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Winter cycling tips: Keep riding through the cold months

Tom Allen
30 Nov 2021

Practical advice to keep you cycling when it's dark and chilly

Winter has arrived, the toughest months to continue cycling outside. Have you managed to prepare correctly? Adventurer Tom Allen knows how to make the most of the colder months. Having ridden through the Arctic Circle, he's got a few tips on how to survive the worst of the UK weather.

Allen's experience comes from harsher conditions than most of us will have to contend with between now and when the warmth returns, but much of his advice and experience can be transferred into everyday riding, too.

How to keep cycling outside in winter - Top tips

'There's no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing,' Sir Ranulph Fiennes once said. I don't imagine he got the idea from winter cycling, but the same holds true: there's nothing stopping you pedalling through darkening days and sub-zero temperatures, as long as you dress for the occasion – and bear a few other key points in mind.

I learned all this the hard way when I spent a memorable February cycling 1,000km north through Norway and Sweden into Lapland, well inside the Arctic Circle, lugging all my gear along with me.

Unpleasant at first, it soon proved to be a magical experience, and one I constantly refer to when encouraging others to give winter cycling a try.

Rejoice, then, in the fact that you don’t need to go to such extreme lengths as I did to enjoy yourself on two wheels this winter.

Here’s how to survive the season if a particularly harsh winter hits...

1. Layer up

Inappropriate clothing will leave you shivering, sweaty, or both. While you can simply crank up the pace to stay warm in autumn, winter requires a different approach.

Combine warm yet wicking long-sleeve base layers – ideally merino – with breathable microfleece mid-layers, windproof shell jackets, and insulated winter tights. Versatility is key.

2. Vent moisture

If sweat accumulates in your clothing at sub-zero temperatures, you will literally freeze in your saddle.

Wearing good-quality breathable and wicking clothing can only do so much, so ensure your windproof outer layer has venting options, including a full-length front zip, armpit zips and adjustable cuffs.

3. Drop your pace

You can reduce sweat build-up another way – by slowing down. Use the winter as an excuse to work on endurance.

4. Control exertion

Exertion and moisture aren't just about pace – other factors are amplified in winter when the equilibrium is more delicate. Pay attention to gradients; speed and wind chill; sunlight and shade; cold sinks at the bottom of valleys; and time of day.

All of these affect your body temperature, so anticipate and adjust your exertion and layering accordingly.

5. Protect extremities

Fingers and toes have little blood flow and are vulnerable to cold. Wear 'lobster' two-finger gloves, neoprene overshoes and wool socks.

Put plastic bags between liner socks and thick socks (really), and consider 'pogies' for your handlebars. Your ears and neck are superconductors, so wear a beanie and a neck gaiter.

6. Winterise your bike

Clean and lube your drivetrain (chain, chainset, cassette and front and rear derailleurs) after every ride – particularly if you're riding after the gritting lorries have been out, as salty road-spray will eat bike parts for breakfast.

Use a synthetic winter lubricant. Treat any exposed steel with anti-rust spray. Make sure cables are well-sealed and uncontaminated – you don't want brake cables freezing up on icy roads.

7. Break out the winter accessories

Mudguards will keep your drivetrain and backside untarnished while you're riding in slush or on salted roads. They're a mark of the committed winter cyclist.

Consider thermal wraps for your water bottles – or bring hot drinks in insulated flasks instead – or, if it's stupidly cold, wear a Camelbak under your outer layer. A nice warm saddle cover might sound like a good idea after your first couple of sub-zero rides.

8. Don't slip (or sink)

Drop your tyre pressure a little for better traction and grip in slush or on wet roads. Skinny tyres often cut through snow better than fat tyres. If it's truly iced up, fit studded tyres, which work unnervingly well, as I discovered in Sweden while riding across a frozen lake.

On the other hand, in the unlikely event that there's deep snow outside your window, the higher volume your tyres, the better (that’s why fat bikes were invented).

9. Don't stop (for long)

It's easy to forget that the colder the air temperature, the more rapidly that hard-earned body heat will be sucked away from you.

Keep rest breaks short, and never stop at the top of a long, shaded descent. Watch out for ice patches when dismounting too – your studded tyres may not slip, but you yourself may end up a sprawling pile of limbs if you're not careful.

10. Protect your lungs

In seriously cold conditions, a neck-warmer serves an important dual function as a membrane through which to breathe and protect your lungs from cold, dry air, which can cause respiratory problems and even nosebleeds in the unprepared. 

11. Protect your eyes

A white snowy landscape under direct sunlight will divert far more UV rays towards your eyeballs than even the brightest of summer days.

Protect your eyes appropriately with wraparound sunglasses with UVA/UVB filtered lenses. Some consider orange-tinted lenses to help with contrast in snowy environments. Extreme cold may even call for goggles over glasses. Don't worry – you'll look fine!

12. Understand sunlight

Particularly further north, you'll notice that the sun hangs lower in the sky as a result of the Earth's tilted axis.

When planning a ride, consider where the sun is going to be at different times of day. You don't want to be pedalling into a setting sun at rush hour, for example, when both your and other drivers' abilities to see what’s ahead is seriously impaired.

13. Understand moonlight

A full moon above a snow-covered landscape at night is a thing to behold, and the glow it gives off is in fact quite enough to ride by.

This is one of the greatest draws of the otherwise faintly ludicrous idea of winter night-riding: you will see familiar landscapes literally in a whole new light, one that is quite magical. Don't forget lights for visibility of course. On which note…

14. Light up

Winter days mean a higher likelihood that you'll need lights to see and be seen – whether it's because the sunlight is weaker, or because there’s a chance you'll misjudge the short daylight hours and be caught out in the dark.

When choosing, remember that lithium batteries don’t like cold weather. Consider an inexpensive set of back-up lights, and always make sure that everything is fully charged before you set out.

15. Fuel up

Your body will burn more calories to keep your core warm, as well as keep your legs spinning. This, of course, means eating ever bigger slices of cake during your breaks.

If you take snacks along with you, keep them in an inside pocket so they don't harden or freeze. Finally, don't forget to hydrate – even if cold water is the last thing you feel like drinking, you still need it.

16. Avoid the road verge

Gutters become a frozen mess of slush and debris in winter, meaning you'll do well to stay further away from the edge of the road than you might be used to.

It's better to force motorists to give you a wide berth than to put yourself in a dangerous position, so don't be afraid to take the lane – as many drivers will expect you to do in winter anyway.

17. Revisit old routes

Blankets of snow and the long shadows of winter give even the most familiar landscape a magical shroud, and you can't beat a good ride to make the most of it.

Not only that, but the roads will be much quieter than you're used to as the fair-weather cyclists stick to their turbo trainers – and you'll discover new places to stop that really come into their own in winter time. 

18. Explore new routes

Of course, there's nothing better to reinvigorate the senses than exploring somewhere new, and again, given the right preparation, your bike can take you places nobody else would think to ride or drive on the coldest and snowiest of winter’s days – even more so on icy roads with spiked tyres.

19. Camp out!

I'm aware this will convince very few, but I really don't think cycle touring is restricted to fair weather any more than road riding is.

Wait for a clear, fine night; throw an extra-thick sleeping bag, a couple of woolly hats and a hip flask of single malt into your panniers; then ride up to that excellent look-out point and bivvy out under the stars – better with company, of course.

20. Endure the cold, enjoy the warmth

Above all, go forth and pedal in the knowledge that even if your water bottles do freeze solid, your toes go numb, and you make most of your descents on your backside rather than in the saddle, you'll never be far away from a hot shower, a cup of tea and a massive slice of cake – which will be all the more satisfying for the misery you endured while earning them. 

To learn more about Tom Allen and his excellent adventures in conditions harder than we're likely to see in the UK this winter, see tomsbiketrip.com.

Need more help and inspiration? Head to our winter cycling hub page for in-depth winter kit, bike and training advice from Cyclist's team of experts.

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