Perhaps the most common question I get from winter cyclists these days is simple: Why don’t you ride a fat bike for your winter commute?
It’s true, I don’t. I ride a built-for-winter commuter bike that has non-rusting parts and skinny tires. But fat bikes are pretty amazing winter machines, and I’ve ridden plenty of fun miles on one. So here I lay out my case for why a fat bike isn’t my commuter choice, but maybe for you.
My winters changed forever with a smiling dude with curly hair standing behind a bike in the lobby of a conference centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
It was an early edition of the Winter Cycling Congress, an annual event that brings winter bike lovers from all over the world together to discuss their favourite misunderstood transportation mode. I was on hand as a journalist-turned-speaker and the smiling dude was David Weiner of Priority Bicycles. Normally, bike conferences are filled with all kinds of bike-industry types flogging their wares, but something about Weiner’s bike stopped me.
I took a closer look and realized it was all there – all the ingredients in my perfect-fantasy winter bike, a wish-list honed over a decade of joy and heartbreak as a year-round bike commuter that included components imagined to withstand the bane of my winters: rust. It had an aluminium frame, a carbon belt drive instead of a chain, internal gears, disc brakes and great fenders. Hurry up and take my money, Mr. Weiner, please.
My original Priority Continuum. Photo by Tom Babin.
And for three winters I rode that Priority Continuum happily, until Weiner emerged again in the form of an email late last year letting me know that he had been hard at work improving the Continuum. The result was a new, improved bike. And did I want to try it? Hurry up and take my money, Mr. Weiner, please.
That improved bike is the Priority Continuum Onyx, and I’ve been riding it for the past few weeks through a Canadian winter. Basically, this is an upgrade to what I hoped, and what grew into, my perfect winter bike. Could it possibly be improved?
First, the upgrades. The Onyx has some differences from the early edition Continuum, and I’ve found most of them to be decided improvements, including the advanced badassness of the paint job (flat black gets two thumbs up from me).
First up is visibility, an important factor when you spend much of the winter riding in darkness. There are two significant improvements in the Onyx. First, is the esthetic design of the bike, which includes significant swaths of reflective paint, which is invisible unless light is directed at it (thereby keeping the rider illuminated without ruining the badassery of the colour scheme). Secondly is that the Onyx comes installed with both front and back lights powered by hub dynamos. In other words, the bike has lights that are powered by your pedalling, which means you never have to worry about external lighting. Hub dynamos are the norm in many bike-friendly countries, and it while the lights aren’t the brightest in the world – I’ll continue to use secondary external lights during the depths of winter – not having to remember to bring your light, charge it and turn it on is something you don’t know you love until you have it. It’s great.
There are a few design tweaks to the bike as well. The seat post is carbon fibre, a material that, when used in commuter bikes, normally prompts eye-rolls in me (do you really need to save a few ounces in weight on a bike that is saddled with your computer and lunch?). However, the back end of the Continuum is heavier than most bikes because of its drivetrain (more on that later), so I’ll take this as a welcome addition. The design also tweaks the dropouts in ways that simplify the addition of fenders and carrying racks, all of which are nice refinements.
Riding the new Priority Continuum Onyx. Photo by Tom Babin.
My favourite part of the original Continuum was always the drivetrain because it felt built for my winter. Instead of a rust-prone chain, it’s powered by a rust-free carbon belt drive, which has performed admirably (mostly) for the three years I’ve ridden it. The new Onyx is also built with an internal hub that uses Nuvinci technology – rather than a derailleur and stepped gears, the hub loosens and tightens based on tension, so the rider has almost an infinite number of gears. One improvement to the Onyx is that the range of that drivetrain has improved, meaning the rider can now shift to higher and lower “gears” than was possible in the past. The limited range on the old Continuum was a pet peeve of mine, and the new range is an improvement. It’s not perfect yet, but this is a winter bike, so rides are slower than summer rides anyway, so I can certainly live with this.
A note of caution: While I am a big fan of this drivetrain, it did pose a couple of problems in deep cold. During a particularly brutal sub -30 C (-22 F) cold snap one winter, the hub froze up on me a couple of times until the friction of my riding warmed things up. And I did snap the carbon belt in the extreme cold as well. Both problems are preventable – a little maintenance can keep the hub running and the manufacturer of the belt drives, Gates, does offer a cold-weather model. So be aware of this if you’re thinking about buying this bike.
There’s something a bit more intangible that I like about the Onyx as well. I find the Onyx to be a bit more efficient in the way it rides. It just feels like a cleaner, most productive bike to pedal, which is especially important in winter. I’m not sure how to account for this but the bike just feels like a more complete and refined package.
One final note on the new bike: Priority is an online bike seller, which comes with advantages and disadvantages. The key advantage is the price – at just over $1,000 US, this is a good price for a decent-quality commuter bike, especially one that seems to eat winters. The key disadvantage, other than having to assemble the bike yourself (which I quite enjoyed, in a DIY hunter-gatherer sort of way) is that it cuts out the local bike shop. Bike shops are essential to bike culture in a city, and it pains me to ride a bike that doesn’t involve a local connection. I try to support bike shops wherever I can, so this is something you should think about before buying a bike.
So did my perfect winter commuter bike improve? It certainly did, and I’m enjoying riding it through all that winter has thrown at me over the past few weeks. I wouldn’t say this is a universal winter bike because winter is so different everywhere. But if you ride through winters like mine, filled with sporadic snowfall, plentiful ice, and mountains of bike-destroying gravel, sand and salt, the new Priority Continuum Onyx should be on your shortlist.
At the tail end of last season, I did what I once thought I would never do: I bought a winter bike.
For nearly a decade, I rode a crappy, 20-year-old single-speed mountain bike because, mostly, I feared riding a good bike. Winter in my city rust: salt, slush, muck and grime that eat components unimaginably fast. I learned my lesson the hard way, and after I buried that old beloved bike, I vowed never to destroy a good machine again.
The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike? Photo by Tom Babin.
Still. In the back of my mind, I always thought that some day, I would find a bike that had what I considered the perfect specs for a rust-repellent winter machine: Aluminum frame, belt drive, internal gears, disc brakes and an overall winter hardiness. Then, unimaginably, I came across a bike with all those components in the Priority Continuum. I snapped the bike up at the tail end of last season, but didn’t really get a chance to test it through a real winter.
That wasn’t a problem this year. Though one of the coldest and snowiest winters I can remember, I rode the Continuum through it all. With the season coming to an end, a few people have asked me about it. So I made the video above to give an update on how the bike has held up.