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

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…

Icy bike

 

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.

Plucked from the obscurity of his London commute back in the mid-Nineties to live in Bath and edit bike mags our man made the jump to the interweb back in 2006 as launch editor of a large cycling website somewhat confusingly named after a piece of navigational equipment. He came up with the idea for road.cc mainly to avoid being told what to do… Oh dear, issues there then. Tony tries to ride his bike every day and if he doesn't he gets grumpy, he likes carbon, but owns steel, and wants titanium. When not on his bike or eating cake Tony spends his time looking for new ways to annoy the road.cc team. He's remarkably good at it.

84 comments

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OldRidgeback [2554 posts] 6 years ago
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There was snow and ice on the BMX track at midday. It didn't stop me from getting some air.

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Tony Farrelly [2856 posts] 6 years ago
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Nothing here of course. Got excited when I saw the forecast for later in the week on Metcheck, then I checked the amount - a whopping 0.7mm… hope they've got the snow ploughs ready.

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OldRidgeback [2554 posts] 6 years ago
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The snow in London quickly turned to slush and was gone. Given the point about not using the front brake and dropping the saddle to lower the centre of gravity made me realise my BMX is an ideal snow bike. As it's a BMX racer it has no front brake and with its low and light aluminium frame, the centre of gravity couldn't be much lower.

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Jon Burrage [998 posts] 6 years ago
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Tony, 0.7mm of snow and Bristol will grind to a halt!

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the-yorkshire-p... [173 posts] 6 years ago
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expecting up to 20cm in London tonight. Hmm, and I have to ride my bike to tri-club.

Ah well, I think I'll take the mountain bike and do some jumps on the off-road route - at least there's some sand underneath!

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Bruce Kettle [4 posts] 6 years ago
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I'm cycling to work at 3AM tomorrow morning (baker!) so these tips should be invaluable!!  2

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Fringe [1047 posts] 6 years ago
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Bruce Kettle wrote:

I'm cycling to work at 3AM tomorrow morning (baker!) so these tips should be invaluable!!  2

jeez and i thought i had to get up early (postie)..good luck to yer  4

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Simon_MacMichael [2443 posts] 6 years ago
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Here's some blokes who are pretty handy in the snow (last lap of Cyclo-Cross World Cup worth watching):

http://ow.ly/O0w2

VERY icy round our way today - bad enough on two legs, no way I'd have been out there on two wheels (also because the drivers were having massive problems with black ice)

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therevokid [911 posts] 6 years ago
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in the local woodland with some likemind "experts" for
some snow fun on the old kona rigid .... so many falls
and crashes but laugh .... I'm still chuckling now  1

Wheelspin, rear drift, front drift, both (!!) drift, low
side, high side, otb bails. the only missing one was a
looped wheelie - no traction  1

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cat1commuter [1418 posts] 6 years ago
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Last night was impossible on the side roads here in Cambridge, which had a layer of ice lubricated by rainwater. I could push my bike along in front of me sideways!

I think the only solution would have been a tricycle.

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guidob [56 posts] 6 years ago
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Sorry to say I bottled it today and resorted to the bus... not very brave but in 2 inches of wet london sludge I am dry and warm...

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barracooder [4 posts] 6 years ago
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What about metal-spiked tyres?

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dave atkinson [6144 posts] 6 years ago
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metal spiked tyres are the mutt's nuts, for sure. but it's a big outlay for the few days every couple of years you actually need them, and lots of people in *properly* cold countries do without them in the winter...

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barogerl [25 posts] 6 years ago
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 39
All the above a very good, but why not try riding a trike,equipped with a fixed wheel drive like I do. Its marvellous on ice and snow. Good braking control- no need to use the front brake and three wheels gives stability. The cold winter of 1948 encouraged me to convert, never looked back ( except on the road of course)

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Fringe [1047 posts] 6 years ago
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hey barogerl, got any pics. of said trike?

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Robin-G [1 post] 6 years ago
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Best solution for this weather is to fit studded tyres - I wouldn't be without them in these conditions. Grip on ice is superb. I have a pair of Nokian hukkapellitas. If you are worried about getting enough use from them, then you can always plan a holiday in Norway or somewhere nice, where roads covered with ice and water appear every winter...

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Tony Farrelly [2856 posts] 6 years ago
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I've always fancied Norway!

Just looked up the Hakkapeliittas and notice they are a discontinued line on CRC which is a shame (can't find them anywhere else online in the UK) - looks like you can buy them from the US though.

Downer if you are somewhere that's normally mild and wet like the west country is that it's a big outlay for a a set of tyres you might only use once every five years. Can imagine it's a different story if you live somewhere like Scotland though. Very tempted to try and get some in – if only to bring on a thaw the moment we fit them.

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Huntensen [4 posts] 6 years ago
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Tons of good tips!
A good article and good comments. You are might be interested in an article in the Guardian calls
"Snow beater: put on your knobbliest tyres and get pedalling": http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2010/jan/06/tips-cycling-in-snow

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Huntensen [4 posts] 6 years ago
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As this link is spreading around Germany I would like to add another link with 30 helpful hints about cycling in snow. The Blog http://www.radgaragen.de is in German only, but might be interesting for some Austrians, Swiss and Germans, who are passing by this side.

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crayons [27 posts] 5 years ago
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I don't agree chaps. I put the fixed away for the winter,

Drop bars mean you go down hard face first. More upright MTB position and wide bars means if I skid the back tends to go first and worst case I end up on my arse

Fixed gives me less control as I stop pedalling when it slides and try and put a foot down so the back locks up.

skinny tyres give up grip so quick I can't react in time, knobblies seem to be more progressive.

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Tony Farrelly [2856 posts] 5 years ago
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gotta say I think flat bars are the way to go for winter… as I prepare to head out in to the snow on my drops  39

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OldRidgeback [2554 posts] 5 years ago
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This thread looks familiar somehow. Reading thru this I realise once again my BMX race bike is about as good as you can get for use in snow and ice.

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don_don [149 posts] 5 years ago
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I also don't believe that riding fixed gives any real advantage. Whilst you might get a little bit more notice of the back tyre breaking loose, you won't necessarily be able to do anything about it. Mixing fixed with flat pedals is also asking for trouble unless you really know what you are doing!

I have just taken delivery of a pair of Schwalbe Marathon Winter studded road tyres (70 euro from www.bike24.de; arrived in 5 days) which I'm running in now. At 65psi they are only a little bit slower than normal tyres and make a strange hissing sound on tarmac, which I quite like. Now I'm not so worried about the sheet-ice that had me off several times last year (whilst riding fixed!)  13

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londonplayer [620 posts] 5 years ago
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"Road bike tyres have a larger contact patch on the road than a more knobbly mountain bike tyre"

Just trying to get my head round this. Is that really true? I know which I'd rather cycle with on an icey day. MTB every time.

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Valentino [17 posts] 5 years ago
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Hi, first post.
I live in Norway, close to Hamar.
My winter bike is an old Cannondale M900 rigid fork MTB. Flat bars, Nokian Hakkapelitta Extreme 296 tires on low pressure. Those give a reasonable grip on ice. I use SPD pedals, since wrestling the bike about on snowy forest singletrack is easier when clipped in and, well, I tend to fall off when I try to ride flat pedals.

Now, if the temperature would rise somewhat form the - 15-20 we've had the last month or so I might get some outdoor riding done. Now it's trainer and riding on Norway's only indoor 200 m running track that makes me survive.

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Tony Farrelly [2856 posts] 5 years ago
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Hi Valentino, good to hear from you - so riding on the running track… is it crowded?

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The _Kaner [693 posts] 5 years ago
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On the 17th December...all snow had gone from the local main roads in Edenderry (Offaly-IE) and there had been a light frost that seemed to have cleared up....  39
One more thing to mention/keep an eye out for, nice shaded areas especially in sharp bends that have gravelly deposits....Mashed Ultegra 6700 STIs (amongst other equipment) and a broken right 5th metacarpal.....ah well at least I managed 24kms before it happened and was only 10kms from home...willing friend + van got me sorted....  20

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Valentino [17 posts] 5 years ago
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Hi Tony,

Luckily nobody's running on the track while we ride.
We've been 48 om the track at the same time this season. By following these rules everything goes fine: Drinking on the infield only.
Lanes 1&2 < 30 km/h, lanes 3&4 32-34 km/h and lanes 5&6 37-38 km/h.
Maximum number of riders in one paceline is 10.

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Tony Farrelly [2856 posts] 5 years ago
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They sound like sensible rules Valentino - what's the weather like there at the mo, it's turned very mild and very wet in these parts which brings its own problems.

Good point about shaded spots and gravel The_Kaner, hope that metacarpal is on the mend?

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Rob Benington [16 posts] 5 years ago
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Is it worth it?

My mate broke his neck of femur after slipping on ice 2 weeks ago. Really bad one that, had to be sliced open and pinned. 3 days in hospital. Set his Marmotte training back 6 weeks at least.

We estimate ice causes on average 1,666 serious injuries (by which we mean emergency admission to a hopsital bed), not just emergency department attendance in England every year.

Dont think I'll be risking the 2 week training camp I've just booked on Majorca for the sake of one training ride or a commute to work! I like riding too much!

Rob Benington
NHS Bristol
Injury Prevention Manager

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