The Rules of Winter Cycling
Poor street conditions and visibility can make winter riding seem a dangerous ordeal. But the skills that get you through the next few months will only make you a better rider all the time.
Rule #1 - BE SEEN! People often don't expect to see cyclists in foul weather. Use front white and rear red lights and reflective tape and/or clothing to make sure you can be seen from the front, side and back. A disproportionate number of bicycle/car crashes happen in the dark!! Just because we can see motorists, doesn't mean they see or expect us. And during the season of long nights, cyclists are often invisible in the canyon of shadows created by street lights and car headlights. Not convinced? Check out CDOT's clever "can you see the cyclist" video.
Rule # 2 - Know the Hazards: The streets are slickest when it first begins to rain or snow. Manhole covers, leaves and metal bridges are particularly dangerous when wet. Plowed snow reduces operating room on the roads. Fresh snow makes traction difficult. Black ice is sneaky; all ice can be upending. And then there are regular ole hazards--potholes, cracks and RR crossings. Your awareness of these hazards, especially on your common routes, will help you anticipate and handle them (see below).
Rule #3 - Know the Tricks: When it is wet or icy, pump the brakes, ride more slowly, keep your weight on the back wheel, and don't lean into turns as much. When it snows, follow the ruts created by cars, avoiding ridges which can deflect the front wheel and cause a spill. Again, keeping your weight to the back helps with stability. Breathe deeply, stay the course and keep pedaling--your bike wants to stay upright, and momentum will help it. If you do start to fall, try to lean away from traffic and resist putting out your hand to brake the fall; it’s often better to take the impact flat along your forearms. There’s also no shame in walking with your bike through rough patches.
Rule # 4 - Know your Options: Many of us are creatures of habit, taking the same route to a given destination. During messy weather, consider alternates. After a snowstorm, an unploughed sidestreet where cars are poking along at 15 mph might be better than an icy artery where cars are sliding across the road at 40 mph or more and the bike lane is buried under plowed snow. Then again, during a storm, large arterials are sometimes best because cars are slow and the heavy traffic melts the snow. Bottom line—know your options (including public transit) and be flexible. Also, the Chicago Bike Map shows which bridges have exposed metal grates. (Many thanks to Kathy Schubert and others for their work to get the city to improve the bridges.)
Rule #5 - Be predictable: It's like a dance. Anticipate what other road users (that includes pedestrians and other cyclists) are going to do, and help them anticipate your movements. Signal when you are going to change positions or turn. Learn to look behind without veering off course. Try not to stop abruptly; there might be a cyclist right behind you.
Rule #6 - Be assertive: Don't hesitate to take a lane. It's our legal right! If someone is honking behind, that's a good sign. At least they see you. If they are that impatient, they might be the type that would try to squeeze past you if you were a little closer to the right. Also, stay to the left of right turning traffic at intersections. Oncoming traffic will see you better, and right turning traffic won't plow into you.
For more information (and less text) the Chicago Department of Transportation's Bicycle Program has created a series of videos with a light touch on the serious topic of biking in city streets.