Hints & Tips

How to Stay Safe Riding in Icy Conditions

A big chill is headed our way... here's how to ride through it safely

For road cyclists and commuters, ice can be something of a devil. We can bundle ourselves up to combat the cold, don waterproofs when it’s really bucketing it down – but when it comes to ice you may not even see it on the road until it’s too late. 

The ideal answer to the question of “how do I ride safely over ice on the road?” is “don’t” – but that’s not particularly helpful for a regular rider with a ten mile commute and no alternative mode of transport, or a roadie desperate to cram in some winter miles.

What we can do is provide you with some tips to help you avoid the situation, and pointers for coping if you should find yourself slipping…

Use the forecast

Yes, weather forecasts can be wrong – but they’re a good place to start. My own cycling club have a rule – if it’s 0 degrees or less before 9am (when rides begin), they’re cancelled. Someone will always risk it, and go out on their own non-official ride – and sadly I’ve seen a fair few of these rides end badly, so I tend to trust the advice. Therefore, if the weather reading says it’s going to be (or is) sub zero, try to find an alternative if you can.

We realise that’s not always an option for commuters – there’s more for you later. If you’re really just after a fitness fix, remember you get get that (and then some!) via a good turbo session – or you could just postpone your ride by an hour or two – a decision many post-crash riders will chide themselves for not making (yes, I’ve been that rider and it hurt for weeks).

Prepare yourself and your bike

Admittedly, having the right gear on your bike and your body probably isn’t going to act as the ultimate saviour should you hit a patch of black ice. However, it certainly can’t do any harm.

Good winter tyres are a start – these will generally be made from a tougher compound than ‘summer tyres’ and will be more grippy. This doesn’t mean they’ll be identified by thick grooves in the rubber – winter tyres are made to hug the road thanks to the compound used, not the level of tread – check out this  guide for more information.

You can get your bike shod with rubber designed for ice in particular – such as Schwalbe’s Marathon Winter Plus tyres. These come with small pins in them to aid grip and are generally an investment for those who live in a climate where ice is a daily struggle. Though they can ride smoothly at a higher PSI, there is a trade off as they’re notably slower than other options.

Once you’re happy with your tyre choice you can also make yourself safer by going for the right pressure. For wet or potentially icy conditions, you should look to lower this by around 10psi – this gives you a wider surface area and therefore more grip. Read this guide to how often and how high you should pump your tyres. 

With the bike sorted – it’s time to focus on yourself! You need to be fully aware of what’s going on around you, and capable of steady and controlled braking. Layer up, and go for gloves that you know will give the best chance of maintaining sensation in those all important lever operating fingers.

Use main roads

It’s not often we give this piece of advice! We’re not suggesting you go time trialling down your nearest slip road and onto the motorway (it has happened… it’s not legal…) but remember that the busier the road, the more cars have travelled over it.

It’s a bit grim, but cars release heat along with exhaust fumes, and they melt the ice. Small country lanes, on the other hand, are more likely to have poor drainage and over-hanging trees – which results in standing water that freezes overnight and isn’t thawed by so much passing traffic.

While we’re on route planning – if there’s a risk of ice it’s certainly one of those cases when you’re doing the right thing by keeping away from the climbs. The higher you go, the colder it is – so if you can edit your route to stay low, then do. If you do have to climb, stay seated, and hold the handlebars steady for greater traction.

Go around standing water

Puddles make your feet wet – not cool as it is. However, if temperatures are very low there’s much more risk involved. The puddle itself may be wet, but the light film around it is less dense and therefore more likely to have solidified in a slippery manner. Give all puddles and surrounding surfaces a wide berth.

Stick together

One cyclist alone in a bad situation is not great. Two cyclists in a bad situation is slightly better. Three even more so – and so on until you reach around five (where you’re actually just increasing your risk of gliding into one another!).

It’s not always practical on a commute – but if you can arrange to ride with company, it’s a very good idea. Failing that, make sure you’ve got a charged up mobile and a form of ID on you (sorry to sound so morbid).

If it happens…

Finally – we said we’d provide advice should the worst happen and you do find yourself riding straight over what soon makes itself known to be black ice.

It is possible to get to the other side unscathed as long as you act quickly but not dramatically. As soon as it becomes clear you’re riding on ice, hold your handlebars steadily and try to keep your weight over the back wheel as much as possible, without making any sudden shifts.

The temptation will be to pull on the brakes – but this is the worst thing you can do. Instead, slow or completely cease your pedalling if you can maintain momentum, and keeping your bars straight, aim for the other side. We can’t promise you’ll get there safely, but you have a greater chance if you keep it steady.

The final, hopefully obvious, piece of advice is that if ice is on the cards you should slow your riding down to increase your chances of a safe expedition.  Though ice is best avoided, it doesn’t have to spell a bruise – just be careful, plan your route, and be as prepared as you can. 

And if you do end up with a bump? Check out this piece on the remarkable effects of K-tape on bruising! 

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