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Cycling on ice

by Richard Masoner

It looks like many cyclists have discovered studded bicycle tires this winter. Here’s a very brief post about them.

After several years of year round commuting on a skinny tire road bike, I purchased a single studded tire for my mountain bike from Nashbar a few years ago. While it’s very possible to cycle across slick ice without the studs, even a single studded tire mounted on the front wheel improves control considerably.

To ride on ice without studs, you must pick your line very carefully. Any change of direction and speed must be done with utmost care. Watch for ruts. When cycling on apparently clear pavement, watch for black ice, especially at intersections and especially if you’re turning. If there are long stretches of ice, try to bike on snow that might be layered over the ice.

I’ve learned that mountain biking skills and low speed bike handling skills are very helpful for riding in icy conditions. I’ve muscled my bike over monster ice ruts, for example, in the same way that I cleared logs. Recovering when the rear of your bike squirms out from beneath you is about the same whether it happens on muddy singletrack or an icy road, though on ice that squirm happens much more quickly. Crashing without (too much) injury is another useful mountain biking skill.

If you’re not absolutely confident in your bike handling, I recommend staying off of the bike or using studded tires. With studs, you should still pay attention, but the going is much easier.

Enjoy this video from Lucas Brunelle as he and a friend bike on the frozen Charles River without studs.

 
Burley nomad 229

25 Responses to “Cycling on ice”

  1. Andrew says:

    I’ve got a sort of hybrid bike (Kona Dew) and this is my first winter with anything other than a mountain bike.

    I, for one, enjoy the challenge of biking in the winter. Just make sure you always wear gloves; they protect your palms if you fall!

  2. Watch for ruts. When cycling on apparently clear pavement, watch for black ice, especially at intersections and especially if you’re turning

    If only I’d read this about ten days ago! Monday: I found some re-frozen snow at the bottom of a hill . . . Thursday: I found about 200 yds of black ice at the top of the same hill. When I say ‘found’, I’m sure you know exactly what I mean. There was shouting & swearing involved, along with some bruises, and severely dented pride.
    ;-)

  3. electric says:

    Cool video but,
    these guys so have studded tires, you can hear it and see the scrape marks!

    Don’t mess with ice if you’re not on studs. Even with a nice fat tire and low pressure the ice is trouble. If there is an situation and you need to brake/turn quickly you’ll be falling down and sliding in the same direction. Even one studded front tire can really help!

  4. Stuart M. says:

    I have been riding my bike in icy conditions here in Hokkaido. The frozen ruts are murder, so I get off my bike and walk to dry pavement. On smooth icy patches I can ride fairly confidently, much slower than usual, of course.

    I remember when I was young in the 1970′s and Richard Nixon went to China for the first time, we saw many reports which included scenes of thousands of bicyclists slowly biking on streets with no cars and in the middle of winter. Each bicylist was bundled up against the cold and trailed by a puff of their frozen breath. Those bikes were probably the heavy one-speed Pigeon types and didn’t have studded tires. That scene really stuck with me all these years and gives me confidence to bike through this nasty Hokkaido winter.

  5. xcskimt (Robert) says:

    I may have to purchase some studded tires. I was holding off becuase lately its been nice snow so easy riding. Until this last weekends all day rain with 42 degree weather and then that night -6. I can say very icy. Its been tricky biking and running.

  6. Ghost Rider says:

    Someone please explain to me why a studded tire on the FRONT is better than none at all…is it because of stability in turns or something? I would imagine that for propulsion purposes, it would be better on the back wheel…

    Of course, one on each end makes the most sense!

  7. justfrank says:

    We haven’t been recommending studded tires here in Chicago, because the streets were usually pretty reliably plowed, and these tires don’t give you any advantage on clear pavement. However, this year, due to budget cuts, street clearing and salting has been very haphazard. Side streets are especially treacherous, with light snow concealing patches of ice, particularly near intersections. We have sold out of snow tires at our store, and after a scary dance across the ice last week, I’m thinking I might become a convert.

  8. anakcu says:

    A tip from the Saab 96 rally car drivers–a driven wheel has a lot more grip than a coasting wheel. Sometimes it makes sense to do the seemingly ridiculous thing of braking (the rear wheel, not the front!) while pedalling if you are trying to keep the speed down and maintain purchase on the slippery stuff.

  9. jason (sd) says:

    Here is my take on the front is better than none. With any vehicle, it is more important that you can slow down rather than speed up. In other words, if you can’t speed up you have no reason to slow down. Also I have read that you get more feedback from the drive wheel. As you pedal you can tell if you start to lose traction with too much pedal force. Many times you can adjust and recover from a rear wheel slide. I have never ridden single track but I can’t think of a single time I have recovered from a front wheel slide on ice.

  10. Mr. CrankyPants says:

    “Someone please explain to me why a studded tire on the FRONT is better than none at all”is it because of stability in turns or something?”

    Yep, it’s for the stability. It’s much easier to ride out of a rear wheel slide as opposed to a front wheel slide. On a bicycle, understeer is NOT your friend.

    Studded tires on both ends is definitely the way to go. Some of the guys I ride with will run a more heavily studded tire on the front and a less studded one on the back to fine tune the handling.

  11. Patrick says:

    Wow, I’m so not caring about icy weather. It’s foggy and 53 in Austin, TX right now. Bah Humbug! I only WISH i needed studded tires.

  12. James says:

    After a nasty fall and a broken ankle last year while riding a road bike in January, I converted this year to a singlespeed rigid MTB with Nokian Mount & Grounds. The degree of confidence is incredible now – I actually look for ice (vs. plowed snow) to ride on. Sidestreets and neighborhoods around denver are usually poorly (or not at all) plowed so I ride studs even when the main streets are clear. Its slow and heavy but better than a trip to the hospital.
    I read recently:
    ‘not having a studded tire on the back means you’ll fall slowly, not having a studded tire on the front means you’ll fall FAST.’

  13. Juan says:

    If you only have one studded tire, put it on the front! Or put it on the back if you choose, and the next time a topic like this comes up, you can be the one to say “If you only have one studded tire, put it on the front”!

  14. Chasseur says:

    i normally ride 28s on my cx framed commuter, but i have bought some cheapt 26″ studded tires to put on my beater mtb for really inclement road conditions. james is right, they dont plow side streets in denver. two yrs ago, even the MAIN streets were glaciers.

  15. Chris says:

    Biking in icy/snowy conditions like walking in those conditions requires an adjustment to your normal movement. You have to pay more attention to your center of gravity and maintain your weight over your tires instead of leaning into turns like you normally would. I’m usually fine with slow, constant movement forward. If only my commute was a straight line.

  16. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    This is my first winter with studded tires. Over the last three, more so with last year up here in the twin cities, riding without studded tires are great to have. Riding on snow and ice on street tires is taxing, and remember to stay loose when the ground is coming up to meet me, cause that is what it feels like when the front tire doesn’t like the patch of ice its one, takes training to keep loose and roll… The biggest problem with studded tires is, I find my self going too fast because they seem to grip the road too well.

  17. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    opps, street tires in winter are a pain…

  18. Scott R says:

    This is my first year commuting, so I didn’t want to stop when the snow and ice came to Omaha. I got some studded Innovas’s, and they work very well, though I never tried snow and ice without them.

    So far, I’ve had no problems with traction, and only when I hit loose snow does my front wheel get a little tricky.

    I found the city plows/brushes the snow from the bike trails the day after a storm, but most of my daily commute is on streets.

    I would highly recommend studded tires to anyone who wants to keep commuting during the winter. Even if I spent the winter on dry pavements, I’d still mount the studs for peace of mind for that one time I might hit some ice and spill.

  19. siouxgeonz says:

    “not absolutely confident” – hand goes up… love the studs. Loose snow still makes me all nervous – I am trying to discern whether the increased heart rate & respiration is the work of going through the stuff or just the stress.

    I thought about getting studlier tires – I got the hakkelpita 106′s ’cause they’re made for plowed streets with those occasional patches of black ice and they’re great for that… but on the not so plowed roads we have I am wanting More Control. On the other hand… I need to practice bike handling, and also on that hand, about at that point where I’m too uncomfortable, cars are sliding around, too, and I’d *really* rather avoid that.

    Besides, just after I got studded tyres on the Gazelle, our weather completely deteriorated and I have had to use them all too often. These weekly ice storms, each a little worse than the previous (and now it’s lookin’ like bi-weekly), are getting a bit old. If I got heavier duty ones… who knows what would happen? For the good of my community ;)

  20. Last year I had a touring bike in the snow, and this year I have a hybrid. I don’t know why, but the hybrid is much easier to control in the snow. My guess is that I put less weight on my arms, so the front wheel goes less deep in the snow.

    My other guess is it might be that putting less weight on the handlebars makes it easier to make smaller direction adjustments. An other difference may be in where my hands are. I was not using the drop bars, but my new bar is wider.

  21. electric says:

    Nicolas, could be the head-angle isn’t as steep or the wheelbase is longer; both would make it less twitchy. Maybe even just the seat tube angle, top-tube/stem length has you sitting more up-right and further back?

  22. @electric: yes, I am sitting more up-right. That is why I said I put less weight on the handlebar.

  23. Ron Georg says:

    Howdy–

    I would say that the difference Nicolas is feeling is the shorter trail of the hybrid. Touring bikes usually employ long trail to give them a stable feel at speed with a load; that is, they usually don’t shimmy. The trade-off is that they tend to understeer. This gives them the illusory feel of stability as the front wheel ‘pushes’, which feels like traction on a dry road. On a slick road, when the front wheel tries to hook up, and it can’t, the bike keeps going straight. Counter-steering can help a bit, but it’s a tricky technique to learn, and it’s pretty much impossible at low speed.
    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg
    Moab

  24. Doug says:

    Well I purchased my studded tires last month so I could continue my commuting. They’ve allowed me to not miss a single day peddling to work. NH has proven that they are needed. When leaving in the morning, the roads have been leveled either by the plows or normal traffic. When compacted, the snow is nice to ride on. Once it gets churned up, I find myself keeping to the tire tracks. At times the rear tire may slip but it always seems to find it’s footing. My favorite days are when the roads are icy. The tires really do their job. I LOVE RIDING BY MY SNOW AND FROST COVERED TRUCK IN THE MORNING! Layering is the norm and a beard as well as two blinking red lights on the rear, reflective tape at every angle, a handlebar light and one mounted on my helmet. I really like the helmet light. Drivers take notice when you look at them, which I do at all intersections. You never know if they have had their coffee. I’ve started using a messenger bag. I purchased mine from Baileyworks out of Portsmaouth, NH. I highly recommend them! I’m using the medium Pro bag decked out in yellow. The second blinking red light attaches to the flap. I had a chance to test it in some HEAVY downpours and snowfalls and everything stayed dry and well protected. When I need something from the bag I can swing it to the front for easy access. I’ve tried a backpack, trunk for my rack and a handlebar bag. I was always wrapping the handlebar bag in a plastic bag as well as the trunk when I had to ride during heavy downpours. I suppose that is not true for all bags, it was just so for the ones I purchased.

  25. joycem says:

    to Stuart M in Hokkaido, I was in Sapporo for a winter and I can not image biking in the winter there! I mean it was hard to walk. They had studded soles for shoes, never mind bikes. Huge ruts everywhere. they got so much snow there was no place to put it. two story high snow banks. How do you do it?

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