my road bike ain't gonna' cut it this winter. any suggestions for the kind of bike i could use that would decrease the likelihood that i'll die. i heard wider tires is better. any ideas/thoughts would be helpful. thanks!
wider tires would actually be worse because the weight is distributed over a greater surface area and therefore you get less pressure, friction, and traction with wider tires, hence why automobile winter tires are more narrow. Get something with narrow tires but good tread, and a single speed cyclocross type bike might be nice and easy to service during the winter.
I like wide tires -26" x 1.95 + with a wide range of air pressure so I can let the air out and ride them squishy when the streets are crap. I also like a derailleur and a granny gear - something that I can plow through anything with if it is really craptastic - a single speed does not allow this unless you like spinning out on clear streets. I find that I have better traction with low air pressure and more of the tire touching the ground. I don't drive a car in the snow - but comparing cars to bikes isn't necessarily very accurate - humans don't have the horse power of cars, nor 4 wheels. You don't see motorcycles too much on winter streets... I don't fall in the winter very often - usually no more than twice at the beginning of the season. I rode through all 7 ice storms we had last year and didn't fall once during those rides.
Some people will always insist that skinny track tires/wheels are the answer for everything, but I don't agree. Bicycles are designed with specific applications in mind. You don't see videos on YouTube of guys riding across the arctic circle on skinny track wheels - they are riding Large Marge wheelsets that are 4" wide...
However, since Chicago has a long tradition of keeping it's streets relatively clean for most of the winter - you might consider having 2 bikes ready - one for the clean street days and one for the plow through the muck days. Me - I just adjust the air pressure in my tires as needed.
I keep my drive train cleaned and lubed all winter (very important) as well as my braking surfaces (rims and brake pads). When the streets are slick, I don't use my front brake at all. Locking on your front brake while on a slick surface will cause your rear wheel to fly out from beneath you. I also slow down and allow more time to get where I am going.
My advice - get out and try a few options of frame/drive train styles and tire widths to see what you like - I only speak for myself and the way that I like to ride. Everyone has their own style and preferences and you should try some different ways to see which suits you best.
An older fully-rigid aluminum mountain bike (a 1996 Schwinn hardtail mountain bike with a rigid front fork in my case) worked great for me through my first three seasons riding in the winter. They can take a wide range of tire sizes and often have rack and fender mounts. The aluminum frame meant rust was less of a concern when the salt built up, allowing me to just focus on cleaning the brakes, rims, and drivetrain while being able to leave the frame a bit crusty. Steel would be fine as well as long as you take better care of cleaning salt off the frame. You can find old mountain bikes on craiglist or ebay for a decent price if you are patient and know what you are looking for. I used 26 x 1.5 semi-slicks on mine and never had a problem getting through snow.
The older Specialized "Stump Jumper" and "Hard Rock" mountain bike models seem pretty common in a wide range of sizes, and would be a good start in my opinion.
Sinnce this picture I run Full SKS p-45 Fenders with ussually a 700x38 in front and a 700x35 cyclecross knobby tires. This will be my 5th winter with the San Jose. I can run up to700x40 tires with fenders on this bike
KHS SoloOne singlespeed mountain bike. Perfect winter commuter. XL Frame, soft-tail shock in rear...actually quite effective. newer Avid 5 brake installed in september. Front fork to accommodate 29' wheel so you can convert it to a "96er" (29 front, 26 rear), fork also has a disk brake mount and the front wheel has a disk brake adapter, and is threadless. Newer Kenda street tires, not skidded on (i like these better than the knobbies in the snow, so i just left them on. Ritchey stem (i think). Truvativ FireX 175m cranks with heavy duty pedals. Newer 16t freewheel installed this summer. Has an almost new Salsa 48t chainring on it, i will also throw in the original truvativ 32t ring with chainguard and a 44t Salsa chainring (all 4 bolt, 104mm BCD). Newer chain also. Truvativ handlebars chopped down a bit for better maneuverability in the city. Pinhead skewers and seatpost bolt so your wheels and seat will not get stolen (www.pinheadcomponents.com). The PinHead antitheft devices come with a specific key. ill leave the front mud guard on there...the rear one was tooken. Bike has typical scratches on it from being a city bike, small ding on top tube, but that does not affect the performance.
I don't fall in the winter very often - usually no more than twice at the beginning of the season.
Hah! That's about my record every year too. I seem to always forget that front brakes are a no-no until I've gotten intimate with the pavement.
I ride an old steel road frame that came to me slightly rusty and doesn't seem to have gotten much more rusty after three years of winter riding. Full fenders, 700X28 tires, my only real problem is when my rear dérailleur cable freezes up when it gets really cold out. I tend to stay off the road until it's mostly cleared because without studded tires, ice = faceplant no matter how careful I am. Thanks to the tons of salt the city uses, I only end up missing a few days each year.
I have been riding snow and ice for the last 5 years pretty heavily and my experience regarding tires is as follows. Wider the better for snow and soft fluffy stuff. Skinny is better for ice and hard slick surfaces. The only tire I found that works equally well on every surface is my set of Nokian studded tires. The studs provide awesome grip on slick stuff and the open lug design clears out the slush and ice pretty well. The studs are small and not as bad as you think when you hear "studded tires" This will be my third winter on them and they show little signs of wear. They are fairly pricey at about 150 bucks a pair but they way I look at it that's cheaper than a trip to the ER.
Now as a reference, I live in the far NW burbs (McHenry) so the streets are quite different as only the main streets are usually plowed but in order to get to any of them you are in lots of snow and ice. When I lived in chicago the roads were almost always much cleaner than it gets out here. Plus we don't use road salt here, only sand.
If anyone ever wants to try it out before dropping 150 bucks I would be happy to bring an extra bike along on one of my trips to Chicago so they can check it out before they ride. I am almost certain that once you ride them you will never want to be without them in winter conditions. I have literally biked across an icy pond pulling an ice fishing shanty with these on my bike with little to no slipping at all.