How to ride on ice

With temperatures dipping below freezing in the northern portions of North America, Europe and Asia, bike commuters who want to continue riding are learning to negotiate the icy patches and snow on their routes. Here’s how it’s done.

  • Watch for black ice. These are the almost invisible patches of thin ice on shaded sections of the roadway and pavement. When you enter these slick patches, don’t expect to turn or stop.
  • Work on your skills. Before heading out on the street, riding your bike on a quiet street or parking lot. You need to know exactly how your bike will handle in various conditions. You also need to learn to fall without breaking your hand, arm, shoulder or head.
  • Don’t be (too) afraid to fall. There are some inherent risks in cycling. Adding ice and snow to the mix adds considerably to the risk of falling. Many of us tense up when riding in ice and snow. It’s easier said than done, but RELAX. Be aware but be loose — let the bike go where it will, within reason. Fortunately, you’re probably wearing extra clothing because of cold temperatures, because the first few times you ride on the ice you will go down.
  • Beware it will be different on the road. Here’s what typically happens. Two inches of snow falls, with traffic during the day pushing all of the slush into the bike lane and gutter. As the temperature drops overnight, all of that salty slush freezes into hard lumps and ridges. Traversing these lumps and ridges is a lot like technical trail riding across fallen logs and limbs, except you have no traction. It takes a lot of upper body strength. You’ll fall a lot because your front tire is diverted in unexpected ways. Many winter cyclists learn it’s easier to ride in the middle of the lane or even *gasp* on the sidewalk.
  • Wider tires are better. I’ve put a lot of wintry miles on 700×25 road tires, but cycling on ice is much easier on a mountain bike with mountain bike tires. Better than standard mountain knobbies, though, are…
  • Studded tires. Studded tires on ice are a dream. You still need to take care — you can’t take a sharp turn at full speed, for example — but you have a reasonable level of control when riding on studded tires. My Nashbar 26″ studded tires (made by Kenda for Nashbar) have held up very well, but Nashbar doesn’t seem to sell them this year. Studded bike tires from Nokian in Finland are pricey but favored among many ice cyclists because the ultra hard carbide studs hold up well in year after year of winter cycling.
  • Look for traction. Ride on ice with a thin layer of snow. The snow provides some level of traction over glare ice or black ice.
  • Have a Plan B. If road conditions are beyond your level of comfort or riding expertise, have another route to work or home ready such as public transportation or a shared ride. Some employers offer an “Emergency Ride Home” service for bike commuters.
  • Finally, Lucas Brunelle and his buddies show how it’s done on the frozen Charles River in Boston in this video.

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    0 thoughts on “How to ride on ice”

    1. Quinn says:

      Instead of studded tires, what about super sticky? This summer I bought a pair of the high end(kevlar bead, all black) IRD Fire XC, for both my mt bikes(26&29).

    2. Fritz says:

      I’ve never tried sticky tires on ice.

    3. danomite says:

      I had a classic Wile E. Coyote moment last year. Someone forgot to turn off their automatic sprinklers and one of them had deposited a mist of water on the edge of the roadway. by the time I got to it there was a very fine layer of black ice. I saw it way too late to steer and avoid it so I unclipped from my pedals, stopped pedaling and waited patiently. I gout about 10′ in, then WHAM, down I went. I made it out with a mild bruise on my hip.

    4. a finn says:

      It is quite hard to understand just how good (a pair of good) studded tires are before you ride them. Many times I forget about the ice and am surprised once I put my (non-studded 😉 foot on ground. Nokians have good selection for all kind of riding. Schwalbe has also some interrested tires. Haven’t tried them thou, but those who have, have liked them.

    5. jason (sd) says:

      I can’t say enough about studded tires. I have Nokians 700×35 for my hybrid. They seem expensive until you compare them to falling and going to the chiropractor a few times. I have ridden glare ice, just watch out for ridges in the pavement that go off at an angle. My best ride was in a blizzard, passing a whole line of cars because the one in front was just sitting there spinning.

    6. Val says:

      If you’re truly too cheap to buy studs, try converting a old pair of tires by installing sheet metal screws from the inside. Use screws just long enough to expose 1-2 threads outside the tire, and remember that time is money. If you don’t want to spend the money, you’ll be substituting time. Put some sort of liner between the tube and the heads of the screws, and run 10-15 lbs less pressure than usual. These will not last as long as the really good hardened studs on commercial tires, but they work like a charm.

    7. Quinn says:


      “Too cheap”?? Mother of God, what do you normally use Dugast’s??

      For those of us that ride because we can’t afford a Porsche, Good quality studs are probably on the High end of our budget.

    8. Ghost Rider says:

      “Sticky” tires, like that IRD model you mentioned, won’t work. Don’t believe me? Run an ice cube along the sticky side of a piece of duct tape (the stickiest thing I could think of). It might grip for a second, but then it slides loose. Things get even hairier if there’s a little melted water on top of the ice…something only studded tires can surmount.

      Back in the day, we used to ride around in the snow with our knobbly BMX tires, thinking we were invincible…I’ve still got the scars and X-rays to prove that this WASN’T the case! Expensive as they may be, studded Nokians or Schwalbes are a worthwhile investment (easy for me to say…I live in Florida and haven’t laid eyes on snow in 15 years!).

    9. Quinn says:

      I see what you mean, I was also thinking of total winter, like ice And slushy pavement And snow etc.

    10. chrehn says:

      Nokians studs are my favorites for ice biking. It is unbelieveably exhilirating to ride on frozen lakes and rivers. Oh Yeah! Wear your helmet for sure.
      Also, a little caution on the streets when the slush freezes, sometimes it’s as sharp as razor blades.

    11. Val says:

      Quinn: What can I say – time is money, and I had one but not the other, and there was ice to be ridden on. Also, I wanted studs for sizes that were not commercially available (26 X 1 3/8, for one). A bit hard on the wrists, but a fun project, nonetheless.

    12. Jen (SLC) says:

      I’d be really curious to know how the sticky tires work. I have road bike frame. It just doesn’t have room for really knobby or studded tires, and I’m not ready to splurge on a winter-only bike yet.

      I’ve also heard about traction sprays that you can buy to make your tires sticky. They use some sort of tree resin. Anyone have any experience with those?

    13. tOM Trottier says:

      Also, bike gaiters will keep your feet and lower leg warm and dry.

      Ditch your clip-in pedals – use a rattrap without straps so you can quickly get a foot out.


    14. Fritz says:

      Thanks Tom. I’ve used gaiters to keep my legs; I’m not sure I know what “bike” gaiters are? Ah, just looked it up — I think that might be a Canadian-specific term. We just call them “shoe covers” here in the US.

      I remove my foot from clipless with the same speed as flat, but I’ve been using clipless for 20 years now. In general I also recommend flat pedals or Power Grip pedals when pedaling on ice.

      Regarding sticky tires — they’re not sticky in the cold and they’re meant for clean surfaces anyway. I haven’t heard of anybody using the traction spray on bike tires, but I’ll ask around. Maybe you can do a “mythbusters” type video by experimenting with those materials and post it to YouTube 😉

    15. Quinn says:

      For those of you on 29ers (havent noticed) bike29 has the new Nokian Gazza(studded).

    16. Fritz says:

      They’ve always had 700c tires *shrug* I think Nokian even makes a 650B studded Hakka tire.

    17. Quinn says:

      yes they have but they were/are max. 45c, the Gazza is 29×2.1(53c)

    18. Quinn says:

      I forgot to mention “shoe spikes/studs”, like Yaktrax, look at

    19. Jen (SLC) says:

      Well, I had my first chance to ride in icy conditions. Sadly, I didn’t have any traction spray, so no YouTube video of me sliding around out there yet. There wasn’t much ice in the road, but the bike lanes and right edges where I normally ride were covered with bumpy, crackly ice which was impossible to ride on with my current tires (700×28 All Condition Armadillos). I’m going to need to switch to some knobby tires for the winter, but I’ve got a Scott Speedster which doesn’t have much room for a wider tire. Anyone have any recommendations for knobby tires that are 700×30/32 or less? Or am I going to have to start looking into a new bike?

    20. Quinn says:

      Speedsters are Nice! but I bet you would have more luck with a SUB or a CrossComp.

    21. Fritz says:

      Jen, I don’t remember how far your commute is but consider a cheap throwaway bike for the ice/snow days. I just browsed SLC Craigslist — wow, the folks there sell the high end stuff, but I found a couple of deals like this low end $75 MTB complete with child seat! There’s also this old Trek 800 — $80 is probably too much, but otherwise it’s a perfect winter commuter.

      I like my fast road racing bike for the nice days, but I bought a garage sale MTB specifically for snow days.

    22. Jen (SLC) says:

      Fritz, thanks for checking Craigslist for me. Used bikes here often rival used cars in prices. I wish I had more space in my house for extra bikes.

      I talked to someone at one of the local bike shops who had the same frame issue. He was going to see about ordering in some cyclocross tires. I might just swing by there tonight and see if he ordered any in. If not, I’m going to pick up a rack and some lights to outfit my significant other’s Stumpjumper for commuting. He hasn’t used the thing since August, so I doubt he’ll mind. And that will save us from having a third bike in our living room.

    23. Fritz says:

      Jen, what kind of road bike do you have? Is there enough clearance for cx tires?

    24. Jen (SLC) says:

      I’ve got a Scott Speedster. There might be room for skinnier cx tires, but none of the local shops typically carry them. So it’s hard to find out. The Stumpjumper isn’t too bad, but it makes me realize how light and speedy my Speedster is. Can’t wait for clear roads again.

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