How to ride on ice

With temperatures dipping below freezing in the northern portions of North America, Europe and Asia, bike commuters who want to continue riding are learning to negotiate the icy patches and snow on their routes. Here’s how it’s done.

  • Watch for black ice. These are the almost invisible patches of thin ice on shaded sections of the roadway and pavement. When you enter these slick patches, don’t expect to turn or stop.
  • Work on your skills. Before heading out on the street, riding your bike on a quiet street or parking lot. You need to know exactly how your bike will handle in various conditions. You also need to learn to fall without breaking your hand, arm, shoulder or head.
  • Don’t be (too) afraid to fall. There are some inherent risks in cycling. Adding ice and snow to the mix adds considerably to the risk of falling. Many of us tense up when riding in ice and snow. It’s easier said than done, but RELAX. Be aware but be loose — let the bike go where it will, within reason. Fortunately, you’re probably wearing extra clothing because of cold temperatures, because the first few times you ride on the ice you will go down.
  • Beware it will be different on the road. Here’s what typically happens. Two inches of snow falls, with traffic during the day pushing all of the slush into the bike lane and gutter. As the temperature drops overnight, all of that salty slush freezes into hard lumps and ridges. Traversing these lumps and ridges is a lot like technical trail riding across fallen logs and limbs, except you have no traction. It takes a lot of upper body strength. You’ll fall a lot because your front tire is diverted in unexpected ways. Many winter cyclists learn it’s easier to ride in the middle of the lane or even *gasp* on the sidewalk.
  • Wider tires are better. I’ve put a lot of wintry miles on 700×25 road tires, but cycling on ice is much easier on a mountain bike with mountain bike tires. Better than standard mountain knobbies, though, are…
  • Studded tires. Studded tires on ice are a dream. You still need to take care — you can’t take a sharp turn at full speed, for example — but you have a reasonable level of control when riding on studded tires. My Nashbar 26″ studded tires (made by Kenda for Nashbar) have held up very well, but Nashbar doesn’t seem to sell them this year. Studded bike tires from Nokian in Finland are pricey but favored among many ice cyclists because the ultra hard carbide studs hold up well in year after year of winter cycling.
  • Look for traction. Ride on ice with a thin layer of snow. The snow provides some level of traction over glare ice or black ice.
  • Have a Plan B. If road conditions are beyond your level of comfort or riding expertise, have another route to work or home ready such as public transportation or a shared ride. Some employers offer an “Emergency Ride Home” service for bike commuters.
  • Finally, Lucas Brunelle and his buddies show how it’s done on the frozen Charles River in Boston in this video.

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