How to cycle in winter (without crying)

cycling in winterHow to cycle in winter? Don’t. Ho, ho, ho. Why do we cycle in winter? It’s cold. Probably wet, filthy too. You can bet an icy wind awaits any uncovered skin. There’s more daylight in your pain cave. Yet out we go, lemmings* on wheels, our Lycra heavy limbs doing their best to beat Mr Frosty into submission.

Like sharks who need to swim to stay alive, we cyclists must keep the pedals turning lest we seize up. Some fear losing the tail of the bunch come spring if they lack winter miles. Not me. I fear losing my sanity for if I don’t cycle, I don’t live. Cue dramatic music.

There’s many a pleasure to be had cycling in winter. Sunrise is achievable when daylight begins so late. Cycling through the morning mist we imagine we’re at the top of a mountain pass, alone, human spirit versus inhuman weather. Come twilight and the murk of the gloaming, darkness strangles the day one frozen finger at a time, the sky alight as the battle rages, an epic light show Jean Michel Jarre can only dream of.

*Lemmings don’t actually commit suicide. The popular myth refers to the furry creature’s migratory travails. Still, I love the name of a book that references such behaviour: The Marching Morons (apt, considering the recent passing of Black Friday).

Tips for cycling in winter

Cycling in snow

Bliss. Or bless.

Lie in. Stay in bed. We winter bears must hibernate come the cold. Let the sun rise and wait for the temperatures to crawl above zero. Every degree helps. You and the roads will be less frosty when you eventually venture out.

Choose your roads wisely. The quiet country lanes that were your best-est summer pals must be treated with caution come winter. Mud caked, gritty and most dangerous of all, icy, there’s few cars warming these shiny surfaces. Watch out for roads hidden beneath the shadows, where the frost lingers, lying in wait for twitchy tyres.

Ice. Know the road will be icy? Stay in. Better to miss one ride than a few months should the road steal a wheel.

Hold your line. This is not the time to attack corners and lean into the turn like an Isle of Man TT champion. Slow down and take a gentle line through the corner. Better safe than sorry – Strava segments can wait for warmer days.

Don't lean into the corner

Don’t lean into the corner

Layer up. Forget about man up. Fools impress nobody. Layer up is where it’s at. Three thin layers are better than one thick layer. I like to feel mobile when on the bike so will eschew anything too thick or bulky. Many people swear by Merino wool but I’m allergic to the stuff. Bah. Fleece lined tights and base layers are your friends. Just give yourself a couple of days’ notice. It’ll take you that long to climb into so many layers and twice as long to extricate yourself once the ride is over.

Don’t overdress. Ever sat down for Christmas dinner in your favourite gimp suit? Or been rock climbing in stiletto heels? Only you’ll suffer when wearing the wrong clothes for the occasion. Similarly don’t cycle in too much clothing. You’ll overheat and cook in your own sweaty juices as if you’re in your very own sous-vide (water bath). Dress for how you’ll feel fifteen minutes into the ride and expect to be cold when you first venture out.

Lobster gloves. Braking is easy. Remove for puncture repairs.

Lobster gloves. Braking is easy. Remove for puncture repairs.

Winter gloves. My favourite least favourite subject. Cold fingers? I speak from great experience. I’ve had frozen digits in mid-summer. Three pairs of gloves rarely suffice. My latest investment was a pair of lobster gloves, you know the ones, alien shaped to allow for some finger on finger heat, one warming the other?

Don’t worry about looking ridiculous. You’re a cyclist, you kind of look ridiculous to most others anyhow. I too was sceptical at first, and despite the need to alter my braking grip, within minutes my fingers were toasty. Be prepared for a little discomfort at first, my fingers were certainly not used to the strain of being split into two and were hurting by the end of the ride. Must practise my Star Trek greetings more. Live long and prosper.

Booties. Wanna walk into the local corner shop like Robocop? Get some booties. My toes are usually the first to suffer and succumb to the cold but thanks to some cheap neoprene shoe covers and a couple of pairs of socks, my feet are toasty all ride long.

Drink. You may be cold but you’ll still sweat. Probably more than in the summer if you’ve overdressed. Drinking in sub-zero temperatures is not easy. I’ve had water turning to ice in my bottles. Just imagine it’s fresh dew from the mountains and swallow. Brrrr!

Glad I cleaned the bike with a toothbrush last night

Glad I cleaned the bike with a toothbrush last night


Check the forecast. Memorise the clothing required for certain temperatures. Everyone’s different but I pull on a thin base layer beneath my jersey and two pairs of gloves when the temperature dips below 13°C. A thicker base layer is swapped in when the mercury dips below 10°C. Below 7°C and I’ll add a thin cycling jacket. These three layers keep me warm all the way down to -1°C. Any colder and I stay in bed.

Ignore the forecast. 1°C sounds pretty cold. Too cold for a bike ride, that’s for sure. Yet with the right clothes there’s no need to be cold so don’t overthink things. Dress appropriately and you’ll be toasty all ride long. Prepare your clothes so you can simply climb into them and hit the mean streets. Dither and you’ll wither.

Short and sharp rides. My winter rides are hard, fast and short. The faster I cycle, the more I warm up and the fewer miles I cycle, the less time I spend in the cold. This goes against conventional wisdom of long winter miles (seriously?!) but certainly works for me.

The bike. Wide tyres, mudguards, flask of hot (or Irish) coffee in your bottle cage. Oh, and lights for riding beneath those bleak skies. Done. Do you need a winter bike? Not especially. Much depends on two things i) How precious you are / your bike is, ii) How much you like cleaning your bike. What? Oh ok, why not, what’s one more bike in the grand scheme of things?

I think this winter bike thing has gone a bit too far

I think this winter bike thing has gone a bit too far

Plan or no plan? Need motivation to go out and play with Mr Frosty? Sign-up for an event in early spring. Had enough of regimented rides? Spent all summer working to a plan? Take some time out and just ride for the hell of it. Point your wheels whichever way the wind blows and simply ride, recapture that childlike joy of riding, a dog with its head out of the window, tongue slapping its cheeks, tail wagging.

Winter cycling hellRide with others. In times of survival, every adventurer knows it’s warmer when you get closer to another. I’m not talking cosy tandem rides here, simply find a few others to shield you from the icy gales and provide motivation when your alarm strikes 8 am on a Sunday morning in deepest darkest December.

Don’t feel too smug. Nobody cares that you ride in the cold. You’re a hero only in your own head. Which is enough for me.

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Images courtesy of 1) Dave Schlabowske 2) National Geographic 3-7) Unknown

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17 thoughts on “How to cycle in winter (without crying)

  1. Pretty much spot on, though I do wear thicker jackets. This is mainly to do with the one big issue we have in Cornwall, wind or to be more precise, gales. Today we are gusting to 35mph and I have been blown into hedges on several occasions when it’s been up to 45mph gusts and once, very nearly under a bus, luckily the driver was alert. The other aspect is the wind chill factor especially descending.

    So for me, if the wind is at 25mph or less, I do a short (25 – 30 mile) hilly ride, slow, but you get warmed up and put the effort in.

    Great blog and have a great Xmas.

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    • Good point Chris, wind chill. Even without the usual winter gale, the wind you create cutting through the air on the bike will reduce the temperature by a good couple of degrees. Bliss in summer, not so great for uncovered skin in the winter!

      I forgot to mention my buff, which I wear Rambo style to keep my ears warm. I look a proper muppet but hey, my ears are warm!

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  2. Great day to read this. Set off this morning to ride to work and beat the Belgian train strike. After the 1km descent outside the house was completed at walking pace due to ice I turned round, gingerly climbed back up to the house and announced I was working from home.

    (I did sneak a frosty hour on the MTB later)

    Excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kevin. A wise move not attempting to skate over the ice on your bike. And good to hear us Brits are not the only ones to suffer transport strikes. Very cruel time of year for a strike.

      Like

    • Same again next Monday, and likely to continue on and off for the next 5 years as the Belgian unions celebrate having their first right wing austerity government in known memory.

      Can’t say I blame them entirely.

      Sighs deeply.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I certainly don’t feel smug but do enjoy more kudos than I deserve at work when they find out that I’ve ridden to work in “this temperature” or “that rain” or “those winds”…Perhaps a sad indictment of the soft under belly of society looking for convenience & easy options. I’ve discovered layers and my big chain ring and these keep the cold out.

    Back out into a headwind with gusts tomorrow morning and maybe a bit of rain thrown in. In a bizarre way, I’m looking forward to it more that a summer ride…

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    • There is definitely a perverse joy to surviving and battling the weather. Such joy is strictly post ride, never during! Good luck in those gales… Keep nice and low.

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    • How about the special winter cycling boots you can buy? They tempt me but my thick neoprene shoe covers and two pairs of socks, one thin, one thick, do the job. Foil and cling film! I love the home remedies but they’re often more effort than they are success.

      I also find the warmer my core, the warmer my extremities. There’s science behind this. Blood is drawn from your extremities to help heat the core so keeping the middle warm is half the battle. If only someone would invent cycling slippers, cleats, sturdy sole, cosy!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Your warm core theory is extremely sensible and seemingly fairly obvious and somehow it’s never occurred to me. I’m going to chuck on an extra layer for a cold 50 miles in the morning and see how it goes.

      And yes, cycling slippers…surely Rapha have these in their range 🙂

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    • Ha, brilliant, never thought of that! Brightened up my morning. As I’m UK based, I wonder if I could get away with flicking a very thick pair of V’s, reverse Winston Churchill style!

      Like

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