Saturday, November 26, 2005

Bicycles on Ice

After "How do carry things?", I'd say "What do you do in the winter?" is the most common query about bikeliving in Montana. Well, last night, for instance...

Rachel and I had gone to a play on campus. We walked outside at 10:00 and were greeted with an incredible scene. The freezing rain that had just begun when we went inside had evidently continued, covering everything with a glossy layer of ice. Our bikes, locked up together on a rack that more resembled an ice sculpture, absolutely glimmered. I checked my front brake, which functioned, but the rim was frozen completely. No matter on the fixed gear as I could just brake the rear wheel with my legs. Rachel's rear brake was workable, and so we decided we could ride home safely.

As we pedaled onto the roadway, we were pleased to find that--being a bit warmer--the surface had frozen into a crunchy, icy crust instead of a smooth sheet of ice. There are excellent studded tires available for bicycles, but we've found them unnecessary in Missoula, which is relatively flat and not as snowy as most imagine. I could feel the occasional grab/slip/grab that gives a cycler continuous feedback about traction as we pedaled easily out to the main road.

In my experience, most car drivers seem to imagine bicycles in winter by thinking of their car with two wheels and no balance. In a modern car, the driver is so isolated from the road itself, that winter driving is really more a test of faith (in technology and/or a higher power) than of skill. A cycler has the distinct advantage of feeling the available traction and controlling power and braking to a remarkably fine degree. It's not something you have to "read up on." It just comes naturally the first time you ride a bicycle in snow and ice.

Cyclers have a more tangible advantage over cars as well. An average car weighs maybe 3000 pounds and rolls along on four 8 inch wide tires. An average road bike with rider weighs maybe 200 pounds and rolls along on two 1 inch and a quarter wide tires. I don't know how the physics works out in theory, but in practice, any bicycle has a huge traction advantage starting and stopping.

As we roll up to the intersection, the results are predictable. We stop easily. Although they have the right of way, we know that the cross traffic will probably stop for us. Car drivers in Missoula are absolutely paranoid when they see bicycles on slick roads at night, which is just fine by us most of the time. As expected, the car to the right stops short with the metallic sound of studs grabbing ice. The car to the left is not so well equipped and skids for a shockingly long distance, through the pedestrian crosswalk, and stops leaving just enough room for us to navigate the intersection. Behind, we can hear the spinning tires of the lefthand car as it attempts to get moving again.

We're on deserted neighborhood streets now, and the icy night has frozen every sound. Every light source is amplified, and headlights are unnecessary as we glide through the glow. Tires crackle as they break through the icy crust on the road. We talk about the light and sound, about the play, and about how nice it is to be cyclers tonight. Too soon, we're carefully rounding the corner of our block and roll up to the front porch.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

it really is amazing what the winter does to the outdoors, and how many small aspects we fail to take notice of if we do not experience them on foot or by bike. I enjoyed your writing there.

10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greetings, My name is Lonnie and I am from Portland, Oregon. I just successfully took a nice bike ride out in my newly iced neighborhood. I bought some good studded tires from my favorite bike shop, and put them on during a snow and ice storm yesterday. I was impressed when my bike's traction on ice was very solid. I enjoy riding passed SUV's that think they are cool, but I have better stability on icy roads.

2:34 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home