Trying to Ride Bicycles in Winter

It’s been a tough old winter, and without ranting on about the obvious reasons (which I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing of!), it’s feeling like a long one too…

Today is another day we are planning to ride our bicycles and another day of uninspiring weather and the challenges winter brings: weather, daylight, morale, motivation, fitness and speed.

It’s not looking tempting:

But we are imbued with the spirit of long distance cycling so will brave the murk regardless- at least it’s not snowing or raining… yet…

My long distance/ Audax career actually started off with winter riding when for some reason I decided my first 200km ride should be “Straight on at Rosie’s” in February 2016 which was a “trial by rain and wind” riding through a big weather front who’s name I forget! If I hadn’t already been a hardened outdoorsy type I think it would have put me off for life, but I remember sitting in the thankfully toasty warm room at the finish, sipping scalding hot sugar tea between shivers and trying to smile and not let my eyes run with the pain of hot aches as blood made it’s way back to my extremities.

We made a couple of novice errors on that ride including not having reliable navigation for the dark and good enough lights, but it just meant we learnt a lot for next time!

Write up from my first audax in trying conditions
Wrapped up warm on “Straight on at Rosie’s” 200km audax

After that ride I had a whole Summer to lure myself into a false sense of security, with balmy long days where we didn’t have to worry about how much charge we have in our lights, how many layers of clothing we will need, where we can stop and get a warm drink, whether there will be ice on the the roads.

Summer riding is a doddle!

All these things and more make things tougher in winter. Not only do you need to take more clothes on the bike, requiring bigger saddle bags and more weight, you have to put more clothes on so even getting ready to go out is a whole evolution that takes longer. Then if you haven’t got the layering right you find yourself stopping a mile or two down the road frantically shedding layers before you sweat into them, making them wet and cold.

Me wearing 7 layers on to December 2020, it proved to be a bit of overkill!
Layered up before the “Mere 200km” in January 2019

Stevie in particular suffers with cold hands on winter rides and has a glove layering system to try and keep them toasty, but thicker gloves mean reduced dexterity making it harder to do just about everything: change gear, zip things up, get things out of pockets, eat, work GPS devices and phones. My abilities to do admin and logisitics from the back of the tandem are severely reduced without risking losing my fingers to the cold.

Risking cold fingers to take a photo!
Icy handle bars make for a cold start

The shorter days are probably the next biggest challenge, with some days feeling over before they have barely begun and the continual consideration of how we will remain lit and safe on dark roads. Sadly, my trusty Exposure link helmet light malfunctioned this week and started flashing instead of having a continuous beam and made my short commute home absolutely miserable as I realised how much we take for granted how good lighting is nowadays.

Short days end quickly, sunset over the LLyn Peninsula in Wales
Routesheet reading is also more challenging in Winter

Even when it is light, grey overcast days seem depressing and uninspiring compared the baking heat of Summer. The normal buzz you get from great views and sunlight scenery is just not the same in the rain.

Riding the Etape du Dales route, Yorkshire Dales in Feb 2017. Still dramatic in Winter

And therefore the motivation to ride is less. It’s a struggle to get out of the warm cosy house, it’s an effort to make rides count and the cold air makes it impossible to ride at the speeds you can in the Summer months. I tried to ride a standard Winter ride of mine last weekend that I like to call the “Fixties”. Based on our standard 50mile training route that we often ride on fixed wheel bicycles, I aim to ride it “broken” on my heavy steel geared winter touring bike “Betty” and then “fixed” on my fixed wheel bike Kathrim.

Braving the first loop of the “Fixties” in 2019

Even though I have managed this ride before in Winter, huge patches of ice on the roads and severe Easterly winds meant I only got the first lap done. Stevie tries to console me that it is a tough ride in the Summer months, but I’m still disappointed- it was diabolically slow!

https://www.strava.com/activities/4780457195

And ice is a serious game changer. You just don’t go messing about with ice and bicycles. I had a couple of falls on the slippery stuff, luckily both from minimal /no speed but there is nothing worse than that feeling of vertical to horizontal in no time at all…

There is no point risking serious injury trying to ride for pleasure around icy roads, but when your bicycle is your transport to work sometime you have to brave the elements. My main strategy is super low tire pressures, look well ahead, unclip if concerned and be prepared to bail and walk! I find off road tracks much easier to ride in the frost and also negate the danger of those horrible big metal boxes joining me ice skating on asphalt!

But snow is a different matter! I learnt a lot about riding in snow through my time commuting too and from Uni in Edinburgh and fresh snow is rarely an issue, if you can stay clear of the dangerous metal boxes which seem to become erratic and unpredictable as soon as the first flake falls. It is the following days when the snow might have frozen to be wary of.

So how to find motivation in Winter? It’s tricky I must admit but we have a few sneaky tricks in terms of making it seasonal:

We regularly “ride home for Christmas” as 200km tandem journey to my parents in Berkshire where we attempt to eat them out of house and home for a few days before riding back again for New Year. “Tandem deliveries” proved a novel eco-friendly way to deliver gifts and shoehorn in a bike ride this year.

And then the other motivation… winter food! (And drinks)

Drinking from a cold bottle is much harder in winter so it’s easy to get dehydrated and cafe stops are essential to keep fluid levels up. Particularly tricky at the moment without having a picnic…

So, it’s not all bad in winter and every mile now will count more than that in Spring and Summer. We see winter training as essential to keep our fitness up and also builds on our endurance and skills for dealing with extreme conditions. On that note, I’d better get on the bike!!

But oh, for Summer days…

0 thoughts on “Trying to Ride Bicycles in Winter

  1. So much of what you write here holds true for us. The first time we did the New Forest Gridiron we rode to and from the start on a torrentially wet and windy day, we also used to do our own little “winter tours”. However age is a factor now and although we happily haven’t become fair weather cyclists, we don’t go out in icy or snowy conditions. Has Stevie tried heated gloves, they are expensive so I’m going to try and save ready for next winter. This winter I bought a heated gilet 😊

    1. If keeps complaining I might get him some 😂 He got treated to a set of Dissent laying gloves a couple of winters ago and they seem to have done the trick for now 👍
      Th Joy’s of being all weather cyclist eh?!

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