The clocks have gone back, and the weather has taken a definite left turn into wet and gloomy season. The winter months pose several challenges for cyclists, not least of which are motivational, which can see many of us mothballing our Lycra for the next few months, or seeking the relative warmth and comfort of public transport until fairer conditions return in the Spring. However, if you’re willing to suffer the occasional bone-chilling soak through to the core, the coming months will reward you with stunning crystal-clear skies, a clarity of thought that one never seems to get in the car or on the tube, and an all-important head start on next year’s fitness goals.
For me, the best part about getting out in the winter must be the sense of achievement. Admittedly, I am unlikely to be breaking too many personal records at this time of year, but I feel like if I’ve managed to get out of bed and blast through 10 miles or so while everyone else is slumped in front of the TV, that’s a real win as far as I’m concerned. There’s also an awesome sense of camaraderie when you see another lonely cyclist out there, completely drenched and smiling through gritted teeth; The knowing nod when it’s belting down becomes less a sort of blasé effort and more a celebration of human spirit and perseverance. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
On top of this, there’s a chance to get out and see the beauty of where you live in a different light than the rest of the year. For any cyclists outside the equatorial region, the sun will be lower in the sky during winter months. Because the sun’s rays therefore have to penetrate more atmosphere and become subject to greater scattering, the skies can become bluer, and the quality of light therefore shifts – revealing different contours, while the evening sun picks out the windows of distant churches or glistens when reflected off pools of water.
The winter is also a great opportunity to try a different sort of riding as well. For me, the winter has always been about single speeds and fixed gears. There’s nothing to go wrong, and on my rigid mountain bike, there are masses of mud clearance, too! A single speed teaches you to anticipate changes in terrain better, and a fixie is incredible training because the often-insane cadence helps you to iron out your pedalling technique. Cyclocross is also a hilarious way to spend a Sunday morning. Realistically although there are elites out there (expect to be lapped, a lot) you can often just rock up and pay a few quid to enter on the day. Again, I’d heartily recommend riding a single speed or something equally shoddy, don’t take your Sunday best.
Overall, winter riding is what you make of it. I personally love it, and I won’t stop, ever. So as a committed year-round cyclist, here are my top tips for keeping on two wheels this winter:
For me, one of the worst parts of cycling through the winter is getting to work and my clothes being soaked through with nowhere to dry them. Or, perhaps just as annoyingly getting home and dripping water or traipsing mud and dirt all through the house. A little bit of extra forward thinking goes a long way when the heavens open. I always keep a spare change of underwear, socks, t-shirt at work ready for the inevitable, and at home, I keep by the door a spare towel, a bin bag, and some warm clothes. This way, I haven’t got to spend a day at work getting trench foot, and when I get home soaking wet I can dump my riding gear in a bin bag and get into something more comfortable right away. It doesn’t sound like much, but I assure you the rest of your evening will go a lot more smoothly if you give yourself this breathing room!
2) Regular maintenance…
Winter riding can be much harder on our bikes (and gear) than the summer. Although we’re typically riding slower, wet roads and trails will be doing their best to throw a pulverising mix of dirt and grime into drivetrains and brakes. Meanwhile, an unseen pothole can easily lead to a broken spoke, and the roar of wind and rain can hide a squeak or creak which usually would be attended to right away. As well as meaning you look smarter, regularly washing your bike through the winter and carrying out essential checks (you’ve heard of an M-check, right?) on a weekly basis can save you a lot of time and money in the long run. Switch your lube out for something thicker at this time of year and be prepared to re-apply it more often. But be warned, a common mistake I see at this time of year is people applying more and more lube thinking that some of it will wash off, but an over-lubricated chain will pick up more dirt than a Daily Mail editorial, which will not only leave black marks over everything you own but will accelerate the wear on your drivetrain. Little and often.
3) Join a club, even if it’s just on Strava…
From my experience, nothing gets me out of bed to go and ride bikes on a wet and windy morning more readily than the thought of being the one person who chickened out of the ride. Not only that but riding in a group is generally safer than cycling on your own because the group is more visible than an individual, and of course if one of you has a spill there’s help on hand – so you can add altruism to your list of motivators as you’re aiding other people to keep riding as well! If social interaction really isn’t your jam, consider linking up with your local club on Strava and comparing your stats with people there. Research has shown that athletes who get feedback on their performance relative to others are more likely to reach their goals. However, this is still no substitute for getting out there in a group and battling the elements together… Just don’t forget those mudguards (says the person following you).
4) Winterise your bike…
Of course, this wouldn’t be an article on winter riding if it wasn’t going to encourage you to part with your earnings to buy mudguards, lights, and high vis! However, there are some other things you can do to winterise a bike which goes beyond these time-tested accoutrements. Firstly, as mentioned above, it’s time to switch the lube on your chain to a wet type or another all-conditions lube. Don’t forget to make sure there’s anti-seize on your pedals, seat-post, and wheel axles. Now is also the time to switch over to a winter tyre and adjust your tyre pressures to suit. There are countless articles and reviews on the best way to go about this, but on the road that generally means something a bit thicker and wider, with a grooved tread to move water away from the contact-patch, pressures lower. Off-road, usually something narrower, with a mud-shedding design. Lastly, if you’re on a bike with suspension, adjust the pressure and rebound settings to suit the conditions; a little less pressure and a bit less rebound damping will usually suit.
5) … And your wardrobe.
Nothing, not one single thing you can buy, ever, will make your winter riding easier than proper waterproof footwear. I bought my first set of Gore-Tex SPD shoes with my first bike shop pay-check back in the day and I will never go back to over-shoes. Likewise, if you’re commuting with a backpack my number one investment recommendation will be a fully waterproof one from the likes of Ortleib or Restrap. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, familiarise yourself with Nikwax or Graingers – as clean waterproofs are much more effective than dirty ones.
If you’ve got this far and decided to try and ride through this coming winter you have my utmost respect. Honestly, riding through the cold and the wet is a commitment, but I hope with my tips above you can make it as easy as possible and enjoy the benefit of starting next summer with a head-start on your fitness and bike handling skills!