I don’t know about your part of the world, but we have had a pretty short summer round here. Most of us cyclists live for the summer months, that’s when all the action happens, so it’s a real bummer when the colder weather comes around. But if you are even remotely serious about cycling you are going to need to train throughout winter, avoiding only the very worst of the winter weather. So how do you even contemplate riding in temperatures approaching or below freezing?!
Well, it can be done, and this mini-series will hopefully encourage you to venture out this winter and make sure you are still having fun and keeping fitness levels up.
And that takes us to the “why”.
Why cycle in winter?
If you do any kind of racing then you will know, there is just no choice. You cannot start training a month before races start in spring, that is way, way too late. We haven’t got space here to go into the theory behind cycle training, check out one of Joe Friel’s awesome books on the subject – but your “base” fitness, that is, your ability to maintain medium-high intensity effort on the bike (which you need for any race more than a few minutes long!) is gained over many months following a training routine like that of Friel’s. So training for the next season starts in autumn of the previous year and continues all through winter. And the only really effective training (all due respect to cross-training and indoor trainers) is to get on an actual bike and hit the road!
Even if you are a purely recreational rider, there is nothing worse than getting on your bike for the first time in March and feeling like you’ve never ridden a bike before! Besides, riding in winter has its charms, and anyone with experience will tell you that it actually helps protect against winter illnesses. And after doing a ride in cold weather, there is an amazing phenomenon whereby you will be warm all day, much to the amazement of your shivering housemates/family – your body seems to temporarily adapt to the low temperature, and of course respond to the intensive workout you have done.
Of course, when the snows and freezing rains come, then things get REALLY uncomfortable, with cold (dirty, greasy) water spraying you liberally, and of course, some days you will just have to stay in, or venture down to the gym. But you would be surprised just how many days of the winter you CAN go out!
So this little series of articles will hopefully show you the positive side of winter cycling, and encourage you to brave the roads (hey, and maybe even the trails!) this winter.
Won’t I freeze to death?
Firstly, there is nothing wrong with a bit of cold, and as we said above, there seem to be certain health benefits in staying active outside in the cold weather. There is a difference between FEELING the cold, i.e. on your skin, and BEING cold, when the outside temperature begins to affect your core temperature. The latter is bad, but the former is not the worst thing in the world. And there is a lot you can do to reduce the effects of the biting cold.
As you very well know, being cold is all about cold air or wind whipping the warmth away from your skin. If you can prevent that, your body will be able to keep you warm from the inside. The most effective way of doing that is to trap that layer of warm air close to your body, And this is usually achieved by wearing multiple layers and materials which trap air and resist wind. With the right apparel, you can brave sub-zero temperatures, no problem. On one memorable New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago, yours truly rode for two hours at -20°C (-4°F) with no ill effects. Oh, except I couldn’t feel my feet afterwards, but that’s another story.
Before we talk about clothing, it’s worth mentioning that to go out and cycle in winter is a whole psychological game as compared to summer cycling – sure, it takes huge willpower to stick to a training program even in the height of summer. But in winter it’s so much more difficult. One quick look outside when it’s cold, possibly windy, dark and overcast can be enough to immediately put you off going out and cause you to “suddenly” think of “something else” you needed to do. You have to have the attitude at all times, “I AM going out, I won’t pay any attention to the weather, training is a priority, I will enjoy it once I am out”. You have to ruthlessly get up, get dressed up (we are getting to that) and JUST GO, and don’t think about the cold, which probably won’t be half as bad as you are thinking. It also really helps if your core temperature is nicely elevated – perhaps by doing some warm-ups inside and THEN getting dressed on top so you basically have extra body heat when you head out which will give you a good head start. If you are cold and shivery indoors before you even go out, that IS BAD, that will really put you off going out and could result in a miserable cold ride, or possibly even illness. So that takes us to…
What to wear and when
We will save the details of winter cycling apparel for future articles, but it is good to have a basic rule of thumb regarding what you’re going to wear when the thermometer hits a certain temperature range. Then you don’t have to think too much about what you are going to wear, you just look at the thermometer and dress to your predefined “specification”, thus saving VCT (Valuable Cycling Time).
Here is one possible such list, but different people feel the cold differently, and this might not apply to you, it’s just a general guideline you can adapt for yourself:
Temperature range: 15°C or more (60+°F or more)
Short sleeved cycle jersey
Short finger gloves (for safety, not heat!)
Regular or low-cut socks
…and that’s it for me, anything over 15C I am happier with short sleeves and as little on as possible, though not everyone will be comfortable in the lower end of this range
Temperature range: 5°C- 15°C (40-60°F)
Long-sleeved jersey (the thicker, winter type, polyester thermopile or similar) on top of short-sleeved cycle jersey (i.e. two layers)
Cycle shorts (your legs can take much lower temperatures than your upper body can, though I know plenty of cyclists who are straight into long cycle leggings even by about 15C as they believe the cooling effect on your muscles is not good – me, I find it uncomfortable keeping my muscles warm, when they can do it themselves).
Windproof skull cap under your helmet (oh, the helmet is assumed, obviously!) – the wind can howl through your helmet and your head and ears get unpleasantly cold.
Short-finger gloves (though I know many will need long-fingered gloves at the lower end of this range)
Regular cycling socks
Temperature range: 0-5°C (32-40°F)
Long-legged cycle leggings (single layer)
Long-sleeved cycle shirt, or even Under Armour/thermal long sleeve t-shirt
Long-sleeved winter jersey on top
Possibly: windstopper jacket over everything
Possibly: facemask – why, you may ask. The wind chill can get REALLY unpleasant when it’s been savaging your face for several hours. In particular I have personally had problems with cold getting in the sinuses and also my TEETH freezing. The cold can get to the nerves of the teeth and cause a (thankfully temporary) pain that can last for several weeks. Covering your face becomes a distinct need as we hit zero C.
Possibly: overshoes – feet are exposed in cycle shoes, and no matter how good they are, after a few hours you can run into serious problems
Probably: scarf, or better, a neckwarmer that stays put (scarves are pretty useless)
Short-fingered gloves (again, you may be saying, whaaat, no way – my fingers do get a bit cold at these temperatures, but I still prefer the freedom of short-fingered gloves)
Below zero C (32°F)
All of the above!! Yes, when cycling in sub-zero temperatures you will certainly want to wear all of the above, and probably more. It will also be worth considering heavier-duty gear intended for lower temperatures, including electric feet-warmers and gloves! But more about that in a future article. The most important thing is you are getting mentally prepared to spend this winter cycling season where you belong – out on your bike – no matter the temperatures!