How to Bike On Black Ice

Recently, we provided a few tips for effectively biking through wet leaves, which have just about saturated Portland’s streets. With temperatures expected to dip below freezing soon, now is the time to prepare for safe winter bicycling and icy conditions ahead.

Black ice refers to a thin coating of glazed ice on a surface. It’s virtually transparent on asphalt, making it practically invisible to bicyclists, but just as slippery as regular ice.

Keep reading for tips to avoid being caught by surprise on slick roads.

Get your bike ready for ice.

  • Lower tire pressure to the lowest recommended psi.
  • Lower your saddle slightly to lower your center of gravity. (It’s also easier to get your feet down flat on the road should you suddenly need to.)
  • Plan your route ahead of time. Keep in mind: side streets might not be treated for snow or ice.

Be aware of how ice affects different surfaces.

  • Streets are most slick when it first begins to rain or snow.
  • Metal, including manhole covers and bridges, and painted surfaces can be especially slick.
  • Bridges and overpasses can freeze more easily and take longer to thaw than regular roadways.

Know what to do when you encounter ice.

  • Slowing down may not always be the safest option. Speed provides momentum, and momentum keeps a bicycle upright. As always, use your best judgment.
  • Take turns much more gradually, and don’t lean into turns as much as you normally would. Try to keep the bike as upright as possible.
  • Avoid sudden changes of direction and maintain a smooth pedaling action.
  • Give yourself longer stopping distances, and keep a firmer grip on your handlebars.
  • Lay off the front brake. On ice, you don’t want to lose any of your front wheel’s traction —  loss of control at the front is going to be sudden and very hard to recover from.

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Comments (9)

  1. Scott Permalink  | Nov 18, 2011 09:01pm

    Reasonable advice. I’d add consider buying studded tires. They are slower but do wonders in ice. I ride studded tires mid-Nov to end of Feb.

  2. Steve B Permalink  | Nov 18, 2011 09:58pm

    How to bike on black ice in the Portland metro area: http://www.trimet.org

  3. Doug Smart Permalink  | Nov 18, 2011 11:24pm

    It all comes down to physics. Going in a straight line is fine. When turning (applying force to deflect off the straight line) is when things are put to the test. You may have a level of surface friction that lets you hold a turn, but encountering another surface in mid-turn (manhole cover, pavement markings…) can instantly change the equation and cause a crash.

  4. GlowBoy Permalink  | Nov 19, 2011 12:19am

    Studded tires are indeed awesome. Like Scott, I use them (usually just on the front) for much of the winter. Not only great on our infrequent ice and much more frequent frost, but also on wet leaves, which they punch through to grip the pavement below.

  5. alec Permalink  | Dec 05, 2011 07:18pm

    Thanks for this ! I fractured my hip 6 years ago from turning on black ice in east county. I wish I had read this and/or had studded tires for that commute( which I no longer do).
    Thanks again
    Alec Tucker DC

  6. Wade Permalink  | Dec 07, 2011 05:11pm

    Another way to avoid crashes and other problems when riding on black ice is to … not ride on black ice. I refuse to ride on ice, especially now that I’ve got a small child to care for. To me, it’s not worth the risk. I find alternate ways to work on icy days.

  7. India Viola Permalink  | Dec 08, 2011 05:22pm

    I recommend going one step further. Studded bicycle tires make black ice as easy to ride on as asphalt.
    They are not sharp and are not slippery on pavement. Because they are used seasonally, if you invest in carbide-tipped studs they last for several years. Studded bicycle tires just became officially legalized in WI because they don’t damage the road or path surface the way that studded car/truck tires do. Are they legal in OR?

  8. Charles Bingham Permalink  | Dec 22, 2011 07:40am

    I am a regular bike commuter in Sitka, Alaska, which is in a temperate rain forest. Our winters are mild, so our temperatures tend to be in the 20s-40s a lot. Because of our frequent moisture (about 100 inches of rain a year), there’s usually a wet sheen on the road. When the temps drop into the 20s-low30s, we get a lot of freeze and thaw. That means it’s extremely icy.

    When I lived further north in Alaska, I didn’t really need studded mountain bike tires. But since I moved here, they are just about mandatory in the winter if you want to remain upright. When it’s icy I sometimes feel safer riding my bike on the ice than walking (even with YakTrax over my shoes). That said, there will be times when even the studded tires aren’t enough (luckily our buses have bike racks).

    Best tips — slow down, plan your turns ahead of time so you are prepared to lean, lower the air pressure in your tires, and wear reflective clothes and have good lights so cars can see you on the roads. A good pair of studded tires runs about $120 (Nokian, made in Finland, is what I have), but they’re worth it because you didn’t break your hip wiping out.

    Also, if you ride in an area where there’s a lot of snow, look into a Fat Bike (double-wide tires to help spread your weight so you don’t punch through the snow). There are several manufacturers of fat bikes (including a couple in Alaska), but a popular model is the Surly Puggsly. Fat bikes also are becoming popular beach bikes, for use on the sand. I know people who have ridden the entire Iditarod Trail (about 1,100 miles through the wilderness) on these fat bikes.

  9. Charles Bingham Permalink  | Dec 22, 2011 07:47am

    Also, watch out for paint on the roads (sidewalks, lane lines, etc.). The paint gets extremely slick when wet or icy.


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