08 January 2008

Types of Snow for the Roadie

We all know that it's not becoming of a road cyclist to either complain about the weather, nor to brag about what sort of weather he/she just rode in. Although I do it a lot. Whatever.

Saturday I had to forego a ride (despite 60 degree F temperatures) because of "hurricane force" winds. Apparently semi-trucks were getting blown over on Interstate 25, and when I observed the trash cans behind our house go airborne I decided it would be nice to stay inside. Sunday was forecasted to be a bit cold but otherwise nice. It was, except for a snowstorm in the morning. The weather stations here claimed that there was, like, a 1 in 1,000 chance of such a snowstorm happening (something about the positioning of the jet stream, etc.) - but nonetheless it happened. It was quite depressing waking up and seeing the city under a big layer of snow when I had planned on going out and doing a 4 hour ride. Still, I waited later in the day for the snowplows to get the major roadways cleared, said a prayer, and went for a shorter ride. Today, I got stuck out riding in a snowstorm about 45 minutes away from home (this time the storm was projected, but apparently I didn't care), and FINALLY, just a couple of minutes away from home, I crashed!

Now, seriously, I've been waiting for this moment all winter break. I have, admittedly, been out riding in conditions that were a bit too unsafe...but I still didn't crash. But I did learn a lot about the different types of snow on the road - for the roadie (since I'm no cyclocrosser, and non-cyclocrossers can be dead afraid of the snow when they shouldn't be). These nutjobs do have some nice technique and other info, but again this is designed for the pure roadie. That means you're out in a blizzard on your carbon-framed racing bike, with slick racing tires, etc. No fenders, studded tires, beater frame, and other dorky stuff...

Hard Solid Bigass Chunks of Ice
This usually occurs on the northside of big buildings (or other places that see little sun) or on non-plowed sidestreets that have taken a few subsequent snow-beatings. This is some of the best stuff to ride on - basically asphalt with significantly less traction. If it appears white (thus having a bit of snow on top of it), then it's just one grade down from asphalt. If it looks more like pure ice, then be a little more wary of it. Just slow a bit beforehand, pick a good line, go straight (aka NO turning), and keep your hands entirely off your breaks. You can coast or, if you are deathly afraid of wasting time during your workout by not pedalling, then pedal slowly and smoothly as if you're on rollers. If you do think that you may lose balance (aka the ice surface is for some strange reason very rough), then unclip a pedal and don't be afraid to lay your foot down for balance (and if you're riding in the winter with cleats clipped as strong as they'd be on a veldrome, then you're an idiot). For some reason this type of ice is what scares off people from riding in the winter, although it's some of the safest stuff.

Melting Hard Bigass Chunks of Ice
This stuff is a bit more dangerous - think of ice-skating on a pond, and having the ice layer crack and break. Your front (or back, I suppose) wheel can potentially 'fall in' while the rest of your bike/body continuing to move forward. Perhaps big studded tires would prevent this from happening, but on thin (almost razor-like) road racing tires it's a possibility. Again, everything can be prevented by keeping a smooth, constant, slower speed, by holding your line, by not even touching the brakes, and by being willing to do the unclip-and-prevent-a-crash manouver.

Black Ice
While many view this to be the Antichrist of road cycling, this again is merely a grade under regular asphalt. Supposedly it's stealth causes multitudes of crashes. But, despite its name it's really not that stealthy. Unless you're swerving down the road like a test-car on a slalom course, there should be no reason for you to suddenly crash out of the middle of nowhere on a patch of black ice. One of the central assumptions of road cycling is that one holds his line! And if it's not given away by the dual combination of freezing temperatures and the patch of road that looks wet, then if you're applying some sort of decent force to your drivetrain you may feel your back wheel slide out a bit on a patch of black ice. That is not a signal to immediately slam on your brakes, nor to start swerving around, nor to jump up out of your saddle and sprint for the next tree. An unabashed black ice fearmonger will of course counter, "What about the corners?" Well, don't rip corners like a technical criterium when it's freezing and the roads are lousy. I like to stand out of the saddle in corners on ice just to totally insure that I stay totally upright.

It should be noted, though, that black ice with a layer of snow on top of it is, indeed, a bit more stealthy. Especially in the early stages of a snowstorm, when the snow just begins to stick to the road and accumulate, once can safely assume that the entire roadway is black ice - since it had previously been wet with new snow but has obviously since frozen.

White Slush
If you see this on the road, you might as well slow down to walking pace, unclip a pedal (or both) already, and either embrace the real likelihood that you will crash or start walking. This is an all-encompassing term for, well, slush that is white. It's not quite ice, not quite water, and not quite snow - but it is evil. It'll knock around both of your wheels as you fight for your life to hold your line, your back wheel will fishtail out from under you. The consistency of white slush is such that you cannot simply ride over it like ice, nor can you slice through it like water or snow. Studded or cyclocross tires may make this stuff less lethal, but I wouldn't know since I don't swing that way.

Now, what I crashed on today was on the transition from black ice (under a fresh just-sticking layer of snow) to white slush (presumably starting to solidify more at that point). The transition was more diagonal on the ride, so my front wheel was on white slush (thus making me lose control of my front and slide around) while my back was still on the black ice. At that point I had thrown myself into an irrecovarable slide, and went straight to the ground. Nonetheless, it should be said that I rode through hundreds of patches of white slush in the past two days, and only once crash came out of it. It is the most dangerous, but is still quite manageable if you go out and practice on it. And do it on your racing machine to up the risk-level (maybe even throw on your deep-dished Zipps) , just to make sure that you'll be extra safe.

Brown Slush
That sounds horrible. Nonetheless, slush that is brown is usually a lot looser, more wet, and for some reason not quite strong enough to screw with your wheels. It may have something to do with it being essentially all melted, and thus the tires always stay in contact with the pavement. It does fly up and hit you in the butt, the back, and entirely encrust your bicycle, drivetrain, gears, wheels, and everything else that you own (and lord help you if you're riding through the stuff during a group ride or a race). One may assume that it's just dirt with water (as I did), but there MUST be something else in it, at least in Colorado Springs. Most of what I went through on Sunday was brown slush, which totally soaked my tights (leaving me wicked freezing cold). The stuff had soaked through the tights to my legs, which were totally dyed a near-black tint (and it wouldn't even wash off in the shower - my legs are still dyed). Whatever it is that they put down on the roads, it's not the benevolent salt of margharita glasses and the sacred dirt of cyclocross races...it's something very very wicked, indeed. But safer than white slush.

Deep Snow
Well, there's nothing that can be done about this stuff. You really can't ride through more than an inch or two of standing snow on a purely-outfitted road bike. You'll have to whip out the mountain bike for that:

So What's My Point?
Many roadies do use the weather as an excuse to not ride, or to not train, or to skirt the cold weather in favor of a much less beneficial workout on the trainer. Many others use the weather as a backhanded way to belittle cyclists.

"You rode your bike out in the snowstorm on the roads?!? That's really dangerous, you know." That means in douchebag-speak:

"You're obviously either a huge idiot or huge badass, or more probably a certain combination of both, for having done a 50 mile ride in a snowstorm. Not only would I drop dead of a heart-attack if I tried to do a 50 mile ride, but it was damn cold. But, all that slipping and sliding and crashing you must have done out on the roads was obviously a nuisance to the cars around you, and the fact that you took up an entire lane because most of the right side of the road was unplowed means that if I was out driving behind you I would've blared my horn for twenty seconds before gunning it and passing you so close that my rearview mirror struck you in the head. But I wasn't because I'm too big of an idiot to know how to operate a motor vehicle in the snow and I slid out driving on the Interstate and caused a 15 car pileup."

Yes, I know it's dangerous to ride a road bike on the roads in a snowstorm.

But, it's expontentially less dangerous than driving an automobile on the roads in a snowstorm. And you don't even need a license to operate a bicycle?!?


The re-awakening of an Athlete said...

Good to hear that East Coast snow types are the same as Rocky Mountain Region snow. And yep - I am waiting for my first crash this winter

WheelmanRI said...

snow is snow, except in skiing I suppose