Snow skidding on your bike

Guest post by Godwyns Onwuchekwa

snow-cyclingDue to the treacherous nature of snow, it can be difficult for the non-fair-weather cyclist to keep up. But there is always a way.

For me, the more dangerous it is to cycle, the merrier I am. Living in London for nearly 7 years now and cycling for 6 of those years, I was thrilled when the first proper snow swarmed us in February 2009. And as a curious person, I was tempted when a few concerned friends called and sent text to warn me from cycling in the snow. Really?

So I hopped on my bike into the thick of it and discovered a whole new world of cycling. I know what you’re thinking now… but lets share some of the experience;

(See also: tips to keep you cycling safely this winter)

First thing to do before cycling in the snow is to remember that, as before snow, you are no different from a vehicle. So you must retain that thinking of using the road like every other road user; respect and safety first. And to begin with, the following steps may help prepare you;

  • Check your breaks are working and tyres are inflated
  • Wear suitable clothing and cycling gloves
  • Be sure that your bells are working (some bells don’t work when wet; check this, you’ll need it).
  • Mud guard
  • Slick tyres often cope less well with the snow. Bear this in mind.

Now you are ready to go. However, the danger is in what lies on the ground. For fresh snow – meaning the first snowfalls that are still foamy (or crunchy), – it is quite easy to plough through. However, if it has been at least 6 hours or has been trampled on, it poses more danger. So the trouble is; the longer it has been snowing, the more treacherous it can be. This is because as the hours and days go and the snow is marched on, ice forms beneath it and this could be tricky to steer on.

(See also: winter cycling gloves)

To successfully cycle in the snow therefore, try the following;

  1. Have a good grip on your handle with both hands; in some instance, the snow could make your bicycle move out of track, maintain and agree with the snow by gradually steering to remain on your track.
  2. Do not speed, go at the easiest speed and maintain the momentum; don’t build it up; this means you reduced the rapidity of your fall and can get a grip quickly if falling.
  3. Use the lowest gears; doing this means you don’t put a lot of pressure on the tyres which can cause it to spin and make you lose traction.
  4. Maintain a straight line
  5. Do not do sharp turns into corners
  6. Watch out for oncoming vehicles; although you are like every other road user(as said above), if the road is very slippery, chances are that a driver may lose control or the car may just slip. So if you see oncoming vehicles on a very slippery iced road, best reaction could be to stop. Depending on the span of the road, and the behaviour of the car, you may have to get off the road entirely to avoid being run (slipped) into.
  7. Do not cycle on the pavement; the pavement is just wide enough and because you may be skidding [from side to side], it may be too hazardous as the space would not be enough to save yourself should you slip.
  8. At bends or corners, you may not need to give signs if you have been cycling very slowly’ Vehicles behind you would also have been moving slow [only if you have been part of the road user and maintained that position]. Just maintain the right place on the road so drivers understand where you are going.

Additional suggestions: don’t forget to have strong and sharp front and rear bike lights on if you are cycling in the night. High visibility clothing would be an essential too. Personally I’m also making sure I always have my helmet on too.

See also:

Image via Flickr

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22 Responses to Snow skidding on your bike

  1. Tom 23/12/2010 at 10:15 am #

    Broadly agree with all this. I’ve been cycling in snow too.
    You say:
    “Use the lowest gears; doing this means you don’t put a lot of pressure on the tyres which can cause it to spin and make you lose traction.”
    Surely high gears put least pressure on the tyres? For cars at least they recommend using higher gears – I assume it’s the same for bikes. I haven’t been able to test this as my gears got jammed with ice! So was stuck in the middle. Which leads to another piece of advice, if you have covered, and ideally indoor storage – use it.
    Secondly you say to make sure tyres are inflated, but I think you’ll have more grip if they are slightly lower pressure than usual – you will have grater surface area.

    • Godwyns 23/12/2010 at 10:51 am #

      Yes Tom, your right in some ways. The gear when cycling in the snow should be the same as when climbing a hill… just if we are mixing up low and high. What happens with high gears is that when you step on your pedal, the wheels spin faster but because the surface is slippery, the traction is not same as on dry surface. A car may need high gears due to its weight to get off but still, the advice is to nudge the car gently [I do not drive but I have watched BBC24's guide on driving on snow].

      As for tyres, it is always best in most conditions to have a properly inflated tyres. Ice can [or trap sharp objects] pierce tyres too. Greater surface area on the ice makes it difficult to steer and because that surface is not smooth or level, it can be difficult to remain steady.

  2. Kuni 23/12/2010 at 10:24 am #

    Tried my first cycle in the snow on Saturday. Grip was okay as the snow was fresh (I’ve got 700×28 slicks), but soon after I got to the main road a car behind started fishtailing towards me. That gave me a bit of a fright. I aborted the trip after 10 minutes.

    Also some drivers seemed desperate to overtake me, which made riding riskier as them changing lanes could have resulted in their losing control of the vehicle. Most other cars were trundling along at 10mph.

    Since then I’ve been cycling fine, but sticking to the A13 – the Superhighway CS3 has been impassable.

  3. Ben 23/12/2010 at 10:54 am #

    snow is fun, challenging and only occasionally dangerous, ice, not so fun, and sludge the same. I love the snow, but am glad it’s disappearing now just so I don’t have to be on the roads all the time and can enjoy the back routes which were less salted. This Rastah had no qualms cycling straight through Greenwich park snow http://www.flickr.com/photos/beenbrun/5226459828/in/set-72157625388024129/

    • kevcampbell 23/12/2010 at 10:58 am #

      yes the ice and sludge is defiantly the worst part

  4. Dave Escandell 23/12/2010 at 11:11 am #

    Couple of things I try to remember in the snow.

    1. Choose the right bike. If you have more than one bike then use the one most suited to the snow

    2. Body position. Will depend on which bike you are on, but keep your backside on the saddle and sit up. In snow it’s best to distribute weight to the back of the bike to aid traction and steering.

    3. Wear clear glasses, even those safety glasses that you can pick up for less than £5 are great. There is nothing worse in cold weather than tears rolling down your face from the cold air as you move through it.

    I also saw this recently which is great

    http://www.wikihow.com/Convert-Bicycle-Tires-Into-Studded-Snow-Tires

    • kevcampbell 23/12/2010 at 11:15 am #

      preferably a mountain bike to number 1, to number 2, i just found cycling in my natural position worked well and as for 3, all i had covering my face was a scarf covering from bottom of my nose down to my neck

      i did not do too bad, you can read about my journeys in the snow on my blog, link in my name

      but some people, possibly more the women than men may find that information useful

  5. Nicole 23/12/2010 at 11:13 am #

    I had a near miss this morning. I rode very slowly from home keeping in a low gear to keep traction. Cycling into the bike parking at my local railway station I rode into what I thought was slush (it was yesterday). It turned out to be frozen and the rear of the bike, loaded up with my bag and presents, just went out from underneath me. I managed to stay upright but I’m not sure how. Glad that didn’t happen on the road. Other than that, my tyres (700×35) coped well.

    Really great post Godwyns.

    • Godwyns 23/12/2010 at 8:45 pm #

      Thanks Nicole. Glad you held up against the slush… hurraaaay!

  6. Corin 23/12/2010 at 11:17 am #

    Couple of things: when we’re talking about high vs. low gears, are we using this definition: http://www.sheldonbrown.com/gears.html:

    “Higher” gears put more resistance on the pedals. If you select a gear that is too high for the conditions, it will force you into a slower cadence.

    Pedaling slower than your ideal cadence is wasteful of energy. You also run a higher risk of muscle strains and joint damage, particularly to the knees and hips.

    “Lower” gears make the pedals easy to turn, so it becomes easier to spin to a fast cadence.

    If so, I would recommend a slightly higher gear than usual for snowy and icey conditions.

    I would add, try to steer with your hips as much as possible, rather than the handlebars.

    • Godwyns 23/12/2010 at 8:50 pm #

      Thanks Corin for that link and definition. And it exactly means what I was talking about in the post. Yes!

      Lower gear because of the reason I stated. This is purely from experience… If you put more resistance, you have to remember that it is now about traction due to ICE; hence the tyre will react with the slippery surface.

      A great analogy is when you see those car tyres spinning in the ice and going nowhere…

  7. Freddie 23/12/2010 at 2:38 pm #

    I only ever cycled in the snow once. Was OK until I came to “The Hill”. This was downhill, steep, about a mile long, and covered in ice. Came off at the top and walked the rest. Never again.

    Can’t wait until this snow is gone, I miss my bike, and I’m putting weight on.

  8. Johnomi 23/12/2010 at 2:40 pm #

    Funny this was posted today, I just came in from drifting on my mountain bike on the remaining ice. It was fun, but scary.

  9. Fabian 23/12/2010 at 2:49 pm #

    I’ve been bumbling along on a Brompton during the snow – the design of the bike makes it easier to pop down a steadying foot should the earth suddenly dance away from you (guess this might be similar with the dutch style bikes as well). I definitely have my tyres deflated a little though – greater surface area on the road while slowing you down a little does seem to help on the ice. All in all, not sure that I would feel so steady on my normal road bike (despite the hefty 700x38B tyres), as also the Brompton seems to far surpass any other bike I have ever tried for travelling along at slow speeds.

    Admittedly I’ve only a short 6 mile commute from home to work so not so sure such a bike would work for a longer journey, but at the moment it appears to be behaving admirably. My only concern is how to cope with all that salt and grit which seem to cause instant rust!

  10. John 23/12/2010 at 4:55 pm #

    Hi,

    I use mid to low range gears, this gives you an easy start and a comfortable range to increase into if the road allows for it, very often you have to make quick adjustments to your riding and being in middle to low allows you to continue without all of a sudden finding you have had to nearly stop because of a wobble and then can’t move as your gear is too high.
    Don’t get carried away with speed on the pedals, this is not normal weather, ride slowly with low gears and increase speed and gears to mid range, the aim is to have constant traction so slow and low working up higher it is for me.
    As for brakes, I ride without my hand on my front brake, if you wan’t to fall off your bike on the ice very quickly use your front brake. if you have to brake use the back one and gently, try and for see the need to slow down and reduce speed and use the gears.
    With tyre pressures I reduce mine a bit, but not too much. I use 700 x 35 and find they cut into the snow, slush and soft ice enough to stop a lot of side ways skids as opposed to wider softer tyres that can sit on top of the surface and slide more easily.
    I have not come off to date using these methods this winter that I have used for many winters on my daily commutes.

    John

  11. wee folding bike 23/12/2010 at 5:45 pm #

    Longstaff two wheel drive tricycle on the worst days, Pashley Roadster 26 Sovereign for the last couple of weeks.

    Trikes are great on ice but it has a Campag Chorus Racing T grouppo so the grit & salt goes for the transmission and brakes. There are no back mudguards so I get a bit grubby. Pashley has all the delicate bits enclosed but I wish they had run the back light from the generator.

    Newspapers to keep the salty, gritty melt water off the floor at work.

  12. Filippo Negroni 23/12/2010 at 8:37 pm #

    You could do all of the above, as I did last winter, and still fall. In which case, you are better off falling at low speed and hopefully have a chance to save yourself from injury.

    OR, if you can get hold of them, you could fit a set of studded tyres, and not worry about falling off.

    They come in all sizes and for all conditions.

    I fitted a set of Schwalbe Ice Spiker:
    http://wokingham-cyclist.blogspot.com/2010/12/schwalbe-ice-spikers-review.html

    Just so you know, I also fitted a set of Continental WinterContact tyres to my wife’s Mazda6. If you ever had to stop to let a driver overtake you safely, due to the tyre tracks causing skids when cars move lanes, you will be pleased to know that it is not necessary to do that for cars fitted with proper winter tyres (not all-season).

    I have safely overtaken cyclists in spots where other cars would try and squeeze through and fail miserably.

    I did this favour to myself and to alll the other road users. I just hope it catches on.

    • wee folding bike 23/12/2010 at 9:26 pm #

      Spikes don’t seem to come in 590mm for my Pashley.

    • John 23/12/2010 at 9:32 pm #

      That’s why I am still awaiting a pair! it’s only been 6 weeks to date, but when I get them and some ice I will give you my feelings, hopefully every bit as good as yours.

      John

  13. D 24/12/2010 at 10:37 am #

    I recently bought Schwalbe Winter Rigid Road Tyres (small spikes) from Bike 24 in Germany.. they were great cycling down Crystal Palace hill last Saturday at 16mph on ice.. lost rear end but spikes gripped and balance was restored.. would have been a total wipe out on regular tyres.. there not great on rutted cycle paths (i.e. those shared with pedesterians) so cannot go more than 10mph but brilliant on snow and ice and particularly at night when the ice is not visible.. there not cheap but are easy to fit and hopefully should last the next few winters..

  14. femox 24/12/2010 at 12:27 pm #

    I just wish the white stuff would clear up sooner rather than later. I haven’t been on the bike for about two weeks now and it’s statrting to show. Just not willing to take the risk of ice riding – life is too short! In any event the bike will just end up picking up all the grime and grit on the street and mess with the components etc.

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