Riding Techniques

Tips for Riding in Icy Conditions

Winter riding on frozen mixed-terrain is some of the best riding:  No one else is out on the trails, the ice and snow make every trail you've ridden a thousand times seem entirely new, the trails are naturally protected so you can ride anytime, and it's great for skills training.

The tougher the conditions, the more likely you are to have the trails to yourself.  One of the toughest conditions is ice -- and we have plenty of that in New England.

The Icy Trail - photo - Rob Vandermark

Here are some of our tips for mixed-terrain riding in icy conditions.

First, the recommendations we provide here are in no way a guarantee of staying upright.  Riding in the winter can be dangerous, so respect for the ice and the conditions is extremely important.  These recommendations will reduce the odds of an accident but even if you follow all the rules, there's no guarantee that every ride will be a mishap-free ride.

Ride studded tires.  This is the most important safety rule for winter riding on trails.  We're constantly amazed that riders show up to winter adventure rides without studded tires.  Studded tires work.  The studs simply grip ice incredibly well.  Without studs your bike will be much more difficult to control. 

Sliding out on ice is entirely different from crashing on singletrack in the woods.  Singletrack crashes often occur in slow-motion; ice accidents are fast-motion situations.  And, putting your foot out to brace yourself will not help, and is often not even possible due the the speed at which ice crashing occurs.  Crashing due to icy conditions is one of the worst accidents you can have because traction loss occurs with no warning, your body is actually accelerating into the ground as your wheels slide out from under you, and the ground is extra hard.  We've seen some fractured and broken bones from falling in icy conditions.

Ride very conservatively.  If you don’t ride in the snow and ice very often, the surface conditions can be disconcerting; or, conditions can seem fine -- until they’re not.  Ice can be hidden under snow.  Snow can be a lot slippery than you might think.  Black ice is really difficult to see until you’re on top of it.  

When we're riding in the winter we're not trying to win any speed competitions; we’re trying to have an awesome ride -- and to stay warm.  Winter riding, for most of us, is off-season riding, so it's base mile training time.  Our pace is a stay warm pace, not race pace.

Expect continuously changing trail conditions.  Trail traction, temperature, and conditions tend to change throughout any given ride -- whether that's because it's getting warmer or colder, or because mile by mile different trail areas see different sun exposures, subterranean base temperatures, and trail usage by various constituents.  All of these variables make for a ride that changes minute by minute.  Just when you think you've adjusted your riding for the today's trail conditions, everything is likely to change on you.  Always expect the unexpected around the next corner.

Choosing the smart line:  Clear ice, dark ice, or white ice?  Ride the white rather than the clear ice or dark ice. This is counterintuitive for most people.  Your brain may tell you to get off the snow – get onto the clear ice area – but this is wrong.  The white ice has air bubbles in it and that actually provides you traction.  White also indicates that there’s snow embedded in the ice and that typically provides you relatively excellent traction, too.  Dark ice is smooth ice, or new ice, or melting ice -- these are all really bad from a traction standpoint.

Choosing the smart line:  Ride the choppy ice rather than the smooth ice.  Again, this is probably counterintuitive.  Choppy ice provides you better traction options.  Choppy ice keeps your wheels more upright because you’re riding, or bouncing, from rut to rut -- like a pinball in the machine.  Smooth ice doesn’t provide your wheels anywhere to counterbalance against -- if you start loosing traction you're going to hit the deck.  If you start losing traction on choppy ice, by definition, your wheel is going to hit an edge and that will help keep you upright.  Also, choppy ice is more likely aerated and therefore offers much better traction.

Managing smooth ice and boardwalks:  The keys to surviving a slick section of ice, or an icy boardwalk, are steady torque and riding very upright.  It sounds so simple, doesn't it? 

  • "Steady torque" means even pedal pressure throughout the pedal stroke.  This is much more difficult than it sounds; it takes practice.  Steady also means you're not using your brakes; even a slight touching of your brakes, if that causes any torque change, can break tire traction and you’ll be on the deck before you know it.  the trick is to slow down before you meet the ice and then glide over the ice with an extremely even pedal stroke.  Even pedaling is better than coasting, but coasting is better than changing speed - through uneven torque or braking.
  • "Upright" means no leaning of the bike at all.  If you have to turn, turn the front wheel, don’t lean into the turn.  You may be surprised at how much you use leaning in order to turn; don’t do it.  Also, keep your rear-end on the seat; this will help prevent you from using body English, and it provides you more accurate feedback about what's happening between the ground and your tires.

Managing wood bridges and boardwalks.  Wood behaves in unusual ways -- relative to dirt and pavement -- in frozen conditions.  Ice and packed snow tend not to stick very well to treated wood; meaning, ice tends to break up under your tires when you're riding boardwalks, so you have even less traction than you do on regular ice.  This is a bit subtle but the basic recommendation is to do everything you'd do on ice, but even more carefully.  In addition, on a boardwalk, because it's narrow, you have no options of line choosing.  So, be extra careful on boardwalk crossings -- or any wooden bridge crossing.

Set your tires to higher pressure than you do in the summer.  We have three reasons for this suggestion:

  1. Your tires lose pressure as the temperature drops -- like when you go from a 68 degree indoor space to a 20 degree outdoor ride.  For every 10 degree drop in temperature your tires will lose about 2% of their pressure.  The change in pressure from 70 to 20 degrees is a 10% loss.  Over-inflate your tires by about 10% above what you really want for the ride.
  2. Getting a flat is more likely to occur in icy conditions for three reasons:
    • Choppy ice will give you a pinch flat nearly as easily as a protruding rock, although most people don't think about this as a possibility.
    • Choppy ice is difficult to judge; it’s hard to see how sharp, large, or problematic a choppy ice section will be when compared to a section of exposed rocks. 
    • Snow covers rocks, so you can’t tell where the sharp rocks - or choppy ice - live until you hear your rim contact the rock.  Remember that sound?
    • The counter to these ideas is that we all tend to ride slower in the winter due to challenging conditions, and therefore are less likely to have a pinch flat.  However, #3 explains why we still run higher pressures even as slower speeds.
  3. Getting a flat at 20 degrees is really not fun.  We find that the trade-off of a slightly rougher ride is much preferred over changing a flat, with gloveless hands, when it’s really cold out.

Tire pressure is a complicated math equation.  It includes a combination of tire bead type -- clincher, tubeless, sewup -- rim width, rider skill, rider weight, tire volume, tire tread, tpi, temperature, riding conditions, flat proof-ness of the tire, and tire quality, to name a few elements of the equation.  So, whatever studded tire you ride doesn't have the exact properties of your favorite summer tires.  Therefore, by definition, your tire pressures should be different.  Once you've taken tire differences into account, we tend to set our winter tire pressure about 10-20% higher than our summer tire pressure -- for flat prevention; that percentage varies by riding conditions.  Overall these changes mean a 20% increase for room temperature winter tire pressure relative to summer tire pressure.  Meaning, for example, if you typically ride your rear tire at 42 lbs pressure in the fall, we'd suggest setting your pressure to 50 lbs for 20 degree riding.

That covers some of the ways in which we ride in the winter in order to maximize fun and our ability to ride another day.

If this list provides you pause about riding in the winter, that's good; a healthy respect for ice and snow, the elements, and your skill set are all good ideas.  Winter riding is beautiful, and part of that beauty is appreciation for the challenges that Dame Winter offers.

What additional tricks do you use to stay upright during icy winter rides?