How Slippery Is It?
Technical Discussion of Traction on Ice
How Safe Is It?
What are the risks injury in Icebiking
How to figure the Effective Temperature
states [are] resentful of a few cleverly arranged pounds of tubes and spokes. The cyclist
creates everything from almost nothing, becoming the most energy-efficient of all moving
animals and machines and, as such, has a disingenuous ability to challenge the entire
value system of a society. Cyclists don't consume enough. They can propel themselves 1500
pollution-free miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of petrol. The bicycle may be
too cheap, too available, too healthy, too independent and too equitable for its own good.
In an age of excess it is minimal and has the subversive potential to make people happy in
an economy fuelled by consumer discontent. Jim McGurn, 1994
There is a big difference between going for a bike ride on a Sunny
Saturday afternoon and getting up each day at the crack of dawn and ICEBIKING to work.
This is where the diehard winter cyclists come alive. Even in the summer there is a big
difference in going somewhere to ride your bike, and riding your bike to go somewhere.
One is recreation, the other is transportation. This is not to say that winter commuting
is not enjoyable.
The transportational ICEBIKER is interested in reliability. Oddly enough,
the bicycle is a serious contender for the reliability award. Not that it doesn't require
a fair bit of maintenance, but it does not freeze up in winter, never needs a jump start
or a tow, and can be totally replaced for what most motorists pay for a minor fender
repair. Anyone handy with modest tools can do almost all bike repair at home.
Winter Commuters need specialized equipment that you might not need on your typical run
"up the trail" or over the river in recreational ICEBIKING. Some of the obvious
ones are below:
- Panniers, backpacks or fannypacks
to transport clothes for the job, lunch, papers, and (among the crowd frequenting this
- Lights, BIG lights for the ungodly hours that
commuters spend on the road. Long run-time batteries.
- A lock that exceeds the total weight savings of the lightest bike and the most brutal
- On-road repair kit and tools, patches etc
- Bus fare stashed in bike bag. (Having it seems to ward off having to use it.)
Then there are the not so obvious items:
- An odd collection of clothes that can be mixed and matched to provide protection down to
ridiculous temperatures and still light enough so as avoid looking like the Michelin Man.
This usually ends up being a combination of bicycle clothes and regular winter wear. It is
not uncommon to wear shorts (bike or otherwise) into November due to the fact that you
will sweat to death if you wear long tights underneath your rain pants till it gets down
- Hard to find Winter Cycling Tights. Some folks just wear regular pants, but this seems
to make pedaling harder. Finding good winter tights is a problem, because bike gear
producers still don't "GET" winter cycling
- The ever elusive winter cycling shoe. Warm, not "ventilated", waterproof and
light. No such animal exists in the bike world, but you can come close if you shop at
sporting goods stores for light weight hiking boots. This is another area that the
race-minded cycling industry just does not get.
- Bicycle Mirror, when you are all bundled
up it is harder to turn your head to peek at traffic, A good mirror can help. Helmet or
eye-glass mounted mirrors are very serviceable.
Depending on where you work you may or may not have adequate bike parking.
Most cyclists would like to bring the bike indoors while at work. This is not always
desirable or allowed because of the vast amounts of road grit (paid for by tax payers -
distributed by sanding trucks) that your bike picks up in winter.
At the very least you have to bring in your battery. Its performance will
suffer if left out there. Then depending on the crime element in your vicinity, you might
have to strip the bike of valuable items, and lock it to something really solid.
Far better if you can negotiate somewhere to park a filthy bike, such as
under a stair well or in a utility room.
An Alternative View: Bringing a snowy cold ICEBIKE into a warm area just
lets it rust faster. Maybe it would be better left outside. Just bring in the battery.
Lights for the Urban Commute
Unless you want to carry your charger, you need batteries that will last
at least the duration of "there and back". It is nice to be able to go for a
couple days before recharging. Its hard to buy too much battery capacity.
Second, you need a tail light of some sort. The little led blinkie
thingies seem to be all the rage today. Do yourself a favor. Park your bike with blinkies
blinking and walk back one block in the sort of environment you will be riding. If after
this test you are still confident of these lights go ahead and use them. Better yet, use
two of them. See our Lights Page.
When it starts
snowing and those big flakes or blowing I like to add a strobe light that you can purchase
in outdoor activity stores, or see here.
These create a ball of light as they flash against the falling snow. They do
get attention. Attach them to your traffic side arm, not your bike.
Tactics and Tips
ICEBIKING on the roadway in winter can be more hazardous than summer biking, but there
are some good points too.
If you road-bike a lot, you may have noticed that where there are bike lanes motorists
will feel free to pass you 6 inches off your elbow, but where there are no bike lanes (on
a road of similar width) they will give you 3 feet of clearance. This is the bike lane
induced squeeze factor. Those motorists are somehow convinced that the 6 micron-high strip
of point somehow protects cyclists.
In the winter the bike lanes often are obscured. When this happens you will notice that
the motorists act like there are no bike lanes and start sharing the road properly. In
general, I find that motorists treat cyclists better in winter than in summer. I more
frequently have to "take the lane" in winter due to snow plowed into bike lane.
I seldom get any grief from motorists for this.
Watch it around stop signs. Air headed motorists are usually quite surprised to find
that the darned thing doesn't want to stop all that well and they will come sliding right
through. Generally watch intersections very carefully in winter.
Flats are also less frequent in the winter. There are fewer drunks riding around
throwing bottles out of car windows, and more snow plows flinging road debris off of the
roadway. In some parts, the only time of year the bike lanes get maintained is winter when
they are plowed.
Just because a portion of the road is clear of snow does not mean it provides good
traction. Often the wheel tracks get a glaze over them due to melting of ice and snow as
the cars drive over it, followed by freezing again. This yields a thin layer of nearly
invisible black ice.
The snow covered part of the roadway, or bike lane, can provide more traction. This is due
to the presence of the snow. Snow crystals are rough enough to provide a fair degree
of traction in this situation. You will often hear a squeak on each power stroke as your
rear wheel compresses the snow. That squeak is your assurance that the snow is providing
good traction, in spite of slippery conditions below the snow. The slushy wet snow does
not squeak like this, and that is your clue to look out for skids or slick ice under a
layer of slush.
I occasionally prefer to ride in up to three inches of snow rather than go onto the
seemingly bare roadway which is actually covered with black ice. After about three inches
(depending on how wet it is) it gets to be too much work. However, I find I can get into
my lower gears and push through 6 to 8 inches of fairly heavy snow easier than I can deal
with that same 6 inches after it is compacted and rutted by cars on an otherwise unplowed
The hardpacked snow (white ice) can really be miserable and dangerous if it gets rutted
and bumpy. However, once a sand-truck has passed by, this surface tends to supply a lot of
traction, and even though you are riding on ice, the embedded sand and gravel eliminate
the need for studded tires. Wet ice or a road full of black ice or the need to travel
sections of paths that are not sanded call out for studded
bike tires. Short of the wet ice conditions, most snow is not all that slippery under
your tires and normal tires may be quite serviceable. For commuting, I prefer an inverted
tread tire such as the Continental Town and Country tire. After 4 years of commuting on my
first set, I have come to appreciate that some things are worth paying more for.
Probably the most miserable winter cycling conditions is horizontal rain. You know, the
kind blown in 30mph winds, at temperatures just above freezing. Once it gets cold enough
to snow it is much more pleasant on the roads. Then road conditions continue to improve
the colder it gets. This is because cars will generally clean the roadway of snow and ice
by action of their tires, and the snow is too cold to melt and re-freeze as ice. As a
result your have bone dry pavement.
At or around freezing weird things can happen. The slushy snow can be melting almost as
fast as it hits the ground, but can still collect on your chain and get carried into your
rear gear cluster and freeze there. The best you can do in this situation (other than
stopping and cleaning it every half mile) is to get in the big chain ring and a fairly big
cog in back, thereby putting the chain under as much tension as possible. Then stay in
this gear pedaling with great force on every third or fifth stroke. This puts the ice
building up on the cogs under tremendous pressure, which lowers the melting point, which
keeps that gear (and only that one) free of ice till you can limp along to the end f your
Beginning 5 to 10 degrees below freezing, you really have to start watching the
wind chill. Above that you are giving off enough heat to not have to worry about it much.
This is when you want to consider a balaclava or face mask. Don't forget to fill in the
neck opening at the top of your jacket. (Again a balaclava is great for this). By this
time you better have already gotten out of those race-oriented cycle shoes and into a
winter boot or light weight hiking boot or your toes will start to freeze in under 30
From about +20F to about -20F is perfect ICEBIKING weather. Never any slush, not much
deep new snow to deal with, the only bad part is the wind. After -20F, you have to start
wearing a lot of movement inhibiting clothes. However, I never notice much difference from
-20F down to -40, because by the time it is that cold you are usually dressed for it, and
you can compensate for the temperature by working a little harder.
If you have a breakdown or a flat at these temperatures, you can be in trouble.
Hypothermia can set in, since you are already sweaty from working and if you have to sit
for any length of time you will chill quickly. Luckily, flats are rare at these temps,
because the snow plows seem to remove most of the broken bottles and nails etc. that you
find in summer. This is where it pays to carry a spare tube, because you don't want to
fiddle with finicky patches when it is that cold.
Weird valve problem can happen if you ride through water at really cold temps. There
have been more than one report on the ICEBIKE mailing list and on rec.bicycles.tech
news-group about schrader valves opening (perhaps due to expansion of freezing water in
the top of the valve stem), and the tire going flat almost instantly, but upon inspection,
no visible damage to either tire or valve. Simply re-inflate and it works fine. Avoid the