Seven things that make the perfect winter bike
What makes the perfect winter bike? This is our hit list
With winter here for good, many riders have put the summer bike into hibernation and woken the winter bike from its slumber, ready for the months ahead.
The winter bike is a stalwart friend, the one you turn to in the long winter months. If your bike collection was a pro cyclist, the winter bike would be Ian Stannard - unlikely to win any bunch sprints, but definitely the one you want on a grisly afternoon somewhere in Belgium. Tough and up to the challenge, whatever the weather.
The reasons for having a dedicated winter bike are fairly practical – if you’ve invested heavily in a ‘nice’ bike for summer riding, be that racing or climbing mountains with your friends, then it doesn’t make sense to expose that same bike to all the rigours of winter. Far better to have a more robust option designed specifically to stand up to the test of riding through the rain, snow, sleet, mud and misfortune that winter tends to bring.
Reliability is the chief characteristic one should look for in a winter bike, while wide tyres, excellent brakes and the ability to fit mudguards are also ‘essential’ attributes. In recent years there’s been a trend toward wider tyres (from 25mm to 28mm as standard), and a definite uptake in the use of disc brakes, which offer major advantages in terms of all-weather stopping power.
Your own winter bike may be an old road frame, much loved but retired from active summer service, or it may be a purpose-built machine born to tackle the grimness of winter. Whatever its back story, there are some key features that make the perfect winter bike. This is our hit list.
Your typical winter bike is going to be made of one of two materials: aluminium or steel. These materials are simply the toughest, most durable and usually also the cheapest, when compared with carbon and titanium. It simply doesn’t make sense to buy a flyweight carbon machine to ride specifically in winter, unless you've got deep pockets.
Not only is it largely unnecessary given that affordability, reliability and durability are your watchwords through winter, but a metal frame is more likely to have mounts required for full mudguards and additional tyre clearance. Take a look at the Ribble CGR or Kinesis T3 for two new examples of versatile bikes based around affordable aluminium frames.
Of course, it is now also possible to find carbon frames that will accept mudguard mounts, so a performance-focused carbon machine isn't beyond the realms of possibility if you want a versatile mount for year-round riding. Look at endurance bikes like the Trek Domane, which has discreetly hidden mudguard mounts, or the new, do-it-all Whyte Wessex for evidence.
Beyond material choice, the key thing about a winter bike frame is that it has clearance for the larger tyres you’re going to want to run and some way of mounting a set of mudguards (and potentially also a pannier rack).
Tyre clearance and wider tyres
We’ve mentioned tyre clearance above and that is going to be one of the big sticking points for many roadies looking to simply sling a chunkier tyre on their existing machine. Not all race frames are designed to run a 28mm tyre, especially not if it also has a chunkier grip profile.
We'd recommend 25mm as a minimum for winter but suggest going even wider to 28mm if you can. Why is a bigger tyre so important for winter? It improves comfort, for a start, which is no bad thing when logging long winter miles.
However, the larger contact patch will also give you better grip on the road, particularly considering wider tyres can be run at lower pressures, while also keeping the bike’s handing more stable and predictable. For roads that may be wet or strewn with detritus, a bigger tyre is almost always the way to go. On top of that, a wider tyre (particularly if you're looking at 28mm rubber and above) gives you a bit more versatility to venture off the beaten track, whether it be the odd bridleway, tow path or gravel track.
With much of your winter riding done on wet roads, puncture protection is going to be another factor you should consider. In most cases this will mean sacrificing a little bit of your top-end speed, but the best winter tyres, like the Michelin Power All Season (read our review here) and Continental Grand Prix 4-Seasons combine plenty of grip and relatively low rolling resistance with puncture protection.
Besides, giving up some speed isn't going to make nearly as much of a difference to your overall times as stopping to change three consecutive flat inner tubes. Work out just how much speed you’re willing to sacrifice and choose a tyre accordingly. You may also want to consider going tubeless (read our guide to going tubeless here) and doing away with inner tubes altogether.
Whether or not you think they do anything for the aesthetics of a road bike, by now most of us know the benefits of disc brakes - particularly in winter when the roads are often wet and negotiating slick, steep, mud-covered descents can otherwise be a case as grabbing hold of the brake levers and hoping for the best.
Disc brakes provide more consistent stopping power than rim brakes, because rather than a pad pressing on a slippy, usually filthy wheel rim, they employ a caliper that closes around a purpose-made disc. If you want reliable braking, whatever the weather, then disc brakes are a much better bet than rim brakes.
If you’re looking at ‘off the shelf’ winter bikes, you’ll see most of them now feature discs as standard, which is reflective of a general trend in the industry. If you do have the choice, then a setup that uses hydraulics rather than cables is preferable – as the former is not prone to the same stresses from exterior dirt, grime and damage as the latter, and will provide much more better braking as a result.
If you want a 'proper' winter bike, then fitting mudguards to your machine is essential - it will make both you and whoever happens to be riding behind you much, much happier.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that a set of mudguards will be of huge benefit in keeping you cleaner and dryer when you go out riding - and it's remarkable how much difference mudguards can make, even if rain isn't falling but the roads are wet. They will also protect the bike itself from a large amount of that gross road grime and gunk that gets flung up from the tarmac.
If you're putting together a dedicated winter bike then we'd also recommend a frame with mounts for a set of full mudguards to ensure the best coverage. Don't forget flaps to protect your feet and to keep spray off the rider behind you, either.
Otherwise, if you're converting your summer bike into winter mode, clip-on mudguards will also go quite far in protecting you from the elements. We’ve even seen enterprising riders use a chopped up a plastic file organiser as makeshift mudguards.
When it comes to componentry on a winter bike, you should be looking for durability and reliability, rather than out-and-out performance or super lightweight. What we’re saying here is there’s no need to reach for Campagnolo Super Record or Shimano Di2 in this case, because whichever component package you pick, it’s going to take one hell of a hammering through a British winter.
Shimano 105 is a proven groupset that doesn’t cost too much and will stand up to the rigours of winter riding, while Shimano have now also introduced hydraulic disc brakes to their affordable fourth-tier Tiagra groupset. Equally capable, at a similar price bracket, are Campagnolo’s Veloce or SRAM’s Rival.
Likewise, when it comes to wheels, it’s probably best to leave those deep-section carbon monsters on the shelf, and plump instead for a tough aluminium wheelset that will keep rolling through the winter. And remember, if you plan to run wider tyres, a wider rim (look for an internal width of around 17mm) will be the best partner. Hunt have developed disc and rim brake wheels specifically for the British winter, with wide rims, tubeless compatibility and double-sealed bearings.
It’s a small thing, but easily overlooked - you’re going to want to keep some lights on your winter bike pretty much permanently. Some brands have cottoned onto the importance of having lights on your bike even during the day, including Bontrager, whose excellent FlareR rear light (you can read our review here) has a setting specifically for daytime use.
With the sun setting basically right after lunch at this time of year it’s more important than ever to always have a set of lights with you. Even in the middle of the day, if you're riding through heavy rain or dense tree coverage, then it can be pretty much dark out there.
While you may not be comfortable leaving your ‘good’ lights fixed to your bike all the time, there’s no harm in having a ‘backup’ set on there for those inevitable occasions when you need to light up. Even a small set of lights can make a huge difference to how visible you are on the road.
Sadly, flats at this time of year are an inevitability, even if you invest in a set of tyres with hefty puncture-protection.
That’s why every good winter bike will have either a frame-mounted pump, or a saddlebag with either a reliable hand pump or CO2 canister and inflator in it. The Bontrager Air Rush Road is a handy bit of kit which incorporates both a hand pump and CO2 inflator.
With the temperatures down around the zero mark, you won’t want to be hanging around trying to slowly inflate a tyre or pry cold rubber off a rim with your bare fingers, so a set of good tyre levers are also essential to have either on your person or in the saddlebag.
If you’ve got room in the saddlebag, you could also keep a spare battery for your lights (if they're not USB rechargeable), as well as the essentials, like a multi-tool and extra inner tube. That way you can leave your jersey pockets free for an extra layer of clothing and food