Winter Cycling – there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing
Black ice, heavy rain, dark days and darker nights, cold biting winds, uncertain road surfaces, ever changing weather conditions, crosswinds, tailwinds and the dreaded headwind, all equate to challenging winter cycling conditions.
For many cyclists, winter weather is the primary reason for not cycling through these cold, dark months. But before you pack your bike away for the winter and make like a hibernating bear, take a moment to read through our Winter Cycling Guide for some tips on how to prepare for winter cycling.
As winter approaches, cyclists start to ask questions of themselves and their equipment.
- How do I prepare my bike for cycling in winter?
- Should I buy a winter bike?
- What additional clothing do I need?
- Should I change my cycling habits?
- Do I need winter tyres?
- What equipment do I need for winter cycling?
Like so many things in life, cyclists have to make choices when the weather changes but the core decision is whether to carry on cycling or to give-up. Whilst there are many reasons to stop cycling, there are perhaps as many to persevere.
Having said that, there may be a few options to take that supplement your cycling, especially when the weather would make it too dangerous. These include alternative exercise or other sports, just don’t fall into the habit of blaming the weather.
How to Keep Cycling through Winter
Many cyclists have a long list of
reasons excuses for not going cycling when the weather is less than perfect but they are forgetting why they started cycling in the first place.
So why do some cyclists stop cycling in winter? Here are a list of some of those reasons, with a simple counter-argument.
- It’s cold / wet – wear the right clothing
- It’s too dark – use powerful lights, reflective aids and reflective clothing
- The roads are slippery – use winter tyres with slightly lower tyre pressure
- I can’t be bothered – wimp!
- Nobody to ride with – go on shorter rides, solo cycling is quite liberating
- I don’t want to ruin my bike – buy a winter bike, implement the n+1 rule
If this doesn’t convince you, buy yourself a turbo trainer and set it up alongside a warm radiator and wear a fluffy pair of slippers.
Joking apart, turbo trainers are a great way to keep cycling through the winter months. They allow you to ride your bike, albeit stationary, and keep you pedaling whilst other cyclists are cold and wet outdoors or turning into couch-potatoes.
You may have seen pro-cyclists warm-up or warm-down on a turbo before or after a race. They fasten to your bike at the rear wheel, slightly suspending it in an A-frame. The front wheel slots into a plastic housing to keep it stable.
Whilst outdoor cyclists use headwinds as the de facto resistance training, turbo trainers use an actual resistance unit in the form of air, fluid or a magnetic attached to a roller.
Eliminating any obstacles you may have to getting out on your bike, may actually lead to you starting to enjoy winter cycling, or at the very least, disliking it a lot less! It is of course a cycling cliche but winter miles do indeed lead to summer smiles.
Winter Miles, Summer Smiles
Winter Cycling Guide
So how do you prepare for winter cycling? In summary, there are a few things you need to consider to ensure you get the best out of winter cycling.
- Prepare your bike for winter
- Use the right equipment
- Wear the right clothes
- Change how, when & where you ride
- Drink plenty of fluids, it’s still important in winter
- Eat the right foods
Our guide will take you through a series of tips on how to get the best out of your winter cycling, leaving you fully prepared for the spring and summer months.
Let’s face it, most cyclists don’t want their No. 1 bike to get dirty, or worse, damaged.
And whilst that may be an excuse to buy a winter bike, not every cyclist can afford or justify another bike, regardless of the n+1 rule [the minimum number of bikes one should own is three, the correct number however is n+1, where n is the number of bikes currently owned].
So let’s get you and your bike ready for cycling this winter with this definitive list of cycling tips and advice.
Winter bikes doesn’t necessarily mean having a second bike (oh go on then), it could mean preparing your bike for winter. Here are some tips on how to ensure your bike is properly equipped for winter.
1. Buy a Winter Bike – If you can justify buying a winter bike, go for it. It’ll protect your summer bike from the winter road debris, salt, grime and general unpleasantness that surrounds us during these months. And it’ll make you happy, really happy.
2. Use a Winter Bike – Many cyclists have more than one bike, which is perhaps an older road bike or a CX / mountain bike. These are ideal for protecting your favourite bike and provide zero excuse for stopping cycling through winter. I use my 15 year old Trek hardtail mountain bike, which is as good today as it was brand new. It’s stable in the wet, has wider tyres than my road bike and I don’t mind it getting dirty.
3. Use Wider Tyres – Most road cyclists use 23mm or 25mm tyres but you may wish to increase this to 25mm, 28mm or 32mm for extra grip. Wider tyres may result in slightly extra weight but this can be readily offset by the increased safety of greater road stability, plus the fact that the additional weight is unlikely to make any difference to 99% of cyclists.
4. Use Lower Tyre Pressure – In the summer, it may have been standard practice for you to have tyre pressures at 110-120 psi or even higher but in winter, especially if it’s wet, you should lower the tyre pressure by 25-30 psi. However, going too low may result in pinch punctures or to the tyre deforming when cornering, giving uncertain handling.
5. Use Winter Tyres – Winter tyres offer superior wet weather grip than slick race tyres. Contrary to popular misconception, winter tyres do not add extra weight to your bike. In fact, two of the best selling winter tyres, Continental Grand Prix 4000S II (folding clincher tyre) and Continental Gatorskin (rigid folding clincher tyre) are both lighter than my Bontrager R3 Hard-Case Lite tyres. In addition to the improved grip, winter tyres offer greater puncture resistance so it may be an option to consider the Continental 4 Seasons as your year-round tyre.
6. Inspect Tyres Frequently – Regardless of how often you cycle in winter, it’s good practice to inspect your tyres more frequently than you do the rest of the year (which is probably not that often). Road debris, sticks, twigs and thorns are all in vast abundance at this time of year and all offer opportunities to pick up unwanted punctures, which are no fun when your fingers are cold and wet.
7. Carry Extra Inner Tubes – As the quality of the road surfaces declines, its possible that you’ll see more punctures. As such, its worth carrying extra inner tubes to ensure you don’t get stranded. If you normally take just one, take two, and if you’re inclined, consider more.
8. Fit Mudguards – It’s likely that you’ll be riding in the wet, or even in snow, so it’s worth fitting mudguards to protect your bike, yourself and other cyclists. Once the clocks change, and summer becomes officially over, it’s unlikely that you’ll be allowed on club runs without adequate mudguards. This cycling etiquette is worth adopting if you are taking part in a winter sportive or in fact, any group ride in the winter months.
9. Use Lights – This may be an obvious statement but I see far too many cyclists not using lights. The old adage remains true, see and be seen. We lose daylight mid to late afternoon in winter but without direct sunlight, there’s much less light for motorists to see us all-day so lights are essential in these darker months.
10. Use Lights in the Day – There is less light in the winter months and this can make it harder for other road users to see you, so it’s good practice to use daytime lights. The light often fails as cloud cover increases so even if you set off on a sunny winter’s day, it may get darker earlier than you planned. You may want to take your lights with you, even if you don’t plan on using them, just in case. I use Bontrager Flare R rear light as it has a 2km daytime range and a 5km night range.
11. Use Bright Lights – The brighter the light, the more you can see and the more you can be seen. You’ll read a lot about lumens (the amount of visible light) but don’t be single-minded in this. Good brands (Cateye, Exposure, Lezyne etc) are likely to give you the best results.
12. Use Multiple Lights – Many modern cycle lights have both a static and flashing mode, the latter is believed to ensure you are seen more readily. However, it may be best practice to have both a static light and one flashing light, at both the front and rear. Afterall, you want to ensure you can see where you are going as well as seen by others.
13. Consider Other Road Users – Whilst bright lights are important, and will help other road users to see you, be considerate to other road users by aiming the light 2-4m ahead of you, to the ground and slightly to the offside (left in the UK, right in the US). This will ensure you don’t aim the light in their direct line of vision, which may have serious consequences.
14. Recharge Lights – Lights with rechargeable batteries are very easy to maintain, simply recharge after every ride. For lights with standard batteries, periodically check the power levels, changing batteries well before they start to fail.
15. Carry Spare Batteries – Unless your lights are USB chargeable only, it won’t do you any harm to consider carrying spare batteries. Yes it’s a little bit of extra weight but you need to weigh that against the safety concerns of having no usable lights.
16. Add Reflective Aids – These days, reflective aids, including reflective strips on clothing can be very useful. Reflectors can easily be added to your bike frame (front & rear), spokes, pedals, seat stays, fork blades, helmets, clothing, backpacks, camelbaks etc. I see many cyclists wearing black clothing with small amounts of reflective strips, this may look good but it may not be enough for other road users to see them. Consider hi-viz clothing as well as other reflective aids.
17. Use Lubrication – Winter road debris can damage the parts of your bike that are intended to keep your cycling smooth and free-flowing. A well lubricated bike ensures the moving parts rotate with ease and protect your bike from mechanical erosion.
18. Lubricate Frequently – Ideally, you should lubricate your bike after every ride but this may not be practical for commuters. Lubricate headset bearings, bottom bracket, wheel hubs, rear cassette, derailleurs and of course your chain. You should also lubricate your brake and gear cables, especially inside the cable housings.
19. Do Not Lubricate .. brakes and rims. Yes I know this is obvious but a gentle reminder to be careful around these parts is sometimes helpful.
20. Clean Your Chain – A clean chain is one of the most important aspects of cycling yet it is also one of the most overlooked. Whilst a lubricated chain will ensure a smooth action, it is also going to attract dirt and grime, especially in winter. Removing this grime, then cleaning your chain, will help to maintain this smooth action. Our guide on the best way to clean a bicycle chain will help you preserve your chain and get the best out of your equipment.
21. Clean Your Bike – In the summer, your bike doesn’t collect road dirt anywhere near as quickly as it does in winter and as such, we get out of the habit of cleaning our bikes. All this dirt, grime and salt can harm your bike, so regular cleaning helps to protect your special one. A quick hose down with water and muc-off, after every ride, is a minimum requirement in winter.
22. Use Muc-Off – Muc-Off is quite simply the best bicycle cleaning product you will ever use. Their Ultimate Kits and Valet Cases are packed with cleaning products, degreaser, brushes, cloths etc, so you can keep your pride and joy as clean and beautiful as it was when you first bought it.
23. Carry Tools – For those of us that carry tools all-year, this is obvious but for those that don’t, why? The weight argument is pretty much redundant these days as there are a lot of lightweight tools to choose from. For example, the Lezyne V5 Multi Tool weighs just 50g, yet it contains a phillips screwdriver and four allen keys.
24. Use a Waterproof Bag – Allen keys, tyre levers and spare inner tubes are all essential items but don’t forget another important item, a waterproof bag to put your mobile phone in.
25. Use Thicker Bar Tape – Adding cushioned bar tape can help to absorb some of the road vibrations, reducing fatigue and helping us to maintain energy levels to the very last mile.
26. Check Brakes – Snow and rain are going to result in longer braking distances. On average, it takes twice as long to brake in the wet as it does in the dry. As such, brake pads are going to wear much quicker. As the pads wear, adjust your brakes to ensure you retain effective braking distances.
27. Replace Brake Pads – New brake pads have grooves on the surface and it’s a good indicator that they need replacing when these grooves have worn. Another indication is when they start to feel less responsive. Brake pads are inexpensive so changing them regular is good practice.
Winter Cycling Clothing
28. Wear Multiple Layers – Wearing multiple layers traps warm air between the layers, helping to keep you warm. There’s no need to wear thick, heavy jerseys and jackets in winter, just consider an extra layer or two.
29. Wear Base Layers – A base layer is the one that sits at the base, next to the skin. They are often made from merino wool or wickable fabrics, these being technically advanced fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin, helping to keep you dry and therefore warm. A thermal base layer can help to keep you warm when the temperature drops really low.
30. Wear Mid Layers – A mid layer is often chosen based on how cold it is. For example, if it’s 5-10 degrees, I’ll probably wear a short-sleeve jersey under my Gore Bike Wear Xenon 2.0 Windstopper Softshell Jacket but if it’s colder, I’ll wear a long-sleeve jersey.
31. Wear Winter Jackets – Winter jackets are really important as they are the first defence against the wet and cold. The aforementioned Gore Bike Wear Xenon Jacket is windproof, and significantly helps to protect the core against biting winds, icy blasts of cold air and driving wind. Jackets like this aren’t cheap but if you are serious about cycling in winter, they’re an essential investment. There are alternative jackets but you may be forced to chose between windproof, waterproof and water resistant, which will reduce the price but will compromise your comfort. Choose wisely.
32. Consider Night Vision Jackets – Protecting yourself from low temperatures, wind and rain is one aspect of choosing a cycling jacket but being seen is another. Hi-viz, or high visibility, is also a serious consideration.
33. Don’t Wear Too Many Clothes – When we first step outside before a bike ride and feel the arctic blast, it’s easy to rush back inside and put on an extra layer. This may be unwise. As we start to exercise, we raise our core body temperature, which may result in us feeling too warm. Just bear this in mind and perhaps grin-and-bear the cold for the first 20 mins or so.
34. Wear Tights – I’ve never been comfortable calling long cycling trousers, tights but hey, that’s what they’re called. In unrelated news (honest), I personally wear shorts all-year round but this may not be the best thing to do as cycling tights will help to keep your muscles warmer than shorts, which will help prevent muscle strains and keep you cycling longer.
35. Wear Full Finger Gloves – One thing I definitely do is move from fingerless gloves to full finger gloves. The body instinctively protects the core when temperatures drop, resulting in our toes and finger tips feeling the cold. Full finger gloves are available in windstopper material, which is perfect for temperatures of 5-10 degrees but can sometimes not be quite sufficient if the temperatures drop further. This is when thicker gloves are needed. Whatever you decide, remember to ensure you have adequate control of your bike and a firm grip of your handlebars.
36. Use Overshoes – In the same way that full finger gloves protect the fingers, overshoes protect your toes. I always wear my overshoes when the temperature drops below 10 degrees and to-date (touch wood) have never had cold feet. A top tip for winter cycling.
37. Wear a Head Scarf – This may bring images of your Grandma to mind but when the temperatures drop, and that wind bites, do we really care what we look like? Head scarves, like gloves, socks and overshoes, help protect our extremities. If it helps you maintain your street cool (pun intended) then try a thin beanie but if this is you, skip the next tip.
38. Wear Ear Covers – As I’ve mentioned, our extremities feel the cold more than our core, and the ears are no exception to this. Ear covers can help protect those flaps of skin on the sides of our head that can get a tad cold.
39. Wear a Neck Scarf – As above, unless you have a high collar on your winter jacket, a neck scarf is essential in cold weather. Neck scarves have the advantage of being able to be removed if it gets too warm, especially true when we move from autumn to winter.
40. Consider Face Masks & Mouth Guards – Probably only required for those who are cycling in deep arctic winter conditions but face masks and mouth covers can prevent frost bite and deep cold pains.
41. Wear Winter Socks – Cold feet aren’t just avoided in bed with your loved one, they’re essential to ensure you keep cycling in cold winter conditions. Winter socks can be thicker than normal and/or waterproof, either way, warm feet are an essential objective.
42. Wear Reflective Clothing – In addition to adding reflective aids to your equipment and wearing night vision jackets, wearing clothing with reflective strips should be a serious consideration. Even if you’re not cycling at night, daytime weather conditions can result in poor visibility for other road users, which can be counter-balanced if cyclists wear reflective clothing.
43. Wear Winter Glasses – Winter roads throw up a lot of dirt and grime, which can be pretty horrid if this gets in your eyes. Winter cycling glasses offer protection against this, either with clear lenses or yellow tints. You may be familiar with the latter if you are a skier, as yellow lenses increase the contrast between objects and really bring things to life, making it significantly easier to see everything around you. In addition to lens colour choice, you may also want to consider polarized lenses (eliminates glare), polycarbonate lenses (to resist shattering upon impact), wrap-around style to offer greater protection, rubber nose grip (prevents slippage) and ventillation to prevent the lens fogging.
Cycling in Winter
Winter cycling isn’t just about bikes, clothing and equipment. There is also the matter of you – how, when and where you cycle can really make a difference to your winter cycling enjoyment. Here are some winter cycling riding tips to help you get the most out of your winter rides.
44. Ride Slower – The road and weather conditions are generally not as good as they are in summer and are certainly less predictable, so consider riding with more caution and leave the pursuit of KoMs and PBs to other times of the year.
45. Leave More Time – Unless you’re stuck behind a slow-moving car and caravan on a country road, summer rides are likely to take less time than winter journeys. You may want to consider leaving more time to complete your winter rides, especially commutes, to ensure you arrive at your destination in plenty of time.
46. Start Slowly – Many cyclists forego the pre-ride warm-up as they consider a gentle start achieves the same goal, that being to warm-up the muscles. This may have merit when the weather is warmer but in winter it’s going to make longer for your muscles to reach optimum temperature. This isn’t just about leg muscles either, arms, shoulders, gluteals (gluts) and your core all need time to warm-up too. So if you’re not going to do any pre-ride stretches, consider starting your winter ride slower than you would normally and take an extra 10-15 minutes to truly warm-up before putting the hammer down.
47. Try Different Routes – Trying different routes to your favourites routes is always good to mix things up a little. Consider it to be your winter research to enhance your fair-weather routes.
48. Cycle Shorter Rides – Rides of 3-4 hours are not uncommon for many cyclists but doing this in winter may not be a great option, especially if it’s wet and/or cold. Going for shorter rides will be quicker and cycling for 1-2 hours in these conditions is better than being miserable out in the cold and always better than being miserable indoors.
49. Ride Less – Oh my dear Lord, what have I just written. Before you think I’ve taken leave of my senses, this is simply a reflection of the reality of the poor weather you are likely to face in winter. So instead of trying to get out two, three or four times a week, aim for fewer rides and enjoy those as much as you normally do.
50. Use Turbo Trainers or Rollers – There are days when the roads are simply too dangerous, due to ice or frost. These are the times when turbo trainers come into their own and allow you to keep cycling.
51. Cycle Indoors – Another option to rollers or trainers, is to cycle indoors in your local velodrome. British velodromes are available in England (London, Manchester, Derby), Scotland (Glasgow) and Wales (Newport) so whilst they aren’t necessarily local, they are within a couple of hours of most cyclists. Taster sessions are available if you haven’t ridden on the track before, and are a great way to experience something different in the so-called off-season.
52. Go Mountain Biking – Instead of worrying about getting dirt on your #1 bike, get yourself out on a mountain bike and enjoy getting dirty on off-road trails. Cycling off-road in the wet is lots of fun and slips and slides are an integral part of mountain biking.
53. Try Cyclo-Cross – CX is brilliant fun, often with a competitive edge. It’s predominately a winter sport that is rarely defeated by the weather, and often enhanced by it.
54. Cycle in the Gym – Road cycling, mountain biking, cyclo-cross, turbo trainers and velodromes are all great way to keep cycling but you could also cycle in the gym. One option is to try a cycle spin class, although this isn’t for everyone. Another is to find a gym where they have freewheel indoor bikes (spin class bikes are often fixed wheel).
55. Be Prepared & Flexible – Winter weather is unpredictable and so you need to be prepared for change. This could be lower light conditions than when you set off, temperatures getting colder, winds getting stronger and many other changing elements. When out on your rides, be flexible in your use of equipment, what clothes you wear and your initial choice of route. Being prepared to change your original plans may be the difference between a good ride and a miserable one.
56. Carry a Mobile Phone – Things happen on rides and there may be occasions when the weather changes so much that you simply can’t carry on. A quick call to a friend or relative for a lift home may be embarrassing but it may also be the best thing to do. Another reason to carry a phone is that accidents do happen, either to yourself or to others, and having a mobile phone available to call for help, may save someone’s life. Let’s hope this isn’t going to happen but being prepared isn’t a bad thing to be.
57. Brake Early – Stopping distance increase considerably in the wet so brake earlier than you normally do to avoid accidents. It’s considered the norm that stopping distances in the wet double so truly think about this when you’re riding in wet weather.
58. Avoid Puddles – What may appear to be a small puddle may actually be a deep hole so try and avoid puddles if you can. Remember cycling etiquette when riding with others and point out road hazards to any cyclist behind you.
59. Avoid Potholes – This is clearly one for all-year and not just for winter but advisable nonetheless.
60. Avoid Road Metals – Tram tracks, storm drains and manhole covers are all to be avoided when wet as they become very slippy and thus dangerous.
61. Avoid White Markings – In a similar way, white lines and other road markings can also become slippy, so should be avoided.
62. Ride with Caution – Perhaps an obvious one but riding with more caution in winter is likely to get you home safely, especially in corners and on long descents. Less leaning and slower speeds are the order of the day.
63. Avoid Leaves – Grease released from leaves, combined with rain, morning dew or frost can be a dangerous combination, so try and avoid them if you can.
Winter Cycling Nutrition
64. Drink Plenty of Fluids – Just because it’s not warm in winter doesn’t mean you don’t need to drink plenty of fluids. You are still exercising so you need to ensure you adequately hydrate, both before and during your ride.
65. Eat Well – Don’t forget to maintain your healthy eating routine, perhaps swapping some summer fruits for winter vegetables, either as part of your normal meals or in soup.
66. Stop for a Coffee – For some cyclists, stopping for coffee and cake is as much a part of cycling as lycra. For others, it’s an unnecessary distraction to the job in hand, cycling. Whatever your view, on cold winter days, there’s no harm in stopping for a short time and having a warm drink. Just don’t stop for too long and don’t get used to the warmth of the cafe.