Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Secrets of winter riding, Part 2 – Control

There are only two tricks to winter riding: Don’t freeze and don’t fall. In Part 1 I explained how to keep from freezing; now for some tips on how to stay upright.

First, however, one observation. If you can find clothing that suits you, you very well may become indifferent to cold. By contrast you will – or should – never become indifferent to snow. It’s possible to ride in the stuff, regularly and successfully, but it’s not ever as safe or as easy as riding on bare pavement. If you want to bike to work over snowy roads or trails, these suggestions will help. But if after trying it a few times you’re still uncomfortable, then don’t do it – wait for the plows to come through!

Moving along. The problem with snow is not so much that it’s slippery but that it’s uneven. Ruts, ridges and hard-packed clumps will all push you off a straight line. As you ride through these spots, your handlebars will twist in your hands, your front wheel will begin to slide, and it’ll feel like you’re going to topple over for sure. But remember Newton. Your bike wants to keep going in the direction that it’s been going; that is, in a straight line. And a wheel wants to spin, not burrow! As soon as your wheel clears the immediate obstacle, it’ll pop back straight and you can keep right on riding. Your aim is simply to allow that happen.

And therein is the essential trick to riding in snow: Let your bike work it out for itself. Loosen your grip. Let the handlebars wobble and twist. Keep pedaling, evenly and steadily, when you feel the front wheel begin to lose its purchase. It feels wrong, but it works out right! (Uh, most of the time – as I said, riding in snow is not as safe as riding on bare pavement.) The feeling of nearly losing control is really disconcerting and it’s hard to suppress the urge to wrestle the bike back into a straight line. But if you fight, you will almost always overcorrect, and wind up on the ground more often than if you just let everything go.

This is one of those lessons that, I think, is best learned through experience. The next snow day that comes along, take an hour or 90 minutes, find a stretch of road that’s not too heavily travelled, and just ride around. Relax your hands, arms and shoulders. Steer in and out of tire tracks, try turning a little harder than seems prudent. Accept that you will fall, and don’t try to stop your bike if it seems to be heading that way. Weirdly, once you accept that you are going to fall, you won’t (as often). And, at 8 mph and onto snow, it’s probably not going to hurt if you do go down. The first time I rode in deepish snow (6-7 inches, on precisely one of these “who cares” excursions), I fell, harmlessly,10 times in 90 minutes before I learned to trust the bike, and its inertia.

Practice helps. The more you ride in the snow, the more comfortable you’ll be with it. (And conversely, less comfortable when you don’t – the first snowy day of each year invariably presents a challenging commute!) Also bear in mind that, staying upright usually comes at the expense of a clean, straight riding line – a sort of Uncertainty Principle for bike riders. So in snow, don’t cut things as closely as you might otherwise, and be particularly vigilant for passing cars.

Finally. All of the foregoing pertains only to snow. None of it works on ice, where you can find yourself on the ground before you can even think the word “Zen”. On 28 degree mornings following a freezing rain, I walk to the Metro – or stay home along with everyone else whose businesses have closed for the day. If you do find yourself on a patch of ice (it happens!), steer as straight and steady a course as you can until you’ve cleared it. Don’t turn, don’t brake, don’t accelerate. Maybe don’t even breathe. And during those tense few moments, relax yourself by remembering that if you fall on ice, you leave a whole lot less of yourself on the ground than if you’d fallen on asphalt!

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