Hubris and icy streets: a cautionary tale

A bike lane covered in ice. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Well, some of the puddles I wrote about a few weeks ago have solidified under recent freezing temperatures. Now they’re ice, and even more treacherous! I had a mild encounter with some of this ice last week, and wanted to share a bit of a cautionary tale.

As someone who was born and raised in Colorado, I have to admit that I have a bit of arrogance in me when it comes to traveling in winter weather. When I moved to Oregon and heard about the concept of “ice storms” for the first time, I rolled my eyes.

“You’re ‘iced in’?” I thought. “When I was a kid, I had to walk uphill both ways in the snow. You didn’t hear me complaining about it.”

This is obviously exaggerated: of course I complained. But I did, in fact, grow up getting around in inclement weather. Colorado public schools are notoriously stingy with snow days, and while I never had to strap on the cross-country skis, I certainly navigated through a foot of snow to get to school at least a couple times.

And I’ll always remember the first time I drove a car by myself, hands shaking on the steering wheel during an unexpectedly heavy April snowstorm. When I stepped on the brake at a red light and the car didn’t immediately stop, having caught itself on some ice, I panicked, not remembering if I was supposed to pump the brakes or not. (I managed to stop in time, but wow, 16-year-olds should not be allowed to drive multi-ton vehicles.)

All of this is just to say that I’m not particularly worried about traveling in cold and icy weather. But that didn’t stop me from completely wiping out on black ice while biking the other day.

As is often the way in these kinds of situations, what happened was a pretty mild incident that had the potential to be terrible had only a couple other things gone wrong. I was almost home on Thursday night, biking quickly down Northeast Ainsworth Street in the cold, when I was suddenly on the ground. Evidently there was a big patch of black ice that was either invisible in the dark or that I simply hadn’t been paying attention to, and it knocked me down to the street, popping the front wheel off my bike in the process (still not sure how that happened).

The first thing I did was stand up and turn around to make sure there weren’t any cars coming toward me. A woman driving a truck was coming up maybe a block away, and I waved my arms a couple times so she’d see me and I could collect myself. She happened to be very kind, and stopped to asked if I needed help, looking at me skeptically when I waved her along.

I knew I hadn’t been seriously injured — I was mostly just embarrassed. But I also realized that this situation could have been very bad. If I hit my head or fallen in a way that made it more difficult to get up and a driver happened to be speeding by, they might not have seen me in time to stop (people drive too fast on Ainsworth and similar neighborhood streets all the time). The fact that there wasn’t a driver tailing me on this stretch of the street is actually a rarity in my experience. It makes me shiver to think about all the worst-case scenarios.

Ultimately, I am fine — still a little sore, but completely intact. But I think situations like this can teach us a few things. First, I’m going to lose the invincibility complex and keep a closer eye on the street, especially when it’s really cold and icy. Second, it would be great if the city could figure out how to keep ice off our streets as much as possible to keep vulnerable road users safe. As it turns out, icy streets in Colorado and Oregon are completely different ballgames. In high-altitude and sunny Denver, ice turns into mostly harmless slush quickly. Here, however, the freezing overnight temperatures combined with even a small amount of precipitation and days of cloudy skies make it a lot more treacherous.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that the most component here with the most potential for danger isn’t the ice — it’s the cars. Sure, I could’ve been knocked out if I hit my head on the street or broken a bone by falling wrong. But the risks posed by inclement weather is amplified exponentially by the 24/7/365 dangers we face on streets. So drivers, please keep your distance from people biking and walking — all the time, but especially during the winter. Pay close attention to your surroundings and try to stay patient when driving behind someone who isn’t going as fast as you’d like.

You never know when they might hit a patch of ice.

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idlebytes
idlebytes
1 month ago

I find that whatever new kind of thermoplastic PBOT is using now for street markings builds up ice faster than the street. Case in point the new bike box on the east side of 50th and Lincoln completely iced over the winter after it was installed. It was so slick I could barely stand on it and my bike just slid out from under me as I was stopping for the light. It could be a drainage issue but don’t recall large pools of water there ever.

Either it’s something about the material itself or someone was having a bit of fun. Just another potential slippery thing to watch out for on our roads I suppose. Not that I trust contractors to apply that stuff correctly after the debacle on Vancouver but after I’ve gone over it a few times in the rain I tend to let my guard down.

soren
soren
1 month ago

Portland black ice/icemageddon* tips for overconfident mountain, midwestern or northeastern immigrants (who do not own studded tires):

Use wide tires with no/minimal tread and deflate them to a very low pressure (e.g. 50 PSI on 32 c gatorskins).Lower your seat.
Ride in a straight line and use a higher gear than normal.
Turn slowly and be ready to mitigate a fall (on the side of the bike in the direction of the turn).
Consider a helment# and thick/layered clothing (you may skid some distance).
Consider using more cautious routes without a lot of SUV/truck/(car) traffic (esp at intersections).
*Portland’s Icemageddons (ice storms) are really something.

comment image

#I rarely wear one but when it’s icy….

Pockets the Coyote
Pockets the Coyote
1 month ago
Reply to  soren

I am fascinated and perplexed by the lack of helmet use here.

I would add that switching to flat pedals in place of cages or clipless can be helpful as well as practicing braking in controlled adverse conditions after the long and dry summer we’ve had. Probably better to knock the rust off some before you need it most.

soren
soren
1 month ago

The comment was not directed at any one, in particular.

When bike mode share was in the 7 handle range, I would estimate that ~25% of people riding bikes did so sans helmet. However, I agree that helmet use is less common these days and, IMO, this is an indicator of the decline in bike mode share in PDX.

This is besides the point of the article

The helmet comment was directed at the smaller but still substantial fraction of people on bike who do not normally wear helmets. In other words this was meant to be taken as: “if you don’t normally wear a helmet, consider wearing one”.

Pockets the Coyote
Pockets the Coyote
1 month ago

Purely anecdotal for me, I’ve seen more riders lacking helmets bike town or otherwise here in Portland than I did growing up (also on the front range:) ) I am glad to hear that my observations may be a fluke of poor sampling and negativity bias.
My mentioning it above was in response to Soren’s note below the picture

#I rarely wear one but when it’s icy….

Pamela
Pamela
1 month ago

I found the information in this video interesting regarding helmet use. I wear a helmet most of the time except in the summer with group rides.

https://youtu.be/rhzH6mEpIps

soren
soren
1 month ago
Reply to  soren

Forgot:

Brake very gently.

joan
1 month ago
Reply to  soren

I’m an overconfident northeastern who will not mess with ice on my bike around here. If it’s 32 or below and it’s been dry, I’ll ride. Snow? Sure! Wet and 33ish or colder? No way. I know too many skilled riders who have broken collarbones, ruined clothing, etc.

Another tip: if you see more than one or two people walking their bikes, it probably means they slipped on the ice, and you should be extra careful.

Boyrd
Boyrd
1 month ago

I can confirm that roads and sidewalks were slick and icy in a typical Portland pattern on Monday, which is to say that there were lots of small isolated patches of nearly invisible black ice, surrounded by dry pavement. It’s the unexpected nature of the ice patches that gets you. They come out of nowhere. I had a couple of momentary slips, but didn’t go down. I’ve definitely crashed my bike on days like that in the past. I’ve learned from experience to not ride my bike on mornings when the overnight temperatures dip below freezing when there is a lot of moisture in the air or in the ground. It’s treacherous.

Betsy Reese
Betsy Reese
1 month ago

Our son crashed on a patch of black ice in the first freeze of the season a few years ago and broke his pelvis in four places, resulting in a lengthy recovery process.

Trike Guy
Trike Guy
1 month ago

Ice is no joke on foot, on 2 wheels or 4. I find the most relaxing way to travel over it on my trike – but even then descending can be scary.

Monday morning I found myself on freezing fog on Lawnfield and 98th place on my townbike (28mm Gatorskins) – I just focused on staying centered over the bike, no brakes, just fast enough to balance easily while pedaling at a low cadence, coasted to the turn and consciously did *not* lean :).

I actually find that to be a bit less fall prone than walking on it TBH.

Fuzzy Jay
Fuzzy Jay
1 month ago

I dislike the term “black ice” and wish it would go away. It’s the same ice everywhere.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 month ago
Reply to  Fuzzy Jay

No it ain’t. Black ice, unlike white ice or packed snow, has no air bubbles and is glossy smooth – I don’t know why it is black, but even on concrete it is in fact black in color – maybe from car exhaust? White ice has air bubbles and is less slick, usually frozen slush, and melts a lot sooner. In the Midwest, packed snow is even slicker, from cars compressing snow in the road, super dangerous at intersections.

When I used to bike on ice and in the snow regularly in ND, the main idea was to bike as vertical as possible, as close to 90 degrees from the surface as possible; to brake very lightly (or not at all); to use low-quality soft rubber knobby tires or high-quality studded bike tires (though I knew folks who used bike tire chains) pumped real low, no more than 30 psi; and carry warm water in a polar insulated bottle to periodically de-ice the gears, cables and disc brakes. From plus 35 to plus 10 I wore a polar fleece face mask under my helmet, with a rain cover on the outside. From plus 10 to minus 20 I wore a snowmobile helmet the breathing holes drilled in the back. Below that, I took the bus. I always wore a helmet because crashes were frequent – if I was lucky, I’d hit a snow drift.

I found it helpful to pretend you are a barge while turning – you drift right or left, but avoid actual turning movements. You need a huge arc to turn.

Hotrodder
Hotrodder
1 month ago

For sure. I waited until noon or so on Sunday to do a few workout laps on Rocky Butte, and even so the downhill entrance into the tunnel with the leaves and wet patches put me into involuntary pucker mode each time I approached.
No ice snakes that day! Woot!

I’ve found this to be true: Black ice had me on the ground faster than any other hazard that has tripped me up on a bike. That includes packed snow, the gap between tram tracks and the street (looking at you Lovejoy viaduct), my shoe stuck between the frame and the front wheel, bark dust in big piles on the street at night (Nude! Yay, naked ride!) blackberry vines, broken chains, baby head boulders on singletrack, just plain carelessness. Six foot 2 with big shoulders means my CoG is not on my side when gravity calls the tune.

mike
1 month ago

I will add – watch out for ice in parking lots even if the roads seem ok! I bike year-round in Maine and one day in March one year I decided to take the regular bike instead of my winter commuter with studded tires, because it was running a bit rough by then. Even though I knew the I *should* take the winter bike. My arrogance was rewarded, I thought, as I arrived at work. About two seconds after turning into the parking lot – blam, went down so fast no time to react. A little banged up and while nothing requiring treatment I was sore enough to stay off the bike a few days. In retrospect it was obvious that while the roads were treated well the parking lot was naturally not, so my guard should have went up not down!

Fred
Fred
1 month ago

I grew up in the Northeast, and like you, Taylor, I also navigated through deep snows and thought nothing of it. But Portland actually has much more treacherous conditions for travel b/c of the melt-freeze pattern in winter, combined with our generally moist climate. In the Northeast it was either cold or warm generally; the precipitation in cold weather was snow and in warm weather was rain. Here in Portland we get a deadly mix, and there is almost always moisture on the ground when the temps dip below freezing.

I’m glad you weren’t badly injured – or worse – and also glad you have gained a healthy respect for this treacherous Portland weather.

chris
chris
1 month ago

Remember, hit the brakes before you turn, not as you turn.

soren
soren
1 month ago
Reply to  chris

This is good practice all the time.

Pat Lowell
Pat Lowell
1 month ago

Watch out for ice on any raised structures, like bridges, overpasses, etc. I once rode to work on a cold day, had dry roads the whole way, and then went sailing over my bars as soon as I hit the icy roof level of our parking garage.

Serenity
Serenity
1 month ago
Reply to  Pat Lowell

Ouch!

Serenity
Serenity
1 month ago

Wow! Glad you’re ok.

Sio
Sio
1 month ago

Glad you’re mostly ok! Wiped out on black ice twice. The second time resulted in a concussion and the fitting of studded mtb tires to a mtb. Anyone else wipe out turning onto Madison fro SE 12?

FDUP
FDUP
1 month ago

Circa 2018 I crashed out on the ice on the first turn in Ladd’s Addition the morning after doing a bunch of work on my bike. I still made it to work but the worst part about it was that I destroyed and had to replace a nice Shimano Nexus 7 IGH.