Support road.cc

Like this site? Help us to make it better.

feature

How to ride your bike through ice and snow — top tips for safe cycling when the mercury drops

Our regular winter feature on how to ride your bike through a wintery wonderland without falling off

When the temperature drops, roads develop a new hazard: ice and snow. Some choose not to risk it, and hang up their bikes for the frozen season, but with the right preparation you can keep riding all through winter. Every winter we re-publish our guide to riding when winter is at it's worst. It comes complete with many years worth of your comments too, there's plenty of wisdom in there.

Some winter survival tips are about preparation, some about riding technique. Let's get your bike sorted out first.

Before you ride

Maximise your contact patch. Fitting fatter tyres, and running them at lower pressures, will increase the size of your contact with the road, so go for the fattest that will fit your frame. If you know you're going to be riding in snow, then a treaded tyre or even a lightly knobbed mountain bike or cyclocross tyre will give extra grip. 

Schwable Marathon Winter crop.jpg

Get studded. Even the best tyres won't grip sheet ice. If you think you're going to encounter proper black ice — which has a nasty habit of lurking at the bottoms of hills on minor lanes and anywhere water runs off fields — then get some studded tyres like  Schwalbe Marathon Winters or Continental Nordic Spikes.

Go tubeless. The main benefit is that you can run super-low pressures for ice, and not risk punctures. You can buy specific tubeless rims and tyres, but we've had good results with standard rims, tyres, some sealant and a roll of electrical tape. You can only run the DIY version up to about 50psi, but that's more than enough for ice & snow.

Read more: Buyer's guide to tubeless wheels

For even more bike winterising tips check out road.cc's guide to winter-proofing your bike

Flat pedals. You may sacrifice some pedalling efficiency, at least until you get used to the different feel, but you are buying get out of jail extra control if things go wrong. If you can't live without clipless pedals, then loosening the release tension is another option and double-sided mountain bike pedals with recessed cleats in the shoes are good.

Fixie sprocket (CC BY-NC 2.0 Marcel Bayani:Flickr).jpg

Ever thought about a fixed? This is the time of year when continuous drive really does come into its own – a fact known to old school roadies through the ages. You can slow a fixed bike down on ice without using the brakes and while maintaining traction and power to the back wheel. That's a very good thing when it's slippery.

Get down! Some people suggest that you lower your saddle slightly, so lowering your centre of gravity. The other advantages of dropping the saddle are that it's easier to get your feet down flat on the road should you suddenly need to use God's stabilisers, and less dramatically but just as usefully it makes it easier to start off sitting in the saddle when things are really slippy. That extra weight can the be difference between the getting the traction needed to move and having your back wheel slip with potential painful top tube consequences.

Did we mention it's cold? An extra layer on top of what you would normally wear in winter is a good idea. Not only is it much colder than most of us are used to but the state of the roads means you are likely to be riding slower than your normal pace, so you may not be generating the same levels of heat.

Pay particular attention to your hands and feet
Feet: overshoes, thermal socks and winter boots are all a good idea. Cold feet make for a miserable ride. It's tempting to put extra socks on but layering outside the shoes keep blood flowing to your toes and your feet warmer.

Struggle to keep your feet warm? Check out this guide to warm socks, overshoes and more.

Hands: It's even more important to keep these warm than your feet – trying to control your bike with two blocks of ice on the ends of your arms is not pleasant on any level. Good gloves are a must and glove liners – even inside thermal gloves if you feel the cold – are a good idea too, as are covers over the brake levers and grips (if your bike has flat bars). The benefit here is twofold: not only do they reduce the windchill to your hands but they also reduce the chilling effect on metal brake levers and bars with thin grips. Metal conducts the cold very efficiently, an argument if ever you needed one for upgrading to carbon levers or taking the budget option with some plastic ones. 

Shopping for gloves? Have a look at our Buyer's Guide to winter hand warmers.

On the road

Cycling Up To Derbyshire Bridge in the snow (CC BY 2.0 arg_flickr|Flickr).jpg

Cycling Up To Derbyshire Bridge (CC BY 2.0 arg_flickr|Flickr)

Choose your road. You may normally keep to the quieter back roads, but they aren't usually gritted when the ice and snow hits so in terms of keeping upright they are going to be the most difficult. The main roads will be clearer, even so you still need to take care.

Keep away from the kerb. Riding too close to the kerb is not a good idea at the best of times. It limits your room for manoeuvre and it's where all the crap from the road tends to accumulate. Even on major roads, the edge may not have been well cleared of snow, and it's where water pools and freezes so in winter it becomes a real no-no. Where main roads cross minor ones the ice and snow often fans out from the side road in to the carriageway and if you are going to fall off you don't want to be doing it within head cracking range of a kerbstone.

Give yourself longer to stop. It takes longer to stop safely or even to slow down on icy surfaces. Factor that in to your calculations when approaching junctions or making any other manoeuvre that is going to involve slowing down or stopping. It's amazing how quickly most people's brain's make this adjustment.And remember it's going to take other people longer to  slow down too.

Get a disc-braked bike. If you're setting up a specific winter bike, then the extra stopping power and control of disc brakes makes them a no-brainer, and they're less affected by the wet than rim brakes.

Choose your line. If you can. The simplest way of avoiding problems when riding on  icy roads is to choose the dry line. One recent winter saw very cold but dry weather in much of the country, so the roads weren't uniformly covered in ice. Instead, it was lying in patches on the road or in gutters, or it was run-off that had frozen across the road so the dry line wasn't always a straight one. Another year, sticking to the dry line was simply impossible, because compacted snow on untreated roads had just frozen. That's when you have to cope with actually riding on the ice.

 

Riding over ice

Icy bike

Lay off the front brake. Most of us know the old mantra “your front brake is for slowing down, your back brake is for stopping” but the bit that usually gets missed out is “except on ice where you really don't want to be losing any of your front wheel's traction. At all.” Haul on the front brake going over ice and any loss of control at the front is going to be sudden and very hard to recover from.

The ideal thing to do if you find yourself riding across a stretch of icy road is to smoothly pedal through it. If you need to slow down, the ideal thing is to be on a fixed. If you're not on a fixed then gentle braking on the back is your best bet. In countries where ice is more the norm some cyclists practise making the back step out under hard braking so that they will know what to do when it happens on ice. If you do feel the need to use the front brake use it along with the back and do it so lightly that the front wheel never stops rolling. We're talking gently scrubbing off speed, as we've already said you really don't want to lose traction at the front.

If the back does step out under braking the first thing to do is stop braking, you also need to make an instant decision to either pedal, or get a foot or even both feet down.  

Choose your line. Again. Yes we already said that, but there's more. If there is a worn or dry line through the ice try to use it, but you may need to make a call here because the dry line may not be in the place you want to be on the road so you will need to proceed with caution. This situation is more likely to apply on minor roads or ones with a steep camber on which heavier vehicles have worn away the ice and snow more on one side; on these roads you would hope that other road users would also be proceeding with extreme caution too. 

Don't let your natural desire to stay on your bike at all costs cloud your judgement. The other thing to consider when choosing your line is the camber of the road. Many of our local roads have a steep off camber that's fine under normal conditions but when it's icy means that not only is the ice against you but so is gravity because you are trying to ride across a slope and your tyre's contact patch is on the side rather than directly underneath you. The best place to be from a traction point of view is on top of the camber which is right in the middle of the road. It may actually be the only place that's rideable. If it is, use your common sense. On quiet straight roads where you can see and be seen it may be doable, otherwise get off and walk to the next section where you can ride. There's no dishonour in dismounting.

Keep it smooth. Avoiding sudden changes of direction and maintain a smooth pedalling action – it really pays off. Many experienced ice riders also say that you shouldn't ride in too low a gear mainly because it's harder to keep things smooth if you are really spinning the pedals – and potentially the back wheel.

Keep pedalling. Try keeping both feet on the pedals while you are moving. However, you may want to be able to get your feet off quickly to dab the ground and help in correcting any slides. The suggested method of dealing with your front wheel sliding is to relax your ankle on the opposite side to the slide and either dip your knee out or dab your foot to drag the bike out of the slide. In our  experience though though this is only going to work at lower speeds,  so you might want to keep it down. 

Don't panic! Keep your head, neck and shoulders relaxed . What you don't want to do is to stiffen up and get twitchy… twitchiness can cause problems.

If you're properly equipped riding in the ice and snow is good fun — no, honestly, it is — but it's not compulsory. You won't get a medal for it so if you think conditions are too tough give yourself a break and get the bus/tube/walk or stay at home and noodle about on your favourite road cycling website… hopefully that's this one.

Of course, now you've read this it should start warming up any minute! In the meantime if you have any ice riding tips don't be shy - get on here and share them with the rest of us.

road.cc's founder and first editor, nowadays to be found riding a spreadsheet. Tony's journey in cycling media started in 1997 as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - finally handing on the reins in 2021 to Jack Sexty. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes, though he'd like to own a carbon bike one day.

Add new comment

122 comments

Avatar
Tin Pony | 8 years ago
0 likes

I've been riding on cycle tracks Tarmac and dirt with continental sport contact 32c and had no issues really been fairly impressed with them. Best advice from all the spills I've had is keep seated especially when pedalling up hill. It's so embarrassing falling off but when there's several dog walkers laughing at you it tends to focus the mind a little. Lol
http://www.tinpony.co.uk/news/

Avatar
miles_from_anywhere | 7 years ago
1 like

Read this!

Helping me get through my first Canadian winter

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Frostbike-Pain-Numbness-Winter-Cycling/dp/1771600489

 

 

Avatar
mark crowther | 7 years ago
1 like

Just get an MTB and fit it with Schwalb Ice Spiker Pro tires then go out all winter. 50kms on frozen rivers at -20C (yes its fun, in the right clothing!) Leave the roadie nice n clean on the turbo trainer. 

Avatar
A V Lowe | 6 years ago
0 likes

Riding fixed is essential element of controlled riding on ice - based on riding 1-gear almost continuously since 1985.

The other is that a 'tenacious' rubber on a slick tyre gives the best grip (maximised contact patch) - very much akin to the use of moleskins on XC skis / walking boots when travelling on ice. When I skied up Cairngorm my companion had moleskins and I had to rely on low temperature wax and edges to get grip - for every traverse he made I had to make 3 at shallower gradient. Still it was fun to get to summit cairn without using the ski tow.

There is also a motor vehicle tyre version of moleskins, a sort of 'fleece' condom that slips over the tyre and is less damaging (and lighter) than snow chains.  Not aware of similar system for bikes but that would work with hub/disc brakes.

Bike tyres do not require sipes to clear water from the contact patch area and knobbly tyres have even less grip on smooth pavements.

Avatar
DaveE128 | 6 years ago
0 likes

Heatshrink over brake levers is another way to reduce the cold feel as heat is conducted away from your fingers. However there may not be clearance on STI road shifters.

I'm on studded tyres at the moment. Wow they're draggy, especially if even slightly soft.

Avatar
Rixter | 6 years ago
1 like

I was super careful but still went down twice hard on the same commute on black ice last January. I'm in the car now when the dew point is plus/minus 2 degrees below zero. Not worth the risk

Avatar
BehindTheBikesheds | 6 years ago
0 likes

Slicks all year for me, snow, ice whatever, you just have to be careful, understand when you need to have a foot out as an outrigger and when to just get off for certain bits. On occasion I've used the MTB in compacted snow with wide tyres and low pressures, freshly laid snow is easy, compacted is a bastard especially at night when it's super smooth due to freezing over after melting slightly.

Had one off coming down a 7% country lane at the back of where I live (it goes to the supemarket in the next town) as it was a proper ice rink with compacted thaw freeze snow but I was being a dick going too fast, should have just stuck to the grass verge.

 

Avatar
Biggus-Dickkus | 5 years ago
1 like

Best advice when there is snow. Lock the road bike away and get the Fatbike out!

Avatar
Yorkshire wallet | 5 years ago
0 likes

Take the car out and do some donuts and handbrake drifts if front of the local kids who can't drive shit with all their electronics on.

More fun than cycling in the snow anyway.

Avatar
IHphoto | 5 years ago
0 likes

Surely it should read "The rear brake is for slowing down, the front brake is for stopping"? 

 

Avatar
srchar | 4 years ago
1 like

Last time I made the effort to cycle into the office on a snow day, only about 1 in 10 people made it in.  It's pointless making the effort - work from home (if you can) like the train commuters will.

Avatar
TheSmallRing | 4 years ago
0 likes

Why is it so hard to get hold of 700c studded tyres? The Continental Nordic Spike look like a good option, but seem to be unavailable at all the major sites. 

Avatar
James Walker | 4 years ago
2 likes

I bought myself a pair of Schwalbe Marathon studded tyres last winter and really enjoyed riding on them. Very reasonable price I thought. I live 1000m asl in Southern Germany and we get some long winter months so being able to go out on your bike and not having to worry about the many ice patches is great. The grip from the studs is outstanding and hard wearing and I didn't loose one stud yet. You get some great looks from people who can hardly walk on an icy road and you can cycle by without problems!

Avatar
ktache | 4 years ago
0 likes

But with spike tyres you have to be very careful dismounting, unless you are wearing spikes on your shoes then they will have far less grip than the bike.

Avatar
hobbeldehoy | 4 years ago
2 likes

Alternatively buy a turbo trainer. You will get a lot fitter on the turbo than slip, sliding away on snow and ice.

Avatar
Rick_Rude | 4 years ago
2 likes

Snow and ice = Drive to work. Ride inside. 

I am getting miles better quality rides in on the turbo at the moment. EVen if I can only get 40 mins in it'll be 40 good minutes with no coasting or backing off. 

At the moment I'm rehabing a shoulder injury, I really can't be doing with hitting the floor when snow and ice come. Did it a couple of years ago and it literally took a year for my hip to settle down after my front end washed out with a vengeance and slammed me on my side harder than I'd ever gone down and that includes MTB jump wipeouts.  Age is a bastard. 

Avatar
dobbo996 | 4 years ago
2 likes

I have one rule for icy conditions: catch the train.

Avatar
Demonix | 3 years ago
3 likes

I could have done with this article last weekend, out on disc equipped road bike on bigger winter tyres, very frosty was riding carefully for the conditions but still managed to lose the front end on black ice and break my collarbone as a result. Managed to cycle 14 miles home, shower defrost and head to A&E. Love cycling on crisp sunny winter mornings but suddenly turbo training now makes a whole lot of sense! Am now looking for a cheap indoor setup to keep me going til I can get back out on road and MTB.

Avatar
wilkij1975 | 2 years ago
1 like

I find the best thing for snow and ice is to stay at home!

Avatar
Welsh boy | 2 years ago
1 like

"You can slow a fixed bike down on ice without using the brakes and while maintaining traction and power to the back wheel. "

Who writes this rubbish?  You only slow down on fixed without using brakes by easing the power off, you will not slow down if you keep the power on, basic physics.

Avatar
Chris Hayes | 2 years ago
1 like

Having spent many years living in Norway I would humbly suggest avoiding cycling in snow and ice unless you have studded tyres.  And even then carefully, unless you're 9!

And when the snow clears from the main roads and its dries out again, be very careful of shadowed areas where it can be a few degrees colder and may stil be icy.  

Broken hips take a while to mend... 

Avatar
brooksby | 12 months ago
1 like

Suggestions on how to stop snow jamming up under your mudguards?

Avatar
Christopher TR1 | 12 months ago
2 likes

Just not worth risking weeks or months off the bike with some stupid injury!

Avatar
Jules59 | 12 months ago
4 likes

"Ever thought about a fixed? This is the time of year when continuous drive really does come into its own – a fact known to old school roadies through the ages. You can slow a fixed bike down on ice without using the brakes and while maintaining traction and power to the back wheel. That's a very good thing when it's slippery."

Can someone explain that to me - a total load of dogmatic tosh IMO - . Whether you slow the wheel down with the brakes or the chain makes no difference to the tyre/road interface.

Avatar
chrisonatrike | 12 months ago
2 likes

Piece of cake, everyone will have fitted their studded tyres (having ordered in June), right?

https://www.cyclinguk.org/article/cycle-tyres-winter-snow-and-ice

(I didn't. Again...)

Avatar
Oldfatgit | 10 months ago
2 likes

Marathon Winter tyres, 700 x 40mm made this seem almost like the snow and ice wasn't there.
I did get a bit over confident at one stage, put too much power on during a turn and felt the back end starting to slide ... eased off the power and the tyres did their stuff.

Avatar
nordog | 9 months ago
0 likes

Try not to use the front brake as you steerage if the wheel is not revolving around just as any motor vehicles stay in the higher gears for traction like a fixer is in high gear for good traction and slowing down slowly not a sudden stop. 

Avatar
IanMSpencer | 9 months ago
0 likes

In the last cold spell we did some gravel riding, which was fine until we got to the last few miles home when we hit frozen field runoff sprayed across the road on a hill. I was ready to dismount but stuck with it. Had a bit of wheel spin even sitting down, but it wasn't sheet ice. 42mm tubeless at about 30psi. Convinced I wouldn't have stayed on with Conti 5000TL 25mm.

I do wonder if a season of gravel riding has made me more comfortable going with the bike where we need to go to stay upright.

Avatar
Xenophon2 | 6 days ago
1 like

Marathon winter.  Works miracles.  The only problem is that they'll bite you in the behind when there's no compacted snow/ice.  Where I am that makes them an iffy proposition because depending on the winter, there's only a week or so that they're really useful.  But during that week, nothing else really helps.

Avatar
wtjs | 6 days ago
0 likes

In early December 2022 there was also a lengthy cold spell. Then, the roads soon pulled moisture out of the air and paths and roads became icy and dangerous. So far, here in Lancashire, the well used roads have remained dry and safe and the Marathon Plus feel secure. I daren't go up into the very attractive local hills, after I was lucky to escape a hard fall on ice without a hip fracture 3 years ago. I spoke to a 35 year old who had fractured his hip in a fall that same season. I am tempted by these reports of Marathon Winter, even though they won't get much use and it would be tedious changing them frequently.

Pages

Latest Comments