road.cc's tips for riding on ice and snow

Our annual guide on how to ride your bike through a wintery wonderland. Without falling off

by Tony Farrelly   January 13, 2015  

snow cycling copyright David Blaine

Before you set off…

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 slippy. That extra weight can the be difference between the getting the traction needed to move and having your back wheel slip with potential 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. 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 windchill 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. The main roads will be clearer, even so 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 manouvre 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 in to 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 kerbstone.

Give yourself longer to stop. It takes longer to stop safely or even to slow down on icy surfaces. Factor that in to 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 brain's 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  ice 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 some 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 now where in much of the country 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 be losing any of your front wheel's traction. At all.” 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, as we've already said you really don't want to lose traction at the front.

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. Yes we already said that, but there's more. 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. Many of the roads around road.cc towers 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. Avoiding 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… is hopefully that's this one.

Right, now that we've posted this it should start warming up any minute! In the meantime if you have any ice riding tips don't be shy - get on here and share them with the rest of us.

82 user comments

Latest 30 commentsNewest firstBest ratedAll

I've listed my own set of guidance for ice and snow conditions below:

1. Get permission to ride from neighbour and/or property occupier.
2. Lay down turbo trainer mat.
3. Change in blue turbo trainer tyre
4. Set-up turbo trainer.
5. Don't forget to set up the circulator fan.
6. Ensure that all paintings are firmly placed and don't catch the fan draft, dropping on you and smashing expensive whiskey everywhere.

I was supposed to be doing the Chieveley ride this morning but they cancelled due to the adverse conditions. Confused

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1574 posts]
13th January 2013 - 12:49

1 Like

And then there is black ice where you will just fall off however good you are resulting in a bruise up your entire leg and knackered tendons, from now on if its icy I get on the rollers and accept you can't ride safely 365 days a year.

'It's the closest you can get to flying'
Robin Williams response when asked why he enjoyed riding so much

posted by Simmo72 [519 posts]
14th January 2013 - 17:01

2 Likes

Read this Sunday, thought I be sensible and switch to my fat tyred hybrid for my 10 mile commute on Monday and fell nice and heavily, with more than a little comedy, at around the 9.99 mile mark.

Very nervous ride home in the afternoon as more of the white stuff came down. Now looking for a reasonably price turbo.

TheHatter's picture

posted by TheHatter [811 posts]
16th January 2013 - 17:19

1 Like

REALLY glad I spent a few hours fixing up my old 80's el-cheapo steel MTB a few weeks back - huge wheels, vast knobbly tyres, & stupidly low gearing - done me proper proud on my 10 mile commute in the snow today - deffo way quicker than the car's I passed, - what price an old dodgy BSO now eh? Big Grin

Cosmicned's picture

posted by Cosmicned [26 posts]
18th January 2013 - 19:59

1 Like

Schwalbe Ice Spikers. Bought in a summer sale 4 years ago, just before the latest spell of hard winters.
Out tomorrow for 60km off road. It's become something of a regular winter ritual and is about the most fun you can have with your clothes on!

NorthernRouleur

posted by NorthernRouleur [26 posts]
18th January 2013 - 20:52

1 Like

Icy cobbles.
Almost impossible to even push the thing without it rocketing onto it's side - never mind RIDE it.
Oh - and:
Beware of slalom-ing cars. In my experience, they'll rather slide into a cyclist than into another car. We're softer.
Be careful out there people - and good luck!
Happy 2013.

posted by Phytoramediant [23 posts]
18th January 2013 - 22:08

1 Like

Haha - just got my Schwalbe spiked tyres for next weeks strathpuffer 24 - going to glen tress Monday so hopefully it will all work Devil

richdirector's picture

posted by richdirector [59 posts]
18th January 2013 - 23:02

1 Like

Anyone out there tried the trick of putting a load of tyraps (nylon cable ties) around the tyre and rim? - read this somewhere last year - sounds like it should work

posted by marekbuk [3 posts]
19th January 2013 - 11:03

19 Likes

Really? Cable-ties around the tyre and rim? So what happens when you brake?
P.R.

PhilRuss

posted by PhilRuss [328 posts]
23rd January 2013 - 3:56

1 Like

Divn't gan oot

onward ever onward

bikecellar's picture

posted by bikecellar [261 posts]
26th December 2014 - 18:58

1 Like

3 year old thread resurrected... Surprise

The_Kaner
FREEEEEEEEDOM!

The _Kaner's picture

posted by The _Kaner [630 posts]
26th December 2014 - 20:08

0 Likes

Two bits of incorrect science in your story:
1) knobbly tyres and smooth have the same contact area. contact area is just weight divided by pressure regardless of tyre shape or size
2) here's the big urban myth. a lower centre of gravity DOES NOT make you more stable. it does if you've got four wheels, but not two or two legs. the higher your centre of gravity THE MORE SLOWLY you will fall over (ok, so it will hurt more when you land). try balancing a broomstick on your palm, then try it with a matchstick. which one's more stable?

posted by NOC40 [15 posts]
27th December 2014 - 8:41

1 Like

+100 for a pair of schwalbe studded tyres. Keep me going every year when it snows. I'm lucky to have a spare set of wheels for them to live on. First sign of snow/ ice every year get em thrown on the mountainbike. I wouldn't dream of taking the road bike out.

posted by EnglishmanAbroad [47 posts]
27th December 2014 - 9:31

1 Like

good stuff

posted by mylesrants [168 posts]
29th December 2014 - 0:28

0 Likes

Somewhat confusing to have December 26, 2014 shown next to the author's name on a five year old page, although if the content has been updated then it sort of makes sense.

posted by bdsl [173 posts]
2nd January 2015 - 16:50

0 Likes

bdsl wrote:
Somewhat confusing to have December 26, 2014 shown next to the author's name on a five year old page, although if the content has been updated then it sort of makes sense.

Back in the days when Tony was editing a print magazine, he could have bashed this article out year after year after year in the December issue and no-one would ever have noticed it had been on before Wink

Wonders of the web.

Shhhhhh Wink

Simon_MacMichael's picture

posted by Simon_MacMichael [9364 posts]
2nd January 2015 - 16:54

4 Likes

If you take a road bike out on to icy roads you have to be absolutely nuts as it's a question of when not if you come off and cold hard roads are very unforgiving.
My last icy ride was on a mountain bike on the trails and all four of us came off. No harm done and no lunatic car drivers to worry about.
Stay safe

posted by arfa [645 posts]
3rd January 2015 - 12:55

1 Like

Turbo time.

posted by fenix [255 posts]
3rd January 2015 - 15:20

0 Likes

Put studded tyres on for the first time this winter, and they have proved their worth a few times.

Not least on mornings like today when it seemed Ok with no frost on the cars, but as I got into the sticks and slightly further inland there was lots of frost and black ice. The tyres and bike never even blinked.

I bought mine from Germany at almost half the UK price and had them within two days.

On the days when it's not icy they just roll almost as well as normal tyres, and the extra resistance is good base training isn't it?

Other tips.

Keep the bike clean and lubed as much as possible. Before the winter.

Give it a service and make sure the cables are well greased and lubed. I have had my back brake freeze up on at least one ride to work this year

Full mudguards and a huge front mudflap keep the bike and feet/legs a lot cleaner and drier. May look fugly but works. Rear flap too if you are riding in a group.

posted by gazza_d [407 posts]
13th January 2015 - 14:37

0 Likes

Schwalbe Marathon studded tyres work on ice. Ordinary tyres, even if they are wide and low pressure, will still fail on proper ice.

posted by kcr [102 posts]
13th January 2015 - 15:58

0 Likes

Came off again before Christmas. Skinned my elbow again. Finally learnt my lesson. Road bikes and icy roads do not mix whatever your fancy riding skills plonkers and tyre specialists say. Buy some rollers.

Silly me. You're probably right....

MercuryOne's picture

posted by MercuryOne [1186 posts]
13th January 2015 - 17:25

1 Like

MercuryOne wrote:
Came off again before Christmas. Skinned my elbow again. Finally learnt my lesson. Road bikes and icy roads do not mix whatever your fancy riding skills plonkers and tyre specialists say. Buy some rollers.

I half-agree with you. I never go out for training/fun rides in icy weather (or when visibility is very poor for that matter) and indoor training comes in handy here. On the other hand if you've actually got somewhere to be the rollers aren't much help.

posted by Matt eaton [701 posts]
13th January 2015 - 22:49

0 Likes

+If you don't already, wear a helmet. (A slow speed fall off your own bike is one circumstance covered by the otherwise feeble EU helmet standard!)

posted by tomturcan [64 posts]
14th January 2015 - 8:40

1 Like

Road bikes and icy roads do not mix whatever your fancy riding skills plonkers and tyre specialists say. Buy some rollers

I've had a few winter falls in many years of riding, and I'm very cautious about ice these days. Studded tyres have been a game changer for me. We had a sudden freeze about a month ago, and pedestrians were falling over all around me in the local supermarket carpark. I was able to cycle home without any problems (including a section of cyclepath covered in sheet ice).
It makes sense to avoid the ice if you can, but unfortunately a set of rollers are not going to get me to work!

posted by kcr [102 posts]
14th January 2015 - 11:42

0 Likes

Having just heard about a friend of a friend being knocked off by a car today. I'm a little angrier than usual apologise. It makes me wonder what's more dangerous this time of year. I've been out road cycling 3 times this week and negotiated ice sleet and snow albeit slowly and with larger tyres to no ill effect. It should be complusory for every driver of undertaking any vehicle driving test to do a days cycling in mixed urban and rural conditions to gain awareness and understanding of cyclists movement's and vulnerability. Come on local government/DVLA get with the program people are quite literally dying ! Of course it's no good getting on your soap box like me, you've actually got to do something. How about Following this link to petition your local councillor to do more http://www.ctc.org.uk/campaign/space-for-cycling
www.tinpony.co.uk/shop

Tin Pony's picture

posted by Tin Pony [71 posts]
16th January 2015 - 19:33

1 Like

I lived my first 20something years in a country where there is proper snow and ice (Slovakia) and got to say that apart from a few good points, this article is loads of boollsheet. I love(d) riding on ice and snow and at dark in the village I lived and miss it very much here in London.

There's so many ill-advice in the article to correct, that I don't know where to start.
First is that you don't take a roadbike out to ride on snow and ice. If you can do that, it is not proper snow or ice, or you really are a dumb stupid dude. No matter what tyres you fit on, a roadbike will never be as handy as an MTB or even just a flatbar hybrid commuter.
You do stick to side roads. And ride in the middle of the lane. Stay away from main roads. All the grit and slush snow gets ploughed to the side. The space available on road is less, and you don't want to ride there, or have cars passing you even closer than on a summer day.
Don't have any experience with fixies on snow, and don't think that is a good idea either. Lower saddle height that makes it easier to jump off the bike if you grind to a halt half way up a hill, or need to put your feet down half way down and slightly lower tyre pressure is useful.
You should be well dressed for the cold, but also, try to maintain a steady pace that will keep you warm. Don't overdo and get sweaty too much. You might get a nasty cold. Watch for your breathing, try not to grasp in huge amounts of cold air. Get a scarf in front of your mouth.
Slow down for cornering, don't lean the bike in too much.
Always use brakes/control speed downhills.
And it is inevitable. Your hands and feet will get cold at least once, and you better learn how to operate brakes and shifters with no feeling in them. It is possible to do and will serve you for the rest of your riding life (as it did me on my way down the Tourmalet during last years Etape).
Wear clear lense glasses.
Check your brake compound/rubber. It might freeze stiff and may need a bit of warming up when braking.
Deep snow and wet snow got some grip. Go easy on any bumps, they might 'throw' your front and rear sideways to skid if you don't go straight over them.
Learn to skid the rear and to stay straight and upright.(Got a hilarious story about my teenage cousin) I
f you skid the front, there's not much I can tell you. Try to counter steer to get the bike straight again, release both brakes, try to get the feet down, but most importantly learn to fall Smile

I've been riding in cold up to -15C, slight to moderate snowfall, gritted and non-gritted roads, where there was 10-20cm of pressed, hard snow. On country lanes, off-road and on all kind of ice, including black-ice covered with fresh snow and hands behind my back on my way home from the train station in the dark. And I did fell more times than what I can count.

Any questions or disagreement? I will be glad to discuss.

posted by gr3g0ree [71 posts]
21st January 2015 - 13:33

2 Likes

N+1 = Big Grin Big Grin Big Grin Big Grin Big Grin Big Grin Big Grin Big Grin

Sub-25lb, 5" tyred fatty eats full-sussers for breakfast.
Riding on the road when there's ice is simply foolhardy if you don't have studded tyres. If you have the option to head offroad, forget the miles and enjoy the fun.

Make mine an Italian with Campagnolo on the side

posted by monty dog [422 posts]
29th January 2015 - 19:50

2 Likes

Most of us know the old mantra “your front brake is for slowing down, your back brake is for stopping"

So So Wrong.
It's the other way around.
Just try it for yourself (on a good surface of course) and you'll stop much quicker with the front than the rear.

However, in icy conditions you should avoid the front brake, because it's so powerful.

Binky

posted by davebinks [136 posts]
30th January 2015 - 23:36

2 Likes

I've been riding on cycle tracks Tarmac and dirt with continental sport contact 32c and had no issues really been fairly impressed with them. Best advice from all the spills I've had is keep seated especially when pedalling up hill. It's so embarrassing falling off but when there's several dog walkers laughing at you it tends to focus the mind a little. Lol
http://www.tinpony.co.uk/news/

Tin Pony's picture

posted by Tin Pony [71 posts]
1st February 2015 - 13:14

1 Like

davebinks wrote:
Most of us know the old mantra “your front brake is for slowing down, your back brake is for stopping"

So So Wrong.
It's the other way around.
Just try it for yourself (on a good surface of course) and you'll stop much quicker with the front than the rear.

However, in icy conditions you should avoid the front brake, because it's so powerful.

Agreed. In most conditions the back brake is almost useless for stopping by comparison to the front. Once it gets slippery enough to lock the front wheel (rather than lifting the rear) the back brake becomes useful for stopping so it's relevant to mention it in this article in that context.

posted by Matt eaton [701 posts]
2nd February 2015 - 13:33

1 Like