Traction Action

John Allen

Safety corner

Traction Action

By John S. Allen, CRW Safety Coordinator

For those of you out there who are riding with the ice and snow … Obviously enough,  you almost always want the tires to have traction. If your front tire loses traction for more than a moment, you can’t steer to balance, and you fall.

Ideally, you want to know the feel of the tires on the road as well as the feel of your feet on the ground. Nerves don’t extend into the tires, so that is tougher.  But, if you understand how traction works, and with the practice from riding, you can come close, and manage those winter conditions.

Front-wheel traction is a concern in smooth, straight-ahead riding only on a very poor surface:  ice, worse, black ice because it can be invisible and can form on a sloping surface -- or rutted packed snow.  Some of us have been in the Boston area long enough to remember the winter of 1977. 1978 was more notorious, but 1977 was the year of snow, and rain, followed by a freeze that lasted for weeks. My utility cycling was a bit of an adventure that winter.

To maintain your balance when your front tire skids against the side of a rut and you start to fall, you steer quickly toward the fall, but on an uneven, slippery surface, you may overcorrect and then fall to the other side when the tire regains traction. Your bicycle is making a jujitsu move on you. You need to recorrect quickly.

Braking can skid either wheel on a slippery surface, but you need much quicker recovery from a front-wheel skid to maintain balance. The panic reaction of grabbing the brake levers doesn’t work here. You need to train yourself for the opposite; if you start to lose control, release the brakes to regain traction.

Applying power can skid the rear wheel, but you can shift your weight backward and forward – the way a pigeon walks -- so most weight is over the rear wheel during the high-power part of each pedal stroke. This is completely natural because it also places weight on the pedal.  I am recalling my ride on packed snow up Common Street from Watertown to Belmont on the way to a CRW winter party, years and years ago. No cars were moving, because they couldn’t manage either the climb or the descent, but I wished quite a lot of people happy holidays as I passed.  And without snow tires.

If you skid in a turn, and then you are already leaning, you will fall. Not quite as far, though.

Back in th 1970s, studded snow tires were a do-it-yourself job, with sheet-metal screws threaded into the tire from inside to outside. I never tried this. Now studded now tires are common, if expensive. They add rolling resistance, but the tradeoff makes sense for riding on ice and packed snow. If you use snow tires, you’ll want to have two bicycles, or two sets of wheels, and use one or the other depending on road conditions.

An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes. Look ahead and take it slow so you are prepared to put a foot down. If you ride with a pedal-binding system or toe clips and straps, switch to flat pedals unless you are totally confident in your ability to get a foot out – either foot. Falls unfortunately do not cooperate by being all to the side where you usually put a foot down.

Jobst Brandt has written about his ride across frozen Lake Constance between Germany and Switzerland. It is a great read, here:

Try this: for more information on winter riding and links to additional fine information from CRW members Emily O’Brien and Pamela Blalock.