Ice Biking – How to do Winter Cycling in Ice and Snow

Ice bikers

Why do we ride in the winter? I’m frequently asked as I walk into a pub or movie theater, “aren’t you cold?”. I just smile warmly and say “nope”. Nearly every day coworkers used to ask if I had taken my bike, thinking “its worse weather than yesterday, there’s no way he rode his bike” and every day they would be amazed.

The amazement has worn off now. Everyone has gotten used to the fact that I’m not going to die any time soon from commuting by bike in the winter time.

I was approached by a co-worker today and asked WHY I did it. I couldn’t answer him. I didn’t know. All I could say was “it’s a welcome challenge” but that just barely scratches the surface of the WHY question. So that started me thinking. Why? Why do I put up with -30C temperatures and -40C wind chill? Why do I put up with the lack of good traction?

That same day we got about a eight inches of fluffy snow, the light kind with huge flakes that obscure your entire eye when you get hit by one. As I was dragging my bike out of the lunch room (where the vice president graciously sticks up for me when people complain about the puddle my bike leaves) someone said in amusement “boy, you’ll sure have fun riding home today”. I just said “thanks I will!”. I just got a strange look like I was insane.

I decided to take the snowed in sidewalk to the side of the high speed highway this time until I came to the turn off to a slower road as a courtesy to the other drivers, seeing as the traffic reports were scaring people.

I left work, jumped on the bike, rode for a block with this white stuff flying up around me completely obscuring my view of my hubs. I hit something solid, made me loose what little control I had and plummeted into a snow drift soft as a pillow. *WHUMP!* it was like falling on a cloud. It was so much fun I just laid there and laughed for a bit.

I wasn’t commuting any more, I was playing.

I ended up riding 11 km that day in that stuff, and I was completely exhausted, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The little voice in side my head kept screaming “YES! This is so much fun!”. I was riding through stuff that was too hard to walk through. I even got off for a spot and walked, but immediately jumped back on the bike because it was easier than pushing the bike!

Bike stuck in the snow

Sometimes winter riding sucks. Sometimes it’s soggy and you get soaked right through, and the freewheel is frozen, and nothing shifts, and the brakes just skid on the rims, and the driver behind you is leaning on the horn, but it’s the good days like the above that make up for it.

From what I’ve seen, the traffic is better in the winter than in good weather. Everyone pulls together. Everyone realizes no one can stop fast.

Even on the bad days, when I arrive at my destination intact and possibly exhausted, I accomplished something. I did something most people are scared of. I rode in weather that people have frozen to death in, beat the traffic, got home safe, and got healthier because of it.

I love riding bikes, for all reasons, including reasons that have nothing to do with biking. Every time I’m driving a car, I hate how visibility is reduced by all that steel surrounding you. I feel far safer on my bike, because if I don’t see a car coming, there is no car coming.

The bus is no better either. I’m much warmer on a bike because I tend to prepare myself better for an hour out in the cold than if I was expecting to jump on a bus after ten minutes of waiting. I’d much rather be warm on a bike, than cold standing still at a bus stop.

And then there’s the time thing. It takes me almost 20 minutes longer to take the bus to work than bike. I don’t see any benefit to taking the bus over a bike whatsoever.

I think the reason I take a bike changes day to day:

  • Fun!
  • Warm!
  • Don’t have to drive!
  • Don’t have to take a bus!
  • Faster than taking a bus!
  • Fun!
  • Fun!
  • Fun!
  • Did I mention fun?

Partly its my defiance to the weather. No one, not even old man winter is going to tell me I cant have fun in the snow on a bike. How is it any different than skiing? People enjoy being out in the cold skiing right? Partly its defying those people that tell me I shouldn’t be out on a bike in that weather. But mostly, ITS JUST WAAAAYY TOO MUCH FUN! C’mon, you know you WAAANAA.

Snow covered face

Bikes on Ice? You’re Kidding, Right?

Maybe you just found this web site while looking for something else. If so about now you are wondering just how crazy these folks are. Plenty!

Contrary to popular opinion, the bicycle makes a fairly good winter vehicle. This is not to suggest that care can be thrown to the winds. But with proper skill and technique, the bike provides safe and reliable transportation. It always starts, regardless of how cold it is. There are studded tires that make the most wicked slick ice manageable. It is easy to find a parking space, and it never gets stuck in the snow. Well, almost never.

Much of winter cycling is done on roads that are bare, no ice anywhere. In these conditions, the only concern is the weather. If you would go skiing or play hockey in cold weather, then icebiking is not very different. All it takes is the will, a reliable bike, dressing for the weather, getting out in the snow, and learning a few new bike handling skills.

The hardest part is the first 100 yards. Mother Nature is not your Enemy!

Whether commuting to work, or just out for a romp in the woods, you arrive feeling very alive, refreshed, and surrounded with the aura of a cycling god. You will be looked upon with the smile of respect by friends and co-workers. – – – Or was that the sneer of derision… no matter, icebiking is a blast!

So come on in and explore this guide to icebiking, and see if maybe you will be tempted to dig that trusty steed out of the basement, pump up the tires, and pump up your life.

Why bike in the winter?

First off, let me assure you that you have no hope of explaining this to Joe Motorhead…

Another avid cyclist might understand. Cross country skiers might understand. Once you get beyond people who are active out of doors it can be really hard to explain this without losing your audience.

Lets face it: they think we are crazy. You might as well just enjoy yourself and not bother explaining it. After they see you biking through an entire winter or two they will stop asking why. They will just look at you in that special way reserved for harmless eccentrics. Deal with it!

You can wax mushy, singing the praises of of crisp morning with every twig and branch fat and fuzzy with a fresh coat of gleaming white snow, and huge snowflakes silently wafting down, and the squeak the snow makes under your tires as you silently glide forward down a road or trail that has nary a track…. – oops, I went off the deep end again.

Road congestion in rush hour

Or you can climb up on your soap box and rail at the mindless dependency on motor vehicles and the untold destruction they do to society, the impairment of health, the wars for resources, the pollution. The only moral solution being to use clean non-polluting vehicles designed on the human scale, and point out that society better get used to it because our resources aren’t going to last forever…

– hey, where is everybody going??…

The truth can be anywhere in between those extremes, anywhere and everywhere at the same time. Not all icebikers ride for the same reason. Some of us are racers, others are commuters and still others are recreational riders out for a romp in the snow.

Here are a few other reasons:

  • City traffic can make it faster to cycle commute even in winter than it is to drive
  • Parking at the destination can be easier and cheaper with a bike than a car
  • You are beset by poverty and bikes are cheap
  • You love the outdoors
  • You have a desk job and need the exercise
  • You have Cabin Fever, and have to get outside
  • You got a new bike for Christmas and can’t wait five months till spring
  • You hate motor vehicles and all that they do to society and the environment
  • Its fun fun FUN
  • You work out all your aggressions and arrive relaxed
  • You do some of your best thinking on a bike
  • The weather is not that bad
  • Out of the way dude, its a race!
  • You’re too darn stubborn to stop now.
  • Its just as easy to stay in training as to try to regain your form every spring

Now, we may have listed them quickly and trivially, but these constitute many of the deeply held convictions of winter cyclists from all over the world. (Those who pick at nits might feel compelled to point out that poverty is more often an affliction than a conviction).

Never mind, we are not here to debate the reasons. The point is that the reasons for winter cycling are as varied as the cyclists themselves.

If even one of these apply to you, and you like biking anyway, then winter cycling may be for you. Give it a try.

I will never forget the arrival of spring weather the first year I cycled all winter. The sense of accomplishment was very personal. I couldn’t even explain it to any one, they thought I was crazy anyway. After that, nothing fazes me. Yes there are miserable rides (usually in horizontal rain, – not snow and cold), but these are rare. In subsequent years, the sense of accomplishment is more subdued, but the pleasure of the ride is greater, because I no longer have any doubt about my ability to do it.

Oh, in case you were wondering, my reasons were Fun, Exercise, and Stubbornness, not necessarily in that order.

Light winter road biking

How does one Get Started

The easiest way is just don’t stop.

You cycle all summer right? Just keep it up. See how late in the year you can be out cycling, whether for commuting or recreation. There is no inherent reason to hang up the bike at a certain date.

Don’t think of it as attempting to ride all winter. Just think of it as riding today. Possibly tomorrow, conceivably next week, but definitely today.

In fact, you probably will not ride throughout your first winter. Most icebikers wimp out during the really harsh weather in the first year. This is because it seems daunting, and also it takes a year or more to figure out the clothing issues, find reliable equipment, and get it down to a science.

You will find that the weather is really not that bad, except when it IS that bad, which is not that often. The hardest part is getting started each morning (if commuting). You will find that it only sucks for the first mile. Then you are “into it”, not to mention warmed up, and your confidence is restored.

If it sucks for much longer than the first mile, you may have an equipment problem. You may need warmer gear, or maybe you are having trouble handling the bike on the slippery surface and studded tires would be really nice about now. It might be that you are expecting summertime speeds into the teeth of winter gales. That too is an equipment problem.

You need to invest in a different attitude. One that says you will get there just as reliably if only a tad later by going slower. Nothing is more uncomfortable than working up a drenching sweat when bundled up for winter conditions.

To summarize:

  • Just ride on into fall, and (one day at a time) into winter. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!
  • Pay Attention: Notice when a particular clothing combination is too hot or too cold and make a mental note of the temperature and wind conditions. If you are the methodical type record these and stick them in your computer database or something.

    After a while you just KNOW that when its just below freezing and expected to warm up, that the so-called heavyweight tights from Nashbar will be about right, but don’t forget to bring the rain pants just in case, winter bike gloves, stocking hat under the helmet, medium weight shirt under the Cannondale rain jacket. That works for me, your needs will differ.

  • Don’t delay getting what you need. Buy those boots, get those winter tights, purchase the light set, yes you feel silly in a balaclava but it sure is warm. Improvise or Invest. Each tank of gas costs $25 or more, so you can afford those items. You deserve them.
  • Don’t restrict your search to bike stores. By and large they cater to the summer crowd. Ski stores (especially cross country) know about cold weather exercise.
  • Don’t be a martyr. Wimp out when it is 40 below. If there are three foot drifts you might as well get some sleep till the plows catch up. Next year you can handle these, this year you’re learning.
  • Watch it on ice till you get the hang of it. Slow turns, no sudden breaking or swerving. Again Pay Attention!. Notice that what looks slippery may not be, but that patch of shade up ahead may have a wicked patch of black ice in it.
  • Ride where the traction is. The bare looking center of the roadway may have an invisible glaze of ice on it, while the side of the road with an inch of undisturbed snow will supply far better of traction. Test the traction with your rear brake, short squeezes only, just till the tire breaks traction.
  • My favorite advice: Have a nice big cup of coffee before your start.

Finally, if you are going to fall, you are going to fall in the winter. If you hit a 50 mph car head on while doing 20 mph there is no reason to expect a helmet to save your life. But falls are what bicycle helmets are designed to handle.

So until you are sure of yourself, when going on the roadway in winter or on lake ice, wear a helmet even if you have a “thing” against helmets. Don’t worry about crashing in the deep snow. Its fun! But remember there are often rocks under the snow.

Biking with snowfall around

Aren’t You Cold?

More than once I’ve arrived dripping with sweat only to be asked “aren’t you freezing out there”? This question is usually asked by someone who drove to work in a toasty single occupant vehicle, which was parked in a garage all night, but never the less, they got bundled up in a down jacket for that 30 foot walk from the car to the office.

The answer is: Not very often. You are more likely to get too warm. Biking produces a lot of heat. If you do get cold, ride faster, it makes more heat.

Besides, winter is not that bad, except where it is that bad, but the folks there are tough. Mother nature is not your biggest enemy out there. Bone headed drivers are. But you will be forgiven if you don’t share this secret with your friends, and would prefer to bask in glow of respect and admiration reserved for cycling gods. Hey wait a minute, why did he roll his eyes to the ceiling?

Problem areas: hands and feet. Unlike when walking, your hands and feet are locked in the same position while biking. You can wiggle your toes and fingers if you feel them getting cold, but this, at best, will simply delay the need to get to some place warm.

If you have a long way to go, stop for some coffee, sit by the radiator. Your hands are hard to re-warm if they get cold, so if go for extra warm gloves and it should not be too much of a problem.

See our winter clothing pages for various recommendations. Shoes are another matter. Finding something warm enough that will still fit in the toe clips can be difficult. Check the shoe page.

Forget about most bike stores, they know nothing about winter cycling. Walk into a normal bike store in your cycling gear in the middle of winter and you are likely to be asked: “Aren’t you cold out there”?

Walking with the bike

Who are the winter cyclists?

Most of us are just ordinary folks who get this addiction to bicycles that simply will not live within the bounds of a summer.

Others just don’t want to spend the cash for a car and all the costs that come with motor vehicles.

Some of us have serious personal commitments to being car-free, other have temporary problems of liquidity, and others of us just like cycling way more than any rational person should.

After the challenge of the first winter, icebiking takes on an air of normalcy, it becomes a practical and rational way to get out and enjoy the weather, and the trip.

Its an addiction. Handling a bike on ice requires more skill than summer riding, and plowing through snow is very tiring. The rewards are the beauty of the scenery, the quiet of the road on a frosty night, and the crunch of crisp snow under your tire. Making the first track!

Commuting by bike

Communting by bike in the winter

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.

Choosing the right equipment

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 site) computers.
  • 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 diet.
  • Fenders.
  • 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 below freezing.

  • 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.

Snow covered bikes

Bike parking

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.

Snow covered bike tires

Tactics and tips

Road Hazards

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.

Traction

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 road.

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.

Temperatures

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 of your journey.

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 minutes.

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.

On-Road Repairs

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 puddles.

Crossing an ice covered lake

How often on ice?

So you have convinced yourself that you want to try winter commuting by icebike, but would like to know what you are up against?

Just how often will you be riding in winter conditions, with snow and ice to contend with in addition to the usual problems of cycle-commuters? Motorists are convinced that every day from the first fallen leaf till the tulips bloom is one endless arctic nightmare. Windshields need to be scraped, cars won’t start, every snow storm snarls traffic. Ride a Bike!?! Are you nuts?

Until you are out there every day, or you go digging through a mountain of statistics, you may have nothing but horror stories to go on when planning your winter commuting.

Luckily, some icebikers are the driven type who keep bike logs. One such cyclist is Bob VonMoss who bike commutes year round in Chicago.

Bob kept logs of his winter of 98/99 icebike commutes to get a handle on just how often he was really icebiking.

“Last Fall I started keeping track of the icebike days to or from work to get an idea of how much icebiking there really is around here.

I colored in the days on a calendar and wrote the lowest temperature during the ride, based on weather service temps on their web page.

“An icebiking day is defined here as a day when the temp is at or below 32F/0C.”

The low temps are not the weather service low temps for the day, just the low temp *during* the ride to or from work.

Also days off or holidays aren’t counted, nor are Saturdays.”

Bob VonMoss

Here’s what Bobs logs show:

1998/9 Icebikes Avg. commute low temps (F)
Nov 1 28
Dec 9 14.7
Jan 15 15.5
Feb 10 28.6
Mar 6 29.2

Winter cycling how oftenIf you plot the number number of commutes and the average commute temperatures you can see that most icebike commutes occurred in January, even though Decembers rides averaged slightly colder. The coldest ride was minus 12, in January.

The average low temp on the commute days was 20.8 F for the entire winter. (Remember, this sample only includes true icebike days. Days above freezing were not included).

In Mid-continental North America, if you bike commute on about 22 days a month, you can expect to ride in below freezing weather about half of the time in the dead of winter.

You can plan on temperatures 15 degrees (F) below freezing as an average. If you planned to “wimp out”, January would be the month to do it, but even January is not that bad.

You will probably find that if you make it through December you will realize that it’s not as bad as you thought. Stick with it day by day, perhaps skipping only the brutally cold or windy days. Once you stop, its hard to get motivated to start again.

While it’s not often really miserably cold at these latitudes, there are still plenty of ice days. Knowing that half your rides for three months are likely to be icy can help you justify that set of studded tires or winter tights.

The better you deal with the temperatures and the ice, the more enjoyable the ride and the less likelihood there is that you will wimp out. After all, had Bob whimped out, we wouldn’t have these nifty stats to present to you.

Downhill on snow covered hill

How Risky Is It?

How risky is icebiking? Are you taking your life in your hands when you venture on the icy road?

While it can’t be said that icebikers are never injured, it would seem that as a means of transportation or recreation winter cycling is no more risky than cycling in general. In fact, it may be safer.

How Safe is Cycling

Most people, especially new cyclists and motorists believe that cycling is one of the most dangerous modes of transportation. This is not necessarily true. There are several sources of information that indicate that cycling is safer than traveling by motor vehicle. See the table below, and a more detailed explanation on Ken Kifer’s How Dangerous is Cycling page.

The table shows the risk per hour of exposure to various activities.

Note that bicycling has about half the risk per hour of exposure that passenger cars impose.

These figures are for all cyclists. Experienced cyclists have a far lower fatality rate that pictured here.

Activity Fatalities per million hrs
Skydiving 128.71
General Aviation 15.58
On-road Motorcycling 8.80
Scuba Diving 1.98
Living (all causes of death) 1.53
Swimming 1.07
Snowmobiling .88
Passenger cars .47
Water skiing .28
Bicycling .26
Flying (scheduled domestic airlines) .15
Hunting .08
Cosmic Radiation from transcontinental flights .035
Home Living (active) .027
Traveling in a School Bus .022
Passenger Car Post-collision fire .017
Home Living, active & passive (sleeping) .014
Residential Fire .003

Compiled by Failure Analysis Associates, Inc. (Appeared in Design News, 10-4-93)

Yes, bikes are slower, and therefore you are exposed to the risk for a longer period.

But bikes are not always that much slower over the distance bikes are used. Obviously bikes are not used for routine commuting for distances much beyond 30 miles. Time is the limiting factor as to what vehicle is chosen for most commutes. Therefore time is the logical unit of comparison, not distance.

Considering that the average passenger car travels at 17 mph over the life of the vehicle, you can assume that at least as many hours are spent in the car as on the bike.

Most people will devote no more than half an hour, maybe 45 minutes to commuting (each way). Some more, but many more spend far less time in daily transit. The same is true of cyclists. Once the trip starts taking more than half an hour each way, the number of participants falls off dramatically. Commuter cyclists and motorists tend to spend about the same amount of time per day in/on the vehicle.

Therefore, although you may go faster and farther in a car, you will spend about the same amount of time doing it. Your risk for the period you spend in a car is twice as high as the same period you spend on a bike.

How safe is winter cycling

Winter cyclist report few serious accidents.

There are the occasional crashes but because of extra clothing and a slippery surface to land on, these usually result in less injury than would be sustained by a bare limbed cyclist on dry pavement. Road rash is just about unheard of.

In the winter of 98/99 the icebike site conducted a survey of winter cyclists with an automated web based survey instrument.

One of the questions asked concerned the worst accident that respondents had experienced while cycling in winter. The results were surprising. These results are replicated below and on the full result page.

Only slightly over 4 percent had ever required medical attention for a winter cycling accident.

Fully 70% had never been injured at all!

Question 11: What Was Your Worst Winter Cycling Accident?

Winter cycling accidents

Yet this is not to say that winter cycling is uneventful. Another 70% did have some uncontrolled collisions with the ground, or other injuries, but nothing requiring medical attention. Perhaps because of this, icebikers tend to be realists, and realize they may well fall, and are prepared for it. Fully 82% of the respondents ALWAYS wear a helmet. (see the full results page).

Now we are fully aware that web based surveys are somewhat suspect in that there is very little control over who fills out the survey and how many times they do it. (This survey had a lock mechanism preventing duplicate submissions from the same machine within one hour, so someone wanting to bias the results would have had to try rather hard to do so.) Never the less, this is the best data we know of regarding winter cycling, and inspection of the raw data did not show obvious signs of intentional tampering.

Tipped over bike

How slippery is it?

Folks new to winter cycling often are amazed that anyone can remain upright on a bike on snow and ice.

After you have been on the bike for a few days, you come to realize that the situation is quite manageable. Snow, while certainly more slippery than bare pavement, is somewhat like a shallow covering of sand, which requires somewhat more gradual turns, but otherwise is not particularly slippery.

Ice on the other hand presents a totally different situation. Lots of winter cyclists end up with a death grip on the handlebar worrying about every little steering movement. After a while you get use to the amount of slip and slide movement that the bike exhibits, and learn to “dance with the bike”, controlling those small slips and learning to avoid the big ones. Then you get overconfident, and crash.

So how slippery is it? What kind of conditions do icebikers have to especially watch?

The Society of Accident Reconstructionists (SOAR) puts out a publication called “The Source”.

In the “Winter 1998” issue they published a study done by John E. Hunter who conducted an extensive study of the frictional values of car tires involved in collisions on snow/ice covered roads. The Friction Values (coefficient of friction) were taken at the road tire interface and represent values available to a normally treaded tire representing the equivalent of “good equipment.”

We’ve excerpted the key findings below. The classifications and descriptions are Mr. Hunter’s.

Classification Description Friction Available
Dry Asphalt This value is commonly used as the reference value for rubber tires on dry asphalt. Concrete is typically lower. 0.68 to 0.85
Average value of 0.72
Partial Frost Light or partial coating of frost on the road surface. Visible to the driver as intermittent frosting appearance. Partial Frost had a resistance level similar to the lower range of wet asphalt. Average value of 0.63
Frost General white coating covering entire lane. Visible to the driver and completely recognizable as frost. Frost was .10 less than Partial Frost.
Average value of 0.53.
Heavy Frost Almost ice conditions. Heavy white coating and very visible to the driver Heavy Frost had a value close to the higher ranges of ice. Average of a 0.39.

Tracked Snow Snow compacted by vehicles. The test results varied in range. Average was a 0.35
Untracked Snow Snow not compacted by prior vehicles. The individual readings were similar to Tracked Snow.
Average of 0.35
Snow & Ice Generally known by motorists as compact snow and ice, or “hard pack”. Snow and Ice was nearly identical to the frictional resistance found for Black Ice, 0.25 to a high of 0.41
Average of 0.32
Black Ice Icy layer generally covering asphalt, difficult to see by the average driver. Often found on overpasses and elevated structures. The ranges for Black Ice varied from a low of 0.25 to a high of 0.41
Average of 0.32
Sunny Ice Ice that has been exposed to the heating rays of the sun. A water layer was not generally observed. Sunny Ice yielded low readings,
Average of 0.24.
Wet Ice Ice covered with a layer of water. Generally seen when the temperatures reach 32 to 33 degrees, or near the melting point. Wet Ice, similar to sunny ice,
Average of 0.24.
Glare Ice Ice that was the smoothest surface observed. Similar to wet ice except the water layer was not observed. looks like glass. The lowest value measured was Glare Ice.
Average of 0.19.

Friction – friend or foe?

Where the rubber meets the road friction is absolutely essential. Without it, you can’t steer, you can’t accelerate and you can’t stop.

In icebiking, friction can be thought of as a consumable. You are always consuming some of the available friction between your tires and the road surface. More friction is consumed to accelerate, steer, and brake, but some friction is there at all times. Once the available friction is used by any one or all of these components, the vehicle will lose traction and operator will lose control. This is true of automobiles as well as bikes.

The principal difference is that a bicycle is a steer balanced vehicle, which requires that we reserve some of our precious friction for steering, or we will simply fall over.

In addition, a single track vehicle is subject to sideways deviations induced by uneven roadway surface, ruts, or ice bumps. Dual track vehicles are seldom bothered by this (except when following deep ruts).

Therefore, ice ridges, such as found on hard-packed snow or icy roads cause more problems for cyclists, because a quick lateral wheel diversion induced by an ice ridge must be “paid back” with in a couple of seconds by at least as large a steering movement back towards the original track.

The longer this is delayed, the more the cyclist tips, and the larger the steering movement required. We simply MUST reserve some friction for these corrective steering movements, as well as arresting the initial wheel diversion.

Correcting for a front wheel diversion tends to return you to your intended course. Back wheel diversions are a special case. These always cause some degree of course change, because to prevent a fall, you must steer to the opposite direction from the diversion, just like any other wheel diversion.

However, since your back wheel is offset to the right (say), you are already going more to the left than you wanted, but you must now steer further left to prevent a fall. You actually exacerbate the course deviation to maintain vehicle balance. On slick bumpy narrow trails this can be really challenging. With 30mph traffic in the next lane it can be no fun at all.

Practical application

Most icebikers would agree with the findings in the SOAR study in the relative ranking of icy surfaces, with the exception that the two categories Tracked Snow and Snow and Ice would be on our “watch list” as these conditions present special dangers for a single tracked vehicle such as a bicycle. Even though not as slippery as wet ice they can be more of a problem to handle.

You might bear in mind that you may have less than 1/4 the traction on glare ice as you do on bare pavement, and much of icebiking is done with 1/2 to 1/3 the traction of summer riding. This is why icebikers are always raving about studded tires.

This requires shallow turns at lower speed. Upright turns (where the cyclist offsets the body to the inside of the turn while holding the bike in a more upright position) keep more of your tread and studs on the ice and are a common low speed turning technique on real slick surfaces.

Still, most winter cyclists find few unmanageable problems in staying upright during routine operation. When playing around or taking risks, crashes do result. But you are usually aware you are pushing the envelope in these situations. The longer you have been at it, the closer to the edge you can go. But when you do go beyond, it is usually spectacular. And this tends to happen just as you think you have the situation mastered.

We are left with the following two truisms:

  • There is MORE traction than most NON ICEBIKERS think.
  • There is probably LESS traction than most ICEBIKERS think.

Studded bike tire

Recreational Icebiking

Winter cycling is seldom about darting off over hill and dale through forest and field. The first obvious obstacle is the snow. Three feet of snow, even light powder, is hard to ride through. Five miles through 4 inches of fresh wet snow will leave you drenched in sweat.

Breaking trail in the backcountry with anything more than 5-8 inches is more work than walking, and almost as fast. This does not mean you are locked out of the woods in the winter. You can ride through a foot of snow as long as its not real heavy and wet. It will be slow, but it can be done.

There are lots of areas where the snow is hard packed enough so that you can ride on top and cover great distances. This might include lakes, trails, back woods roads and snowmobile trails. Often these places are in recreational areas or parks that are less heavily used in the summer.

In northern Minnesota roads are plowed out onto the ice so that cabin owners can get to their summer cabins in the winter, and ice fishing events can be held. In all of these cases the snow is fairly well packed and you can cover a lot of territory.

Where to ride?

First, not all areas have that much snow for the full winter, there are times where there is no snow to speak of. Fall rides along backwoods trails, just after everyone else has hung the bike up for the winter provide great beauty and peaceful solitude.

After a heavy frost or light snow every twig is fat and fuzzy, and the leave, now soggy and frozen, no longer pre-announce your arrival. You can move silently down the back trails and can often see more wildlife than is possible in the dense foliage of summer.

After significant amounts of snow has fallen you can follow snowmobile tracks if you have the right equipment. These guys go pretty fast, so keep a look out for them (you can hear them for half a mile) and get off the trail. Chat them up and be friendly. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to ride there.

Cross country ski trails, if heavily used and widely packed can also be ridden, but these folks are a lot harder to deal with than snowmobiles (how dare you spoil their winter solitude!). Well, maybe just the ones around here are, your skiers may vary.

There are also seldom used logging roads into the back country. These may get infrequent plowing Often these roads are totally abandoned in winter. If found before the snow gets really deep, these trails make excellent riding.

Then there are places you can’t get to in summer. Rivers and lakes, once iced over, make great playgrounds, with vast expanses of ice, often wind blown relatively clear of snow. You then have access to mile of unexplored territory and can go places you could never access by bike in summer.

Take all the usual precautions to make sure the ice is safe, anything over 3 inches is plenty thick enough. This is the place for your studded tires.

Recreational icebike events

There are often once a year events in various cities in which you can participate without having to be a super jock athlete or have expensive equipment.

Some of these are just a bunch of icebikers getting together for a winter ride every Saturday morning. Others are scheduled and publicized through bike shops and local news groups.

Some are rather exciting, and attract quite a crowd. Icebiker Bart Kreps told us about an event called the St Valentines Day Massacre on the river ice near Toronto, in February 1998. An event that is now called the Icycle).

Riders negotiated a heart shaped course with an intersection that had to be carefully approached because braking was “iffy”.

Events of this nature take some planning, and are unlikely to happen in small towns where there are few winter cyclists.

Simple non-competitive winter rides are usually easier to arrange. There are so few icebikers in any given town that finding riding partner is may be difficult. It might be easier just to cajole your summertime riding partners out for a ride on a bright sunny day. Maybe the local bike club is looking for a winter project. Help them out on clothing tips, or point them to this page, and get them out for a short jaunt. Who knows, you may make a convert.

Make your first few rides relatively short, especially if going with new icebikers. They may not have the proper gear and may get cold. Plan to terminate the ride at a popular restaurant or deli where hot drinks are available. Sending your riding buddies off shivering in a car after a cold ride is a good way to get a cold shoulder when you suggest another outing.

What kind of gear?

You can tackle some of these winter opportunities with normal gear and with our recommendation on tires.

First, if there is any snow cover at all, reduce your tire pressure. Do this little at a time (and bring a pump). Since you have a lot of snow for cushioning, you can risk tire pressures that would guarantee snake-bite in the summer. Twenty, fifteen, even ten or five PSI can be gotten away with in a few inches of snow or packed snow.

Not only does this help keep you from sinking, it also increases traction significantly. The idea is to put as many square inches on the ground as possible – exactly the opposite of what you do for fast road riding.

If you spend lots of time at off road winter riding, you should check out the All Weather Sports SnowCat Rims for a wider track. This is an expensive proposition (the rims are over twice what a typical MTB rim costs), but they are twice as wide and the places you can go with really wide rims and super low pressure tires is amazing.

These rims were developed in Alaska for the Iditasport race, the bicycle equivalent of the Iditarod dog sled race. There is nothing else like them anywhere else. No, you still can’t float across that field of 3 foot deep fluffy snow.

Baring that, get the widest MTB tires you can find and just go for it. It’s seldom fast, but it is always a blast, even the crashing can be fun.

A Day’s Outing

On a winter day, planning an icebike romp is a little like planning a day snow shoeing or skiing. The difference is you will probably work harder, and sweat more, so dress lighter. Sooner or later, you have to stop and rest, drain, and replenish. You can get rather cold standing around in a fresh coat of sweat.

In addition, your feet, instead of flexing and being down on the ground out of the wind are in a fixed position and up in the breeze. There is nothing worse than being 20 miles out in the sticks and realizing your feet are really hurting from the cold. Warm boots are critically important.

You can work up a sweat to cover your need for warmth, but it is really hard to re-warm your feet. Get off the bike and walk a ways. Better yet, be prepared with warm equipment. Don’t ride summer cycling shoes into winter.

Check the clothing pages for some recommendations. Plan an additional garment for those rest breaks, something that packs well, perhaps a fleece vest. A spare pair of dry gloves may be in order, as well as a warmer stocking hat.

Bring some food. I’m not the one to tell you what to bring. Bring something you can eat when its almost frozen, because it almost always will be.

Don’t forget your lights for the ride home. Don’t forget your repair kit. I actually have fewer breakdowns in winter than in summer, but the minute you forget that patch kit…

And if you have a really cool trip planned, take your camera.

Fat bikes in the snow

Which Bikes On Ice?

For lots of folks the question of which bike to ride in the winter is moot. You ride the one you have. You may have no room, no money, or no desire for another bike. What you have must serve for winter and summer and every place and every time in between.

But if you had your “Druthers”….(and in truth you probably do, because a second bike need not be all that expensive) what type of bike should you use for winter cycling?

I rather suspect that 95% of all winter cyclists are riding mountain bikes. Another 4% are riding touring or “cross” bikes, and the last 1% are riding everything else from crit bikes to recumbents.

(I leave out of this analysis those bike club rides on sunny winter weekends when the roads are bare and the weather is crisp. Not that these rides aren’t winter cycling, but only because this sort of ride usually ceases when there is snow or ice on the ground and therefore can’t be called icebiking in the sense employed here.)

This is sheer speculation, for other than what I personally see on the road or on the lakes I have no data.

Mountain bikes

So you have a mountain bike. This is one of the easiest bikes to use on ice, if for no other reason then the convenience.

In most road conditions the wider MTB tires may help you gain the traction you need. I say “may” because there is no guarantee, and different tires at different pressures yield such a confusing bunch of data that it is hard to do any proper analysis.

On icy road, or roads with hardpacked snow, the wide MTB tires give you more rubber (or more studs) in contact with the surface. The value of this will quickly be appreciated when you encounter hardpacked snow or bare ice, especially rutted ice where cars have traveled.

Braking is highly dependent on how much rubber touches the ice or the gravel embedded there-in.

The ability to reduce pressure also favors the wide MTB tire. Skinny tires tend to be higher pressure, and can’t be “let down” as much.

There is another school of thought that proposes that since you will be cutting thru the snow anyway you might as well cut thru with a skinny tire and make the job more like a knife thru butter. Skinny tires are said to cut thru the snow down to the traction.

The trouble is, that most of the time you are just on ice, and if there is anything under the snow it is probably ice too!

The skinny tire has a small contact patch, that means fewer gravel particles will be in contact with the tire to provide traction.

Still, if the weight on those fewer particles is higher you could end up with good traction. The jury is still out as there are only a few skinny tire icebikers.

Off road, the wider tire MTBs pretty much dominate. I have never seen anyone riding skinny tire bikes over frozen lakes or down forest trails. I would be willing to bet it could be done, but it seems counter intuitive.

With normal MTB tires, and reduced pressure you will be able to traverse most packed snow and up to about 6 inches of heavy wet snow. Maybe more if you are very fit, or don’t mind coughing up a lung. You will not float on top of fresh snow, you will be sinking in unless you can find snowmobile tracks or heavily trafficked sections to follow.

MTBs usually come equipped to handle fenders and rear-racks for carrying things. For commuting these usually are a requirement at some time of the winter.

Touring bikes

Theoretically the tourer ought to make a better commuter than does a mountain bike. The narrower tires are generally faster and they are usually equipped to accommodate fenders and racks.

On ice it’s only is disadvantage would be in the narrow tires. You need the width for braking. Many tourers can accommodate wider tires, and this might be an option, except for the fenders – they are often too narrow to accommodate wide tires.

Changing tire widths or rim widths may cause a lot of other parts to need replacement. The Nokian W106 studed tires may be a solution for your touring bike.

Road bikes

I’ve only ridden my Cannondale road bike on icy roads a few times. I didn’t enjoy it much, but really didn’t give it much of a chance. The skinny tires seemed to skid at the slightest provocation and I had no confidence in the braking at all. Perhaps with some Nokian W106 narrow studded tires it would be suitable.

On icy roads, braking is often determined by how many granules of gravel your tire covers. You learn to steer for the gravel that the sand trucks spread. If no gravel is around, you steer for undisturbed snow, as even the granularity of snowflakes provides more traction than bare ice.

Skinny tires just don’t cover many snowflakes or grains of gravel. The higher pressure of these tires means you have a smaller contact patch on the ground. My high pressure Conti’s didn’t cover much gravel. As a result, they didn’t see much ice either. Where can I get a 22mm studded tire?

However, when there is no ice on the road it is still a treat to take your road bike out for a brisk midwinter run on a bright afternoon in January.

Other icebikers have reported fair results with skinny tired road bikes. Especially when they are equipped with studded tires. If your frame can accommodate 37mm tires check out the Nokian W106 studded tires in this narrow size. See our tires page. We also have an independent review of the Nokian W106.

Recumbents

Some recumbents are reputed to be rather capable on ice. Mine wasn’t. It was a long wheel based bike that had very little weight on the front wheel. The front wheel would therefore tend to skid rather than turn the bike when it got icy.

Now for those of you unfamiliar with recumbents, you do not balance a “bent” by using upper body English to the extent that you do on an upright bike. You are “close coupled” with the seat back, and you just can’t force the bike left, to dodge a pothole, by jerking your body far right. You have to counter steer a recumbent more than you do a regular bike. (Turn right to cause the bike to lean left, and follow this lean with a turn to left).

This means it is VERY critical that the front wheel provides good traction.

Short wheelbased (SWB) recumbents have a higher percentage of the weight on the front wheel than do long wheelbased (LWB) bikes. Also, the steering movement required are much greater when the front wheel is farther away from where you sit. (Walk through the house with a 1 foot ruler held out in front of you. Now do the same thing with a yard stick. The far end of the yard stick may have to turn the same number of degrees as you round a corner, but the arc has a greater radius, and the distance covered is greater. This greater distance must be covered in the same time as the 1 foot ruler if you are to maintain the same speed).

So LWB recumbents require greater lateral movements of the front wheel but have less weight to hold that wheel on the road. SWB bents have more weight on the front wheel and much smaller movements are required. Because of this, the SWB recumbent is the better choice for icy roads. LWB recumbents can be sort of tricky on ice.

Recumbents in general do poorly on forest trails or other off road situations. (They are great fun on lakes though).

Excerpted Information for this article was supplied by Larry Fasnacht a member of SOAR and fellow icebiker.

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