Autumn is here already so it is wise to remind ourselves how to ride safely.
Maximise your contact patch. Road bike tyres have a larger contact patch on the road than a more knobbly mountain bike tyre, and you can maximise that precious contact further by fitting a wider tyre, and/or not running it at quite such a high pressure. That said, in snow or looser conditions a treaded tyre or even a lightly knobbed MTB or cyclocross tyre will give extra grip.
Flat pedals – okay, you may be sacrificing some pedalling efficiency but you are buying some ‘get out of jail’ extra control if things go wrong.
Ever thought about a fixed? This is the time of year when continuous drive really does come into its own – a fact known to old-school roadies through the ages. You can slow a fixed bike down on ice without using the brakes and while maintaining traction and power to the back wheel. That’s a very good thing when its slippery.
Get down! Some people suggest that you lower your saddle slightly, so lowering your centre of gravity. The other advantages of dropping the saddle are that it’s easier to get your feet down flat on the road should you suddenly need to use God’s stabilisers, and less dramatically but just as usefully it makes it easier to start off sitting in the saddle when things are really slippery. That extra weight can be the difference between the getting the traction needed to move and having your back wheel slip with potentially painful top-tube consequences.
Did we mention it’s cold? An extra layer on top of what you would normally wear in winter is a good idea. Not only is it much colder than most of us are used to but the state of the roads means you are likely to be riding slower than your normal pace, so you may not be generating the same levels of heat.
Pay particular attention to your hands and feet:
Feet: overshoes, thermal socks and winter boots are all a good idea as cold feet make for a miserable ride.
Hands: It’s even more important to keep these warm than your feet – trying to control your bike with two blocks of ice on the ends of your arms is not pleasant on any level. Good gloves are a must and glove liners – even inside thermal gloves if you feel the cold – are a good idea too, as are covers over the brake levers and grips (if your bike has flat bars). The benefit here is twofold: not only do they reduce the wind chill to your hands but they also reduce the chilling effect on metal brake levers and bars with thin grips. Metal conducts the cold very efficiently, an argument if ever you needed one for upgrading to carbon levers or taking the budget option with some plastic ones.
On the road
Choose your road. You may normally keep to the quieter back roads, but they aren’t usually treated when the ice and snow hits so, in terms of keeping upright, they are going to be the most difficult. Main roads will be clearer, but you still need to take care.
Keep away from the kerb. Riding too close to the kerb is not a good idea at the best of times, it limits your room for manoeuvre and it’s where all the crap from the roads tends to accumulate. Add to that the hazard of ice and snow – even on main roads it’s the one bit of the road that doesn’t tend to be cleared – and it becomes a real no-no. Also, where main roads cross minor ones the ice and snow often fans out from the side road onto the carriageway – best keep away from it. Plus, if you are going to fall off you don’t want to be doing it within head-cracking range of a kerb stone.
Give yourself longer to stop. It takes longer to stop safely or even to slow down on icy surfaces. Factor that into your calculations when approaching junctions or making any other manoeuvre that is going to involve slowing down or stopping. It’s amazing how quickly most people’s brains make this adjustment. Oh, and remember it’s going to take other people longer to slow down too.
Choose your line… If you can. The simplest way of avoiding problems when riding on icy roads is to choose the dry line where possible. Last year in many parts of the country the weather was very cold but also dry, so the roads weren’t uniformly covered in ice; rather it was lying in patches on the road or in gutters, or if you were really unlucky where run-off water had frozen so the dry line wasn’t always a straight one. Of course sticking to the dry line is not always possible, such as where compacted snow on untreated roads has simply frozen… so what do you do then?
Riding over ice…
Lay off the front brake. Most of us know the old mantra “your front brake is for slowing down, your back brake is for stopping” but the bit that usually gets missed out is “except on ice where you really don’t want to lose any of your front wheel’s traction.” Haul on the front brake going over ice and any loss of control at the front is going to be sudden and very hard to recover from.
The ideal thing to do if you find yourself riding across a stretch of icy road is to smoothly pedal through it. If you need to slow down… the ideal thing is to be on a fixed. If you’re not on a fixed then gentle braking on the back is your best bet – in countries where ice is more the norm some cyclists practice making the back step out under hard braking so that they will know what to do when it happens on ice. If you do feel the need to use the front brake do it with the back and do it so lightly that the front wheel never stops rolling, we’re talking gently scrubbing off speed. If the back does step out under braking the first thing to do is stop braking, you also need to make an instant decision to either pedal, or get a foot or even both feet down.
Choose your line- again. If there is a worn or dry line through the ice try to use it, but you may need to make a call here because the dry line may not be in the place you want to be on the road so you will need to proceed with caution. This situation is more likely to apply on minor roads or ones with a steep camber on which heavier vehicles have worn away the ice and snow more on one side – on these roads you would hope that other road users would also be proceeding with extreme caution too. Don’t let your natural desire to stay on your bike at all costs cloud your judgement.
The other thing to consider when choosing your line is the camber of the road. Some roads have a steep off camber that’s fine under normal conditions but when it’s icy means that not only is the ice against you but so is gravity – you are trying to ride across a slope and your tyre’s contact patch is on the side rather than directly underneath you. The best place to be from a traction point of view is on top of the camber which is right in the middle of the road – it may actually be the only place that’s rideable. If it is, use your common sense. On quiet straight roads where you can see and be seen it may be doable, otherwise get off and walk to the next section where you can ride. There’s no dishonour in dismounting.
Keep it smooth. Avoid sudden changes of direction and maintain a smooth pedalling action – it really pays off. Many experienced ice riders also say that you shouldn’t ride in too low a gear mainly because it’s harder to keep things smooth if you are really spinning the pedals – and potentially the back wheel.
Keep pedalling. Try keeping both feet on the pedals while you are moving – however, you may want to be able to get your feet off quickly to dab the ground and help in correcting any slides. The suggested method of dealing with your front wheel sliding is to relax your ankle on the opposite side to the slide and either dip your knee out or dab your foot to drag the bike out of the slide. In our experience though though this is only going to work at lower speeds… so you might want to keep it down.
Don’t panic! This should probably be first on the list. Keep your head, neck and shoulders relaxed – what you don’t want to do is to stiffen up and get twitchy… twitchiness can cause problems.
If you’re properly equipped riding in the ice and snow is good fun, no honestly it is, but it’s not compulsory. You won’t get a medal for it so if you think conditions are too tough give yourself a break and get the bus/tube/walk or stay at home and noodle about on your favourite road cycling website.