Note – I published the first two of these ‘Winter cycling’ articles at the start of November and since then the ‘real’ winter has failed to arrive. We’ve had two months of really quite warm, albeit very wet, weather. Because of that I’ve held off publishing this article about staying on your bike during the winter, but the forecast is for the temperatures to start dropping, so this seems the right time to share my thoughts on winter cycling… enjoy…
In the first two articles about winter cycling I talked about the weather and what clothes to consider, but in manner respects those are the easy bits, they’re often common sense or can be picked up over the season. But getting tips on how to actually ride your bike during the winter are few and far between.
At the very start of the first of those ‘Winter’ articles I said that the biggest change with cycling in the winter was that the road (and trail) became slippery. It really is stating the obvious, but it seems that many many cyclists don’t appreciate this soon enough and I know a number of people who’ve ended up off their bikes as a result. To be fair in many cases this is just bad luck (being in the wrong place at the wrong time), but it’s worth flagging up a few pointers to try and reduce the chances of an spill.
Before we think about bike handling, take a few minutes and consider external factors… the biggest ones being traffic and pedestrians. If you think the conditions are slippery and will challenge your ability to stay on your bike, please don’t try and cycle in traffic – remember if you’re finding it slippery, then they’ll have issues as well. So if you slip off in front of a moving vehicle bear in mind that they may well across start sliding on exactly that same piece of road when they hit the brakes, so they may well be unable to take any avoiding actions.
Likewise with pedestrians, regardless of the rules of the road (which may well mean you have right of way – controversial?), consider that you’re on a moving vehicle that has the potential to hurt a pedestrian if you slip near them.
Also remember that other road users may well have some restricted visibility during the winter, either a pedestrian with their collar up and hat pulled down tightly, or a car or van driver struggling with a windscreen that’s either partially fogged up or still carrying the remnants of some frost that they didn’t quite scrape off properly. Just be sensible and don’t assume that other road users are able to get out of your way if you get out of control or that they have seen you… my mantra throughout the year is “just because you have right of way, doesn’t mean it’s safe”, and that’s doubly true in the winter.
Although we’ve mentioned rain and ice making the conditions slippery, remember that on the road any marking (such as white lines) or cast-iron covers will be more slippery, and on the trails any tree roots or exposed rocks will be similarly treacherous.
OK, so back to bike riding basics… in many respects riding a bike in the winter is no different to any other part of the year and you’ll probably find that you already have the instinctive skills to deal with much of what mother-nature tries to throw at you. However, controversially (?), if you’re a pure roadie, because you’ll have had less exposure to the spills and skids of mountain bikers and cyclocrossers (all those near-misses that you managed to save yourself from), you are more prone to accidents. Unfortunately road bike accidents, when they happen, tend to happen faster with less time to react, so have the potential to be more serious, especially when other traffic is involved… so just bear that in mind.
I mention this again later, but you should be enjoying your bike rides, so you should be relaxed and aware of your surroundings – if you’re finding yourself tense and concerned of everything in front of you (and quite possibly behind you as well), then you’re not going to having a great time and you’ll find the chances of making a mistake are hugely increased. By staying relaxed and keeping your arms loose, your bike will do a surprisingly good job of finding its own way along the road, obviously with you providing some degree of direction in the way you’re planning to head – think how easy it is for a bike to be ridden with no hands. Unfortunately as soon as you stiffen up, you start to lock the bike into a certain position and you lose the ability for it to make tiny changes to adapt to the road conditions, and that starts to increase the possibilities of an incident.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with accepting that you’re potentially a fair(-er) weather cyclist, so don’t push it when the weather takes a turn for the worst.
If you’re relaxed and the bike is trundling happily along the road at some point you’ll need to apply the brakes. When you’re riding in good dry conditions you should be biasing your braking to use your front brake, that puts the braking force into the wheel that’s most solidly planted to the road, which generates more braking force and avoids the rear wheel locking up in a skid. There’s more science to this before anyone complains, but that’s the rough principle.
Now think about how that might change if the road surface is slippery… clearly hard braking on the front wheel, with no good grip between the tyre and road, risks locking the front and creating a front wheel skid, and as soon as that happens you will crash… unless you’re lucky, very few people can control and survive a front wheel skid. So the braking rules change as the roads lose their grip and you need to start biasing the braking to your rear wheel. While this reduces the chances of a front wheel skid and a crash, it has two profound effects:
1 – It risks the chances of the rear wheel locking up. Most us will have experienced a rear wheel skid, especially when we were kids, and it’s fairly manageable. If you stop braking, then the bike will generally come into line, and then you can re-apply the brakes except maybe more gently. Alternatively as the bike starts to step out at the rear, you should have a chance to put a foot out and, with luck, either stop the slide or step off of the bike gracefully (hopefully not onto the ice that caused the skid in the first place).
Note – if you normally ride in cleats/SPDs, if the roads are becoming more slippery, you may want to consider swapping to normal ‘flatty’ pedals, so you’re not attached to the bike in the event that it does skid.
2 – It will take longer to brake. As you’re not using the most efficient braking technique, it should be clear that it’s going to take longer to slow down or come to a halt. For this reason you need to think ahead when you’re riding in bad weather and to ride a bit slower to give yourself more time.
When we talk about braking bias, we’re not looking for a 90:10 split… we’re looking at maybe 60:40, so just enough to ensure that the majority (albeit a small majority) is going to the right wheel and during the winter it’s the rear wheel that you want to lock up first (if at all) ahead of the front wheel.
Note – I’m happy for this rear-brake bias to be challenged. I’m not writing this for professional cyclists who have the well developed skills to deal with braking issues in winter weather and, as a keen all-year-round cyclist, I’ve found the rear bias in deteriorating weather to work best for me.
This all assumes that it’s safe to use your brakes anyway, which seems a strange thing to say, but if you find yourself on some black ice, touching any brakes is highly likely to end up with the bike stepping out from under you. So if you find yourself in a position where you think that touching the brakes will end in disaster there are a few things you can do to help a positive outcome:
1 – You’re looking for the bike to come to a controlled halt on its own, with very little input from you. So just let the bike coast to a stop, physics is your friend and the bike will stop.
This clearly goes out the window if you’ve found yourself on a steep descent, in which case you’re probably going to be throwing yourself and bike at the nearest soft verge – but hopefully you’ve thought far enough ahead to avoid finding yourself in this situation.
2 – Don’t steer heavily. Steering the bike will also destabilise it and may well end up putting you on the ground, so just keep tracking straight ahead. Again, this may well end you up on a verge, but hopefully you’ll still be upright. You may well find that the natural camber in the road will draw you to the left and into the verge in these circumstances.
3 – Feet out of the pedals. Taking your feet out of the clips or off of the pedals, and then putting them closer to the ground, not only lowers your centre of gravity and makes you feel ‘more balanced’, but it clearly makes it way easier to put a foot to the ground if you start to slide.
4 – Stay relaxed. Your bike handling will be better if you’re relaxed and, should the worse happen, you’ll probably land more comfortably if you flex as you land.
5 – Be prepared to go off-road. This is particularly helpful if you find yourself on back ice on the road. A normal road surface provides the mirror smooth finish that makes black ice so treacherous, but the side of a country road often changes to some muddy scrub or a grassy verge, which shouldn’t be anywhere near as icy and the rough surface will also help to scrub of some speed as you coast to a halt.
Note – If you’re tracking off the road to try to stop just beware of any kerb stones, which will catch you and drop you on the road, as will pot holes or other road wear & tear.
If you do feel yourself going down, then there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to step off with some degree of control and avoid a nasty landing. It’s not as though you’ll have been taken completely by surprise, like a summer road ride where you blast round a corner and hit some loose gravel with all hell breaking loose instantly… hopefully you’ll have seen the conditions deteriorating and you’ll already be working through how to manage the outcome.
If you can’t step off and hit the ground properly, the one thing working to your advantage is that the ground is slippery, so you’re probably going to slide a bit as well and hopefully will avoid too much road-rash. Just be careful when you get up though, because you don’t really want to slip up again.
While slippery surfaces are an issue, any rain will affect your braking performance. Disc brakes should be less prone to reduced effectiveness in heavy rain, although I’ve seen an incident recently where debris was thrown up in the water and lodged in the calliper, effectively rendering it useless – although in my years of mountain biking I’ve yet to see this happen. Rim brakes have always suffered in the rain, which is more of a concern if you have long descents to deal with – my recent descent from Wrynose Pass was decidedly unpleasant as the rain kicked in and the, otherwise wonderful, Ultegra 6800 brakes struggled to give me the confidence that I needed, as I was starting to tire. Having said that, once we hit the flat and started the drag into Ambleside, although the weather turned to biblical levels, the brakes were fine for the conditions.
Finally, as a fall-back, take a phone and keep it somewhere where it’s not going to be damaged if you crash, but equally is easy to get to if the worst happens. The inside pocket of a jacket is ideal, as that will stay with you if you get separated from your bike and end up in a ditch.
I love winter winter cycling, there’s nothing like that combination of cold and rain to make you feel like a Flanders superhero and I thoroughly recommend that all cyclists give it a try… you get hooked. Just stay safe and don’t take unnecessary risks.