Guide to winter cycling: our top tips to keep you pedalling all year round!

Words by Aaron Scott

on 29/08/2013 18:29:00

This Is An Older Post, For More Information About Cycling In Winter Click Here

Staff rider Mark explains the benefits of winter cycling and shows you how to kit out your bike - and yourself - so you're fit for anything the good ol' British winter weather can throw at you. Plus, he shares his own (frankly, worrying) experiences of being under prepared for the winter weather. Read on for Mark's top tips on thermal socks, winter tyres and more...

People love riding in the summer. When the sun has seen fit to shine this year there has definitely been a noticeable lift in cyclists out and about, eager to develop those cycling tan lines to be worn as a badge of honour amongst the new cycling public who have decided to get on bikes since Wiggo's TDF and Olympic double. The sun on your face, the wind in your hair and the feel of freshly shaven legs. Mmmmmm.

The summer is not my favourite season for riding. Replace 'sun' with 'midges', 'wind' with 'sweat' and 'freshly shaven legs' with 'Folliculitis' and you begin to get the idea. That, coupled with what has been a rubbish year for hay fever sufferers, has meant that riding hasn't been ideal. My rides have either been early morning affairs or late evening magic hour riding.

But the year has crept along and while everyone was looking the other way at the Olympics, autumn appeared outside, almost without anybody noticing. Suddenly you find yourself putting on a jumper to pop into the garden, your eyes peering through the darkness at 8 o'clock, a chill in your lungs when you breathe in the night air... Oh, and everybody starts saying 'Autumnal'. This is the time to start riding.

I'm not a masochist. I don't enjoy my fingers and feet going so numb that pedalling and changing gears becomes difficult and I don't view winter riding as essential training for all that Spracing*. But I do think that with the right kit and the right bike setup, autumn and winter will provide some of the most beautiful riding available.

Cycling in winter: what are the benefits?

For me, there are two main reasons not to hibernate your bike through the winter months.

1. You'll stay fitter.

Obviously you'll get fitter than not riding during the winter - but you could always just sit on the turbo trainer and get the same benefit, right? Nope. Physical exercise in the cold helps endurance levels and being outdoors gives a higher exposure to sunlight, boosting your vitamin D levels, which in turn helps combat Seasonal Affective Disorder. You also burn more fat if you exercise in a cold climate.

2. It's so much more interesting than a turbo trainer.

Take a look at the following pictures.

If you find the top picture more interesting, then go put some shorts on, jump on the turbo trainer and 'do a cheeky 20' while the other half watches the Eastenders omnibus (shudder).

If, however, you find the bottom picture more interesting and are wondering where the road leads to, then jump on your bike and head out to see old routes in a different way, or find new ones whilst congratulating yourself on being an adventurous soul.

Cycling in winter: what clothing do I need?

If you opted for the second picture above, you are probably already throwing on the Lycra, strapping on the helmet and charging out of the front door.

Hold your horses, sunshine.

You can't just throw on a pair of bib shorts and a jersey and head into the big chill. Cycling in adverse weather conditions requires more clothing - and preparation - than summer pedalling. Basically, your environmental opponents come down to two that you can do something about.

1. Cold, and how (not) to handle it

Last year, a colleague and I planned a series of rides through the winter to keep us ticking over for when the trees were green again.

One ride was to start from my house in Kettering and take in 70 miles through the Leicester countryside. I woke up and had a bowl of cereal and a hot coffee, and loaded up with some energy bars (but not too many, as the plan was to stop for lunch whilst out). Dan arrived and we headed out. About halfway into the ride, the temperature began to drop. Until it reached -7 centigrade.

Every village we rode through was closed for business and we came across nowhere to eat. If we could have eaten the beautifully snowy scenery we would have had full bellies, but the energy products continued to deliver sugary rushes lasting about 20 minutes which were no good in the cold. Stopping to draw yellow lines in the snow, it occurred to me that despite winter footwear and gloves I hadn't actually had any feeling in my hands or feet for about 2 hours. I was shivering and was definitely beginning to lose it.

I completely forgot how to unclip from my pedals and braking and shifting took considerable thought. I even, strangely, began to think there was a third rider with us, hanging off our back wheels. If it was bad for me, it was worse for Dan. He carries as much body fat as a twiglet, which offered little aid against the dropping temperature and I found myself leading a broken man up the climbs when usually it was him looking back at me as I chased him up the hills. We were looking like the two guys who get rescued from a mountain after attempting a north face climb in flip flops.

"Copy that Echo One. On the lookout for a clueless cyclist. Probably wearing Rapha"

What did I learn from this experience? In all honesty, while my winter overshoes were fine, my lightweight socks were not up to the job. And while my jacket kept me warm and merino base layer was doing a decent job of moving moisture, the sudden temperature drop exposed the need for a thicker windproof jacket.

Speaking to a friend in the medical profession a couple of days later, he explained that I hadn't just got cold but the extreme numbness, loss of concentration and thinking we had a third rider with us were symptoms of the beginning stages of hypothermia.

We had been prepared for the predicted temperature, but not for the one that eventually struck. It served as a wake-up call to just how important it is to wear the correct layers in winter and not just throw something on that you think will do the job. A thicker windproof jacket, glove liners and thermal socks (and a pub lunch) would have turned an eventual 70 miles of hurt into a ride through amazing snow-covered countryside - which no other cyclist was witnessing from a turbo trainer.

> For more information and advice on winter clothing, see these useful clothing guides.
2. Moisture - from sleet to sweat
The ride to the Mary Poppins convention was wetter than anticipated.

Winter tends to be wetter than summer - and this can cause all sorts of problems for the cyclist. A rain shower in the summer is not the worst thing that can happen to you when on the bike. Sometimes it's even welcome. The unbearable heat, quenched by a refreshing downpour - and you're dry again within half an hour. In the winter, if you get wet, you stay wet. This, coupled with a winter wind or cold air generally moving around you will conspire to lower your body temperature in no time. A stashable waterproof is essential and should be carried on all long rides to keep the rain off. It's not just water from the outside that could give you problems either. Sweat getting into your clothes can also begin to chill and lower your temperature. Layering is something that tends to go without much thought in the summer but in the winter wearing thermal 'wicking' layers, which move moisture from your skin to the outside, leaving you dry and warm, are an extremely good idea.

> For more information and advice on winter clothing, see these useful clothing guides.

Tips for cycling in the cold

  • Dress with the correct layers - It will keep moisture away from your body.
  • Eat properly - Your core temperature depends on having food to burn. Not just energy products.
  • Avoid Alcohol - Thinking about taking the hip flask or having a winter warmer at the pub? Forget it. Alcohol moves blood to the skin, through which 90% of your body heat is lost.
  • Keep moving - If you stop for extended periods it can be difficult to maintain your body heat. It will take a long time to get that back.
  • Don't underestimate the environment - You may not have to cut off your own frostbitten fingers off with your chain ring but hyperthermia is not something that just happens on mountains. It's potentially nasty but avoidable.

Cycling in winter: how do I winterise my bike?

It's not just you that will be affected by the change in climate. Your bike will feel it too. It's not unusual for a highly-tuned thoroughbred to be reduced to a clanking donkey after just one winter ride. Here's what you'll need to do to protect your pride and joy:

1. Invest in winter tyres (and let them down a little).
The motorist who clipped Dave earlier that week was going to pay

Tyre grip on the road is lessened by water and ice on the roads and those Michelin Pros that you pumped up to 120psi are not going to be any help. Consider switching to a wider tyre like a 25c with a more defined tread pattern to stop from sliding out on those corners adorned with wet leaves. Also run your tyres at a lower pressure of around 90psi to smear the tyre across the tarmac, increasing grip.

2. Use mudguards.

Some people snort at the idea of mudguards. Some will say they make the bike look slower and ruin the aesthetic of their beautiful carbon race machine. Mudguards will, however, stop water from getting onto you (Bad) and stop you from soaking anyone riding behind you (Very Bad. It could be you. And just imagine how annoyed you'd be if you had invested in mudguards for your own bike). Some cycling clubs can be quite sniffy about group riding in winter without mudguards.

3. Show your Drivetrain some TLC.

Your gears are always susceptible to wear, but winter sees them take even more abuse. Salt from the road, grit sticking to your chain after switching to wet weather lubes can see them being ground to dust before your very eyes. Ideally you should clean your chain and derailleurs after every ride - so if this isn't going to be practical for you, you may want to consider switching to a cheaper groupset over the winter.

4. Lights - see and be seen.
The Strada light from Exposure is ideal for road and commuter use.

It's that time of year when people start saying �ooohh the nights are drawing in now�. You'll hear it about fifty times this month before you start wanting to hurt the person saying it, but it's true. Night doesn't so much fall this time of year as plummet - and getting caught on quiet country roads without lights at dusk can be dangerous. Make sure you've got front and rear beacons strong enough to light your way home as well as alert your position to passing motorists.

5. Get another bike?

Many cyclists simply choose to run a completely different bike in the winter. One already equipped with mudguards, winter tyres, and a cheaper groupset. Many cyclists choose to run a single speed bike to cut down on maintenance and generate a harder workout over a shorter distance. So next time you upgrade to a new bike, it may be worth hanging on to the old one.

Now go and ride!

So there you go. Sure, it can be wet; and cold is pretty much a given, but with some forethought and the right kit, there is no reason why cycling in winter can't be as safe and fun as riding in the summer - minus fishing insects from your mouth. If you race, then you will reap the rewards of cold weather riding when the next hot season comes around. It's easy to spot the riders who have enjoyed the cold, when pitched against those who have hibernated all winter.  If you don't race, then winter riding is the time to see the world on your doorstep in a new light. Every winter I find something new and interesting not far from home, which only fuels my thirst for riding. Enjoy.

*Spracing. A portmanteau of sportive and racing used to describe the act of entering what is essentially a fun run on a bike and using a Carbon TT bike to beat the rest of the field who are riding their twenty year old Reynolds. You are all that is man.

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