There’s no such thing as bad weather – just the wrong clothing!
It’s that time of year again – first frosts, lashing rain and strong winds. If it was not for your strong sense of motivation, and the small matter of 960 miles in 9 days next September, it would be very easy to put the bike away until May and forget about training.
OK – so winter riding is never going to be as pleasant as warm, sun-filled summer days [did we get any of those last summer?] but, with the right clothing and equipment choices, it can be made much more bearable and may even be fun. Like most outdoor endurance sports, the key to success with winter cycle clothing is layering. This helps to defeat the two main issues with winter riding; over-heating [oddly enough] and condensation build up [sweating to you and me].
I generally go for long leggings in winter, bib-tights as cyclists call them. The shorts and “knee-warmer” combo will normally get me through until the end of November but come December, full-length is the way to go! There is a huge range to suit all price points but most are made from an amazing lycra-based fabric called thermo-roubaix, warm, soft and very comfortable. There are two main types, un-padded – worn with cycling shorts underneath, and padded, which are worn on their own.
It’s on the upper-body that the layering system really comes into its own. I generally start [all year round] with a suitable base-layer. Personally, I favour those made from merino wool. They are soft and comfortable, warm in winter and cool in summer and do a great job of wicking sweat away from your body. Depending on how cold it is, I may then go for a thin thermal layer with a normal long or short sleeved cycling jersey on top. Just like summer, the jersey is essential because I generally stuff the rear pockets with energy bars, spare-tubes, phone, money etc.
Over the top of these three layers I will usually wear a long-sleeved jacket. There are two main types and the weather will dictate the better option. A waterproof rain-jacket is the best “universal” option, and the most flexible if it’s not too cold – you can take it off and store it in a pocket if you get too hot! You should try and find one which is cycling specific, reasonably close-fitting [nothing worse than a "flappy" sail holding you back!] and made from a breathable fabric such as gore-tex to prevent the build-up of condensation. However, on really cold days, you may find a soft-shell jacket is a better option. This more substantial garment is made from a thin wind- and shower-proof fleece and will keep you warm and dry in even the most unpleasant conditions.
When it comes to riding in cold and wet weather it is generally the head, hands and feet which suffer first and suffer most! I have got into the habit of wearing a cotton cycling cap under my helmet on all but the hottest of days. This keeps the wind and rain off the head and the visor can be “flipped-down” to keep the rain out of your eyes. A sound investment even if they do look a little old-fashioned! [Odd - as my wife says!]. If it gets really chilly a fleece or knitted cap can make all the difference, particularly in covering the vulnerable ears! Never be tempted to forgo the helmet though.
Gloves are pretty much essential all year round. I have never got on with fingerless “mitts” so wear long fingered gloves all year. My advice is to steer clear of really fat and padded gloves as I find these are really clumsy and, in any event, tend to soak up water in the rain. I generally wear my “summer” ones all year unless it is really cold when I have an excellent pair of wind and water-proof gloves which do the trick. Glove sizing is always an issue and the best advice is to go to a decent bike shop and find some which fit well but are not so tight as to restrict your circulation. Remember, however, that most gloves stretch with time.
Many people complain about cold and wet feet during the winter months. Neoprene overshoes are the simple answer to this problem. Worn over the top of your cycling shoes, these will keep your feet toasty warm and dry in all but the most torrential conditions.
To my mind, the key winter accessory for the bike is mud-guards. These keep all the road spray and muck out of the gears, off you and most importantly, off anyone cycling near you. Many modern bikes do not have eyelets for mounting traditional mud-guards but a product like SKS Race Blades or Crud RoadRacers are designed to be fitted to any road bike.
Another key winter consideration is tyres. I normally run a slightly fatter tyre [25c as opposed to 23c], for comfort, and I use a winter specific variant such as Continental GatorSkins because you are much more likely to puncture on wet winter roads.
Lastly, in winter it becomes even more important to be highly visible. I keep a set of small front and rear LED lights permanently fitted to my winter bike and use them on all but the sunniest days.
It is probably worth a few final words on attitude. It is very easy in winter to look at the forecast, or out of the window, and decide that you REALLY don’t want to go training today. An old coach of mine used to have a great “30 minute” rule. No matter how bad the weather, you have to get out of the door. Tell yourself that, if it’s really too bad you’ll go back after 30 mins. What I find is that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, once I’m out, I’ll stay out.
I hope you find these tips useful and you discover that, with the proper equipment, cycling in the winter can be just as rewarding and exhilarating as in the summer.
Above all – Ride safe.