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In praise of winter bikes

Trevor Ward
12 Nov 2020

When the gleaming, pampered ‘best’ bike gets packed away for winter, it’s time for the ugly, ungainly cousin to shine

It’s the unloved mongrel in the corner, like the faded T-shirt with the unfashionable band name or the brick-sized Nokia at the back of your cupboard. The winter bike is hardly the prettiest in the collection. Compared to your ‘best’ bike, its bulky appendages, clunky components and chunky tyres are more Jonathan Ross than Jimmy Kimmel.

But sometimes reliability and robustness come before slickness and style. The winter bike is a metaphor for life – older, heavier and slower doesn’t necessarily mean obsolete. Dressing sensibly rather than stylishly doesn’t make you dull.

That gleaming electronic groupset might look fancy but let’s see how it stands up to a British winter.

That blade of carbon fibre might as well be a wafer of parmesan for all the good it will do you without mudguard eyelets or generous tyre clearance.

Just as we should show respect to our elders, so we should show our winter bikes some love. Living in Scotland, I ride mine at least six months of the year, usually clocking up more miles than on my ‘best’ bike.

Substance over style

It would appear unloved, abused even. It doesn’t get cleaned as often as my ‘best’ bike, and is shod in all the cheapest componentry, ranging from heavy rims and rickety mudguards to budget-price pedals and clumpy tyres.

I’m not looking for style points, I just want a machine that will allow me to go out in the most brutal weather without having to worry about my expensive groupset and wheels being eaten alive by salt, grit and other grunge.

In the old days, a winter bike would be cannibalised from the leftovers of previous summer bikes, ensuring a no-nonsense, bargain-bin ride.

These days, off-the-peg steel or aluminium bikes sporting basic components can be bought for about the same cost as a posh pair of shoes, or you can splash out a bit more on a ready-made winter bike in the shape of a CX, ‘gravel’ or ‘adventure’ bike.

I actually love my winter bike more than my other bike. If it came to Sophie’s choice, I’d choose my £500 winter hack over my fancy ‘best’ bike every time.

We’ve suffered more together. We’ve slipped on ice (both sustaining only minor scrapes) and been pummelled by hail.

We’ve been out in rain, wind, snow and -10°C. Per cold, soggy, shivery, unpleasant, uncomfortable mile ridden, it has given much better value for money than its pampered cousin.

The parts continue to function, despite being worn, scratched and faded, and on the rare occasion they fail completely, their replacements usually come for free, having been rejected as unworthy for more high-performance machines.

As Team Sky’s performance director Rod Ellingworth once said, ‘I wouldn’t want to spend £5,000 on a push bike, then take it out on the roads with all the salt and everything – it just wrecks it.

‘I would 100% have a different, heavier, proper winter bike with thicker tyres. All those things can be of benefit, increasing the resistance.’

Riding my winter bike feels like I’ve done a proper, honest ride. There have been no concessions to aerodynamics or weight.

I’m doing it old-school, like the pioneers of the Tour de France did on chunky frames of steel. They carried spare tubes around their chest.

I have a 15mm spanner in my back pocket because my axles come with nuts and bolts rather than quick-release levers. It’s easy for us to become obsessed with how lightweight our frames and components should be, but winter makes a mockery of that.

Everything is heavier in winter – the skies we ride under, the air we push through, our bodies bereft of their summer leanness. If you want marginal gains, have one less biscuit or slice of bread after your ride, rather than spend £50 on a carbon bottle cage.

In that context, the heft of my winter bike is a comfort. We will survive these dark few months together – both a few pounds heavier than we should be – and I can take consolation in the knowledge that all that extra energy I’m expending churning through all that dense air is the perfect resistance training.

When I finally switch back to my summer bike – usually the middle of May – it will feel like I’ve swapped a Lada for a Lamborghini.

Author and philosopher Paul Fournel says, ‘The bike always starts with a miracle.’ He’s referring to that moment when, as a child, we suddenly become aware that we’re staying upright without any help from a parent’s guiding hand.

As an adult, that first ride back on your best bike after months of drudgery and despondency on your winter iron produces a similar sensation.

Everything feels faster, freer and lighter. Make the most of it – it only lasts for that one ride of the year.

And here I have a confession to make: I use my winter bike in the summer too. That may be considered heresy by some readers, but I have solid reasons for doing so.

Firstly, a Scottish ‘summer’ isn’t too dissimilar to a Scottish winter.

More importantly, riding my heavier bike up a few local stingers for a week or so before an event means I will feel a massive boost when I climb back on my number one bike.

My winter bike is worth £500, my summer bike several thousand. The incredible lightness of being I get by switching from the former to the latter is, however, priceless.

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