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Riding the icestorm in Portland: A few tips

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on February 9th, 2014 at 10:27 am

My snow bike
My chosen tool for bike fun today.

With the City of Portland and other agencies telling everyone to stay indoors due to the sheet of ice that has blanketed our town, I couldn't wait to leave the house this morning and see if I could still ride a bike.

So, I went out to my shed, pulled down my mountain bike and headed out. Turns out it's not as bad as I expected. That being said, if you do plan to play around the neighborhood on your bike today, here are a few tips to consider.

  • The bike I'm using is a 29-inch mountain bike with 2.2-inch knobby tires. Either a similar mountain bike or a fat bike is highly recommended.
  • Lower your tire pressure to get more traction. Less air means more of the rubber and knobs on your tires will come in contact with the ground. More contact the better.
  • Use flat pedals if you have them. Platform pedals are easier to quickly step out of and give your shoes more surface area.
  • Lower your saddle. This does several things: It will lower your center of gravity and it will make it easier for you to put your feet down/out for balance. My saddle is low enough that I can walk my bike down the street like a child on a balance bike.
  • Stay perpendicular to the ground. When you turn your bars or your bike, make sure you are as upright as possible. Any leaning to either side and you will likely slide out.
  • Avoid hard-packed areas like where cars have been driving. The softer sections yield much more traction. Yes, you have to break through a top-sheet of ice, but I find that much easier than riding on the very slippery hard-packed sections.
  • Watch for little ruts; but if you do find yourself mounting one, don't panic. Panic is a killer. If you have low tire pressure, just let it roll when you hit a bump or a rut, stay upright, and you'll probably be fine.
  • Try the sidewalk. On many streets, the sidewalk is a good option. Not only can you avoid any auto traffic and those wheel-ruts, but there's likely and softer snow on the sidewalk. That being said, watch out for sections of sidewalk that have been shoveled as they can be the slickest and iciest of all.
  • Be honest and assess your abilities before trying to ride in these conditions. In other words, if you don't feel comfortable and your gut tells you it's a bad idea: don't try it. If you feel you can push your comfort level just a bit, and you know you have good bike-handling skills, then give it a try.

Feel free to share your tips and experiences with today's conditions in the comments. And have fun out there (or in there if you've decided to just stay inside)!

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Comments
  • John Liu February 9, 2014 at 10:41 am

    If you are used to starting off out of the saddle, that won't work well on ice, your unweighted rear wheel spins. A lower saddle lets you stay seated when starting off, with more weight-enhancing traction on the rear wheel.

    I think it is interesting conditions to play around the neighborhood, but I discourage folks from getting on their bikes to travel on main roads, cross the city, or descend any significant grade.

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  • Peter Koonce February 9, 2014 at 10:49 am

    But just to repeat what Jonathan said, be honest... know your own abilities. Jonathan is a good bike handler who rides a lot. If you're a casual bike rider or not someone that has much in the way of mountain bike experience, beware of the conditions.
    That being said, I just saw Brad Winn who's at Sellwood Cycle Repair and he had zipties around his front wheel for extra traction. http://www.bikehacks.com/bikehacks/2010/12/st.html When I asked him about the back tire, he said, it was okay if that was sliding around.... go figure!

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  • GlowBoy February 9, 2014 at 10:58 am

    It's a lot worse for the front wheel to lose traction than the rear wheel. Although it's definitely possible to fall if your rear wheel slips, it's not as likely. One thing I learned in last night's riding (on a 29x3.0" front tire) is that fatter tires at low pressure seem to be inherently more forgiving about this, but you still need to be really careful unless you're running studded tires.

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    • JV February 10, 2014 at 11:25 am

      Yes - don't touch that front brake - which is the opposite of how most braking should be done. Locking up the front is a sure way to lose it. Keep weight rearward and treat the front tire more like a ski.

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  • spare_wheel February 9, 2014 at 11:13 am

    i'm surprised that no one mentioned using a lower gear. the less torque you apply the less likely you are to slide out.

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    • Psyfalcon February 9, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      Well, lower gear usually means easier gear, which actually multiplies your torque. I still think the low gear is better though, you get better feedback from your rear wheel and have plenty of reserve if you end up in soft hard to pedal snow. The big ring would require more uncontrolled power in that sort of situation.

      Odd feeling though, pedaling as gently (but smoothly!) as possible.

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      • spare_wheel February 9, 2014 at 8:27 pm

        you are right...i meant force not torque.

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    • Alan 1.0 February 9, 2014 at 2:53 pm

      Agreed that lower gears help reduce slipping but they have proportionally higher torque than higher gears. Guess the advantage is that you're not pushing as hard and, since the crank produces less wheel rotation, you can control the amount of wheel slip more finely.

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  • BIKELEPTIC February 9, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Before you just GO, practice riding in the snow around your neighborhood. It takes some practice. And it's hard as heck. Give yourself double, if not triple the leeway you'd think you need.

    Tap brakes, don't squeeze or slam them or your bike will either slide out from under you or you will go over your handle bars. Slow and steady. Feeling your bike to avoid squirreliness is the most important. Especially since it's now SHARP snow.

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  • Sly February 9, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Your blog post is irresponsible. I've already seen two people fall off their bikes here in SE Portland. Stay inside until the ice melts.

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    • BIKELEPTIC February 9, 2014 at 5:00 pm

      How is offering tips irresponsible? Two people isn't a statistical demographic, btw. (In previous years I've fallen 2x within the same block. It takes practice to ride in inclement weather.) People can't be expected to hole up for a week. Especially with Monday and the work week coming. (Even those with off schedules who may already be working or grocery shopping on the weekend.) He offered helpful tips and also said, if you're going out be smart about it and don't do anything above your skill level. Sounds pretty reasonable and responsible to me.

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    • spencer February 10, 2014 at 8:59 pm

      not irresponsible at all. i've ridden the whole weekend, and its been fine. it takes skill, and not everyone has it

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  • Matt C February 9, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Been doing a bunch of riding the past couple days. Today was definitely the hardest.

    My big tip: Stay on main streets. Side streets are pure ice, and I fell there. Chains on cars (and especially buses) are roughing up main streets to where you can get good traction, though your ride will be bumpy. There aren't many cars out, so I'm taking roads I'd never think about on a normal Sunday.

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  • Josh G February 9, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Is the de-icer fluid Portland uses perfectly benign on bike parts? I thank my stars every day for the lack of salt. My first winter in Minneapolis I trashed an old geared drivetrain. Was "fixed" after that.

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  • Tony H February 9, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Just rode to Fred Meyer, about a 4 mile round trip. Studded tires are awesome, but do not make one invulnerable to icy conditions. I pulled my BOB trailer, which was easier empty. Coming home, I had a couple of minor fishtails. Next time, I'll do the zip tie trick on the trailer tire. Yesterday I pulled a two wheel trailer, and found it to be much more difficult. Advice? Pretty much what everyone has already said. Go slowly and smoothly. And keep that sense of humor!

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  • q`Tzal February 9, 2014 at 2:01 pm
    • Tony H February 9, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      Thanks for posting this. The last sentence reminded me to post that I also put those "over shoe" style studded grips on my shoes (which would be impossible on anything other than platform pedals). When the bike would slip, having a good grip on my shoe was what kept me from doing a face plant!

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  • David Bosch February 9, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    All good advice except that I would not bother with zip ties. They may last several blocks but take time to install and leave the road littered with plastic crap when they fall off. And they don't really work. I've been cycling through 25 years of west Michigan winters, almost all of that on a road bike with non-studded tires. This winter I'm using studded tires more often than not, however. It's been quite snowy.

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  • Steven Soto February 9, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Didn't see it mentioned above, but stay off the front brake unless you are headed dead straight.

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  • davemess February 9, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    I don't know about heading out this morning. Maybe there is less ice in northern parts of the cities, but here in the south it was VERY think, and where there was still snow, the ice crust was pretty rough, breaking off in shards and sheets. Just seemed like it was asking to slice a sidewall. By noon-1 everything was turning to slush and I could see riding being significantly better.

    I love riding in snow, but riding in ice is just not worth it for me.

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  • jyl February 9, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    Went out for a spin this evening.

    Side roads (unplowed, light car traffic) have thawed to packed wet & icy snow consistency, with slicker sections under trees. Main roads (plowed, regular car traffic) have tire ruts that are basically slush with some bare pavement showing, the rest of the road (incl the bike lanes if any) are a mix of icy slush and wet, rutted snow. It is more rideable than previously, still no picnic. This is in the near NE.

    I'm still going to take the bus tomorrow, as my knobby tire bike lacks fenders or lights, and I commute in the pre-dawn. FYI, all Portland schools are closed tomorrow.

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  • Ice A February 9, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    Most importantly, WEAR YOUR HELMET. I see too many people goofing around without a helmet, with a helmet strapped to their handlebars (good to know they care more about a 3 foot piece of metal than their nervous system), on the head but unbuckled (only protects the head from bird bombs), or on the head with the forehead exposed.

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    • Dimitrios February 10, 2014 at 10:34 am

      Are you put at ease when you see me riding without a helmet and simultaneously not goofing around. Is the magical combination of goofing around and helmet-less that which causes you to internet scream?

      You think people hang helmets on handlebars to protect the handlebars?

      Quit playing the fool or get used to being treated like one.

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  • Ice A February 9, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    For those looking for a bit more traction on their disc brake bicycle, use zip tie chains. How-to article from the 2007 Portland snow storm that put a halt to USPS for over a week: http://bikeportland.org/2007/01/17/ziptie-your-tire-for-better-traction-2846

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  • Trek 3900 February 9, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    As stated above, if you do ride, wear a helmet. However, for your safety if it is icy, I would not ride a bike. They do not do well on ice at all - it is not worth risking an injury just so you can brag that you rode your bike in on an icy day. The risk of an injury is very high.

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    • Alan 1.0 February 10, 2014 at 10:03 am

      However, for your safety if it is icy, I would not ride a bike.

      Thank you. I appreciate your consideration for me.

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    • q`Tzal February 10, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      Non bicycle riders will almost uniformly look at you as if you are crazy for cycling in the ice & snow (unless they already know you are off the beam) and even amongst those inside the bubble here a majority aren't going to admire your machismo as much as attempt to guage you masochism.

      It's only for your own personal satisfaction. If your personal self image and happiness requires you to suffer you might look in to modern psychopharmacology at a therapist near you.

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  • AU February 9, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    And make sure you always state the obvious!!! Riding a bike in the snow and ice is difficult, if not impossible. Riding in dangerous conditions makes you more likely to suffer injury. Finally, you probably don't really have a valid reason to be on your bike today!!

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  • GlowBoy February 9, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    Wow, that was interesting, and surprising. Just got back from riding BOTH primary bikes (MTB with semi-fatbike tires, cyclocrosser with 700x40/35mm studded tires) around the neighborhood in the icy slush.

    I thought the studder would be starting to do well by today, but even with very low pressure (studded tires have very thick casings, allowing this) it bogged down in the slush and wandered all over the place (higher pressure was worse). Studs are great on polished ice and sometimes on hardpacked snow, but in this stuff they just didn't grab onto anything and didn't add any value. Just in a trip of a few blocks I got bogged down and had to start myself up again a number of times.

    Not so with the fatties. The MTB plowed through and over everything, and while it felt a little sketchy on a few icy spots it was still better than with the studs. Kinda surprised, but the fat tires could take me just about anywhere I wanted to go, including UP the hill in Brooklyn Park.

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  • Ted Buehler February 9, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    Another advantage to the sidewalks is that they're very close to level from left to right.

    Streets have a curved surface, they're only level in the center, and slope off pretty good to both sides. In slick conditions, your bike will want to drift toward the gutter, and it takes active turning to keep going straight.

    I ran a few errands today and yesterday, the easiest riding was on sidewalks.

    p.s. I sure like the lack of salt in Oregon, keeps the streets clean and fresh, even if they're slick.

    Ted Buehler
    Minnesota native

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  • gerald schuldt February 10, 2014 at 6:09 am

    700x35 Schwalbe MARATHON WINTER, lots of carbide studs! I like being upright. Current conditions commute this morning 22˚F with compact snow & ice.

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  • Dave February 10, 2014 at 6:45 am

    One of the most enchanting rides of my life was riding Lief Erickson to it's end and back one winter day when my tires were breaking crust the whole distance--mountain bike, half the air let out of the tires, BMX pedals with no straps.

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  • Mike Cobb February 10, 2014 at 10:41 am

    It's all about studs for me. I don't think any vehicles should be out and about without traction devices in these conditions: motorized or not.

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  • Beth February 10, 2014 at 11:06 am

    I rode Friday and Saturday, short distances on well-traveled main streets, with no problems. Sunday The ice in e morning s so bad I waited till 2pm to go anywheere and then I took the bus. I MAY try the mountain bike again today but probably in conjunction with heavy bus use to help me get past the worst residential street crud. I have two late afternoon appointments that are about fifteen blocks apart and I'm hoping enough stuff will have melted to make the short trip between bikable.

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  • Bob February 10, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    I don't know if there's a term for this technique: when I'm fishtaling in slush, I'll simultaneously apply a bit of brake and continuously pedal forward. This helps me retain traction while also controlling speed. I'm on an old rigid mtb with 2.5" knobbies with the saddle adjusted lower than I'd usually ride FWIW.

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  • spencer February 10, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    2.2 inch tires on the niner, with the seat low, rear psi 25, front psi 20. I wouldn't ride in on slicks at all, as the high volume tires are a must for traction.

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  • andrew burke February 11, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Dumbest thing seen all weekend: two tall-bikers, on 39th Ave, after dark. I'm sorry, that's just suicidal, and threatens other people's safety too. Sorry to post this, but I had to get this out of my system. Come on, please!

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