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In praise of winter riding

Riding in the rain
Trevor Ward
4 Nov 2020

When normal people are huddling inside in the warm, cyclists choose to brave everything the winter can throw at them

Where I live, Rule #5 (‘Harden the f*** up’) is a default setting. As Billy Connolly famously said, Scotland has just two seasons: winter and July (though even July can be wintry). North of the border, layering up with tights, gloves, hat, overshoes and thermal jacket is a regular ritual for up to six months of the year. So you learn to love winter riding. 

Getting out on the bike in winter – as opposed to sessions on the turbo – requires a special mindset.

The hardest part is getting from bed to shed, because knowing you face several hours of being very cold/wet/windswept doesn’t exactly inspire you to spring from the duvet straight into a pair of bibshorts.

Plus you know that when you get home, if you don’t apply brush, degreaser and water straight away, your bike’s expensive components are going to be eaten alive by all the salt, grit and other corrosive gunk you’ve ridden through.

Then there’s the risk factor. It gets dark earlier, so there might be ice out there, and all that windblown debris on the road increases the chances of flats.

But the negatives are easily outweighed by the positives. A Scottish – or British – winter does exactly what it says on the tin, which saves the faffing around over what to wear that you get with the lottery of a ‘summer’ ride. Up here on the east coast of Scotland we often get more hours of sunshine during winter than summer.

That means rural routes are at their most beautiful at this time of year: a panoply of frost-flecked or snow-dappled landscapes glittering beneath a glacial sky; tendrils of smoke from farmhouse chimneys synchonised with my own breath. 

I’m writing this in late November [2015] after the first Arctic snap of the winter. I’ve just done 50 miles in a windchill of minus five. On the downhills, the cold cut through my gloves, sleeves and merino collar like a razor. But by the time I got back home I was glowing.

Last night’s reheated pizza was a triumphal feast. I felt like the King of the World. All you get on the turbo is a puddle of sweat. Nothing can replicate the feeling of conquering, taming, or at least reaching a compromise with the elements.

It’s character-building stuff, not just for riding a bike, but for coping with all life’s little irritations and discomforts. 

Riding in the snow

I’m relishing the next few months. I’ve already switched to my single-speed, because there are fewer components to clean, replete with mudguards and 35mm tyres, which are perfect for ice, snow and assorted country road debris.

If the forecast is for ice I’ll switch to the flattest route I can find, which isn’t easy here among the undulating glens of Angus, and stick to the roads I know are most likely to have been gritted.

Above all I won’t be afraid to abort the ride completely if I sense the risk outweighs the pleasure. Rule #5 is all very well until a broken arm or worse stops you from riding at all for several months. 

If snow is forecast, however, my inner child takes over. I firmly believe that in an age of power meters and Strava segments, riding through fresh or falling snow is the most fun an adult can have on a bicycle. It’s so simple, and yet so maverick. 

Retired Classics specialist Juan Antonio Flecha used to spend weekends during the winter in the Pyrenees riding his road bike while his girlfriend was snowboarding. 

‘Under falling snow he developed resilience,’ says his former Team Sky teammate, Michael Barry. ‘His tolerance for extremes helped him perform in icy rain and blowing gales, which so often impact the early-season races.’

Two times Tour of Flanders winner and Belgian road race champion Stijn Devolder was another ‘hard man’ who relished winter riding.

Rather than join his Quick-Step teammates at a training camp in Spain, he spent the winter of 2009 riding his local roads in Belgium. ‘It hardens your character,’ he said.

I’m not the only rider up here who enjoys going out during what the Dutch call ‘stronweer’. The president of my local club, Angus Bike Chain CC, is audax rider Alex Pattison, a veteran of 15 Super Randonneur series, two Round the Year series (at least one 200km ride a month for 12 consecutive months) and holder of a Brevet 25,000 Award. 

‘Rule #9, as you know, says if you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass,’ says Pattison. ‘I’d say setting out in bad weather is way more badass than being caught in it when you’re already out.

‘A lot of it isn’t so much the enjoyment at the time – it’s more the satisfaction of having been out in bad weather when it would have been so easy to just stay indoors.

'Like most cyclists, I hardly ever regret going out in bad weather, but I always regret not going out! 

‘Another motivating factor is knowing that it all goes towards putting something in the bank for the spring – that when you get to the first events of the season you’re going to be a lot fitter than you would be if you’d just sat on your arse all winter,’ he adds. 

My love of winter riding is echoed by my stats. While there are no record average speeds or distances, I log more miles between November and April than I do the rest of the year, giving me a springboard for the season.

During the Ride With Brad sportive around his local roads in Lancashire a month after he’d won the Tour de France in 2012, Bradley Wiggins told me: ‘I remember riding these roads in December. That’s when the Tour was won.’

I can’t think of a finer endorsement of winter riding than that.

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