Why and how you should cycle in winter

Well, its that time of year again. The time where, as a passionate cyclist, one struggles to find anybody else who wants to join in on a weekend ride. COVID-19 restrictions notwithstanding, surely there’s nothing more refreshing than a quick spin through the countryside on a brisk winter’s day.

Of couse, there is Zwift and similar online indoor riding programmes, but it is pretty dratted expensive if you want to get anything meaningful out of it. With a smart trainer, fan, screens, front wheel lifters and suchlike (plus the membership fee) coming painfully close to the price of a brand new bike – biting the bullet and getting out there makes more sense to me (or buying said new bike, but thats a topic for next time).

Given the number of cyclists on the roads drastically dwindles the moment November kicks in, I will run you through how I make riding in the winter tolerable and even enjoyable.

The topic is quite extensive, and there are differences if you ride a road bike, mountain bike or a city bike. I’ll stick with what I know best – a road bike with rim brakes, which I use for weekend rides, touring and commuting.

Why listen to my advice? Good question. Despite getting back into cycling in 2019, I have ridden my road bike pretty much every day at least 25-30 km, come rain, shine, snow or ice. This year I have covered 6,000 km so far, and plan even more next year. That being said, I spend a lot of my time in the European climate, with Winter generally ranging from -10 to 0C. If you’re looking for advice on wild Canadian winters, I might not be the right person to ask (just get a fat bike!).

I make several product recommendations below – for full transparency, I’m not sponsored by any companies and these are my personal recommendations.

Quick mountain tour, with Hamish sporting rather fetching mudguards. Essential in wet weather.

Clothing

Safety is key. Starting from the top, a good helmet is a must. After being at the nasty end of a crash with a van, I can strongly recommend it. Without it, my head would have gone through its windscreen. Whilst most people only think about major accidents (which thankfully don’t happen too often), consider the silly things – falling off and hitting your head on the ground after hitting a branch, pothole, runaway dog, oil or ice patch is more likely and the consequences can be easily avoided.

A hat or casquette (the short peak baseball cap-like hat specific to cycling) is very useful, especially if it can cover your ears. This can be combined with a buff or other neck-tube, which can be worn around your neck or even around the top of your head, leaving only your face exposed. Don’t forget to leave a space for your mouth and nose, breathing through thick fabric isn’t pleasant!

Take large coverage sunglasses or even clear lense glasses to protect your eyes. Cold wind often causes tears to form. On many occasions, my eyes started to sting, and I had to stop because I couldn’t see anymore.

Winter usually comes with grey weather and snow / rain / drizzle. Personally I wear a Castelli Perfetto softshell jacket in day-glo yellow or when the mercury hits zero, the Castelli Alpha ROS 2 jacket. Coupled with a nice long-sleeved merino wool base layer or two, this keeps you nice and warm – your chest and upper legs are a large area and exposed to wind when cycling. I often carry a gilet on top, which is a lightweight waistcoat with a solid front panel designed to protect your chest against wind.

A hardshell cycling raincoat is a good alternative, but only really useful if it really rains or is very windy. Unlike the softshell, this flaps around in the wind more which ultimately slows you down. The raincoat should have sufficient ventilation, otherwise perspiration won’t properly evaporate and you will be wet.

Good gloves are a must. Your hands will be the first thing the wind hits, and frozen fingers don’t help much when you try to change gears or brake. If your need something warmer, try a pair of thin merino wool gloves under the outer gloves.

Try a pair of thermal bib leggings (with a chamois, i.e. cushioning for your seat). Depending on the temperature, these can be fairly lightweight, because your leg muscles will generate heat as you ride. Their tight fitting style will prevent flapping and keep your cycling efficient. Just don’t wear underpants underneath!

Lastly, I prefer riding in winter with SPD cleat shoes (for mountain bikes). It’s easier to clip in with snow and mud on your shoes, and when you’re off the bike it’s easier to walk around. I quite like my high ankle and waterproof Fizik Artica X5 shoes, which don’t look too clunky (especially if you’re trying to look aero).

When you get off the bike, don’t stand around too long as your clothes should be heavy enough to keep you warm when riding, but cold if you don’t move.


Lights & reflectors

Photo by Ave Calvar Martinez on Pexels.com

If you’re commuting, you’ll be riding at the darkest times, often in pitch black. Even if you do a longer weekend ride, the sun can set surprisingly quickly, leaving you invisible to other road users. Lights can be divided into two sorts – those to be seen (passive), and those to see with (active).

I always carry a small pair of front and rear lights which I run as flashing or solid day lights (even in summer). If modern cars have side lights which run all day, why not my bike? I really like the Bontrager Ion and Flare – these are small, USB rechargeable and claim to be visible from up to 2 km away.

I also have a stronger front light which acts as my headlight. Especially in autumn and winter there can be debris, leaves, puddles, oil, snow and ice on the road. There may also be potholes hidden under leaves or water. These bright lights help you see these in time and react. Don’t forget to point them down to the road so you don’t blind other road users.

I always keep a spare rear light which I can clip on to my clothes or bike, just in case the juice on the others run out. If a rear light dies, you’ll become invisible to those behind you.

Lastly, consider wearing clothing with reflective patches. Your torso is the largest part of your body – and is most easily visible. Some cycling clothes offer reflective patches on your legs – as you pedal, the reflected light will be in constant movement, which is more easily spotted by drivers.

Consider other lights or reflective patches to make yourself visible. Additional ideas include reflective spokes covers or stickers for your wheels. A key blind spot for drivers is your side.

There are some cyclists who prefer to ride in black/dark clothing and without lights. Aesthetics aside, I’m a fan of dressing in bright clothes. Whilst cyclists are often ignored or dismissed by drivers, I want to ensure that no driver has the excuse not to see me. Taking this a step further, I personally believe that – when able – we cyclists owe it to others to make ourselves as visible as possible. The fact is, we are not as visible as cars, and drivers will not expect cyclists to be riding in the winter. A crash with a car or truck will likely leave lasting psychological effects on the driver. Looking like a parrot is a small price to pay for everyone’s safety and wellbeing.


Bike

Keep your bike clean and in good condition. Riding in the rain, snow, dirt and on salted roats will increase the wear of your components. Instead of spending more money to replace expensive parts, spend a little extra time to maintain these and make them last longer.

After every ride, I take a microfibre cloth and wipe down the frame (everywhere exposed to the road) and the drivetrain (including more hidden bits, including the jockey wheels and derailleur springs). Oil your chain afterwards, using either dry or wet lube as appropriate (dry lube is ideal for dry conditions; wet lube is sticker and will stay on longer in the wet, but it easily picks up dirt and you’ll have to clean it more often). If you can, clean your bike regularly with a sponge, hot water and soap. A clean bike shows up any damage to your frame or wheels.

Regardless if you have rim or disc brakes, regularly check the amount of brake pads you have left and that they still work properly. Adjust these if necessary. On a rim brake bike, make sure your brake track is clean and not wearing down – remove your brake pads and remove any debris. Careful when dealing with disc brakes: if you get “brake howl” or “honking”, do a quick google on the right way to remedy this.

This year I’ve tried tubeless tires for the first time, and aside from the odd faff in being covered in tubeless fluid, I’m a convert. Whilst tubed (clincher) tires are relatively easy to change and maintain, if you get a flat in winter, you’ll be stuck out in the cold messing around with bare fingers trying to repair it. Tubeless helps especially if there is a lot of debris – in most cases punctures will repair themselves and you can ride on. Tubeless tires also let you run lower pressure, which means an increased tire footprint and therefore more grip. Either way, check your tires regularly for foreign objects or damage.

There is a trend to move towards larger width tires on road bikes. Older widths such as 23 mm are being replaced by 25 mm, 28 mm or even larger. Current research indicates that larger tire widths offer higher speed, increased comfort and greater grip by cushioning out the imperfections in the road. This however depends however on having sufficient tire clearance, especially for rim brakes.

Whilst a personal and aesthetic choice, I’d recommend mounting mudguards (or fenders in the US). In contrast to rain falling from above, water splashing from the ground is unsurprisingly dirty. You will stay remarkably dry (and clean), which means you won’t start to get as cold (wet clothing in cold wind isn’t particularly nice). Plus your bike will stay cleaner.

Take a multitool and a bike pump with you, and if you don’t run tubeless take a spare inner tube and tire levers with you. If you break down, you can either work on site or find somewhere warm and sheltered. Even if you don’t know how to do a repair, someone passing you may do so, and it helps having the necessary kit on you. It’s certainly better than a long walk to the train station in the snow with a broken bike.


Riding style

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

So, you’re suited and booted, bright and your bike is in good nick. What now? Stating the obivious – ride more defensively. This means…

Look further ahead of you. If there is a pothole 10 metres ahead of you, you should have time to react properly.

Plan in longer braking distances. Leaves, oil and ice reduce friction – regardless if you have rim or disc brakes. Rain does however increase braking distance on rim brakes, as the brake blocks first need to clear the brake track before they can have an effect.

Don’t make sudden movements. Instead use slow and flowing movements to avoid obtacles. Even cornering, you may want to take a wider line than normal. Make sure you don’t cross over into oncoming traffic though.

Avoid riding over anything metal or white markings, especially when cornering. In the wet these are as slippy as ice and your wheels may just slide out from underneath you.

Keep your hands on the handlebars. Stability is key in sketchy conditions.

Brake more consciously. Champion United has a good article on front/back brake usage, but brake before you turn (and not during), don’t slam on the brakes but apply gentle but firm pressure, and in normal circumstances I tend to use the back brake more as this offers slower but more stable braking.

If you come to a sketchy part of the road, you may want to take it slower, take one foot off the pedal and get ready to stabilise yourself by putting it down on the ground. A triangle of two wheels and a foot is much more stable than just two wheels.

Plan a route which avoids close contact to heavier traffic. Pick segregated bike paths and roads which are regularly cleared of snow and salted if you can. I personally avoid roads with normal road traffic – don’t forget that cars and trucks may lose control in icy situations – a cyclist may not offer much resistence. If you come up to traffic, ride defensively and do give way to cars / trucks unless safe to do so. They may not expect or even see you.

If you go outside the city, make sure you take plenty of food and drink, and make your route takes you within walking distance of any villages or towns, or public transport networks. You may want to plan a route in a GPS unit just in case you get lost. If you’re feeling adventurous, you may want to take a compact bivvy (bivouac) bag – if you need to take shelter in emergencies, you can use this to keep warm by retaining your body heat.

If the road or weather conditions get too bad, don’t be embarassed to get off and push. You can still take public transport, call a friend or get a taxi.

Take a fully charged phone – don’t forget batteries don’t last as long in the cold.

Tell someone where you go and when you expect to arrive.


Summary…

Once you’ve mastered all this, you will get to call yourself an “all weather cyclist” with pride. You brave the cold, ice and snow, and your family, friends and co-workers will look at you with a sense of wonder, admiration and/or pity. Good job, you’ve joined the club!

Do you have any other tips? I would be very interested to read these – please add them to the comments section below!

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