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Cycling on Ice

Youíre riding along your favorite trail, enjoying the crisp, even cold, air of late fall, extending the cycling season as long as you can. Itís early spring and the snow has finally just melted off the bike path; youíre getting a jump start on the new cycling year. Suddenly you notice a long patch of ice extending up the trail in front of you. Thereís no way to go around it. What do you do? How do you approach this hazard in a way that allows you to stay upright and unhurt? Unsurprisingly, the techniques for handling a bicycle on ice are not unlike those needed for driving a car on ice. The consequences if you lose control, however, can be much more extreme.

People in all climes choose to ride their bikes through all seasons, and the range of gear available for cycling safely and comfortably in snowy, icy conditions is rapidly increasing. This article is not intended for those who are looking to equip themselves for year-round riding. Instead, it is written for those of us who are unlikely to encounter ice often and may not have purpose-built bikes with heavily studded tires. The basic techniques of safe riding are applicable to both groups, however.

The main thing to remember when you encounter ice is to not panic. When you panic youíre likely to stiffen up, sit more upright, and make jerky movements. All of these reactions are exactly wrong. If you see the ice before youíre on it, stop, relax and assess the situation calmly. If you can scout a path across that appears to have more traction than other routes, aim to ride that track across. Often the edges of a road or path are less smooth than the center area which may be more heavily trafficked. Be careful to notice if the edges are sloped to the outside, however. You donít want to slide off the edge of the road.

Once youíre on the ice, whether you rode onto it intentionally or found yourself on it unexpectedly, relax, keep your muscles loose and keep moving in a straight line. As when driving a car, youíre more likely to lose control when youíre changing speed or direction than when you maintain your speed in a straight line.

It may seem counterintuitive, but youíre more stable if you keep your speed up. Think about how hard it is to ride your bike really slowly on dry ground. The slower you go, the harder it is to not wobble and lose your balance. The same is true on ice, but the effect is magnified. You may not want to race across an icy patch at full speed, but you donít want to go too slow, either.

If you do need to slow down or stop, do so carefully. In order to stay upright you need to maintain control over your steering, and that means you need to be able to control your front tire. If you brake on the front your front tire is likely to lose traction on the ice Ė not a good thing. Slowly and carefully apply your rear brake while steering to keep moving in a straight line. Shift your weight to the rear, over the back tire, to maximize its traction. Your front tire needs very little weight on it to maintain directional control. Your back tire skidding sideways a bit will have very little effect, but the slightest sideways movement on your front tire will likely send you to the ground.

If you need to turn on ice, again proceed cautiously. Unlike when turning on dry ground, you donít want to lean into a turn. You want to keep your body as upright and centered over your bike as possible. If you lean, your tires are more likely to skid out from under you. In order to stay upright, youíll need to enter a turn more slowly than youíre used to. Donít go too slow, though, or youíll lose control due to bike wobble.

In addition to staying centered over your bike, you need to keep your center of gravity low. My natural tendency when I get nervous is to grip my handlebars tighter and sit a little more upright. Instead, I need to stay loose, scoot back a bit to get my weight over my rear tire, and lean forward to be lower on the bike. This stance is much more stable and secure.

As with most things, the best way to conquer your nerves is to practice. Find ice and purposely ride on it. Practicing intentionally is much less scary than suddenly finding yourself in a new and uncomfortable situation. Whatever you do, be sure to protect your head: wear your helmet!

Ride safe and have fun!

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