Sliding on winter roads

snowbank

Biking at sub-zero involves a major drop in road-condition predictability. Because of this, your biking technique has to be very different than it is above zero.

Unlike rainy conditions, icy, sub-zero conditions vary block to block and minute to minute. Likewise, some types of tire simply suck for snobiking – such as skinny tour-de-France tires. Don’t even attempt snobiking unless you have either mountain bike tires or other fat wheels.

Here are a few tips for avoiding sliding under a cement mixer and being decapitated:


1. Practice sliding in an empty parking lot

When it actually does happen, you should be able to safely fall and slide on ice. If you practice this in a car-free environment, you will be better prepared. The successful fall-and-slide looks like a cross between figure skating and kung fu.

2. Test road surfaces frequently by braking

When the temperature is hovering around zero (Celsius), you should be braking every block far enough away from intersections to be able to safely fall-and-slide. Likewise, when doing downhill, test brake at the top of the hill and keep braking every few seconds. For those who see death in the idea of falling and sliding, you can avoid fall-and-sliding entirely if you just slow down.

3. Slow down

At sub-zero, you can never be guaranteed a dry, safe stretch at every intersection. So, if survival interests you, keep your speed low enough to stop by dragging your feet. This should be around half your normal leisurely speed.

4. Wear thick-soled winter boots

These are your emergency brakes, not dance shoes. When snobiking, you can extend your boots outwards to act as third-wheels when you need the stability. I often slide down icy hills on both my boots (two more contact points) while braking. This keeps your speed down, and puts your emergency brakes where they are most useful.

5. Use empty sidewalks, bike paths, and quiet streets when possible

Sub-zero biking is more risky than above-zero biking in many ways. But, one advantage of snobiking is that there are far less people on the roads/sidewalks/bike lanes in the cold than in the warm. Use these spaces more in the winter than you do in the summer. Don’t let empty urban spaces go to waste on some road technicality (“But the sidewalk is for pedestrians only…”)

6. Keep a solid grip, and ride low

Because road surfaces have less traction sub-zero, you need to hold onto the handlebars and ride slightly lower in the winter. Also, when you stand up, you have much less traction on your back drive-wheel. You need all the traction you can get, so your tires should be slightly less inflated than in the warm months.

7. Warn pedestrians and drivers as much as possible of your presence

In the winter, other vehicles and walkers aren’t expecting to see cyclists as much as in summer. So, wear a fluorescent construction-style vest, shout to pedestrians who are crossing your path without looking (warnings or obscenities – whatever works), and do anything else that makes you more visible/audible.

ice conditions

These are four different types of road conditions that you may come across while snobiking. Of course there are many more types, but this group covers some critical road conditions that you need to distinguish to snobike safely:

Stratus: This is what wet snow looks like on dry pavement. This is not ideal, by any means, because it can freeze into an icy hell in seconds. Slow down and test road conditions by braking frequently (on a mountain bike, or other bike with fat tires).

Cumulus: This is similar to Stratus that has frozen and then been partially broken up by passing vehicles. For fat-tired bikes only, snobikers need to keep both feet extended and prepare for sliding.

Brown sugar: This is a type of loose snow cover on top of black ice. When it is shallow enough, you can see where the icy patches are, and extend your feet accordingly. Highly dangerous, most snobikers will probably want to either walk their bikes, or pedal slow enough to slide/stop with extended boots. Avoid going near cars on your bike with this road condition.

Deep sugar: The most treacherous road surface for cyclists,  Deep sugar often covers entire streetscapes of black ice. Avoid snobiking on this surface entirely. And if you must risk life or limb in this kind of environment, make sure you are far from passing cars.

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