Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Advice column--Black ice.

Dear Maniac:

I'm curious what the following actually means in terms of management on a freeway:

Despite the cold, I'm sweating a particular stretch of freeway. There's some hills just South of Salem. The freeway takes a five hundred and forty eight foot rise. It's just enough to make the difference in ice or snow. I've hit black ice there a couple of times on a bike. The heavy fog makes it likely to happen again.

I've negotiated black ice on secondary roads with no traffic but not on a freeway. What do you actually do? Please, I need instruction.

Back Road Slider

Dear Slider,

Let's start by asking a basic question. Why in the world are you riding in this kind of weather in the first place? Any so-called "sensible person" will loudly tell us that one needs to be crazy, insane, or shades of both, to ride a motorcycle when there's a chance of hitting ice. These nice people will also tell us that the reasonable thing to do is to lock ourselves into some heated box. That way we'll have four tires for traction as well as being so much more comfortable. It sounds so cozy, warm, and oh so "wise", doesn't it?

Excuse me. I think I just threw up in my helmet a little bit. I'm so sick of people telling me to "play it safe"! My God. Next thing you know I'll be sitting in a recliner while somebody spoon feeds me instant mush. Heaven forbid I should do anything that might hurt me.

Sorry, folks. I'm going to ride my bikes as much as possible. That just might mean dealing with dicey traction. Sometimes those difficult traction situations are going to take us by surprise. No matter how hard we scan and search for information, we're bound to miss something. Things like Black Ice. There's a reason it's called that, obviously. So, Mister Slider ( emphasis on the Mister ) you've asked a darn fine "man's" question. How do we deal with black ice?

Firstly, be proud that you're out there being a true Road Warrior. Hopefully, you'll someday have an experience like this one. I've just got to take a little detour and tell you a short story.

We had to buy Katie a new cell phone. She doesn't much care for having to adapt to new technology. Her old cell phone has been in her purse for a bunch of years. There wasn't much incentive for her to get a new one. Until I decided to buy a new Blackberry Storm touch screen phone. I used her upgrade credit. Things went well until I asked Verizon to switch the phones around so Katie would have her number back. The old phones won't work with the new E911 requirement by the FCC so Verizon wouldn't re-activate hers. Everything turned out well, though, as I found her a new phone she really likes. Functional, but not too complicated.

Since we could now download songs for ringtones, I asked her what she would like for when I called. Right away she said she wanted the theme song from Raiders of the Lost Ark. When I asked Katie why, she replied that it was fitting for me. Harrison Ford's a great looking guy and, more importantly, she thinks of me as her swashbuckling hero.

What does this have to do with black ice? Some of us are going to ride whenever we dang well feel like it. Those who matter understand and even admire us.

This is an older picture I stole from a couple of years ago on this blog. It's pretty much what things look like around my house today. Except with more snow and ice on the roadway. We're sitting in the teens and twenties for temperatures. That would be minus 5 to minus 10 or so in centigrade, Bryce Lee. Most of the roads are covered in a sheet of ice. I didn't ride today. You can bet I'll have Elvira out introducing her to the snow pretty soon. I expect ice and will deal with it accordingly.

Black ice, however, doesn't always happen only when you expect it. That's what makes it so hazardous.

In the interests of honesty, the best plan is to not be riding when ice of any kind is expected. The second best plan is to pay attention to our surroundings. Our training program puts a lot of emphasis on detecting hazards as early as possible. This process includes assessing the current conditions, projecting how they might change, and aggressively searching for visual clues of changing traction. My experiences with black ice have happened despite my best efforts to avoid it.

Take the last time. This one was pretty typical of my other experiences. It was in February of 2007. I'm on the freeway heading North about 30 miles to teach a class. Yep, first weekend of February and classes are starting already. Most of the time our climate allows for it. I've checked the temperature. It's four degrees above freezing. A bit of rain had fallen overnight. There's a light mist still in the air. Not a big deal, I figure. If I had a dollar for everytime I've ridden in the cold and wet, I'd have retired rich by now.

Firing up Sophie a little before 6 AM, it's still dark. This early on a Saturday morning, traffic is pretty light. As is my habit, I'm feeling out traction as I go. The freeway feels fine and I confidently wick it up to 55 mph or so. My STeed and I are approaching the hills in South Salem. I've hit black ice here a total of three times previously. Always much higher up, though. My senses are on alert. There's no traffic ahead of me. I'm scanning the roadway in Sophie's headlight. I see the glisten of wet pavement but it looks normal. I'm expecting the possibility of black ice a bit later. This time I'd find it much sooner than expected.

As we start up the South side of the slope, we've only climbed a few feet from our two hundred foot or so elevation. The bike and I are Northbound. On the Southbound downhill slope, I see a car off in the ditch. An ambulance and police car are on the shoulder with lights flashing. Curious at to what's going on, my attention is drawn to the scene. At this point we're doing about 50 mph and pulling a little more throttle to start the climb up the hill.

There's always a danger in becoming distracted while riding a bike. Even dashing swashbucklers are human, though. As I'm drawing even with the emergency vehicles, I feel Sophie's front end get mushy. I'd soon realize exactly why that car's in the ditch. Weirdly enough, my first thought isn't about ice. That's how certain I was that the road was ok where I was. What crossed my mind is the possibility of the front tire going flat. Then the steering went from mushy to feeling really light. I felt the familiar sensation of continuing in a straight line while the handlebars are moving back and forth. This is exactly what I've felt every other time I've encountered black ice at speed. Momentum carries the bike forward. The front tire is sliding on the ice which causes that back and forth movement. This is a critical moment.

Several things have to happen quickly. Firstly, the head and eyes need to snap up. Feeling that weird sensation can cause a rider to want to look down and see what's happening. We need the bike to keep moving in a straight line. Looking as far ahead as we can see will help make this happen.

Secondly, the movement of the bars has to be stopped. Traction can come back at any time. You don't want that to happen when the front tire is pointed any direction but straight ahead. Don't go the other way and lock up your arms. Relaxed, but firm is the key.

Thirdly, despite the first reaction when realizing we're on ice, hold the throttle steady for a bit. Our instinct will be to roll off the throttle. Remember, though, that on a slippery surface we don't want either acceleration or braking inputs. A bike has three brakes. The engine being the third. If we're going to have to roll off, it has to be gradual and smooth. I always figure I'll be smart enough not to roll on the throttle or apply the brakes. So far so good!

Eyes up, keep the bars straight, and make no sudden inputs. So far I've successfully ridden out my encounters with black ice on the freeway at speed. I really hope I never have any more opportunity to test my skills in this regard. However, I ride in all kinds of weather. It may happen again. The name Black Ice was chosen for a reason, I guess.

So far, I've never hit black ice in a corner. For me, that's a totally different ballgame. If I even suspect a traction problem on a curvy road, my approach is pretty cautious. Or I will chose straighter roads. Even swashbucklers want to get home in one piece at the end of an adventuresome day!

Miles and smiles,



Tinker said...

Well, I'll admit I am officially a coward. If there is a way to avoid riding in snow, ice and even rain, I park the motorcycle. Don't HAVE to be anywhere, and no longer get sufficient practice so I can trust my reaction. (I may be stupid, but I'm not a complete idiot.)

Riding on that stuff creeps me out, and pretty well takes all the enjoyment away.

At worst its not ONLY myself I have doubts about, we don't get enough bad weather down here that most drivers are remotely competent in bad conditions in their cars! If you may be a bit slow, you do not want a driver doing something absolutely (terminally!) STUPID in front of or alongside you.

I still ride in cold weather, but not cold wet weather. My estimation of the risk is prohibitive...

Arizona Harley Dude said...

Great advise Dan. Riding in your weather would require a lot more attention than out here. I have hit black ice in a turn and it didn't end well, as one would expect at speed. It has been cold and raining in Arizona for three days and I have stayed off Petunia, but I'm riding tomorrow no matter what.

fasthair said...

IronDad: Again great information from a person who knows what he is talking about. A couple of weeks ago I went to dinner after the sun had set. It was cold of course at about 35f with high humidity. This draws the moisture to the roadway like it is raining out. Asphalt this cold is very slick even if there is no black ice present. Leaving from the restaurant I thought I might have made a mistake riding to dinner. A few test with the throttle and the brake confirmed that the road was slick but not frozen. Riding slow and on full alert I made it home without incident but I wasn’t really enjoying it. When it is that close to freezing here in Iowa the roads can change in a heart beat leaving you in real trouble. I’ve learned to keep my ego in check around here this time of year as much as I don’t like it.

My point is you must know your surroundings just as you pointed out. In your neck of the woods it appears you have better climate for winter riding. But here in Iowa it can get bad before you even have a chance to come up with plan B. Last Saturday it was 50f here even through the night. By 1400hrs Sunday it was 2f with freezing rain and snow. If I had went riding like I wanted I would have been in big trouble. Sometime the weather guessers get it right.

On a lighter note I was playing around with mapping software today dreaming of riding this spring. While I’ve done it unofficially before I’m going after my Iron Butt 1000 in 24. It’s a personal thing, I’m sure you understand.


Doug C said...

There is nothing like an icy surface at night to get the adrenalin juices flowing! Had my first and only experience (so far) last year about this time accelerating onto an expressway. I was able to 'slide' upright into the slow lane where the pavement was dry and traction abundant.

It is very strange feeling the front and rear wheels fighting for a track to follow. Amazing how alert an event like that makes you.

As always, an excellent analysis, Dan.

Conchscooter said...

My wife and I are going to the mountains of Western North Carolina for ho bloody ho family snowy black ice Christmas. Weirdly enough we're taking the Maxima and leaving the Bonneville.Now I remember why.

Stacy said...

I just don't have the skills for ice riding. I think I'd need to have more street miles and a lot more dirt miles before I'd even consider taking a ride during freezing temps.

Still, it's good to know how to handle hitting a patch of black ice, even if the knowledge is "on paper"!

irondad said...

Interestingly, I almost wrote that "real men and women ride whenever they dang well feel like it".

Then I realized I might be insulting those who chose not to ride in certain weather. It's not even really true. I offer you my total respect for drawing your limits and sticking to them. I wish more people would do that all the way around.

I agree with the stupid drivers all around. It's kept me from riding during this last ice storm, actually.

Arizona Harley Dude,
I would absolutely hate to hit black ice in a corner. I don't even want to know what that feels like.

It seldom changes dramatically here from one end of the day to the next. That situation adds an extra layer to your preparation, doesn't it?

Yes, I totally understand the Saddle Sore 1000 thing!

Reminds me of that new Mastercard commercial. It has three grade school age boys. The punch line is "having people around who understand you? Priceless!"

Doug C,
You just keep adding valuable experience, don't you? Jump far, Grasshopper!

I remember the first time I felt both ends of the bike slide at once. My first thought was,
"So that's what those motorcycle racers are feeling!"

Holy crap! How ever are you going to survive actually being cold?

Travel safe.

Take care,


David said...

I don't care how many wheels you have on your ride, black ice can kill you. That's 2, 4, or 18 wheels, as was made clear on I-5 today. Thankfully I was on the other side of the road driving slow, and not the guy who hit the ice, slid into the semi next to him and blocked a major interstate for several hours. BTW, looks like no one was seriously hurt, just a lot of crunched fenders, no balls of tinfoil formerly a car.

I don't ride in the snow and ice because I hate winter. :) I will ride a dirt bike on snow because it's a LOT of fun. It's also good practice in low traction situations. If you think you've mastered slick roads, ride in a snowy grain stubble field. ;)

Keep riding, stay smart, and stay safe.
Dave T.

Steve Williams said...

Superb advice. Just excellent. I was pretty close in habit to your explanation but the snapping of the eyes up and ahead remains theoretical knowledge and I don't yet find it instinctual. I'll have to work at imprinting it on my brain.

The evidence keeps piling up on why you're the master.

My own experiences are tempered by being fortunate to ride on lightly traveled secondary roads. They aren't straight but I can ride at slower speeds and can even stop and scout out the road ahead on foot. I can be just like the whitewater people who scout out what's beyond the next turn in the river.

I've briefly been on freeways at temperatures where ice could exist but not when I thought new ice would form and I only had to watch for leftover dregs of snow and ice that have fallen from other vehicles. Not much more skill needed than avoiding objects in the road.

Thanks again Maniac for some great teaching!

Steve Williams
Currently Scooterless in the Sticks

irondad said...

I'm not sure if acquiring these skills is something to strive for or not. See my next comment.

Dave T,
I saw I-5 up by Olympia yesterday. There were 20 different collisions that had the freeway shut down.

You're right in that dirt riders are usually better at handling low traction situations.

Thank you for the kind words. I'm suitably honored. I try to pass along wisdom that might one day be useful to riders. I hope it's helped here and there.

Take care,


Tinker said...

I've put in my time and miles, got nothing to prove to anybody, anywhere. I no longer have to commute, and that would be a powerful incentive to keep the skills fresh (I wonder how many time inexperienced riders get up and ride to work in conditions they are not comfortable/confident/competent in.)

Anyway, still take the old (1978) CB400A out for a spin. I can wait for conditions to be perfect, and its more fun when they are.

The CB400A makes a perfect ride on ice and snow, as it has no power peak at all (We've all overestimated the available traction, and dropped a gear,[maybe even two] grabbed some RPMs, and scared ourselves half to death.) Not a good commuter otherwise, don't recommend it. You are almost a stationary object, in traffic, and if some "mouth breather" wants you, he can have you, pretty much anytime. (I count on the surprise effect of seeing a "golden Oldie" still riding.)