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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!

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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