“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”, Sir Ranulph Fiennes once said. I don’t imagine he got the idea after a winter bike ride, 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 and camping my way through Norway and Sweden, across the Arctic Circle and into Lapland (click here to watch the 2‑minute short film on Vimeo). After a very steep learning curve, it 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 do not 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:
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 baselayers – ideally merino – with breathable microfleece midlayers, windproof shell jackets, and insulated winter tights. Versatility is key.
2. Vent Moisture
The harder you ride, the more you’ll sweat, and if sweat accumulates in your clothing at sub-zero temperatures you will literally freeze in your saddle. Good quality breathable and wicking clothing can only do so much, so ensure that your windproof outer layer has plentiful venting options, such as a full-length front zip, armpit zips and adjustable cuffs.
3. Drop Your Pace
You can reduce sweat build-up in another way: by slowing down. If you’re used to a nippy fair-weather pace, it’s often tough to change your habits, but the last thing you want is moisture freezing in the fibres of your clothing. Use the winter as an excuse to take longer, slower rides and work on endurance.
4. Control Exertion
Exertion and moisture isn’t just about pace, and other factors are amplified in winter when the equilibrium is more delicate. Pay attention to gradients, speed and windchill, sunlight and shade, cold sinks at the bottom of valleys, and time of day; all of which will affect your body temperature. Anticipate and adjust your exertion and layering appropriately.
5. Protect Extremities
Fingers and toes are vulnerable to cold with little blood flow. Prevent the worst by wearing ‘two-fingered’ mitts, woollen socks and neoprene overboots. If it’s really Arctic, wear plastic bags between liner socks and thick socks (I’m not joking), and consider ‘pogies’ for your handlebars. Your ears and neck are superconductors, so wear a beanie and a neck gaiter. Male riders shouldn’t forget that ‘other’ extremity – a spare glove or sock works well…
6. Winterize Your Bike
Clean and lube your drivetrain after every ride – particularly if you’re riding after the gritting trucks have been out, as salty road-spray will eat it 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 may be unfashionable but they’ll keep your drivetrain and backside untarnished while you’re riding in slush or on salted roads. Consider thermal wraps for your water bottles, or bring Thermos flasks instead – or, if it’s stupidly cold, wear a Camelbak under your outer layer. A nice warm saddle cover might feel like a good idea after your first couple of sub-zero rides, too.
8. Don’t Slip (Or Sink)
Drop your tyre pressure for better traction in slush or on wet roads. Skinny tyres often cut through slush and snow better than fatter tyres and make better contact with the tarmac. If it’s truly iced up, however fit studded tyres, which work extremely well, as I discovered in Sweden while riding across a frozen lake. On the other hand, if there’s deep snow outside your window, high-volume tyres float best. (That’s why fatbikes 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.
12. Understand Sunlight
Particularly further north, you’ll notice that the sun hangs lower in the sky as a result of 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 is 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 quite literally in a whole new light, one that is quite magical. Don’t forget lights for visibility of course; on which note…
14. Get Lit Up
Winter days mean a higher likelihood you’ll need lights to see and be seen – whether 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 backup lights, and always check everything’s fully charged before you set out.
15. Get Fuelled Up
Your body will burn more calories to keep your core warm, as well to keep your legs spinning. This, of course, means eating ever bigger slices of cake during your breaks. If you take snacks 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 Verge
Otherwise rideable hard shoulders 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 wintertime.
18. Explore New Routes
Of course, there’s nothing 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 all be that much more satisfying for the misery you endured while earning them.
Anything I’ve missed? Add your best winter cycling tips in the comments!