No matter how noble your intentions to ride in the winter months are, when the temperatures drop and the heavens open, saddling up can be about as inviting as smearing yourself in hamburger and jumping into a pit of wolves. However, with the necessary preparation, cycling through even the most unpleasant conditions can be made manageable and even, dare we say it, quite fun. Whether you cycle for pleasure, to commute or to stay fit, these essential tips will keep you pedalling until Spring.
As a cyclist on the road, your first, and most important, consideration should always be your own safety. Cycling in winter is undeniably more dangerous than cycling during the summer, but these important measures will dramatically reduce your risks.
Shorter days combined with rain, hail and snow mean that you are even less visible on the roads during the winter. As a result, wearing hi-visibility clothing and investing in a good set of lights should be mandatory. You don't need to break the bank on hi-visibility clothing – a hi-vis "builder style" vest will only set you back a couple of bucks and will make you just as noticeable on the road as the more expensive options.
A good set of lights, on the other hand, is definitely something you should invest in. The $10 set you bought from Nashbar might be fine during a twilight ride in the summer, but for all the good they'll do you during a dark, rainy December morning, you may as well strap a candle to your handlebars.
Wet and rainy conditions also need some consideration, as more dirt, grit and water will be kicked up into your face by passing traffic. An eyeful of grit is the last thing you want to deal with when trying to navigate your way through busy roads, so it's worth looking into a pair of cycling glasses (clear lenses are better for dark morning and evenings) or even co-opting a pair of skiing goggles if you have some lying around. You don't need anything particularly fancy, as long as your eyewear doesn't impede your vision and protects your eyes.
Wet conditions also mean that glass, thorns and other debris are more likely to get swept into the gutter, giving you yet another reason why you shouldn't be riding there. As for actually riding, you should take it easy on the front brake when the roads are rainy, icy or slippery and you should give yourself plenty of time to brake and slow down. Ride slower than you do ordinarily and always be prepared to unclip yourself from the pedals if you lose control.
Most importantly, know your limits. Don't force yourself out into conditions which you aren't comfortable riding in.
Dressing sensibly will make the difference between arriving at your office a shivering, sodden wreck and arriving in comfort, ready to face your day.
When cycling, layering up is the best approach, as each layer traps more warm air near your body. Best of all, you can add or remove layers of clothing to regulate your temperature.
A basic but dependable winter get up would include 2 to 3 layers on your top and some legwear, such as:
The base layer should be tight fitting and made of wool, as it retains heat when it's damp, wicks sweat away from your skin and is fairly odour resistant. If you don't mind spending a little extra, high quality polyester tops can be extremely insulating.
The Middle Layer
In milder temperatures and drier conditions, mid-weight winter jerseys, combined with a good base layer, will keep you toasty during your cycle. Winter jerseys can range wildly in price and quality, but as a minimum you should look for one with a high collar and tight, fitted cuffs to stop cold air entering the jersey. It should be a fairly snug fit, so that it'll keep the warm air close to your body.
The Outer Layer
If you'll be cycling through extremely wet or cold temperatures, you'll want to invest in a good jacket. Unfortunately, getting your hands on a water-proof jacket which is breathable and comfortable can be costly. If you are looking to invest in a quality outer-jacket, make sure that it is 100% waterproof, including zips and collars, and is breathable - otherwise you'll suffer from the "boil in the bag" effect.
If you're unlikely to face anything more serious than some light showers and drizzle during your ride, a lightweight waterproof shell will keep you fairly dry.
A good pair of bib tights fit snugly, keep you warm and keep out the wet, but equally can cost in excess of $100.
During drier weather, you can wear thermal undergarments, which you can pick up on the cheap from hiking stores, or even make your own out of an old sweater.
You can get creative with your lower body, by wrapping your feet in plastic bags before putting on your shoes. If you're still cold, you can even pay homage to your inner 80s-era pop diva by donning a pair of leg warmers (provided they aren't too big or else they might end up caught in your chain). More details here.
Tires and Fenders
While some cyclists build or buy dedicated bikes for the winter months, you can deck your usual ride out for wintery conditions with a couple of small but important changes.
Firstly, if you don't already have some, fenders are essential during wet weather. Not only will they stop you from getting soaked by wet roads (and therefore becoming cold) but they'll protect important components in your bike from getting wet and covered in grime and road grit.
Grit and road salt are particularly corrosive, and can easily eat through exposed metal if left unattended, so fenders, aka mudguards, are instrumental in protecting your bike's delicate mechanisms.
Unless you'll be cycling through blizzards and snow ploughs, you don't necessarily have to buy new tyres. The most important qualities of a winter tire are durability, puncture protection and grip. On road bikes, it's also a good idea to lower the pressure by 10-15 PSI during the winter, as this increases the contact area of your tyres, and improves grip.
In winter your bike is likely to get covered in corrosive muck, so it's important to gently wash off your bike after wet rides. You should hand wash your bike and take care not to wash away essential lubricants in important areas, and should never use a pressure washer, unless you really know what you're doing. After particularly messy rides, it's a good idea to lube your chain.
Obviously, you should keep your bike indoors and out of the rain if possible; however, if you'll be riding in particularly cold temperatures, you should be careful of sudden temperature changes, as they can cause the brakes to ice up and damage components. Punctures are more likely during wet weather, so take the time to check your tyres regularly for little pieces of glass and other sharp objects which might work their way into the inner tube.
Speaking of punctures, it's also a good idea to practise changing inner tubes and wheels in the comfort of your own home, so that you're more familiar with the process when Murphy's law dictates you get a puncture in the freezing rain, you're numb, icy fingers will know what to do.
Of course, winter is always going to make cycling less comfortable, less safe and less fun. But, unless you've got the option to move to a tropical paradise in the near future, it's a necessary part of life for cyclists. By following these simple suggestions, you'll be able to continue cycling comfortably and safely until the weather starts to improve.
Scott Masson writes about health and fitness and runs the cycling store at England's myvouchercodes. Scott has previously been featured in the Guardian and the Daily Mail, and spends his free time powerlifting and bicycle touring.