Riding in icy conditions

Sometimes you can’t help but ride in icy or frosty conditions: your bike might be your only means of getting to work or you might set out on a ride not realising that there is ice about. And some of us actually like riding on beautiful cold, sunny, frosty mornings!

Ice can be real nasty if not treated with respect. If you slide on a wet road you’ll tend to lose the rear wheel and slide down relatively slowly onto your hip with some of your momentum being converted to sideways force that doesn’t do much damage. If you lose a wheel on ice you go straight down like a sack of potatoes onto a very hard surface. Falls on ice tend to hurt much more than other falls!

So here are some hints and tips for riding when there is ice around….

If there is a lot of ice, the first and most obvious one is to use tyres designed for ice. These have small metal studs on them that grip on the ice and keep you upright. For instance: https://www.schwalbe.com/gb/spike-reader/marathon-winter.html But there are a few caveats with these tyres:

  • They are big, so if you have a narrow tyred race bike they probably won’t fit, but they will fit in most hybrids and MTBs, and some tourers.

  • You need to gently run them in before attacking the ice – a good 30 or 40 miles of placid riding on ice-free roads will bed in the studs and mean that you have less chance of losing any in the future.

  • You still need to ride carefully on them – if you brake or steer violently on ice they may still slide, but that slide will be more like sliding on a damp road than an icy road and you’ll have more chance to recover rather than going straight down.

  • They are not fast! But better to be slow than end up falling, plus they will make you much fitter when you get back on your summer tyres.

  • They can be a bit of a struggle to fit….here’s a video to help you: https://youtu.be/-XUFVrl0UT4

  • When you stop be careful – you might have studs on your tyres but what about your feet?

So what do you do if you don’t have ice tyres?

  • Use the widest tyre that you can.

  • Let some air out of the tyre so it’s running on minimum pressure.

  • Always be looking down the road for possible patches of ice – cut your speed and work out your strategy for avoiding them before you get to them if you can.

  • Avoid riding in the gutter (you shouldn’t be in the gutter any way) as that’s where most ice forms.

  • Busier roads have more chance of being gritted and have less ice.

  • Make all of your movements slow and graceful….don’t try to steer, brake or accelerate suddenly as this may result in loss of grip.

  • Stay as relaxed as you can – tensing will make the bike twitchy.

  • Ride sat in the saddle so that your weight is evenly distributed between both wheels.

  • Try to use the back brake more than the front as you don’t want sudden stops, plus if the back wheel slides out you are more likely to fall on your bottom/thigh, whereas a front wheel slide can see you falling on your face.

  • Pedal smoothly – choose a high but comfortable gear that you can turn without it causing you to ‘mash’ the pedals. If you have too low a gear you will put more torque through the back wheel making it more likely it will break free.

  • If on a big sheet of ice just relax and keep going in a straight line until you get to the other side – try not to brake!

  • Consider swapping clipless pedals for normal flat pedals so that you can get your feet down quicker, and you don’t risk ice in the release mechanism stopping your foot from releasing.

Additional things to remember:

  • Dress in layers so that you can maintain an ideal temperature – it’s harder to concentrate on road conditions if you are too cold or hot, and getting hot and sweaty on an icy day can lead to sudden chilling as all that sweat freezes!

  • Use mudguards if you can – they will stop you getting covered with all of the cold, clinging, liquid ice off the road.

  • Make sure that your bike is clean and in tip top condition. You don’t want to break down, miles from home, in sub zero temperatures. You also don’t want to risk losing gears or brakes because gunk inside your cables has frozen.

  • If your pedals and chain go round but the back wheel doesn’t your freewheel/freehub has probably frozen – fix this by pouring hot water over your rear hub (if you are miles from anywhere, remember that you always have one source of warm liquid about your person).

  • Take a tool kit (pump, p*nct*re repair kit, spare tube, multitool, tyre levers, chain tool, any spanners that your bike may need – e.g. one to fit your wheel nuts if you don’t have QRs ). Know how to use all of these – contact Big Birmingham Bikes for info on basic maintenance courses, or search online for lots of how-to videos.

  • Always take lights with you – it can get suddenly dark at any time on a winter’s day.

  • Remember to drink on longer rides – you might not feel thirsty because of the cold but dehydration can lead to lack of concentration.

  • Take a snack with you – it helps boost morale on a cold day.

  • Take a phone with charge and credit and make sure that you know where you are! It’s no good telling the ambulance that “I’m next to some trees by a field”.

  • Wash all the road salt off the bike when you get home, clean the chain and re-lube.