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How to Avoid Crashing in Winter

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

If you are riding your bike this winter, you should be aware that the cold is probably the least of your worries – if only because there are relatively simple solutions to combatting the cold when you ride. Winter is also the most dangerous of seasons for the cyclist, because of the slick road surfaces and gusts of wind and other sudden changes of conditions. So it is probably helpful to know what the main causes of bike crashes in winter are and how to avoid them.

No need to tell you that ice is a major danger to riding in winter. If you are riding on pure or refrozen ice, any change of direction or increase or decrease in speed could send you into a skid. Chris Carr, a flight paramedic at Eagle County Paramedic Services and first responder to cycling accidents, advises cyclists to run their bikes at a lower tire pressure than during the rest of the year, at 60 to 80 PSI in a 25mm or 28mm-wide tire that is in good condition.

Cyclist in winter
Winter is the most risky of seasons for the cyclist. © Profimedia

Carr also suggests being aware of the changing road conditions, as on a twisting road, a mountain ride or when trees block the sun. “Ice melts slower in shadowy areas than in sunny areas,” he notes. “So, there can be four seasons of different conditions within 100 feet.”

And then there is black ice, which forms during freeze-thaw cycles when the temperature drops below freezing while the ground is still wet or if there is dew or fog. It is usually found on bridges, overpasses and shaded spots near trees.

Beth Shaner, the nursing supervisor at Gunnison Valley Health Mountain Clinic outside of Crested Butte, Colorado, and a certified emergency nurse, said she rides with studded tires in icy conditions.

“For riders that deal with more ice than snow and with icy roads, I recommend studded tires,” she said. Shaner also reminded cyclists who like riding on frozen rivers to make sure the ice is thick enough to ride on. She has already had to treat a rider for a broken clavicle when he was tossed over the handlebars after the front tire broke through lake ice. Ouch!

For a final word on ice and slick conditions in general, Dave Hunger, owner of Teton Mountain Bike Tours,  suggests feathering or not even using the front brake. “If you’re on a road, be really defensive even more so than in summer, because cars can’t stop if it’s iced over,” he explained.

You should also know what product your locality or region uses on its roads to manage ice, slush, snow and black ice. “Ice is easier to predict than sand, which can come out of nowhere,” Chris Carr said. “Sand on concrete is like marbles on glass: it’s extremely slippery and I’ve crashed a handful of times on it.”

Sand also distributes unevenly, depending on how many cars have gone over it, he added. Usually, it’s used on steep road sections and curves, where cars could skid.

Some localities use liquid forms of salt compounds. Anti-icers, which are applied at the onset of a winter storm to prevent ice formation, and de-icers break down existing ice and snow formation. Both should be avoided by cyclists. “Any lingering compound is like grease and makes the road look wet but is way more like ice,” Carr explained.

And make sure to thoroughly rinse your bike after riding it over liquid or granular salt, because that stuff literally eats metal and electronics.

Winter can also provide challenging visibility conditions, both seeing and being seen. So put on high-contrast apparel and consider wearing a reflective traffic vest on top. And mount a red rear-facing light to the seatpost and a white forward-facing light to the handlebars, so cars can see you in time.

“If you’re riding in muddy or wet conditions, the rear light can get obstructed with spray that comes off the road,” Carr said. “Stop, check [it] and wipe it off so you remain visible.”

Adding a helmet light in low- or no-light conditions will definitely help you see where you are going and also get a better look at the condition of the road surface in front of you. Perhaps the most important safety suggestion of all: be alert while you ride. Your eyes and your reactions are essential to keeping you out of harm’s way.