Friday, December 27, 2013

Black Ice - Not So Nice

It was a beautiful, bright and clear Boxing Day. The temperature hovered at a balmy 40°F. The wind blew with an almost playful temperateness. Now and again the sun even came out, casting its long, flickering rays over the sleepy valley. And the road - ah the road! Quiet and empty of cars, how endless it looked, how inviting and smooth. But alas, these favourable conditions were but a cruel illusion. My ride attempt came to naught, foiled by the winter cyclist's enemy number one: Black Ice.

Now, reader, please understand that I have cycled through four New England winters without incident. At this stage, I did not think I could be daunted by ice of any variety - be it black, white, purple, or any shade at all. But what I encountered here was a frozen-state phenomenon of its own class. So stealthy and perfectly invisible this substance was, that I can only attribute this to sheer malice on its part - malice toward cyclists.

Absent were the signs that I know to look for. Like the bits of lacy white edging in the texture of the pavement.

Or the tell-tale shimmer, when the sun's rays catch the road surface just so.

No, this brand of black ice had not the decency for any of it. It adhered to the contours of the chipseal in a matte, thin, perfectly transparent crust. It did not reveal itself in any visual manner what so ever, ensuring that its ice-rink quality slickness caught the traveler entirely by surprise. 

Having discovered this treachery, I backtracked gingerly only to learn that even more of the road was covered with the stuff than I'd realised. What before had looked inviting now seemed hostile, even sinister - a formidable booby trap. A Boxing Day ride was not to be. But at least now I understand what I'm dealing with, and why the locals warn about it so zealously. Black ice is a force to be reckoned with, all the more so when its perfect stealth is matched by its perfect slickness. Even studded tires, I'm told, will not always help. This could be one long winter!

55 comments:

  1. That's why it's called black ice. If you can see it, it's not black ice.

    I hear Mark Cavendish got caught by it at the end of his driveway yesterday as well and actually crashed.

    Discretion being the better part of valour and all that.... take care out there.

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    1. Not sure how to explain this better, but the New England black ice is not impossible to spot if you know how to look for it. The stuff here is like in a different league!

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    2. i just call it ice if i can see it and black ice if i can't. the more one experiences different surfaces in different regions i suppose the wiser one gets, but still those stealthy patches can bite....whether walking, biking or driving!

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    3. Agreed. You have to look hard and have the right light but no ice seems to be invisible around here. But then we have asphalt and not chip seal. I see black ice when running and almost always have my yak tracks to slip on if the black ice is on a hill.

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  2. Schwalbe Marathon Winter.
    You won't be safe as houses, but they give you a pretty decent fighting chance and roll comparatively well (for a studded tire...).

    Take care!

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  3. I think you should try the studded tires.

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  4. Also even though you love your Brompton, you should try using a bike with bigger tires since they are more stable. Save the Brompton for after winter is up. A mountain bike or cycle cross bike would be ideal.

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  5. I made a similar discovery half way to work this month. I didn't realized that we had some light frozen rain the night before. Since I was on my step-through Dutch Bike I just continued on gingerly. I made it without incident. I was happy to have wide tires with a little tread.

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  6. It may be time to consider that fatbike...
    Or have the Honey sent over and simply ride the sheep paths.

    May you stay upright!

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    1. I like your thinking Corey, don't change bikes or tires, change your path.

      My dogs are "all wheel drive" and don't slide around like us silly humans but even they don't run up(or down) my steep gravel driveway after a good icing, they just strike out into the grass and scrub.

      All that nasty slick ice is sort of manageable if I put big-ass tires on my old Mongoose with the loong stays, let half the air out and go get sideways. Lot's of fun until I end up on my back watching the stars twinkle in my head.
      I think V's approach of retreat to fight another day is likely the only reliably good one.

      Spindizzy

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  7. The cyclist's education is never done. You're always, "I was sure I knew" and I'm all "..."

    I've hit it, so slick I was on the floor with the bike shooting sideways in a blink. Oof.

    First crash?

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    1. On the floor? Really?
      Fix yer dang roof and turn up the heat.

      Sorry, couldn't resist, but semi seriously, you know how when you crash and hit your head how you sometimes get that ammonia kinda smell for a second till your brain re-boots? Ever notice that it seems stronger and lasts longer the colder it is?

      Oh c'mon, surely everyone knows what I'm talking about...Nobody? Really?

      Dinspizzy

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    2. Some ancient expression I picked up whilst getting that aloomineeum taste out of the yapper.

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    3. The capacity for undue fascination and surprise keeps me young. Well that's my excuse at least.

      No crashing, only slipping.

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  8. PS Of course studded tires don't work as a binary yes i won't crash with them, no they don't work.

    Practical lesson #678: try sticking a fork into an ice cube. Man let's get some common sense people.

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    1. Analogy seems appropriate if someone's trying to ride across a frozen pond.

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    2. Ice density, irrespective of depth.

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    3. depth matters, ask an ice skater on a pond or your jaw.

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    4. in a further time-wasting explanation on my part (sigh) let me explain basics:

      purchase must be made by puncturing the surface (density) and a certain minimum depth required. we went from ice cube (my example of surface density necessity) to a polemic about depth. pretty sure my words did not negate the importance of depth but the allowance of the pond comment demonstrates poor understanding of the dynamics.

      Really people it's not hard to understand, but you have to think about it before arguing.

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    5. Riding on a frozen lake is possible with commercial studded tires. That being said, with commercial studded tires, you need to be cautious about using the front brake and leaning into turns is not possible.

      On the other hand, DIY wood screw tires do allow for more aggressive riding:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QZogtSJPx4&list=LLq2xZGV976J8dDYZ_Nw8log&index=21

      The point being that if the stud is sharp enough with enough applied force, yes it will cut into ice quite nicely.

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    6. Well aware of ice racing, it goes back a long time on motos. The discussion is about surface density as it relates to black ice.

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  9. 'Tis a shame there aren't any studded tires to fit the Brompton.

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    1. I suspect it's only a matter of time

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  10. Black ice conditions are the "quintessential" condition that make wearing helmets a good idea. While we don't have black ice often in North Texas, I got a lot of good use out of my helmet on the ride in to work last time it happened.

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  11. I just bought a pair of lightly used Nokkian Hakkapeliitta tires on Craigslist for a good price. They work very well on packed snow and ice, but not as well on 6-inch deep, powdery snow like what we woke up to last Sunday. I swapped tires on my usual commuter, but next year I plan to have a dedicated snow bike.

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  12. Experienced it in Seattle when working there-so treacherous & cannot be seen on black roads. An ice queen not to be trifled with. Jim Duncan

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  13. Commenters urging a more stable bike are sort of correct. With the caveat that when the coefficient of friction goes to zero a two-wheeled vehicle has no stability.

    My simple formula for stability is put the saddle down. All winter. On nasty days put the saddle down two more inches. You will surrender the millimetric perfection of scientific positioning. You will not have "full leg extension" (a term I consider bereft of meaning). Consider that the bike goes very slowly while lying on the pavement. The training program goes out the window if you end up in hospital. Sitting low is better than not riding.

    Just get a winter bike. Should be even easier to find a used Raleigh Sports in Ireland than it is in Boston. They call them utility bikes for a reason.

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    1. "Should be even easier to find a used Raleigh Sports in Ireland than it is in Boston"

      Ha definitely not!

      That aside: To each their own. I have owned a Raleigh Sports and have ridden it in winter. I prefer the Brompton as a winter bike and find to be more, not less stable, in winter conditions.

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    2. Is Newcastle now importing coals? How very odd. Perhaps they just used up their bikes? The supply of Raleighs here seems infinite, they just keep coming out of suburban garages all fresh and clean and young potential customers see a whatizzit?

      Some very basic physics. If V plus Vs bicycle masses 150 pounds and the tire inflation pressure is 100psi the total contact patch, both tires together, is 1.5 square inches. If tire pressure is 20psi the contact patch is 7.5 square inches. More chances for something to hook up.

      Let me give a practical example. I have a friend who owns a Pugsley. We were out for a ride and the roads were mostly clear but I kept slipping on slick patches. We met a large stretch of ice and I would not continue. My friend saw this as a good opportunity to swap bikes and give me a test ride. I rode the Pugs like it was on dry pavement, then circled back to my friend who was walking my bike very slowly and cautiously and I stopped (braking traction!). Put a boot down and slipped. Was about to fall when I decided to try getting back on the Pugs. Stability. No problem. 5psi does wonders.

      My friend assures me ice exists too slick even for 5psi.

      I rode a couple miles on ice this morning. I was using my DL-1 which is no ice bike but I have 622-50 Big Apples on it and maybe 25psi. Had ther been any problem 15psi would work. It's warm and sunny, beautiful day, fast melting. Slush on top of ice. In deep shade more like a film of meltwater on ice. I slipped a little on that but all controllable. There was one section maybe a half mile of trail in continuous ice. I passed a guy in full kit on a Colnago CX bike with spiked tires. He was having a horrible time. I just rode past on a DL-1.

      I'm writing from Chicago. We used to have winter here. Slipping and sliding is second nature. I'm 62 years old soon and I don't want to fall. Six years back I fell on black ice (walking, not riding) and I will have the results of that fall for the duration. I really don't want to fall. I have a lot of respect for ice. I have a kind of fear I never knew when younger. Still riding. Still prepared for a few slides.

      If we were to have a few weeks of real winter here I would still grab the nearest Ladies Sports. They are marvelously steady and manageable in a slide. Twenty or thirty feet sliding one of those is no big thing. I've done it year after year. I have so few minutes on Bromptons I just don't know how they would do on ice. I would not wish to slide one. I do know those little tires need some air in them.

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    3. Strictly for what its worth, i wiped out on a massive patch of black ice in London last winter on a Brompton. In the 20 meters or so before loosing it i was skidding with legs down(standing) - for several unhappy seconds the bike and I formed an unexpected, unstable four "footed" creature(i was standing). However, while not stopping the crash, it slowed me considerably (braking as i was standing) and since i was stopped by the kerb I felt grateful). The one advantage of a Brompton is its small size and weight: in a crash its a bit liek being caught with an oversized walking stick as opposed ot 40 pounds of old english steel wipping around.

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    4. "The supply of Raleighs here seems infinite, they just keep coming out of suburban garages all fresh and clean"

      Ditto wrt Boston. The endless supply of vintage English 3-speeds approaches implausibility; you can't walk a block without seeing one or two locked up; the local second hand bike shops and C-List are full of them every week.

      By contrast, here in NI I am actively looking and have not been able to acquire a vintage roadster type bike thus far; it's truly slim pickings!

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    5. Well done derf. Very well done indeed. There may have been a wipeout at the end of your slide but your action impresses me.

      It is harder to talk about technique than it is to describe equipment. Yet the rider and what the rider does is always more important than the bike. And it is even harder to talk about ice technique because it all happens so fast.

      When it's a case of pure black ice down you go, instantly. Not much to discuss. If it's a mere slip or slide there is still traction. Not much to work with, but something. The first thing to do when your wheel slips is to do nothing. Don't flinch, don't start, don't tighten up. If your wheel slips an inch or two just keep riding. In many cases after an inch of slippage the tire finds something to grab. And in many cases being startled will make you lose what little stability you had. Once you get used to slipping an inch it is not long before it becomes comfortable to slide a foot. A foot of slide can feel like an eternity. Somewhere in eternity there is a good chance of resumed traction.

      Sliding more than a couple feet it's time to look for options in where and how you fall. I like ladies frames for winter because they are easier to step off. Bromptons have low crossbars too. Of course the motion of getting off the bike can throw you off balance. And you can make a mistake and ditch the bike .01 second before traction appears. OTOH stepping off can give you the option of falling on your butt, falling on your shoulder, falling somewhere soft, anything but falling on your face or head. If you're about to fall under a bus or off a cliff please jump off the bike in any other direction. Other times the big slide just gets comfortable and you ride it until it stops in a snowbank.

      Does all this sound drastic? There are moments it will feel that way. You don't have to learn any of this. Discretion is still the better part of valor. Sunday I rode miles of ice, yesterday I thought better of it. Went for a walk instead. Witnessed two falls. The second one stopped and rendered assistance. Made the phone call for an ambulance and was told "at least an hour of wait, everybody's falling." It all worked out but there are days to stay inside.

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  14. You should use another bike with studded tires.
    i would also suggest Schwalbe Marathon Winter. i use them the last two winters. They are a good choice for a all terrain winter tire.

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  15. Where were these photos taken?

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  16. Are some readers suggesting that fat tires are a solution to riding on black ice? Fat tire bikes, regardless of the width of the tire, will slide, rudderless and out of control, on any ice that coats the surface of any hard surface. imo.

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    1. It's more important to some to have the wrong tool for the job due to misapprehension of its capabilities than to have the right tool which, in the case of fail safe prevention of sliding on ice, does not exist.

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    2. In cyberspace, no one can see the stage-wink.

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  17. I thought you said they salt the roads there. Was this just a temporary freeze where later in the afternoon the ice was gone?

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    1. I've been told they salt the roads here so aggressively, that it's a bad idea to ride a steel bike in the winter. However I have not yet witnessed that degree of salting.

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  18. We spent on one South Lakes Group ride last Winter most of a ride pushing our bikes along the road sections of ride due to black ice, you should had gone for walk on Boxing Day like we did in Silverdale area (where the BBC Autumn Watch film this year) where the locals say there a walk for every day of the year. You can see photos of the walk here http://www.southlakesgroup.org.uk/2013photogallery/december/26th.html

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  19. Boxing Day? In Ireland, we call it St. Stephen's Day. More specifically, in Dublin, Stevenses Day. Remember Good King Wenceslas and the Feast of Stephen?

    I don't know if it's true, but I heard that the day after Christmas Day is just an ordinary working day in the United States. Much better to live in Russia. You get to celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December with the Western business community, then New Year on the 1st of January. This was the big celebration during the communist era.

    Then, on the 7th of January, you get the Orthodox Christmas according to the Julian calendar. This is when all the wonderful church services take place, like in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. This was a swimming pool for many years, then a car park, but was rebuilt recently to its present magnificence. Whether you believe in Christianity or not, the Russian Orthodox liturgy cannot fail to move you. Not for the faint-hearted, though. A Russian Orthodox church has no seating, and the Divine Liturgy can last for several hours.

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    1. FWIW they call it Boxing Day in this part of N Ireland.

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  20. Guess there's only one thing to do... Get a trike. Benny Hill aside they don't fall over much.
    Always enjoy the read & photos.
    Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year,
    Bob

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  21. I've found studlies are fine on black ice - the main problem is getting going again after you stop as your feet aren't as grippy as your bike tyres. It took me four years to decide I needed them, but now I've got a set I would definitely not go back - no more cabin fever during prolonged icy spells. Some years we can get several weeks on a trot where the roads are icy and we're miles from any gritted routes

    AFAIK they don't do them in Brompton sizes though so you would need a different bike ...

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  22. When there is a lot of snow it seems to help to deflate the tires to a very low pressure.

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  23. What sort of bikes are the locals riding? That would be your best guide.

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    1. The locals ride normal bikes. No fat bikes. No cyclocross bikes. No studded tires. 28mm tires and (maybe) fenders on a roadbike; transport bikes are kept as they are. And I've spotted at least 2 other actively commuting Bromptons in the area.

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    2. Do you think that's because of the toughness/practicalness of the folks up there or do you think more would be out riding if there were more readily available varieties of bikes? Or maybe there are lots of bike shops and choices there. Seems like there was a time where you had a bike for every situation and distance, are you happy with just the two?

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    3. I've thought about that and it's hard to say. In part it might be because of an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it mentality," because many might argue that a fat bike and/or studded tires will not make enough of a difference here (as opposed to, say, in a place where it snows) to make them worth it.

      For the most part, I am happy with just the two bikes here, and this is largely due to the geography, weather and other features specific to the area I now live. I will eventually acquire a vintage loop frame roadster type of bike just for fun and appreciation's sake, as well as bring one of my fat tire roadbikes over, but by no means do I "need" them here.

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    4. Yeah, I wonder...Some obsess over little things and think they're necessary, some just deal with it, for what ever reasons. Some have options, some don't. When choosing a bike there are so many levels to consider.

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  24. Last winter I had the privilege of following right behind somebody who went down on black ice ... just a tiny patch in a groove in the road she happened to ride over, just before a left hand bend. The back wheel slid and she was on her bum in the blink of an eye; nobody could have controlled it, human reactions are nowhere near fast enough. I aimed for the verge in a straight line braking as hard as I dared and came to a stop upright. Close inspection of the road revealed (by a scrape of the foot) quite a few patches of invisible ice waiting for the unlucky. Fat tyres, big tyres, spiked tyres may help in marginal cases, and really do help on snow, but black ice has surprise on its side, surprise and extreme slipperiness, surprise, extreme slipperiness and invisibility. Take care out there!!

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  25. Bad, bad blck ice. Earlier it took me at least two crashes before switching to spikes. Here in Finland days might be free from it but mornings and evenings usually change that. Sometimes roads are good but then out of nowhere patches show up, especially on bridges. I found that spikes help a lot but once it slips the spikes will not necessarily stop it. Slowing down, carefull cornering and low presure instead will do a lot.

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  26. For winter I go onto my two-wheel drive trike with Marathon Winters. None of the cycle paths in the Wolds are gritted and few of the side roads.Grip on TWD is better anyway but spikes help on ice. A trike needs spikes all round as braking and steering rely on the front wheel grip. I have tried a trike with one wheel drive and Snow Spikes at the back and a Winter on the front. Good but not as good as Winters all round. Another trial was on a bike, still the problem of a fall if the grip goes & I overbalance.

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  27. On a different note a very Happy New Year to you, yours, and your readers.

    Ride Long And Prosper.

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