Back to basics – winter cycling

Every year a bunch of people start cycling in the spring or the summer, and are determined to carry on cycling through winter. Every winter there are loads of cyclists who give up cycling.

Let’s have a look at what you can do to keep you riding through winter.

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room straight away: British winters are wet. That’s an inescapable fact. Wetness by itself is not the end of the world, but when combined with cold, it can rapidly get unpleasant, or downright dangerous. Hypothermia is a killer, so always think about escape options, in case things go wrong.

There are two strategies here: try to stay dry, or accept you’ll get wet. I fall very firmly in the second group, but let’s first examine attempts to stay dry, as that has further implications. Remember, you need to find what works for you, not for anyone else, so your decisions must be based purely on what’s right for you.

You see, some people prefer to cycle in everyday clothes, and don’t want to get changed at their destination. That’s perfectly fine, and there are so many excellent reasons for wanting to do just that. When riding in normal clothes, you need to keep not just your body from getting wet, but also your clothes, and that in turn suggests rainproof trousers and a raincoat of some sort. Many people do indeed cycle commute like that, with great success, though usually they have short, flat commutes.

If trying to stay dry, it’s essential to have full mudguards on your bike (ideally with long mud flaps attached) to keep spray off you. You will often also need to fall back, if overtaken by a cyclist without any mudguards, as the spray off their rear wheel will leave you drenched. Obviously, to avoid sweating, you’ll need to ride at a more sedate pace.

As I said, my strategy is to accept I’ll get wet. If your ride is going to be over hilly terrain (I live in Devon, so pretty much everywhere is hilly), long, or strenuous, you will sweat. How much you sweat varies from person to person – I tend to sweat a great deal, and you may be different to me – but sooner or later you will sweat. The moment that happens, you start getting wet, so your options are reduced to getting wet from the rain, or getting wet from the boil-in-the-bag effect.

My strategy is to try and keep my upper body reasonably dry, and otherwise accept I’ll get wet. Far more important is managing my temperature. Obviously, I get changed at my destination (unless cycle touring, when I’ll wear the same sweaty cycling clothes all day long). In fact,  my previous employers, and my current employers have shower facilities at work, and I love having a shower after arriving in a sweat-drenched mess. The employer I had before that didn’t have any facilities, and I was reliant on wet wipes to clean up when I arrived at work.

The downside of accepting you’ll get wet on the way to work is that you’ll need somewhere to hang wet gear to dry, as putting cold, wet lycra back on at the end of the day really isn’t pleasant.

Winter is cold, sometimes bitterly cold. A very common mistake people make when new to winter

cycling is to overdress. As a rule of thumb, you want to feel at least a bit cold when leaving home. If you’re all snuggy warm when leaving home, you will rapidly overheat when your muscles start warming up through use, but if you felt a bit cold when setting off, you’ll soon feel fairly warm.

You will need gloves! It’s no fun when your fingers are so cold that they are in pain, and you cannot move them. I strongly suggest neoprene gloves as a minimum. Just be warned, the bacteria naturally living on the skin of your hands will very soon make your gloves smell like a bio-weapon, so wash them often, and Febreze them in between! It’s a great idea to wear satin glove liners, as they will add additional insulation, help keep the smell down, make it easier to get the neoprene gloves on and off, and finally are easy to wash.

Depending on where you live, you may want to have mittens that you can wear over the neoprene gloves, too.

The secret to staying warm isn’t space-grade materials, but rather layering up. What keeps you warm is pockets of air trapped between the different layers – the more layers, the more pockets of air. Wearing multiple layers also means you can easier adjust to changing temperatures, by removing, or adding a layer. In winter, you want the outer layer to be windproof!

Start with a base layer, and if that’s made from merino wool, move to the top of the class. Base layers draw moisture (sweat) away from your body. In bitterly cold weather, it’s entirely possible that sweat on your skin can freeze, and if that happens, you’ll be cold no matter how warmly you’re dressed. Base layers help guard against this.

Provided the temperature isn’t too far below zero, I ride in shorts. Many people have told me of the supposedly severe damage they claim I’m doing to my knees, to which I counter that less than 0.5mm of Lycra will offer almost no additional thermal protection.

Some people wear leggings when the temperature dips below 15C. There’s no right, or wrong here – do what feels right to you. Different people have different tolerances for cold, and anyone who judges you is being silly.

To  bib,  or  not  to  bib?
Bib shorts, or bib tights are cycling-specific clothes that incorporate what effectively amounts to suspenders into the shorts or tights. Those that wear them are quick to profess how much more comfortable they are. Certainly, in the case of tights, I believe them!

Part of the reason I dislike wearing tights is because you regularly have to pull them up again – a problem solved by bib tights. However, I don’t just ride short distances – even mid-winter, my commute (when not working from home, as I mostly do these days) is still a very hilly 15 miles each way, and of course over weekends I can often go for far longer rides.

When your body goes from a warm office into the cold, it reduces blood flow to your extremities. That surplus blood is converted into urine, meaning you may often need to wee. When wearing shorts, and being a man, having a wee along the rural part of my commute is really easy. However, if I was wearing bib shorts, or bib tights, it’d involve stripping off layers before I can get the shoulder straps off.
If you’re a woman, the problem is bigger, and might leave you far more exposed than you’d like.

Getting  cold  feet

It’s deeply unpleasant when it’s so cold that your feet ache. The quickest fix is neoprene overshoes. Yes, even when you ride in normal shoes. Neoprene overshoes offer additional protection against water (but your feet will still get wet!) and crucially, thermal protection. They quite literally make the difference between an enjoyable winter ride, and agony.

There are waterproof socks you can use, too, but I genuinely don’t see the point. Having said that, remember, I’m in the surrender to the wetness group, and you may feel differently. My advice is simple: if you’re curious about them, try them out and see if they work for you.

Sometimes it will be so cold that, especially on longer rides, even thick neoprene overshoes aren’t enough to keep your feet from freezing. Help is at hand here, too, in the form of USB-powered heated insoles! Just run them from a powerbank in your back pocket, and run the wires down the inside of your tights. Trust me, there will be days when you’re standing with your feet in the snow, and steam coming off your feet, when you use heated insoles.

If you absolutely must keep your feet dry, pretty much your only option is something like Shimano’s SPD boots, which seal properly around the ankle. However, that also dictates that you ride with SPD pedals, which isn’t everyone’s preference.

Don’t  lose  your  head
Your brain is the most important part of your body, and brains need to be kept warm. Start by wearing a cap, scarf or – when possible – a Thinsulate beanie, or similar. Your ears will get painfully cold, so do try and cover them, too.

When bitterly cold, you may need to cover most of your face, as well as your neck and throat. Fleece buffs are a good idea, as fleece retains a decent ability to keep you warm, even when wet. Just remember to not tuck the neck warmer/buff inside your raincoat when it’s raining, else water will seep through inside your coat.

If you wear a helmet, consider getting a helmet cover, or tape over the vents in your helmet, to avoid cold air getting in.

Rain  coats
Rain coats most certainly aren’t all equal. Aside from Goretex itself, almost any other breathable raincoat won’t keep you dry in heavy, or prolonged rain. Also, breathable fabrics only really work when not in direct contact with your skin, though in winter you’ll usually have your arms covered under the coat.

I tend to ride with totally waterproof rain coats that are well vented, allowing me to control airflow through the coat, to avoid the boil-in-the-bag effect. This has the benefit that my raincoat actually keeps me dry, while usually being significantly cheaper.

My current coat is from Lidl, and I’ve recently treated it with a magic solution, called Fabsil. Fabsil is a silicon-based waterproofing treatment for tents, but can easily be used on a myriad of other things, such as raincoats and even panniers.

I work in IT, so cycling to work usually entails carrying a laptop with me, and laptops really don’t like getting wet. Alongside that, I’d really like it if my work clothes also remain dry. I previously wrote about carrying luggage on a bike, and won’t repeat all that here, but I will reiterate that you really don’t want to be riding with a backpack, if you can at all avoid doing so.

What I will strongly suggest is that you don’t simply rely just on whatever luggage system you use to keep your kit dry. Get drybags that you use inside your luggage, or do what I do: use rubble bags, and roll the tops closed. That way, even if your luggage leaked, your kit inside it will stay dry.

Ice is your enemy! Here, I’m specifically referring to ice on the ground, with the worst culprit being black ice. In winter, your route options are reduced significantly, as you should avoid ungritted routes whenever there’s any risk of ice.

Black ice can also form on treated roads, especially where there’s any risk of water flowing over the road. Additionally, there’s a higher risk of ice in dips, and on bridges, so be extra careful in such places.

You can get studded tyres, designed for cycling on ice, but be warned that they’re slower, and very noisy. Also, the metal studs won’t last overly long, so you’ll need to weigh all these things up, before deciding if they’re appropriate for you. Studded tyres don’t guarantee you won’t skid on ice, but they do vastly reduce the risk of that happening.

And  finally…
I cannot stress this enough: do what feels right for you. Just because someone else is happily out riding in sub-zero temperatures doesn’t mean you have to be, and sometimes it simply isn’t worth risking skidding and crashing due to black ice. On such days, don’t feel guilty, but rather praise yourself for having had the sense to not cycle.

1 thought on “Back to basics – winter cycling”

  1. Very interesting resumé.

    Found silk/wool/waterproof glove layers kept my 60 yrs old fingers just moveable for 10 miles on the coldest days.
    Hadn’t heard of satin or neoprene gloves; thanks.

    Now on ecargo, and nigh 80 contending with arthritis, the need for layers donnable and removable with ease is very important.

    Bizarrely I find my feet stay warmer on ebikes than unassisted!


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