As the beautiful colors of fall give way to the dark and cold days of winter, it’s difficult to stay motivated and want to go outside; The daylight hours are short, the temperatures drop, and the weather can become a larger obstacle than any hill you may encounter.
Winter riding requires a mental shift, as well as a lot more preparation, but if you approach it right, it can be just as rewarding as those long summer days.
Prepare to go slow.
Here is a fact about winter riding that you cannot get around: The colder it gets, the slower you will be. Some folks will tell you that colder air is more dense so it’s harder to push through. Some will say that your bike is probably heavier in winter with fenders and larger tires. Some will tell you that our bodies are less efficient at lower temperatures.
All of those things are true, but none of them explain how significant the drop in speed actually is, and mentally, watching your speed go from a 16mph average to 12mph on the same route can be very discouraging if you aren’t prepared for it.
Really, it’s much more simple than air density and tire pressure or whatever; riding in the winter is just hard. That’s really all there is to it.
It’s cold. It’s windy. It’s wet. The colder it gets, the harder you need to work to build up and retain body heat, the harder you work, the faster you will go, but the faster you move through that winter air, the colder you will be. It’s a vicious… Cycle?
Not to mention the roads are filled with debris and potholes, and wet pavement is riskier at speed. Rim brakes don’t work as well, and taking big breaths of thirty-four degree air takes some getting used to.
Add all of these things up and a simple fact emerges: you will never be as fast in January as you are in June. And that’s okay.
You could spend all winter sweating on an indoor trainer, taking part in virtual rides and doing intervals to improve FTP, but is that really fun? Is that really why you ride a bike?
*It may actually be why you ride a bike and that’s fine, but if you are trying to advance to Cat2 you might be reading the wrong blog as I have zero advice for you.
Sometimes, you just need to get outside, and sometimes, it’s more fun to slow down a bit and explore some places in your own backyard. You may even discover new shortcuts (or longcuts) on your existing routes. Anyway, Here are some tips to get out there when the temperatures drop.
Winterize Your Bike
The best winter bike is the bike you already have (hopefully). There are some bikes that are just not built to handle inclement weather very well, and if you have one of those, you’re going to just have to make the best out of your situation.
Bigger tires are better. Wet winter roads get chewed up with potholes and debris. Ever present water coupled with the freeze and thaw cycles create cracks and holes that will swallow 25mm tires and destroy your rims. 28mm tires are pretty good for winter, 30s are even better, and anything larger is just a bonus.
Friends have fenders. Your bike will thank you for fenders, as they will keep most of the grime, dirt, water, and muck at bay. Keeping that stuff off of your bike will prolong the life of your drivetrain and make your bike easier to maintain. You will also be happier, as fenders will keep your butt, back, and feet dry… and dry feet are happy feet. However, fenders not only protect you and your bike from road spray, they also make riding with other people an enjoyable experience on wet roads (seriously, if you don’t have fenders in the winter, you’re gonna have to ride in the back. Like, always).
Stopping power. You’ll need to give yourself a little extra stopping distance on wet roads, even with disc brakes. It is much easier to lock up a wheel and start sliding on wet pavement, so slow down and give yourself a little extra time. If you have rim brakes, swapping your pads to a set of Kool-Stops will significantly improve your ability to slow down when it’s wet outside. Keeping your braking surfaces clean will also improve stopping power and prolong the life of your components. This is especially true if you have rim brakes; every time you apply your brakes, all of that dirt and road grime is being ground into your rim, and nothing will destroy a set of wheels faster than a winter of deferred maintenance.
Be Safe. Be Seen. Not only are the days going to get shorter, but some days will be so dark and grey that it will seem like the sun never really fully rose. Visibility can significantly drop in the rain and fog as well, leaving you close to invisible. A good set of lights goes a long way in the winter, and I’m a big advocate of good bike lighting. There are far too many options out there so I’ll just say that both Planet Bike and Light and Motion make some fantastic cycling specific front and rear lights (and Planet Bike also happens to do some amazing advocacy and work in the cycling community).
*There is a lot of conflicting advice on flashing vs. steady lights so the only input I’ll give here is this: riding towards another cyclist with a strobing 600+ lumen headlight is not a pleasant experience. Aim your lights appropriately, and don’t be a jerk.
Dressing for colder weather takes some trial and error. You will undoubtedly find a multitude of advice out there on what is the best gear, but I’ve come to the simple conclusion that everyone is different, and there’s a pretty good chance that what works for me may not work for you. Everyone feels cold differently and you’re going to have to figure most of the specific stuff out as you go.
I can’t tell you exactly what to wear, but I can give you some broad pointers regarding cold weather gear.
Don’t overdo it. They say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. That’s basically true, but overdressing can be just as bad as underdressing. There is nothing worse than getting twenty minutes into a ride, only to realize that you’ve basically zipped yourself up into a furnace.
In order to prevent this from happening, I tend to dress in layers that I can vent or remove if needed. The best advice I have is that you should be cold for the first five to ten minutes of your ride. If your clothing has you all warm and cozy right out of the gate, there is a very good chance that you will be a hot and sweaty mess in no time.
Layer. Layer. Layer. Your body will hold heat in different places than mine so you’ll need to figure out what works best for you. You may make use of any hiking/outdoor stuff you’ve already got, or you can get cycling specific stuff. It’s up to you. The important thing is that your base layers breathe well, and your outer layer protects you from that crispy wind. *Remember, 40 degree air is going to feel A LOT colder when you’re moving 18mph through it.
Warm fingers and toes. I find that there is basically one truth that applies to all people when it comes to cold weather: It doesn’t matter how warm your body is if your feet are numb. Cold feet and fingers will make you absolutely miserable, so you need to do everything you can to keep those phalanges frost-free (I’m not even sorry about that statement).
Get yourself some warm full finger gloves that fit close to your skin. You need to be able to shift and brake, and big, bulky gloves can make your hands feel less than nimble. Gloves that are touch screen friendly are a huge bonus.
Now, when it comes to feet, I have the unfortunate privilege of suffering from Raynaud’s Syndrome, which mainly presents in my toes, so if you have cold feet, I am a wealth of information on keeping them warm.
At the minimum, wool socks and a good pair of shoe covers will help your feet considerably. Shoe covers (also called over-shoes), will help keep your feet dry and stop that cold air from getting inside your shoes. Wool socks will retain your body heat and will stay warm even your feet get wet.
Having said all that, don’t overdo your socks! If you layer up a bunch of socks and then stuff your feet into your shoes, you are going to end up with cold feet. I know it’s counterintuitive, but bulky socks make for tight fitting shoes, which constrict the blood flow to your feet. If your feet lose circulation, they will also lose heat and go numb. Give your feet a little wiggle room.
Check your head. I had a Yellow Jacket fly into my helmet vents one time and you’ll never catch me without a cycling cap under my helmet now. I wear one year-round. The visor is great for bright days, and it can be flipped up when you don’t need it. Caps come in different styles and materials and can be season specific. An insulated cap is great in winter, and some even have integrated flaps that cover your ears and the back of your head. I highly recommend them.
Stay dryish. Rain is going to happen, and you will get wet. Any attempt to stay literally dry is a losing battle. However, if you prepare and plan accordingly, you’ll have fun and make it home relatively warm.
You can use any rain jacket you want on a bike, however, that rain shell that’s awesome when you’re walking around town can become a sweat factory when worn on a bike. Plus, it may billow and flap in the wind like a sail, slowing you down. The best rain jackets can pack up small enough to stow away in a handlebar bag or jersey pocket, but be aware that not all of them are created equal. Some will keep the rain off of you for a full two hours in a downpour, while others are really only meant for small showers.
Now, it should be noted that water resistant and water proof are two different things. There is a whole rating system involved that you can delve into if you’d like, but let’s just try and keep it simple: as a basic rule, the more waterproof the material is, the less breathable it will be.
If you put on a highly waterproof jacket and go ride as hard as you can, you’re still going to end up soaked, but it will be with your own sweat.
Prepare For the Unexpected
The biggest shift I’ve learned to make in the winter months is to just be okay with changing my route plan or cutting a ride short if need be. Weather can be unpredictable, things can happen that you didn’t plan on, and ending up dirty and cold while changing a flat can really affect your desire to push on.
Sometimes a route that you had your heart set on ends up unrideable due to things that are completely out of your control. It’s okay to turn around instead of risking your safety or possibly destroying your bike (or the trail). Routes will be there to conquer another day, and nobody is going to judge you for bailing.
Enjoy the Ride
Convincing yourself to get out there is the most difficult part of winter riding. It’s really easy to talk yourself out of it when you’re in a warm house with a fuzzy animal on your lap. It’s even easier to just tell yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow instead.
Once you’re out there, you’ll be glad you took the time to put on all those layers and go for a ride… And just think about how much warmer that house will be once you get home.