Winter Cycling, Broken Wrist, Lesson Learned

I hit a patch of ice and crashed on my bike last week, fracturing a bone in my wrist in the process. The event has provided me with ample opportunity to reflect on the potential perils of winter cycling, and to take home (and share) a key lesson I learned about minimizing those risks in the future.

How I Broke My Wrist
On Friday, January 10, I started my bike commute to work as pre-dawn light began to chase away the darkness. As I left my neighborhood, a very light snow began to fall. It would be my undoing.

Two days prior, I had ridden the same bike over the same 14-mile route, most of which follows the paved Minuteman Bikeway to Cambridge's Alewife T Station. It was 99 percent ice-free, with only a few small lingering patches that were easily avoided. I rode my road bike that day without incident, and was using the same bike that Friday.

Two miles into my ride, just enough snow had fallen and stuck (temps were in the upper teens) to cover the bike path. We're talking only the smallest fraction of an inch here—barely enough to be deemed a coating. Such a small amount posed no issue for riding on otherwise dry pavement. But it was enough to hide the few patches of lingering ice.

And that's how it happened. Cruising along a level stretch at normal speed, riding perfectly straight, I unexpectedly hit a patch of ice, no longer than a living room couch. And my bike abruptly slid out sideways from underneath me.

I spun backwards and downwards to the left, hitting the ground first on the lower outside corner of my left hand, opposite my thumb. It was a direct impact to the pisiform, one of the many carpal bones that make up the complex wrist joint. The impact fractured the bone through.

Though broken, it ended up being about as benign a wrist fracture as you can get. Nothing offset, no nerve or tendon damage. Four weeks in a cast to mend. I feel fortunate for it, especially since wrist injuries have the potential to be much more serious.

Photo: Stephen Ela

Assessing Risk and Learning from Experience
I deliberated that morning and consciously chose my road bike, despite the fact that the tires lacked studs. (Instead of my winter mountain bike with large studded tires.) I had just scouted and safely rode the identical route two days prior. If anything, there was less ice that morning.

I closely evaluated the weather forecast and current radar. Light snow was in the forecast for later that morning, but not that early. I figured that even on the off-chance it did snow lightly on the ride, I knew from experience that I would have no problem with traction on the otherwise dry pavement. And even if it hid the ice, I knew there was very little of it, had a good idea where it was, and even if I hit a patch, they were small enough that riding straight I would roll over any without incident.

And that last assumption was my downfall...and my lesson learned that morning. The lesson is this: Just the slightest, barest coating of snow can make ice significantly more slippery. We're talking ice with WD-40 sprayed on top of it. Some of the most frictionless stuff I've ever experienced. My bike slid out from under me while I was riding perfectly straight. The barest wobble was enough.

To add insult to injury, two miles later, shortly before I abandoned my ride and requested back-up, I put my foot down to wait at a road crossing. On hidden frictionless ice again. Slipped sideways and fell over with my bike on top of me.

Next time, if I know there's ice out there on the route, and I know there will be enough snow to cover it, watch for me on my full winter rig. Even in such conditions, the studded tires would have provided more than sufficient traction. 

Will this incident keep me off the bike year-round in the future? All I can say is...26 days and counting until the cast comes off. See you on the bike trails soon.

 “Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

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