Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Winter Bicycling Challenges: Slippery

Winter Bicycling Challenges: Cold
Winter Bicycling Challenges: Dark

Some laws can be changed.

Others can't. Like gravity. And inertia. And the one that says when it drops to 32 degrees (F; 0 degrees C), water turns to ice. All of those laws must be reckoned with, when the weather turns cold and wet.

It's somewhat of a tradition in these parts. On the first day of the "slippery season" - when below-freezing temperatures combine with moisture to put that shiny, slippery sheen on the roads - the TV people find a state cop to interview, out on I-84. He'll stand in the blowing snow and warn people about fast driving... while standing in front of a shiny but upside-down squashed Hummer or Suburban.

Some motorists - usually in their big ol' SUVs and 4x4 pick 'em up trucks - are under the delusion that if they have snow tires, they can safely navigate on slippery roads, in heavy traffic, at the posted speed limit (or higher).

The biggest true danger us cyclists face on slippery days is... clueless motorists. (I s'pose clueless motorists are the biggest danger, every day of the year, no matter the weather.) In other words... I can survive a bike crash. In fact, if I crash my bike, there's a very good chance I can get up, dust myself off, and ride on to my destination. But if some out-of-control clown in a 2-ton steel missile rolls over me, it could really spoil my day!

How to cope?

[FIRST - be aware of your risk-tolerance level. No matter what you do, and what measures you take, there is always the chance that things can go badly. (Observe that poor lady who was stopped in the bike lane a few weeks back, and never knew what hit her. It was a Hummer H3.) If the potential reward isn't worth the risk, hang it up for the day. ]

When it's slippery for me, it's slippery for everybody else. If I'm riding down a straight thoroughfare, free of intersections, I figure cars will also be traveling straight, and will be less likely to go sliding out-of-control. As I approach intersections, I watch for ANY approaching traffic from ANY direction... intersections are where things happen on slippery days.

Snowy days are the one time I ride as far to the right on the pavement as I can (rather than hugging up close to the traffic lane). I go much more slowly than when the road is dry, with right-hand poised over the (rear) brake lever. (If you lock up the rear wheel by braking too hard, you might be able to correct the problem. If you lock up your front wheel, it's usually all over.) I'm not hesitant to get on the sidewalk on a slippery, snowy day, if one is available. (If a vehicle slides out-of-control, I'd rather he bounce off the curb, than off of me!) If you're lucky enough to have a dedicated bike-pedestrian path, a slippery day is a great day to put it to use.

Of course, there are other hazards besides motor vehicles. (Although none as potentially life-threatening.) If the snow doesn't melt on the first day - and it usually does in these parts - often there's "frozen slush" to deal with the next day. That can be some nasty stuff, causing you to involuntarily and suddenly change course, bounce off your saddle, etc. Depending on how deep the snow is, other hazards - even curbs, etc. - can be hidden under the white blanket. And, of course there is ICE.

Ice must be anticipated. If the temperature is 35 or lower, expect ice. The roadway can be slippery with "black ice," even if it isn't easily visible. I usually take a few steps down my driveway on an "iffy" day, just to determine the slippery-factor, before pedaling away.

The best strategy for staying upright on ice is... absolutely no sudden moves. Slow and steady is the way to arrive at your destination. If you find yourself unexpectedly on ice... go straight if at all possible, and "ride it out."

How about hardware?

The main limitation is traction. If Hummers, with their four 20-inch-high, 12-inch-wide tires are skidding out-of-control, consider those thumbprint-size contact patches that you, as a cyclist, are dealing with! And deal with it!

I'm fortunate to have a "touring" bicycle. And around this time of year I remove the skinny, smooth-tread tires and put on some slightly wider, treaded, comfort/touring/cyclocross -type tires.

When it gets really bad, I give the touring bike the day off, and hop on my old beater "mountain" bike, with its 2 1/4 -inch, aggressively-treaded tires. You can let some air out of the tires for a larger contact patch. If you're really serious, you can even get studded snow tires (in mountain bike sizes). That would probably make a difference on ice... but I'd still ride gingerly.

One note about new-fallen snow... it is a truly pleasurable experience to be the first one to make tracks in newly fallen snow. For you skiers, it's akin to being the first one down the mountain in the powder! Obviously you go more slowly than on a dry surface, and there's some effort in pushing the snow out of the way. But it's so quiet and serene... like riding on the clouds. It is SO worth it! (Just don't fail to recognize the potential hazards.)

"Slippery" can be dealt with on a bike. In fact, up in the north country, they even have ice-bike races! (In between seal hunts and igloo-building contests, I s'pose.)

A friend of mine described a harrowing winter near-disaster. Indiana Jones stuff. He was riding in downtown Boise, on either Bannock or Idaho near the Capitol building. He hit a patch of ice and went down... with a car coming up behind him. Thinking quickly (and with the adrenaline pumping, I'm sure), he stiffened out his arms and pushed against the front bumper of the car with everything he had. The car pushed him - and his bike - 20 or 30 feet down the road before it was able to come to a complete stop. I do not need that kind of excitement!



Anonymous said...

I've been riding 2.25 " metal studded MTB tires through the past two winters here in Toronto. The cool thing is that I can skid my back tire and leave (tiny) scratch marks in asphalt.

I am not so sure if they are really that useful though, as the road are usually well cleared. I may try to ride some skinny tires a few times just to compare the difference.

Anonymous said...

The worst thing is the snowpacked, that is rutted. I have to focus my full attention to keeping upright on those days instead of enjoying the sights.

I am hoping the longer wheelbase on the Xtracycle will minimize slippage and make for easier recoveries.

Bikeboy said...

Ben... I imagine that studs would indeed make a difference on icy roads. (Just like studs on cars.)

In a way, folks who live where snow is regularly expected have an advantage, because they generally have snow-removal equipment and the expertise to deploy and use it. By contrast, here in Boise we typically will only get 1 or 2 good snowstorms per year. Although they make a valiant effort, the staff and equipment can't be maintained for quick response to such VERY occasional weather events. So usually they concentrate on the arterials and connectors, and the neighborhood roads and side streets are ignored. Us old-timers know what to expect; some of the recent transplants don't understand yet how it works.

Bikeboy said...

Excellent point, Clancy. When your entire concentration is on staying upright and avoiding disaster, you miss out on a lot of what makes cycling the pleasure that it is! (But it's a pleasure and a relief to arrive at the destination, I s'pose.)

Bob T said...

The last few winters have been fairly mild in Boise so I have gotten by with the 1.95" slick tires that I use year-round. However, this winter is predicted to be colder and wetter than normal and my weekend commute may start involving the Greenbelt about January so I'm wondering if it would be good to switch to studded tires for a month or so. Does anyone know the condition of the Greenbelt after a significant snowfall? I would be using the part between the end of the extension at Orchard until Americana.

bud said...

bikeboy, great article. Now I am wishing I lived in a place that actually snows! I used to ride all winter in the rain (while living in Eugene, OR) but here is Charlotte, NC it doesn't really get cold or wet until January/February, and we rarely have snow.

Now I have to prepare for my ride tomorrow, it's only supposed to be dry and 75°.

Anonymous said...

[bob t] I rode the Greenbelt all last winter, and will be doing so again, in the section you mention. Last year, I found they generally plowed the snow fairly quickly -- it was generally plowed by my 7:30am commute. And, in general, I found the path much more agreeable than roads. Less slush and packed patches.

db said...

I've never needed studded tires in Boise. I've fallen once on ice -- on one of those wooden greenbelt bridges that get slicker than snot at the first hint of moisture.

But I've not had issues with snow in the past. Just slow down a couple miles an hour, look farther ahead to compensate for longer breaking distances, and anticipate car and pedestrian traffic as best as you can.

The great thing about snow on the Greenbelt is that there are way fewer walkers/runners/dogs/suicidal squirrels out and about.

By the way, my commmute at 6:30 a.m. yesterday involved rain, sleet, and snow before I made it to work. A great way to test clothing and tires!

Anonymous said...

I haven't used studded tires, either, and fell only once last year. That incident was due solely to poor judgment on my part. As [db] states -- watch out for those wood bridges! But, as BikeBoy says, even the time I wrecked I just got up, dusted myself off, and rode on.

Anonymous said...

Studded tires are worth the insurance, even if you just put it on the front. You still need to take care. See http://icebike.com and http://www.mtbkanata.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=34050 and http://www.cityjournal.ca/article-i69967-Letting-the-good-times-roll-for-winter-cycling.html