Philly winter biking tips for those braving the snow and ice

If you must bike during a bomb cyclone, here’s how to be as safe as possible.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia said you should only bike in this weather if you absolutely have to.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia said you should only bike in this weather if you absolutely have to.

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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In the midst of Thursday’s bomb cyclone, Rheannone Ball biked to work, just like she does every day. But the ride was not like every day. It was very different.

On her 3.2-mile commute from South Philly to North Philly, Ball took wider, bigger streets like Broad and Snyder. The visibility was better and the roads were a little less icy. She went more slowly, and paid extra attention at each intersection.

Ball, 25, has been cycling in Philly since she moved here in August. Before that, she was a bike messenger in New York City for two years. So she’s well aware of the new hazards snow and ice bring to already-challenging city biking.

“It definitely makes biking a little more difficult,” Ball said. “You have to be extra careful, go extra slow and assume other people won’t be able to stop as quickly as they want.”

Good advice — if you decide you want to get on your bike in the first place. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia doesn’t recommend people bike in this weather unless they really have to. BCGP Communications Manager Randy LoBasso said biking on Thursday was dangerous, but biking on Friday — the day after the storm hit — could be even worse, because ice had time to form on Philly streets.

If you absolutely must bike? LoBasso had a few recommendations:

  • Try to find roads near your route that have been plowed
  • Consider installing snow tires to get some more traction on ice
  • After you ride, wash the salt off your bike so it doesn’t erode the metal

One of the most challenging parts of riding in this weather, LoBasso noted, is that snow is often plowed into the bike lane. It’s usually safer to bike in the center of the street to avoid snow and ice. Yes, you have the right to do that.

“It’s not always the most fun,” LoBasso said. “It feels vulnerable, but it’s better to be safe and ride in the center of the street because you’re away from where the ice is and where the snow is.”

Ball noted that it’s not just cold that can impact tire pressure — a quick warming, like Philly experienced last week, will cause them to go slightly flat. “Checking your tires when the temperature is fluctuating so much is a big deal,” she said.

Becca Little, 31, opted out of biking her usual two miles to work yesterday. Normally she isn’t afraid to bike in winter weather, but eight months ago a car knocked her off her bike. Since then, she’s been a little more cautious.

To prep for wintertime conditions, Little visits her bike mechanic in November to make sure everything is good to go. In the winter, she switches to a hybrid bike with fatter tires, which provide a little more traction when the roads are slippery.

“We don’t have a lot of instances where we get this type of snow,” Little said. “If you have right gear and know how to bike safely, it’s manageable.”

Ball has heard of some DIY fixes for biking in the snow: lower the air pressure in your tires to get more surface area on the road, or tie zip ties around your tires for more traction.

But for the most part, she keeps it simple: Just be confident on the road and wear really warm gloves.

“Just go slow, and if you feel unsafe you can go on the sidewalk,” Ball said. “Don’t be scared or nervous in the same way that you wouldn’t want to be scared or nervous driving a car.”

If you’ve got more questions, LoBasso pointed to the resource of the Bicycle Coalition’s blogs, where people often share their wintertime biking knowledge.

“If you do see something — a street not plowed, a trail not plowed — definitely reach out to the Streets Department or Parks and Recreation,” LoBasso said. “I can’t guarantee they’re going to change anything, but at least the city needs to hear that people are still cycling in this weather.”