Winter commuting: Gear and technique

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Another Snowy CommuteWith our mild winters here in Vancouver, we don’t have the same winter riding conditions that others face.  Last week was the exception as we got multiple hits of snow, freezing rain, and frigid temperatures. For many commuters, it was just the one week a year that cycling isn’t in the cards. For others, it was just a week that needed a different approach.

There are two things that a cyclist can control when it comes to riding in snow and ice: gear and riding technique.

Gear changes

The most obvious gear change when riding in snow or ice is putting on winter tires. Just like driving motorized vehicles, putting winter tires on your bike will dramatically affect your ability to control your vehicle. Studded tires are the most common choice here: wide, knobby tires with metal studs. Studded tires will give you good traction on both black ice and hard-pack, but they’re not cheap. They also increase the rolling resistance of the tire. I’m not convinced they’re necessary for the week or two of icy conditions we encounter in Kits every year, but they certainly help.

Other gear changes are secondary: making sure your bike’s in good working order, well lubricated and clean. You can reduce the air pressure in your tires to increase the amount of contact between the rubber and the ground. Pay attention to the transmission: ice and snow can build up in the chain and derailleurs, freezing and causing no end of difficulty. If you have a fixie (fixed-gear bicycle), they have a definite advantage in these conditions.

Technique

Technique is the thing that most Vancouverites are going to rely on to get them through these conditions (if common sense hasn’t already aborted the ride). The first thing is to relax. Don’t ride tense: you’ll fall more and it’ll hurt more. Next, go slowly. It’ll give you time to react if you start to slide and need to put a foot down. Speaking of which, don’t forget to not clip yourself into your pedals.

You need to handle your bike differently in the snow and ice. Make slow turns, using the front wheel to turn you rather than leaning. Try to keep the bike as upright as possible, going as far as shifting yourself left or right when turning to avoid leaning. Brake with the back brake only. Take your hand right off the front brake lever because you will grab it out of instinct as soon as something feels out-of-sorts with how the bike is handling.

Pay attention to the road, and the way that light is reflecting off of it. Glassy ice isn’t too bad as long as you are slow and deliberate. Hard pack is bumpy and full of ruts and will cause lots of sliding. If you get stuck in a rut, be very deliberate about getting out of it. Ride in the rough, crunchy dirty snow: it’ll provide the best traction. And, watch out for ice or hard-pack hidden beneath freshly fallen snow.

Here are some excerpts from my commute last week. Note that I violated the rule about braking with the front and hard-pack beneath the snow around 0:45. Fortunately the result was just dropping the bike from beneath me since I was going pretty slowly.

What are your winter riding recommendations?

Last modified: January 23, 2012

3 Responses to " Winter commuting: Gear and technique "

  1. rob says:

    Nice- you got going pretty quick on some of those stretches. I managed to fall ‘only’ once last week. Road bike, clipped in, on the ice rink that was 7th at Arbutus, went to stop and feathered the front brake too much. Really should have stuck to the main roads that day(Tuesday, I think). I stuck to main roads for the rest of the week riding McDonald to Cornwall then over the bridge. I may give studs a try on my cross bike for the next batch of snowy commutes. Or try some DIY solution.

    Saw your other vid of the Trafalgar roundabout incident- I live right there and have to deal with it on a daily basis.. I was actually hit at Larch a block away, people just don’t get traffic circles.

  2. Anthony says:

    @rob That stretch of 7th between Yew and Arbutus was crazy. I rode home Thursday night along there and you could have easily strapped some skates on and had a hockey game.

  3. Phil says:

    Nice article – I agree, technique has more to do with it than gear.
    “Glassy ice isn’t too bad as long as you are slow and deliberate.”
    I would disagree with this – one should not slow down, if anything you should speed up in preparation for crossing icy surfaces – the momentum will aid in keeping you vertical 🙂
    Every ice patch is it’s own particular rink to be navigated but that approach works well for me and no slips last week.