What's all the fuss about?

An ice rink, earlier

Last night I had a 50 minute ride home from, er, the pub, late enough for snow to have settled to about three inches for the last quarter of an hour or so. A thin, undisturbed layer of soft snow is no problem on a bicycle provided the snow does not clog up the wheels. Riding a ‘cross bike with chunky road tyres, I got through untroubled although the bike left several large puddles in the ‘conservatory’ this morning.

Today’s riding conditions were much less manageable on two wheels, but I had a solution ready and waiting in the elegant shape of my Longstaff double freewheel tricycle. Ruby, as the machine was named by my uncle, the previous owner, has sat since the spring mostly unused in my garage, the pleasures of riding three wheels somewhat attenuated in good weather by the grim necessity of negotiating roads heavy with traffic before reaching the quiet lanes on which it is most at home.

Today, however, was to be Ruby’s day. Clear skies demanded a ride, perhaps out to Cycles Dauphin at Box Hill, but the snow of last night had, by mid-morning, been compacted to ice where it had not been gritted or melted by traffic and my street was, for a while, almost impassable even on foot. For sure, a bicycle would have been fine on major roads but I suspected that side roads higher up around Banstead and Box Hill would be dangerously slippery.

So, out came Ruby. Last time I rode a barrow on ice was about 1981, but on that occasion a companion on two wheels fell and fractured his wrist trying to follow me along the Pilgrim’s Way while I rode serenely across several hundred metres of sheet ice. That was on a single driver, with just the one rear wheel providing propulsion while the other idled. Fine where there was some grip, it was not much use uphill on the ice, unlike Ruby.

Both back wheels drive; either can freewheel while the slower-turning wheel provides the drive. Unlike a differential, which in basic form will transmit all drive to either wheel if it slips and turns faster, thus wasting drive, the double freewheel can only drive the slower wheel – or both if they are going in a straight line. Off up my hill I rode, without a hint of difficulty; yes!

One of the problems with trying to ride two wheels over frozen, compacted snow, as I found out during last February’s snowfall, is that the various ruts and ridges send the front tyre off sideways just when it can’t find the grip to countersteer. On the trike, no problem; it just jittered around a straight line, any deviation easily controllable and with no chance of falling.

Only twice on the ride did I have misgivings: near Walton on the Hill, I found my usual side road covered in a sheet of ice so smooth and polished that the two or three cars I encountered were forced to move at below walking speed. As I went to overtake the first I became aware that, with no ruts or ridges to provide a key for the front tyre, I had no way of slowing quickly. And, while there was no risk of falling off unless I hit something, I could not change direction except very gradually. Otherwise, I was in complete control…

Trying to brake was interesting; the slightest pull on either front brake would lock the wheel, which would slide along making a high-pitched sound until I released the brake and the wheel began to turn again. Try that on a bicycle… Later on, descending a lane around the back of Walton on a similarly slick surface, I found myself looking for any hint of grip – slush, bare manhole cover – I could use to scrub off the speed that was building with horrifying rapidity…  Luckily, the corner at the foot of the hill had been gritted and I sailed round with slush spraying from under the front wheel.

Fun? I’ll say. Much like breaking out skis and slaloming down the local high street, perhaps, but of course the trike works just as well – better, even – on Tarmac.

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