How 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 winterLie 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.
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.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!
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?
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.
Ride 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.
Images courtesy of 1) Dave Schlabowske 2) National Geographic 3-7) Unknown