Sunday, January 16, 2005

Winter riding skills, or the lack of them...

Winter Riding Skills.

You have to admire cyclists dedicated enough to ride through the winter, particularly guys like this one:

Anchorage Daily News Bicycle-tire studs are not created equal

Sometimes the good deal isn't the best buy.

The third smack-down on my mountain bike was enough to remind me of that axiom. Goldenview Drive had proven wet and slushy, but easily rideable. Bragaw Street had slippery spots, but nothing scary. The crossing from there onto Abbott Loop Road behind the Section 16 equestrian park had been a push through crusty old snow. Then the ride got crazy.

Abbott Loop was a skating rink all the way to its intersection with Abbott Road. I no sooner got on the bike than it went down. The first fall was unexpected. So were the next two. On studded bike tires, it is usually possible to ride over almost anything. Only later would come the discovery that my cheap studded tires weren't really studded anymore.

Not to imply that this good deal had been an inherently bad buy. Everyone has fallen victim to the good deal that hadn't turned out so well. Sometimes a doodad that looks perfect in the store fails miserably outdoors. Or you might save a dollar only to discover that the manufacturer cut costs by reducing performance in a critical area. In my case, the good deal came with limits, and I ignored those limits. The steel studs in the $40 Innova mountain bike tires lacked the durability of the carbide-tipped studs in the $80 Nokian tires.

I've spent a little time sitting on the pavement wondering.
One moment I was riding along just fine, and in the next
second I was skittering along an icy road on my butt. What

I rode regularly through the winter when I lived in
Pittsburgh, PA, partly in desperation from cabin fever, and
partly as a result of the guilt I felt from all that holiday
over-eating. I rode in rain, wet and dry snow, slush, ice,
and sleet. Pittsburgh had a lot of trolley tracks and Belgian
block streets (think of them as biggie-sized cobblestones) all
of them treacherous in the wet. Belgian block is especially
dangerous when icy.

My commute usually went along arterial streets because they
were direct and fast. But I had another route for really foul
weather that meandered through side streets and alleys. It
worked well for most bad weather, until we had an ice storm
overnight and I tried to ride the Belgian blocks. Their
rounded tops made traction an iffy thing. That morning I rode
out onto them and fell immediately. I tried to stand up and
my feet shot out from under me! Down on the street again, I
heard a woman behind me laughing at my predicament. Then she
stepped off the sidewalk onto the cobbles, and she went down
too! We ended up crawling off the street. It was the only
way to go.

Wet snow and slush offer about as much traction as wet
pavement, but they tend to accumulate on the frame and
derailleurs, eventually freezing the mechanisms. Fenders help
some, but they too will clog with ice. I kept cheap
derailleurs for winter conditions and swapped them for my good
ones when spring arrived. A liberal application of WD-40
helps to prevent ice build up, but it isn't a cure all.
Eventually, I started riding a fixed gear that required little
maintenance, a solution I've returned to this winter, and I'm
thinking about building an internally geared wheel for a
commuter as well.

Deep snow is much like riding in sand. It's hard going and
the front tire tends to slip sideways when turning. The tire
compresses a layer of snow as it travels forward, then slides
down and to the side as it turns left or right. This is
disconcerting even at low speed. I never tried it going fast.

My favorite was dry, hard-packed snow. It gives about as much
traction as dry pavement, but you still have to be careful at
intersections because the heat from car engines and exhaust
can melt the surface slightly, causing a glassy, wet ice that
is very slick. There's something magical about riding a
bicycle on a sunny day when the high temperature might soar to
20 or so.

Curiously, Pittsburgh motorists seemed more courteous toward
cyclists brave enough to face truly harsh conditions, even
when they traveled in the only available space - a tire
track through the snow and slush. Maybe drivers think that
anyone riding a bike in that kind of weather has to be a
little crazed in the first place. But in Oklahoma I
hesitate to ride in traffic on snow covered or icy roads.
Motorists here have too little experience of such conditions,
and they make too many mistakes.


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