Snow and ice biking tips

When I lived in Denver, wiping and shaking the snow off my mountain bike before hopping on was just another part of my regular commute. I would ride slowly through the sludge and get to work faster and drier than by any other method (deicing a car takes a lot longer than deicing a bike!).

But Seattle is another beast. There’s less snow, sure, but most people here have skinny road tires. And their rides to work may very well include a nose-dive down Denny (whereas Denver is very flat). But can be done! And the best part about riding a bike is that your bike won’t lose traction and go barreling down a hill, endangering the lives of everyone on the street.

Riding in snow is easy. It’s riding on ice that’ll get you. But I suggest you give it a shot if you haven’t already. Here are some of my suggestions. If you have any different strategies, leave them in the comments:

  • If you are new to biking in the snow, think of your journey as a walk-bike combo. When you get to a sketchy spot, whether it’s a steep hill or a busy intersection, be prepared to get off and walk if you don’t feel comfortable. Think of the bike more as a walking accelerator.
  • Take all turns with too much caution. If you are going to fall, it will likely be because your tire loses traction going over ice (which is sometimes hidden beneath snow). Though your tire may still slip even if you are going overly slow, you have a much lower chance of getting hurt. You have a chance of slipping while walking, too!
  • Take neighborhood streets, even if they have not been cleared. Biking in snow and ice is about getting where you need safely (and having fun!). So long as temperatures are below freezing, a busy street that has been “cleared” may still have small patches of ice. Even a tiny patch of ice could catch a quickly-moving bicycle off-guard.
  • If you do ride on busier streets (e.g. if it’s the only option), be ready to ignore the bike lanes. Making sure bike lanes are clear of debris is low on the city’s priority list during fair weather. Take the lane and ride the speed you need to feel safe. Take up more space than you usually do and don’t give in to the urge to take turns too quickly.
  • Fortify your hands. Warm gloves (or multiple pairs of gloves) are essential.
  • Enjoy your snow-covered city! Smile at people walking. Stop and enjoy the views. People do creative things during the first snow. It’s a chance to let loose and interact with your city in new ways, but that’s hard to do from inside a car!

Of course, the best thing to do is to use your own judgment at each situation. People elsewhere on the interwebs have lots of great info on what works for them. Kent at Kent’s Bike Blog posted info and photos of his snow bike. He also thinks fixed gear is better for the snow, and his reasons are convincing.

What do you do to keep your bike’s sludge off the carpet? Josh Cohen has an interesting solution.

Or, of course, you can always forget the bike and just ride a recycling bin to work:

Looks like so much fun.

What are your tips/strategies for snow/ice riding?

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5 Responses to Snow and ice biking tips

  1. charles says:

    I take the toe straps off my peddles for days like this. I would suggest intentionally taking a few turns too quickly on ice (or compacted snow as it’s safer) and catch yourself with your foot, just to get use to it. When I first moved to Wyoming it took me a few crashes to get use to having my foot ready to catch myself when falling because your bike can slip under you pretty fast sometimes. It’s a good reflex to have in weather like this when you hit some ice ruts.

  2. Yorik says:

    I walked to work on Monday because I wasn’t fully comfortable jumping on the bike like usual. By Monday night I had tried my first snow ride and was amazed by how easy it was. I took everything very slow, especially turns, but was able to start, stop and even go up relatively steep hills with ease. The cold temperatures helped a lot I’m sure… temperatures closer to freezing like we normally have are likely a much different story.
    Two tips I can share are:
    1. Going up hills is much easier than going down them. I biked up Maple Leaf hill last night, including some pretty steep sections with no problem, but going down the same hill was pretty iffy. It’s a lot easier to control your speed with your pedals than your brakes, and if you lose traction going uphill you stop, instead of speeding up like downhill.
    2. Watch out for frozen tracks, kind of like rails in the road. This morning I got caught in a couple frozen ruts, including one from my own bike tire from the day before. These parallel ruts or ridges can catch a tire the same way a streetcar rail does, pulling the bike in a direction you don’t want to go.

  3. Gamby says:

    On Wednesday the 24th I rode from Rainier Valley down to Kent and back. Probably not the smartest thing to do (so I am told) but it was a little adventure in the cold weather. Getting to the Interurban Trail was even more of a hassle than usual, of course. I wound up taking light rail to the Rainier Beach stop, then MLK Way to Boeing Access, and so forth. That worked pretty good, it being mostly downhill. Bear in mind I started when it got light, and it was below 20 F. So the ice is kind of chewed up and sandy, it’s pretty sticky when it’s that cold. The bike trail was really slow going. I had a hard fall right at the Tukwila onramp for northbound I-5. The whole freeway melts right onto the bike path, I guess. It didn’t look much worse than the rest but it was like bumpy glass. Other than that, it was okay except where people had ridden in the sun and it had refrozen. A guy with a ballfield groomer plowed from Foster golfcourse to Fort Dent, that was nice. Then somebody had driven a truck on the trail for a few miles north of Kent. That made a huge difference. A tire track is just about wide enough to keep your balance. Oddly enough, the easiest part was riding up the east hill on James St. The street was closed and the traction was pretty good. I didn’t dare ride down it though. On the way back I came up E Marginal Way, it was great, just about the only time I got to use the pedals much. When I got home my hands were pretty sore from riding the brakes down the hills. That’s my report, and the tip: truck tire tracks are pretty good in frozen slush, up to a point. For what it’s worth.

  4. Double D says:

    Mountain bikes with low tire pressure work really well (I rode every day during the snow storm two winters ago – one day I never saw another cyclist – rare in Seattle). As do studded tires. I always choose the snowiest routes, as snow is way easier than ice – and if you do fall, you have some cushioning. Also, always keep your center of gravity neutral instead of leaning into turns. You’ll be surprised at how little traction you actually need!

  5. Double D says:

    Additionally, I rode on sidewalks and on people’s lawns when I needed to… Not normal policy but when there’s no traction in the street you sometimes have to take drastic measures.

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