate Designs is based in Alaska, and makes a frame bag to perfectly fit your Pugsley. Putting as much of your cargo weight in your front triangle as possible would really help your handling overall — fewer falls.

      Revelate Designs Frame Bag for Surly Pugsley/Moonlander
      Revelate Designs Frame Bag for Surly Pugsley/Moonlander |  | Bike Bag Shop

  9. BluesCat says:

    Tim – Recumbents make excellent foul-weather bikes. I know a couple of people who ride them in snowy Norway.

    And, if she were to get one, Shanna could further address her wind problem by getting a fairing.

    Or, she could go all the way with a velomobile!

    ‘Course, (chuckle), NOW we’re talkin’ initially about as much money as a USED CAR!

  10. Shanna Ladd says:

    The high wind is the beast! It is definitely time to solve the issue of getting stuff home – without making guacamole on the trail!! Thank you for the information. It is refreshing and helpful to hear from people who understand what I’m trying to do.

  11. Graham says:

    Let’s re-write all those rules for bicycle commuters.. that would be fun!

  12. mwmike says:

    Jack – You’re nuts! Move to Arizona.

  13. Norm says:

    Guacamole – made! Eggs – prescrambled! Meat – tenderized! It’s not commuting, it’s multitasking! 😀

    I second Ted’s note on panniers. Less wind sail area and improved tipping stability than a big box atop the rack – however I find my front wheel gets unweighted when I have a full pannier load and I worry about popping unwanted wheelies if I sit up too straight.

  14. Shanna Ladd says:

    I did the wheelie thing in a busy intersection bringing home a floor roller! Ha.
    I like the idea of the frame bag. I often have to stand to pedal and push through snow.

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