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Break gently when winter cycling

Nubby tires with less air will provide more traction

As I write this, Vancouver is gripped by an uncharacteristic spell of real winter. The mercury is hanging well below zero, the weekend's coating of fluffy white snowflakes has turned to ice beneath the wheels of cars on the side streets, and cyclists have become a rare sight.

It's not surprising that the number of cyclists drops in icy weather. Bikes and ice make notoriously poor bedmates; two slim, little wheels on a slick frozen surface is a recipe for bruised flesh and dignity at best, and broken bones at worst.

But if (like me) you're determined to keep commuting through a cold snap, here are a few tips that will help keep you upright.

First of all, take a look at your wheels. Slicks and skinny tires suited to a road bike are extremely slippy on ice or hardpacked snow, although in small amounts of soft snow, they're sometimes able to cut through and grip the tarmac underneath. Wide, nubby mountain bike tires will give you a lot more grip in really slippery conditions; the more widely spaced the knobs, the better they will hold on. Letting a little air out of the tires will provide additional traction.

If you want to err on the side of caution, invest in a pair of studded tires and throw them on your bike during winter's harshest weather. They will provide good grip even on black ice.

If you only have one studded tire, it should go on the front wheel to give extra purchase as you steer. When you're riding, look for bare patches where you can brake and turn. If you have no choice but to turn on compact snow or ice, try to keep your movements and actions gentle.

Turn slowly and keep the bike upright as you do so, rather than leaning it over as you would with a regular turn. This keeps more of the tire in contact with the surface and avoids the lateral force that can easily cause the tire to slip out from under you.

Don't brake while you're turning, as you will almost certainly lose the rear wheel. Wait until you're moving straight again and then brake lightly, using the rear brake rather than the front.

Keep your upper body relaxed, and your body weight over the rear wheel as you brake to increase traction.

If the rear wheel does skid out, let go of the brake right away and use a foot to stabilize yourself if you can.

If none of this sounds remotely fun, it might be a wise idea to invest in a bus pass or parking permit to get you through deep winter. Riding in snow and ice is not for everyone (nor every bike) and is definitely not without a few extra risks.

But with a little extra caution and the right tires, it is possible to ride through the cold snaps and snow drifts safely without needing to rig your bike up like a human-powered snowmobile.

Kay Cahill is a cyclist and librarian who believes bikes are for life, not just for commuting. You can contact or send a comment to

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