Winter cycling



A succession of mild winters means that many people have little experience of cycling in snowy or icy conditions. The following hints have been compiled to help you cope with winter weather.

Be prepared

Check the local weather forecast and bear in mind that the weather can be quite different even a short distance away.

Wrap up warm and make sure you are wearing boots or shoes with a good grip, in case you need to walk or to use feet as extra brakes and so you do not slip when putting your feet down as you stop.

Allow plenty of time for your journey. Remember that with slippery surfaces, much greater care must be taken in accelerating, braking and turning.

Concentrate harder, keeping your eyes open for places which look particularly snowy, slushy, icy or rutted.

Be considerate to other road users, including pedestrians, and always allow plenty of space between yourself and other road users.

copyright © 2009 Alasdair Massie licensed CCbySA3.0
Image as described adjacent

The most dangerous time, as with any analogous activity (skiing, skating, downhill mountain biking etc), is when you get over confident.

Your bicycle

If you’ve the choice, take the bike with chunky tyres rather than racing slicks.

You might want to lower tyre pressure a tad, i.e., let a bit of air out, to increase the contact area and get more grip.

Make sure your bike is well-maintained. Ensure it is properly lubricated, as this prevents water getting in and freezing on components such as brake and gear cables. This will normally prevent brake or gear cables freezing. In extremely cold weather even chains may lock.

Your route

Many cyclists who normally use cycle paths, especially those who cycle significant distances, may find some sections of their route unusable.

The worst areas, unless treated with grit or salt, will be those which get least traffic, especially the cycle-only sections. The transition from snowy side streets to clear roads is where you’re most likely to encounter ice or tricky ruts.

Consider changing your route to one using main roads, which are more likely to have been gritted and where the amount of vehicular traffic will clear the snow.

Stay behind cars at junctions. Cars that accelerate too fast on snow/ice will slide sideways – you don’t want to be there.

Give drivers a wider berth than normal. Their windows are probably fogged/snowed up, and they are more than likely going to be concentrating very hard on the road right in front of them, more likely to weave around to avoid ice/ snow drifts, and might not check mirrors as much as usual. They also can’t necessarily stop or change direction as quickly as normal.

Motorists might not expect cyclists to need to use main roads instead of their usual routes, but we hope they recognise they should not overtake dangerously close, or force cyclists into compacted snow adjacent to the kerb.

Make the most of having to walk occasionally, as an opportunity to pass through places where cycling is prohibited such as the Botanic Gardens, colleges and parts of commons. And take your camera with you!

Riding

Be assertive. Take the lane and get the sympathy (and admiration) vote from cars to give you a bit more space. At traffic lights flap your hand up and down to the car behind you requesting them to move off slowly and to remind them that you are a vulnerable road user.

Don’t be afraid to ride in the tracks cleared by motor vehicles, as this may be far safer than cycling in compacted or frozen snow near the gutter, or on an unsalted cycle path.

Try to relax the hands and arms, and keep your weight back, rather than riding leaning forward and tense, with your hands on the brakes, which is the natural tendency when you’re a bit anxious about conditions.

Try to steer ‘with your hips’ rather than your hands, making directional changes progressively and with your whole mass on the bike, rather than by sudden sharp steering inputs at the handlebars.

It helps if you use the highest gear possible as it creates less wheel spin and less pedalling. You are using the same principle as a car: move off from stationary in 2nd or 3rd gear if you can.

If you are carrying weight try and load it evenly.

Cycling in snow can be very hard work, especially if your mudguards and brakes get clogged with snow.

Watch out for unevenness caused by snow partially melting, forming ruts and refreezing, or lumps of ice which have fallen off vehicles..

Where ruts cause momentary ‘tramlining’ effects deal with this by allowing the front wheel of the bike to go where it wants; keep your weight back, stay relaxed and don’t rush.

With frozen slush, which can be very uneven, walking may be a better option. In fact, walking with a bike can be a safer option than just walking as the bike provides extra support.

Where snow has become compacted it can be very slow to melt and can get very slippery as it melts and refreezes.

An apparently clear stretch of road can still be icy where snow has melted but the road surface has not dried – watch out for black ice.

Be very wary when close to motor vehicles on snowy/icy roads as drivers can easily lose control.

Approach corners cautiously, brake early and don’t accelerate until you are going straight again afterwards. Remember that cycling hard out of a corner may also cause oversteer, so use a higher gear than normal.

Brake early, very carefully, very gently, as much as possible in a straight line and with the back brake only as the wheels can lock up very easy. While a rear wheel skid can be exciting, a front wheel lock-up will have you off the bike very quickly.

For lots more advice, accounts of biking in snow and ice and reviews of specialist clothing, see www.icebike.com

Compiled by Monica Frisch from suggestions made by members of Cambridge Cycling Campaign