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Staying upright on icy roads
This is another article which has needed a bit of a rewrite, because global warming seems to have spun off some seriously cold winters with snow and ice hanging around for months even in the south east of England. However, just as I wrote when I first put this tip together, the best solution to dealing with ice is to try to avoid it in the first place! I have a 'bad weather' clause in my training courses so it's usually possible two or three days out to get early warning of approaching bad weather - the weather forecasts have improved significantly in the last decade or so. Failing that, take a look out of the window and have a look at car windscreens and the lawn. If it looks grim, take the car, the bus or leave the ride for another day. I was a 'real biker' for many years and learned the hard way that two-wheelers and ice don't mix.
The best advice for riding on icy roads is "don't". But if there's no choice, then do a bit of thinking ahead. Although it can stay frozen all day, it's usually freezing mornings after a clear night that are likely to be the biggest issue, although the roads can freeze again if cloud clears after dark.
Plan the route to take roads that are more likely to have been treated. Back lanes are far less likely to have seen a gritting truck than main roads, and residential roads roads are more likely to be icy than motorways. Where cars have been running over the road, heat from the tyres will usually melt the ice in the wheel tracks, but if all the surface is icy, the least-polished and grippiest bit of the road is generally in the middle of the lane. A good indicator of a slippery bit of road is that it is shiny.
Remember too, that built-up areas are nearly always significantly warmer than country roads and just because the roads in town have been clear, that's no guarantee there will be no ice on rural roads. Even if the road appears clear, there may be colder frost hollows or exposed areas where it isn't - this is the 'microclimate' effect talked about in the police handbook, 'Motorcycle Roadcraft'.
We should also look for ice in shaded patches, behind buildings and under trees, even behind parked high-hided vehicles. If water can pool, such as in dips in the road and at bottoms of hills, we should keep our eyes open. Watch out for run-off from springs and fields - a good clue is an anti-skid surface! Car washes in towns can overspill and burst water mains nearly always accompany really cold weather. Be cautious on bridges - they cool from both sides - and metal access covers can be icy when the road surface is still just damp.
One particularly unpleasant riding condition is 'black ice'. It's hard to spot because it looks like a wet road but is actually a sheet of ice. The only clue is that it looks 'wetter' than usual, if that makes sense. It usually follows a late evening shower and clearing skies and a frost. Years ago, returning from a blood run at 4am on a January morning, I was passing through the town centre thinking it would be warmer than the country lane route home, when I hit a patch. Fortunately I was upright at the time, because what I thought was a missed gear turned out to be wheelspin. If I'd been accelerating coming out of the corner, I'd have been on my ear. As it was, I was able to roll off the ice and back onto some grippy tarmac.
So if we suspect ice, aim to get any braking and gear changing done upright, and get the bike upright before getting back on the throttle. Make brake, throttle and clutch movements slow and smooth. Keep speeds down so as to reduce steering input and lean angle. Posture is important and we need to try to keep weight off the handlebars. This isn't easy on a sportsbike but sit forward on the seat, grip the tank with the knees, brace the back and keep shoulders, elbows and wrists loose.
If the bike does twitch, don't try to fight it. There's a reasonable chance the bike will regain grip but trying to fight the wobble just makes things worse in my experience. If we do hit ice, the most important thing is NOT to touch the brakes. It's an incredibly strong instinct to overcome, but touch the front on a non-ABS bike and we'll be on our ear before we know what's happened. The rear brake will probably lock the back wheel, but we may be able to save the slide if we're upright. Even with ABS the bike will be destabilised. I've been told to "steer into a slide", but on the couple of times I've hit ice mid-corner, I've crashed so quickly I've had no time even to think about it.
Which gear should we ride in? The old advice was to ride in a higher gear than normal, but I suspect it works best on old bikes. It applies to 1960's Bonnies and BMWs with low-revving, slow-revving engines. It's entirely debatable if it should be applied to modern high-revving, fast-spinning bikes. If we ride in an artificially high gear to keep the revs low, we'll be using more throttle than usual for the speed. Some years back on my GSX-R750, I was in too high a gear when I hit a slippery surface and the rear wheel lost traction. The bigger-than-usual throttle opening caused the engine to rev, that spun up the rear wheel, the rear back end stepped out sideways and I just avoided a high-side... at about 10mph! Counter-intuitively, a lower gear would have needed less throttle to drive the bike forward at the same speed, and so the wheelspin would have been less violent. And even if you have traction control, it'll kick in and you'll almost certainly shut the throttle. If you are riding an older machine that's not so equipped, then the answer is to make your own traction control - drag the rear brake lightly right through the manoeuvre until the machine is upright again. It's crude but it stops wheelspin... and it works. I'm not saying ride everywhere in first gear but take any advice to ride in a "higher gear than normal" with a pinch of salt if you're not riding a Royal Enfield.
Take it easy out there, and stay shiny side up!
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