Common Causes of Winter Bike Crashes and How to Avoid Them
Cycling outdoors in winter requires unique risk management. Even in tricky conditions, stay safe with these expert tips.
In winter, roads, paved bike paths and manicured routes can become slick, uneven and varied for cyclists. This is for a mix of commuters, road cyclists and fat cyclists. In addition to ground cover, seasonally changing conditions can be difficult to manage for a variety of reasons.
Here, cycling experts break down the most common causes of winter bike crashes and how cyclists can avoid them. Let these tips help you put safety first and pedal more confidently throughout the year.
Watch out for ice
Ice is an obvious winter riding risk, but sometimes it can sneak up on you, causing you to slip, slip and crash. “Depending on your traction, riding on pure ice or refrozen ice is dangerous. Any redirection, acceleration or deceleration will be very difficult to manage,” said Eagle County Emergency Services Flight First Responder and Bicycle Accident Chris Carr said. For better traction, run lower tire pressures (60-80 PSI) with 25mm or 28mm wide tires in good condition, Carr says.
“Be aware of changing road conditions — like on twisty canyon roads, biking in mountains, or trees blocking the sun,” Carr said, because that’s where ice can hide. “Ice melting in shady areas is slower than in sunny areas. So there can be four seasons with different conditions within 100 feet.”
In the Northern Hemisphere, north-facing slopes are more shady in winter, while south-facing slopes receive more sunlight. In addition to affecting sunlight exposure on the road, this also affects the rate of melting of snowy or icy hillsides.
“Freeze-thaw cycles create black ice, and it can definitely be challenging to ride,” adds Beth Shaner, director of nursing at Gunnison Valley Health Mountain Clinic outside Crested Butte, Colorado. Shaner is a Certified Emergency Nurse and Nationally Registered Paramedic.
According to The Weather Channel, black ice forms when temperatures drop below freezing during a refreeze cycle while the ground is still wet or with dew or fog. This is often seen in shaded areas near bridges, overpasses, and trees.
To better control the ground, Shaner rides on snowy terrain with 5-inch-wide tires. She kept a pair of studded tires for races in icy conditions, such as sections on icy rivers. Note, if you’re riding a fat bike on icy water, make sure the ice is thick enough: Shaner has treated a broken collarbone caused by over-throwing the handlebars when a rider’s tires smashed through lake ice.
“For riders who handle more ice than snow and icy roads, I recommend studded tires,” she said
Dave Hunger, owner of Teton Mountain Bike Tours, is also a big proponent of studded tires. “If you ride gravel, road, mountain or fat bikes in the winter and commute on a bike path or road, I recommend at least one studded tire on the front. They are expensive, as expensive as my truck tires, each Tires are nearly $250, but it’s cheap health insurance,” Hunger said.
For slick conditions, he added, “feather or don’t use the front brake. If you’re on the road, be more defensive than in summer because the car won’t stop if it’s icy.”
Predict sand, rock salt and liquid compounds
“Be aware of the product your state uses for traction control on road vehicles, which can be slick for cyclists. Look out for it in the next few days after you apply,” Carr said.
To manage ice, snow, snow, and black ice, every state uses a variety of products to treat roads across the country. Each technique adjusts for conditions such as temperature and type of precipitation. Deicers include rock salt—sodium, magnesium, or calcium chloride—or a mixture of rock salt and sand to increase vehicle traction. Sand is finer than gravel, and due to rain or snowmelt, sand can migrate into roads from hillsides or plucks.
“Ice is more predictable than sand, which comes out of nowhere: Sand on concrete is like marbles on glass—it’s so slippery that I’ve fallen on it a few times,” Carr said. “The sand is also not evenly distributed, depending on how many cars pass through the sand. Typically, it’s applied to steeper roads and bends where cars are likely to slide.”
If you want to ride with elevation gains and losses, either for fun or for exercise, choose a back-to-back route that you can climb first – so ride at a slower pace – not the one you blast off, Karl suggests , falling before rising. Riding uphill at a slower pace will give you more time to find the way for any lingering products that have applied for winter maintenance before going downhill.
Don’t forget head protection, even in winter conditions
A helmet may not prevent you from crashing, but if you do, it will protect your head. While there are no federal and state laws that require bicycle helmets, experts agree that you should still wear head protection even if you’re riding in conditions that look powdery and soft. “Helmets are optional in Wyoming. I encourage our guests to wear a helmet when renting a winter fat bike or signing up for a guided winter fat bike tour with us, which we provide for free,” Hunger said.
Shaner found that fewer cyclists wore helmets in winter than in summer. “Some people think because they’re fat on their bikes on soft snow, or because Nordic skiers don’t wear helmets on neat trails, they don’t need helmets,” she said. “You can accelerate on a fat bike. If you go down, that’s unforgivable, especially on the road.” That’s why she always recommends wearing a helmet.
You may need a cold weather specific helmet setup. “If you wear a hat under the helmet, make sure the helmet is on it properly or go one size up. I have a bigger, cheaper, heavier winter helmet so I can wear a hat under it ,” Carl said. “If the weather is very cold and snowy, a ski helmet is a great option to provide the same protection.”
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