Winter 2010, Hatherleigh

Yesterday’s ride, up onto the flanks of Dartmoor, was warm, serene, and bathed in sunshine. It was one of those autumnal days that you remember for a long time, as you soak up the sun, wondering if it will be the last chance before winter sets in. When we stopped to eat, the temperature plummeted. As the sun was temporarily hidden behind clouds,  I found myself pulling on my jacket for warmth.

It’s most certainly autumn, the trees say so, and as the evening light fades, the mercury is falling further and further each night. All of these things mean that many will be putting their bike in the shed and leaving it there, barring the odd occasion when the sun returns, and they cannot resist a ride. Does it need to be that way?

I try to ride through the winter, and so do many of my friends. It isn’t as macho as it sounds, it just requires a little more thought, adjustment, and planning to be enjoyable.

Many enjoy using their turbo trainers in the house over the colder months, creating an opportunity to gain fitness and avoid the higher chance of injury that riding in the colder months brings. I can’t say I’ve ever tried it, but managing my mental health, especially in the winter, means that I need to take every opportunity to get outside and soak up any sun. The other factor  for me, is that I spend a lot of time at home, as all my work is done from there. It’s an added incentive to escape for a while, be mindful, and balance my thoughts and energies as best I can.

There are some basic things that become imperative when winter riding. The colder temperatures mean that being fuelled right before you go out is extra important, as is warming up more thoroughly. If you just jump on your bike in sub-zero temperatures, you’re asking for trouble.  A simple five-minute warm up isn’t enough. Do more stretching, and hold the stretches longer for a deeper warm up. Once you get out, choose lower gears for the first few miles, and aim to warm up thoroughly before making any big efforts. This is affected by the route you choose. There are routes here in Devon where I would be straight into steep hills from mile one, so I avoid those, and re-route myself onto less strenuous ground until everything is working at its normal running temperature.

I also ride shorter distances in the winter months, concentrating on quality, rather than quantity. The shorter daylight hours, and the even  shorter  sector of the day, when the temperature is reasonable, means that for the most part I won’t ride more than four hours maximum, and often much less. I don’t know about you, but I always struggle to eat first thing. I can get away with it to some extent in the summer, but in the colder months I have to all but force myself to eat a good breakfast of muesli (often with hot milk), pancakes and honey, or porridge with fruit. I try to do this a couple of hours before I go out. This helps with the higher energy demands, as well as fighting off the cold.

If you’ve ever tried eating a packed lunch when it’s very cold, you may have had the experience of trying desperately to bite into a frozen chewy bar or sandwich. It isn’t a good one, as you need to eat even more calories than in the summer. I always take a stock of bananas, and for longer rides, a flask of soup or tea, and fruit and nuts. They don’t freeze,  and do give good energy delivery. Drinks can freeze as well, but adding fruit juice will help stop that happening. Remember that fluid is our friend, and that warmer fluid is easier to absorb than cold fluid. A Camelback drink container, or similar, helps to keep things cool in the summer, and warmer in the winter. I sometimes warm my drinks before I head out, in an attempt to stop freezing.

Michele, chilling out at Ballyheigue beach, near Tralee.

I also take a good look at the weather. If I’m determined to ride, and the weather is awful, I try to plan in a cafe where I can happily sit, warm up a bit, and feel smug that I’m out riding and not watching the telly. It isn’t as easy as it sounds, because many cafes close during the winter, but bigger supermarkets have one, as do garden centres, and pubs are always glad to see people in what can be a lean time for them.

It’s also imperative to wear the right clothing. Most have heard of layer systems, but many don’t understand what the best layers are, and why. The idea behind layers is that several thin layers trap more heat between them than one thick one. Also, layering your clothing means that you can adjust and fine tune your clothing whilst out and about.

Think in terms of three layers, a base layer next to your skin, a second layer for more warmth, and an outer layer of windproof material. The base layer is usually a thin layer of polyester or merino wool clothing. Its purpose is not only to trap warmth, but to allow moisture produced by cycling to escape as water vapour. If this moisture gets trapped between you and the garment, or the garment gets wet from it, you will get cold.

The second layer is traditionally a fleece layer, but most cyclist want a cycle shirt and the pockets they have. I use a Rab base shirt, or my merino wool one in the cold. When the mercury drops further, I add an extra layer of  fleece, usually one rated at 100 (the thinnest outside of micro-fleece). The final layer should be windproof, stopping heat reduction from wind-chill, and preferably breathable to help moisture escape.

Foul weather brewing on the Great Western Greenway, Co Mayo.

If you wear a tee-shirt next to your skin, water gets trapped in the cotton, which then chills and you get cold. Similarly, if you spent a load of money on a quality base layer, and then place a cotton/wool garment over the top, the same thing will happen again. It  means that water vapour doesn’t reach the fabric of your top layer, and that it cannot breathe, regardless of whether it’s a coating, or a membrane like Gore-Tex. As I said earlier, in order for the top layer of fabric to breathe as best as its able, the layers underneath have to allow sweat to escape as water vapour and not condense inside. This is harder for the jacket to do in winter, so layering becomes even more important.

The top layer is usually one of two types, a soft shell, or a hard shell. Most cycle jackets are soft shell, providing protection against wind chill, rain, and a little insulation. These are fine for short rides, but when the wind blows hard, the fabric flattens against you and you begin to suffer from wind chill, despite the fact that the wind doesn’t blow through it. A hard shell jacket does all of the above, but gives much greater insulation against the wind chill of higher winds, simply because the fabric is stiffer, preventing it from flattening against you as wind speed increases.

I use a soft shell for general riding, and a hard shell when touring. Both have a hood, not fashionable, but essential none the less. Whilst it seems that we don’t lose more heat through our heads than the rest of our bodies, we still cover the rest, and our heads should not be an exception, regardless of hair type and quantity.

I wear a Buff all year around. I don’t need more, but carry a spare for when the first gets soaking wet. In combination with the hood it’s enough to keep me cosy, whatever the weather. You may prefer a hat, and if you do I would recommend SealSkinz waterproof version, which is comfy and warm, whatever gets thrown at you. SealSkinz also do excellent waterproof gloves and socks, which I also use for the winter months.

There is plenty of choice in gloves, but its a tough one because  your fingers are also operating your brakes and gears. Go too thick and you won’t have any feel for the levers. Go too thin and you will simply get cold hands. Waterproof gloves are complex, and I’ve never had a set that are totally waterproof for cycling. The SealSkinz gloves do the job well for several hours, even in the worst rain.  Many people suffer from cold hands. For some this is due to their genetic make-up, but for others it can be a simple case of having the wrong layer system, and/or not eating the right food, or enough of it. I suggested to Michele that she might try silk liner-gloves, under a larger size outer gloves, something I used to do climbing and mountain walking.

Layers in action. Windproof gillet over a light long-sleeved base layer, Donegal town.

“What about my legs and feet,”  I hear you say. In extreme cold, I’ve been known to wear ski salopettes. More  usually I wear a thermal base layer (of synthetic material like the top) and a pair of bib-tights/tights designed for winter use. On still days, the winter tights are enough, but on the coldest, windiest days I will wear the two layers, with the addition of a pair of quality shell-type leggings that match the jacket. The advent of windproof, stretchy micro-fleece is great for active wear, and a shell layer over the top protects the legs well from the cold and rain on long, steady, winter rides.

Overshoes may look silly, but work well at increasing insulation and keeping water at bay. You can even use gaiters from your walking boots, they help water run off your shoes, rather than soaking into your socks and cooling your feet.

When training, or riding short, hard, sessions, I never wear the shell  legs, as I simply get too hot. If I get cold, which is unlikely when I’m working that hard, I know I won’t be out in it for long.

The bike only needs what it always does, and that’s some tlc. Keep those tyres and  brakes in tip-top condition, you will use them much more, especially if, like me, you are negotiating Devon lanes that are more akin to trails than roads during the winter months. I sometimes let a little air out of the tyres, giving more of a contact patch, but Irene’s tyres are two inches wide, so are pretty good anyway.  I’ve heard some reports that Schwalbe tyres can be dodgy in the cold, but I have only ever found them excellent in all road conditions.

If you follow those basic rules, you’ll be as comfortable as you can be during the winter, and have some great mini adventures to get you through to your big ideas for 2013.  |It will help you avoid injuries and hopefully help to keep your mind focussed on what really matters, having fun.

When the weather is just awful, give it a miss, spend the time learning about the mechanics of your bike, servicing it, and save yourself some money that you can spend on quality layers. When it’s seriously icy, I don’t ride. One fall can mean a broken hip, serious head injury, or worse. I’ve often ridden when there are icy patches but don’t ride at all when the temperature is below freezing, unless I’m on snow, which is just playing. You can buy studded tyres and ride in all conditions if you wish. Here in Devon we rarely get enough cold weather to warrant the expense. Last time they were needed, no delivery vans could get near my house, and by the time they could, there was no longer a need for them.

Another wet day draws to a close.

Cycleways are often not salted, and all you need is a light frost to come a cropper. This seriously affects commuter cyclists and those who travel early and late in the day.

Understanding your own needs and creating solutions will help you to make that big tour you always wanted to, with knowledge that will help you travel lighter, with more confidence.

I’d love to hear what you do to keep your sanity through the winter. We all have different ideas, and I would love to share some of yours. If you take the time to email a story about what works for you, I’ll do my best to make sure I get it on the very next page.