The deep mid winter is a bleak and forbidding place, and no more so than when you’re a cyclist. Long nights, very short and dull days, chilling winds, ice, snow, and seemingly eternal rain, that’s your typical British winter, and it’s something we all have to endure to some degree or another.
From Christmas onwards we all begin to smell the spring flowers and start counting those precious minutes of extra daylight that gradually tag on to the days. But it’s a long drawn out process, and it’s no use sitting at home in hibernation waiting for the spring days to come by again, because by the time they do you’re sure to have a few extra kilos hugging your waistline and will find yourself gasping for air as you get left behind on the club runs and reliability trials, cursing yourself for not having bitten the biscuit and made the effort to get out there and keep the wolves at bay with some winter training. You know it makes sense.
It’s not easy to drag yourself out into the dark of winter, but it does pay off, and once you get into a regular routine then it’s all the more bearable, and some people actually like it! There’s nothing quite like a long day out with your mates in the winter, riding from breakfast until the sun goes down, a café stop or two and a nice leisurely pace with it, very sociable, and endlessly beneficial when it comes to building and maintaining base level core fitness.
The lessons of winter riding and the tricks and techniques used by experienced cyclists and pro racers, who have to brave the elements every day, are hard earned. Over the years clothing and equipment has moved on light years in terms of efficiency, easing some of the terrible woes endured just a few years back by wintering bikers. Pooling resources I spoke to a number of experienced cyclists, and numerous top pro racers; such as David Millar, Yaraslov Popovych, Martin Earley and Nick Craig, to find out their little tips and tricks when it came to surviving a winter in the saddle.
There is some fantastic clothing out there, and getting hold of decent kit can turn a near unbearable ride into a pleasurable experience. Do your research, find what suits you and invest in it; it will last the course and it’s well worth the money. Check out our reviews for a solid guide.
Start with a warm and effectively wicking base layer, and then add comfortable shorts and warm big tights and top with wicking layers. Try and keep your top layer flexible to suit conditions, a lightweight packable and breathable shell is invaluable.
Gilets, or even cut off under jerseys, are ideal in winter, as they protect your chest and allow you free arm movement.
Hats overshoes and gloves
Even if it’s not extremely cold you should cover your hands, feet, and head, a huge amount of warmth can escape here. It may take a while to find decent gloves for you personally, so when you do find some buy an extra pair. If it’s wet always carry a spare pair of light gloves, or liners, and the same goes for a lightweight hat – and wrap them in a plastic bag to keep them dry for when you need them. In very wet conditions rubber kitchen or gardening gloves are effective at keeping the wet out.
Decent overshoes are a great investment, and even cut off over socks can save your bacon if it’s dry. It’s well worth investing in a slightly larger helmet and pair of shoes for winter use, to allow a thin extra layer underneath without cramming things in.
Carrying spare clothes
We’ve already mentioned that it’s worth carrying an extra pair of gloves and a hat with you on longer rides, but if you intend stopping then you should really pack a dry under vest into a plastic bag and take it with you. When you stop get your top layer off and put the dry one on, it will make a world of difference.
In cold conditions you tend to warm up quite quickly –in around 20-30 minutes. With this in mind a light windproof or gilet is ideal for the warm up period; but be sure to take it off before you get too warm, or you’ll sweat like a pig and have it on all day.
When it’s cold you tend to lose your appetite and thirst, but in fact your body is working even harder than normal simply to keep the cold at bay, so it is essential to keep sipping away at a drink, and to eat regularly on longer rides.
In severe cold normal energy foods and water can difficult to chew and digest, and many top riders go back to basics in this instance; even to drinking Coke and eating Mars Bars!
In severe cold freezing bottles can be an issue, and sometimes having one warm and one normal bottle is a good idea. If you take the inside of a child’s thermos flask you can cut the top off a regular drink bottle, bubble wrap it and tape in back inside, ensuring a regular hot toddy on your ride.
The buddy system
Riding in winter can be tough not only physically, but mentally too. If you can get company on a ride it’s so much easier, and making regular set arrangements to meet for rides will act a spur for everyone to get out there and do it.
Bike set up
For some strange reason people often drag out near skip ready relics for their winter rides, which is not a good move. During the bad weather your bike will take more of a pounding than usual, and the last thing you want is to be stood by the roadside with sore blue fingers and shivering as night falls trying to fix things.
Make sure your bike is well maintained, use heavier tyres than normal, preferably Kevlar beaded or with a tyre liner inside, and have a decent pump with you – Co2 canisters are not nice in the cold, where as using a pump will keep you warm.
Mudguards, or clip on’s are well worth using, not only to keep your backside dry and your eyes safe, but to save those riding behind you too. Even in daylight you should have at least a small rear light, you never know when you’ll get caught out; not just by the dark – fog is even worse. It’s also a good idea to use the light when riding into the blinding winter sunset, as it is difficult to see you from behind.
And with road salt in mind keep your bike hosed down regularly to avoid pitting.
When to and when not to ride is always a tricky subject; some riders blindly go out in any weather, and crash on ice or catch cold, while others are more selective. Personally I hate the rain, so avoid it at all costs, which is not always possible given our ever-wettening climate.
If it’s dry then anything above -3 degrees is generally acceptable, as long as you wrap up, but don’t forget to take the wind chill factor into account. Many top pro’s will have a thermometer outside their garage, helping them to judge the extent of the cold, if you do this then keep it out of the sun. In extreme cold you should always be aware of ice, avoid the minor roads, and watch out when riding under shade and keep away from the edges of the road.
Cold and wet is probably the worse combination; and in general many top riders will allow for 2 days of not riding, and then if it doesn’t pick up they will venture out, but generally keep things moving and at a slightly higher level and for a shorter period. Hanging around in these conditions is not advisable. If it shows no sign of easing up then an indoor trainer is a wise option. Weather is also often localised, and a 20-minute car ride can often take you out of the rain belt, and that time can be saved in bike cleaning and extra washing time alone!