Black ice is the tarsnake of winter for those who run and ride

by Christopher Cudworth

A section of black ice forms where snow melts on a downhill, resulting in slick, angle sidewalk.

A section of black ice forms where snow melts on a downhill, resulting in a slick, angled section of sidewalk.

One learns through experience that black ice is nothing to take lightly on winter sidewalks and roads. Even springtime running and riding conditions can be treacherous when rain or snowmelt freezes clear and slick to roads and driveways.

That’s when black ice can “attack.” It is the tarsnake of the winter and spring season.

Don’t tread on me

Even the best traction running shoes and knobby bike tires are helpless against slick smooth ice. That is what makes the ice we call “black ice” so dangerous. At times you cannot even see it ahead of you. On asphalt it can be nearly invisible unless there is a light ahead to reflect of the surface. Where it really gets dicey is on angle surfaces such as driveways where melting snow or rainfall freezes into a long, mean slick of wintery tarsnake. Then down you go.

The clear "black" ice is show here on a downhill. Facing north, it is not apparent that it is ice at all.

The clear “black” ice is show here on a downhill. Facing north, it is not apparent that it is ice at all.

Fast falls and odd angles=ouch

Injuries can easily occur when runners and cyclists slip on ice. The drop can be so quick that arms and legs hit at odd angles. Wrists get bent and even fractured. Heads knock on the hard ground. Tailbones get cracked. Hips bruised. Cartilage like ears and noses can get broken or bloody if you fall frontwards or sideways.

Better ways to fall

The same section of ice when seen facing south does show a sheen, but still does not appear to be ice.

The same section of ice when seen facing south does show a sheen, but still does not appear to be ice.

There are better ways to fall than others if you feel yourself going down. Seasoned cyclists learns to lower their body weight immediately and at least shoot for the slide. That can result in a lot less impact. You may get soaked or scraped, but that’s a lot better than bruised and broken. Wounds heal and clothes dry, but bones take time to heal.

Many runners react instinctively, raising their arms to the sides as they realize they are on a stretch of black ice. This balancing instinct is indeed useful. People who have played ballistic sports such as basketball of soccer likely fare a little better in black ice situations than those who have never much used their proprioception capabilities. That means balance, in case the big words have no meaning. Your proprioceptor muscles come into play big time when “skating” on your running shoes across black ice. If you’re lucky, you come out the other end unscathed. If you’re unlucky, you lay on the ground a bit to recover your wits. Then you get up humbled and a lot more cautious.

Cyclists beware

Cyclists have to pay particular attention not just to black ice, but water in general on the roadways. A road bike on black ice is completely helpless. Don’t even think about riding through it. Find a way to let it down easy as possible, if possible. Often it’s not, which means it’s time to pull in the arms and pop off the cleats if you’re wearing them. It’s possible. Things happen fast on ice but there’s a surprising margin of reaction time for those who stay alert.

Riding into the slide

If the road is simply wet and oil is floating on the surface, making your tires slip, you need to turn your front tire not in the direction of the slide, which is often the back wheel whipping around the right side if you’re turning right and the left if you’re turning left. You turn your front tire at a right angle to the slide, but be prepared, because there will sometimes come a “catch point” where things can straighten out suddenly and the bike can whip back on course. Overcorrecting can send you frontwards over the bars or simply collapsing into the direction of the slide. No fun, since your shoulders and head carry a lot of weight and that can heave you hard into the cement. But think about it, the goal is getting your front tire under your slide direction like a second leg on a chair. That’s one way you can hope to catch off a slide and stay upright.

Prevention the best cure for black ice

The best prevention of crashes and falls is being prepared when overnight or evening conditions cause a freeze. Black ice can form in minutes, even turning sections of path you crossed just half an hour before into anti-runner zones. Then pop, down you go.

Late winter and spring cyclists know they’re involved in a devil’s bargain with black ice or slick roads. Wise cyclists keep the road bike in the house whenever road melt is likely to be crossing their favorite roads. Generally during the daytime if snow is melting you need to look ahead and slow enough to gauge the conditions before crossing. If water is literally running over the road in rivulets, be wise enough to realize your bike tires will be slick for the next half mile or so. Braking can be bad news at that point, so it’s best to keep pedaling and apply some touches to the brakes to begin cleaning off the rims.

1st Annual National Black Ice Day February 15, 2013

In honor of this blog subject we would formally like to declare the beginning of black ice season on February 15, 2013. The season varies by state but pretty much everywhere north of the latitude of Muncie, Indiana has to watch out well into mid-April. That is, unless global climate change delivers another heated spring and you’re dodging drought rather than black ice by mid-March. It’s tricky business dealing with black ice and tarsnakes, but National Black Ice Day should go a ways toward raising awareness around the world that black ice is nothing to fool with. And that includes the black ice floating in a glass of Kentucky Bourbon. That can throw you for a fall as well.

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at, and Online portfolio:
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