Cycling in the winter

Carlton Boyce / 19 February 2019

Cycling in winter can be a joy – if you prepare for it correctly!



If cycling in the summer brings to mind gentle evening rides to the pub, picnics in the hills and mile after mile ambling along a dappled canal towpath, winter rides can evoke images of bleak, rain-lashed commutes, day trips ruined by constant headwinds, and homicidal drivers who apparently can’t see you despite a wealth of fluorescent clothing and flashing lights on your bike.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way; when I think of the winter I think of snow-covered roads leading to cheery country pubs with real fires, frost-covered bridleways and deserted hills where every climb has the wind at my back.

And, while regular readers will know I’m something of a romantic at heart, the reality can be closer to my vision than yours - with a little preparation and the right mental attitude, that is!

Wear clothing designed for cycling in winter

The Norwegians say that there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing - and they’re entirely correct. The right clothing can make all the difference; you can enjoy any weather if you are wearing clothes designed for it.

Layering your clothing is the key and, in anything other than driving rain, the base layer is more important than the top layer. And something like the Arc’teryx Phase AR beanie is worth its (relatively modest) weight in gold.

Lights and reflective clothing

The importance of having a pair of high-quality, preferably flashing, bike lights cannot be overstated – whatever the weather. 

But riding in the gloom of a winter’s day means that having fully charged lights fitted is even more important. Wearing a fluorescent gilet is a good idea too and you might even consider buying a helmet-mounted flashing red light, too; you really can’t do enough to make yourself visible when car drivers are battling dirty windscreens and the low winter sun, not to mention low light levels and wet, slippery roads.

Headwinds

Life’s too short to spend your days cycling into a headwind, so if the weather forecast shows that you’ll be predominately cycling into one it might be time to re-plan your day, or even postpone it.

Remember though, any circular route will almost certainly mean almost equal head- and tailwinds; if you’ve got the opportunity, it’s probably worth planning your day so that you get the headwinds out of the way while you’ve still got fresh legs.

Snow

Snow is great, and it offers far more grip than most people realise. I’ve driven tens of thousands of miles on snow and haven’t ever once got stuck when I’ve been driving a car fitted with winter or snow tyres.

The good news is that you can get snow tyres for your bike, too. Some are constructed from special rubber that gives a better grip at lower temperatures, some have extra sipes cut in them to give more grip, and some even have spikes. The best have all three, and the grip they give on fresh snow is nothing short of miraculous.

You can buy dedicated snow and ice tyres from any good bike shop, but the internet probably has the best selection; they’re still a fairly rare sight here but our continental cousins love ‘em because they help keep them mobile in conditions that we’d refuse to believe were cyclable.

If you can’t be bothered to buy winter tyres for the few days we have snow here in the UK then you could just let your tyre pressure down a bit, like the Icelanders do on their monster trucks. The bike will be harder to pedal than it normally is but the increased contact area will give you a lot more grip than you would otherwise have.

A car review with a difference: Toyota Hilux AT38 by Arctic Trucks

Of course, you’ll need to pay extra attention when you’re braking or turning no matter what solution you opt for - and nothing really grips very well on ice - but that snow-covered canal towpath or country lane is as accessible in the snow as it is in the summer, as long as you’ve prepared your bike ahead of time.

And nothing beats the feeling of being the first one out on a cold winter morning, carving tracks in freshly fallen snow while the sun comes up…

Fat bikes

Fat bikes are essentially mountain bikes with fatter tyres, in some cases up to four inches wide, which is about the same as a small-to-medium motorbike. They’re something of a fad - and I wouldn’t want to ride one for a hundred miles at a time - but they come into their own in the winter, especially when it’s been snowing.

The wide tyres allow them to ‘float’ on top of the surface of the snow, and they’re tough enough to shrug off the inevitable knock when you over-cook it and fall off. Of course, no-one needs a fat bike in their life, but I can’t help but think that my life would be immeasurably improved by the addition of one.

The darkness

The long, dark winter days bring their own hazards by way of other road users. The trick here is to add more lights and reflective clothing than you consider necessary - and then to ride even more defensively than usual.

If you can, slip on a fluorescent jacket or gilet over the top of your usual cycling garb. Turn your lights on, even during the day, and set them flashing. (You did read my article on cycling accessories and buy flashing ones, didn’t you?)

In any case, ride defensively, which means keeping your wits about you, making your intentions clear by way of road positioning, giving the appropriate hand signals, and assuming that everyone else is a bloody idiot. (The latter isn’t bad advice when you’re driving a car, too.) This isn’t about absolving car drivers of their legal and moral duty to drive with consideration for you and everyone else. It’s simply about self-preservation.

If you can cycle along a quieter road, it might be worth doing so even if it takes you a little longer. However, remember that country lanes can attract the sort of driver who thinks that cutting corners is cool and that the speed limit is a target to be beaten, so a seemingly quiet lane might not always be the safest option.

The rain

There’s nowt you can do about the rain; even the most expensive Gore-Tex clothing will struggle to expel water vapour (sweat, in common parlance) through its membrane when it is overwhelmed by an unholy combination of a hard-working cyclist and a humid atmosphere.

Also, even the very best, most expensive Gore-Tex clothing will also ‘wet out’ in fierce rain. This simply means that the sheer volume of water is too great for the micro-pores to repel, and the water soaks through the fabric’s layers, leading to wet clothes underneath.

So, my solution is to accept that I’m going to get wet (and probably cold) and plan around it. For short rides of about an hour or less, I don’t bother with much in the way of waterproof clothing – so long as I know that I can get warm and dry at the end. So, that often means shorts or thin leggings, plus a technical underlayer and a fleece on top. (A decent fleece is surprisingly good at keeping light rain out.) After all, skin is waterproof.

For longer rides, I’ll wear waterproof clothing but take it steady to try and minimise the sweat I produce. I might also plan more stops in pubs and cafes along the way, especially those that offer real fires and homemade cakes. (If they make great coffee or serve a decent pint of porter too, I might abandon the rest of the ride altogether…)

Oh, and don’t forget to fit a decent pair of mudguards. I’m by no means a snowflake but a wet bum makes me miserable faster than almost anything, so I’ve fitted proper, full-length, old-fashioned mudguards to my adventure bike because they’re the only ones that are guaranteed to keep me reasonably dry.

My Paramo Bentu fleece

Waterproof overshoes

Waterproof overshoes can make the difference between a great day’s cycling and a miserable day in the saddle. SealSkinz have a range to choose from, and the £20 it asks for its cheapest set seems like very good value to me.

Of course, flashier cyclists than me can buy proper, waterproof, Arctic-ready cycling shoes and a quick browse of eBay showed dozens of secondhand pairs being offered for a fraction of the cost of buying them new. This is a theme with both cyclists and photographers; we both like shiny, new objects and are quite happy to sell off last year’s models - often barely used - at a significant discount. As ever, the very best bargains can be found by planning ahead and buying winter shoes in the summer, and vice versa.

Drinking water

You can fill your water bottle with warm water to help delay the point at which it freezes on a very cold day, but why not take a flask of coffee or hot chocolate when it’s cold outside, too?

Or, if you’ve got panniers or a rucksack, you could take a titanium mug and a tiny stove and brew your own. I often do this, and the ability to serve freshly brewed coffee or hot chocolate (I like the one that Galaxy produce; three heaped teaspoons in a mug of hot water) helps raise flagging spirits better than anything I know. If you’ve got a slab of home-made cake to hand round too then I can guarantee that even the most jaded of cyclists will restart with a spring in their step.

But what about the weight? I hear you cry! Well, how can I put this without offending anyone; you aren’t an athlete (although if you are then I’m very flattered that you’re reading this…) and you cycle for fun, surely? So, why not accept the need to carry a bit of extra weight in your pannier or rucksack and make a mini-adventure of it? 

Coffee and dehydration

Calorie consumption

Which brings me to the subject of eating. Many of you will already be familiar with the concept of the ‘second breakfast’, whereby cyclists stop mid-morning and replenish their lost calories with a second stab at my favourite meal.

But, did you know that your body burns a vast amount of calories in cold weather simply to keep warm? This means that it’s even more important to keep your body stocked with fuel during winter rides. The civilised way to do this is with hot drinks and vast slices of cakes consumed in a café but an energy gel will give you an instant jolt of energy at a pinch.

You can also buy powders to add to your drinking water. These are calorie and electrolyte-laden, and can be bought with caffeine in them, too. My favourite brand is Tailwind Nutrition; every flavour in its range is delicious - and I like the caffeinated ones for the extra kick they give - but I’d advise you to buy a sweet version and a less-sweet option too, like green tea; you’ll be sick of even the nicest-tasting sweet drink after a few hours of sipping, and it’s nice to be able to mix things up a bit with something that’s not quite as cloying on the palette.

I buy the big, resealable bags because they provide the best value, but I’ll throw a few small individual sachets in my order too as they’re handy to pack in a saddle bag or rucksack for use in an emergency.

Buy another bike

The winter can be hard on your bike; salt-laden roads can attack even the best paintwork, while ice and snow gathers around bearing joints and, when it melts, seeps into even the tightest of gaps.

This leaves you with two choices; either service your bike more frequently and dry it off carefully after every ride. Or buy a ‘new’ secondhand bike just to use when the weather is awful.

The first choice is the sensible one, while the second is more fun. And eBay is stuffed full of old bikes that no-one wants, so if you’re happy to ride something that’s a few years old then there are bargains to be had; a mate of mine has just bought a three-year-old mountain bike for a tenth of the cost of buying the 2018-version.

f you really can’t face the winter weather, there’s no need to give up cycling altogether; simply splash out (I know, more expense…) on a turbo trainer. These nifty gadgets support your bike’s rear wheel and allow you to cycle indoors to your heart’s content!

I’ve got a Tacx Flow T2240 Smart Turbo Trainer from Halfords. It costs £189.99 at the time of writing and I’ve been really impressed with it. You can link it to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth for the ultimate in connectivity training, and the resistance can be varied to simulate climbing a slope or hill.

It’s pretty quiet in use and is remarkably effective but you might find that you need a special tyre to make then most of it as it can be quite hard on normal road tyres.

Spinning class

Or, if you’re of a sociable nature, you could sign up for a spinning class at your local gym. A spinning class usually comprises a semi-circle of stationary cycles in a gymnasium or sports centre arranged around the class leader or instructor.

Often set to music, the participants pedal at a rate at which they are comfortable but at a pace suggested by the instructor. It’s quite a challenging workout, but the motivation you gain by being with other people means that you invariably work much harder than you would if you were doing it by yourself at home.

It’s a great way to keep in shape during the winter months, and can be a good way to find new friends and cycling partners to ride along with when the weather improves!

Overcoming winter cycling's hardest obstacle of all

The hardest part of winter cycling is pulling on your clothes and actually getting out there. I know; the lure of the duvet, open fire, or a good book is enough to put any of us off when the wind and rain are rattling the windows and the gloom is settling in.

But, any exercise is worthwhile and I guarantee that you’ll feel better afterwards, no matter how foul the conditions. And, best of all, you get to kick back for the rest of the day with a clear conscience afterwards. And that, as the advert puts it, is priceless!

Do you have any winter cycling tips you’d like to share with us? If so, then why not email us on web.editor@saga.co.uk?




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