Winter in the UK certainly doesn’t serve up the friendliest of climates for cycling, but you really shouldn’t let that put you off. You see, riding right through the year not only maintains your fitness but, with a few alterations for the weather, it can be fun, too. And it’s not rocket science – there are just a few things you need to do to get you sorted for riding during the colder months.
The right sort of bike equipment and clothing, plus a few essential skills, mean rain, sleet, snow, sub-zero temperatures and biting winds don’t have to worry you at all. In fact, by the end of this feature you won’t be hibernating, you’ll be accelerating…
For most of us, riding in the winter means riding at night – which means lights aren’t just a legal requirement but an essential for keeping safe. Luckily, the latest LED safety lights are not only highly visible but also run for weeks, so get the brightest you can and fix them where they’re most obvious.
High power 3 and 5 watt LED headlamps are also powerful enough to ride on dark roads at speed. The punchiest lights for uncompromised performance are still metal halide or HID bulbs with their characteristic bluey white beam. They’re not cheap, though.
Whatever lights you use, make sure drivers know you’re a human by using reflectively enhanced clothing. Scotchlite strips mean staying safe can still be stylish, and smaller LEDs on your helmet and clothing will increase visibility, too.
Mudguards are an essential to keep you, your mates, your bike and your lights clean, and save a lot of discomfort (they’re that essential that many road clubs won’t let you start winter rides without them). If your bike hasn’t got space for full guards between tyre and frame, then clip-on fenders, like SKS Race Blades, will strap onto almost any bike to stop you getting a gritty gusset.
If you don’t look after your bike when rain and road salt attack, it’ll be in a right state long before spring arrives. Getting your bike through winter in full working order, without any lasting damage, is just a case of simple, regular TLC that even the least mechanically minded rider can manage.
First, get a winter ‘pit kit’. There are various sets of bike brushes available with tools for every nook and cranny, but an old toothbrush and washing brush work just as well. Ditto with water and a bit of elbow grease instead of specialist bike cleaners, which can shift anodizing and surface finishes just as easily as stubborn muck if you’re not careful.
Don’t be tempted by the jet wash. The high pressures will blast water straight past seals, washing out vital grease and leaving your bike’s guts to rust.
One thing definitely worth buying is quality lube. While ‘3 In One’ or motor oil certainly won’t wash off, they’ll coat your bike in a sticky goo that any crap from the road will collect and coagulate in. A proper winter bike lube (ones designed for mountain bike use are the best for UK conditions) will cling to, protect and lubricate your chain, without being so sticky they clog up.
Prep your bike before winter starts by greasing any bolts or other screw-in/slide-in fixtures on the frame, stem, cranks, shoe cleats and so on before they corrode. Don’t use normal grease on carbon componentry, though, as it can attack the resin. Instead, ask your bike shop for a carbon-friendly assembly compound – Pace and FSA do them. You’ll need to take more care with protecting scratches on steel or alloy frames to avoid corrosion, although carbon and titanium frames are a lot less sensitive to weather.
The key to stopping corrosion before it starts is washing and then lubing your bike as soon as you get back from a ride. Get it ready to go again before you’ve had a shower and then you can relax. Leave it and, before you know it, several days will have passed and your cables and chain will be screwed. The following Bike hygiene schedule box tells you which parts to clean, how to clean them and how often.
The biggest challenge with winter riding is the reduced traction caused by wet or icy roads. Learn to ride accordingly, though, and you’ll be fine.
While it’s natural to be nervous of wet corners, top-quality modern tyres actually grip a lot better than you’d expect. It’s the cheaper, hard-compound tyres you have to be careful of. However, drop pressure by 20psi and any tyre will be grippy enough.
The key to riding well in the wet is to relax. Breathe slowly, get all your braking done on the approach to the bend, then lean in and corner smoothly. If you’re still on the brakes as you’re turning, you dramatically reduce your grip. Also, if you’re stiff and upright, the bike won’t turn smoothly either and you won’t react well if it does slip. Come in wide, look ahead, lean in, clip the apex then immediately look as far down the road as possible. Always look at where you want to be going, not at what you’re trying to avoid or you’ll end up hitting it.
If you’re unsure how fast you can go, use one of your recovery rides to practise cornering. Find a downhill corner and keep riding it, getting a little faster each time until you feel your tyres starting to struggle. Thirty minutes of practice like this and you’ll feel far more confident all winter.
The other vital skill is knowing which surfaces will grip and which turn to soap when they’re wet. Road marking paint is lethal when wet and so are metal manhole covers, so avoid them at all costs when cornering or braking. Any roads with overhanging trees will be covered with slippery leaf residue in autumn, too, and they’ll derail you as effectively as they do trains.
As soon as the temperature drops much below 5ºC, you’ll need to be careful of ice and black ice. Pay particular attention to any dips where mist or fog collects in mornings – or anywhere at all if temps are nearer zero. If you do find yourself on ice, whatever you do don’t brake or steer. Stay calm, look as far down the road as possible and just try to stay upright until the ice finishes. Gritty gutters or grass verges are the best places to head for if you need to regain control.
Finally, the other big blow to winter riding confidence is gusting winds. To be honest they can strike at any time, but autumn and spring are registered storm offenders. First off, put your aero away until the race season. Even if they help into headwinds, deep rims are just asking to be dragged sideways in crosswinds.
Second, learn to pre-empt the big gusts. If a crosswind is blowing, then it will whistle through any gate or hedge gaps, throwing you out towards the middle or in towards the side of the road. Conversely, if you’re already leaning into the wind to stay up, clumps of trees, buildings or other shelter will have you swerving into the gutter. Gusts from passing traffic are also amplified in windy conditions, so look ahead and be aware of what’s happening off the road as well as on it.
Winter used to mean shivering miserably as you tried to ‘get the miles in’ for summer glory. But the last few years have seen winter bike wear develop so fast that you can actually look forward to the first frosty days so you can ride in your favourite cosy clobber.
The first thing to start with is a good base layer. If you only get one, choose one that’s long sleeved, long backed and tall necked, with a zip for versatility. Cotton is useless once it’s wet and full wool gets heavy when it’s damp, but modern, wicking synthetics are comfy and offer by far the best performance. You can even get them in supermarkets now.
Next, get the best pair of tights/longs you can, preferably with a windproof front to stop brass monkeys and chilly kneecaps. You could go for tights without pads and wear bib shorts underneath. That way, the shorts can be washed after every ride while the tights will often do a few rides between laundry cycles.
Next, sort out your hands and feet, as they’re crucial to comfort. If you can, get a pair of cheap shoes a size larger than normal, and wear thick wool socks inside them and protective overshoes over the top. Don’t try and cram thick socks into tight shoes or you’ll kill your circulation. Winter boots are available but overshoes are warmer and cheaper.
It’s the same with gloves. A thin liner can add serious warmth to a pair of mid-weight gloves without losing feel.
Layering and versatility is the key to your choice of outer layers, too. While a waterproof might sound essential, even in Wales or the southwest you’ll be riding in rain much less than you think. And even the best Gore Tex jackets will get steamy at some point, leaving you wet inside even when it’s dry out.
A thin windproof/showerproof but breathable shell jacket over a base layer/jersey (or two in really cold weather) gives cost-effective protection and you can add or remove layers for temperature control.
That said, from October to April a softshell, windproof jacket is warm, quiet and feels great. You’re never uncomfortably cold (damp yes, but not sodden and frozen) even in the worst weather.
Finally, don’t forget to look after your skin, as it’ll be having a hard enough time in the pool. A protective face cream (Body Shop do a good one) and lip balm reduce sleet and salt sting, while a Buff or bandana under your helmet stops ice cream headache. Gaffer tape over the front vents works well, too..
Hopefully, now you won’t be thinking such dark thoughts about the dark months. With a bit of regular rinsing, practise and practical thinking about what you wear, you’ll win the fight against the weather. There could even be some useful Christmas present ideas in there too. So wrap up, get out and go for it.
Guy Kesteven has been riding and testing bikes in all weathers for over 20 years
While the thermometer might dip into double freezing figures very occasionally up north, the effect of your speed and winter wind can mean temperatures hit Arctic levels more often than you’d think.
Even on a 6°C autumn day, a 30kmh speed will give a ‘windchill factor’ of -5°C, while the same speed will mean a frosty day hits the front of your jacket -14°C. Even a steady descent on a crisp frozen morning can push effective temperatures well below -20°C. Obviously the body heat you produce while riding helps maintain a warm balance, but it’s still important not to underestimate the effect, especially if you stop for any reason.
Check out www.icebike.com for more information