Riding into Winter
There is a certain joy in winter riding, despite the wind, the rain and cold, it brings a sense of freedom and achievement, it keeps you sharp, makes you feel alive and keeps you connected to your surroundings.
Of course I’m writing this from the comfort my sofa, as we drift into autumn after a truly spectacular summer and maybe I’m romanticising just a bit, but I love the change in the seasons and the approaching challenge of making myself ride through the winter months. Cold weather riding brings its own unique rewards and challenges, juxtaposing the breathtaking beauty of crisp air, harsh autumn light with the rainbow of autumn colour, and just when you think life is wonderful, the clouds will suddenly appear from nowhere, the skies will darken beyond anything you see in a movie before the heavens open and you end up so wet, you physically can’t get any wetter..but, on those beautiful bright autumn days, you feel more alive on your bike than at any other time of year.
As a ‘seasoned’ all year round cyclist, I’m mentally prepared for winter, which doesn’t make it any less cold and on occasions miserable, but it does mean that I’m not going to put my bike away just because the temperature has dropped and it’s raining cats and dogs!
In our new COVID world, there has never been a better reason to ride through the winter months. Cycling gives you back many of the things we have taken for granted and have recently lost; control over personal space, infinite amounts of cold fresh air, a natural approach to social distancing and control over how you move and how you arrive.
If I had to sum up my approach to weather now, after years of maybe getting my clothing a bit wrong and often freezing my arse off..I’d now say ‘it’s just weather’.
And to quote my daughters nursery school teacher when I expressed my horror at my little precious being sent out in the rain at break time..‘there’s no such thing as inappropriate weather Mrs Joseph, just inappropriate clothing’!
Commuting in particular through short, dark winter days is an entirely different beast to the longer, lighter days of summer, where clothes wise, the biggest decision you have to make, is how little you can get away with wearing!
For me, successfully riding through winter starts with a transition; a change in clothing, a change in the weather and a change in your expectations. And to make it through the winter, it’s vital to embrace autumn and adapt to the change in light, temperature and weather conditions.
So what is the key to comfortable winter riding? The short answer is layers, but thats only a clothing issue, what it really comes down to is a combination of clothes, confidence and some key skills to ensure your safety.
So my top tips for staying safe, and staying happy..
- Let there be light. Never, ever run out of lights, keep your lights properly charged. If you run out of light, you leave yourself vulnerable by being unseen. Use USB lights, carry battery powered spares and keep a (charged!) power pack in your winter commuting toolkit.
- Learn the basics: know what size inner tube your bike takes, carry a spare or two, carry tyre levers and a pump...and learn how to use them! don’t be that woman whose boyfriend/mechanic does it for them. Be self sufficient, it increases your potential for staying safe.
- Pop socks, yes really! Pop socks under your actual socks makes so much difference to your feet, and help you retain heat. The only thing worse than ice cold hands, an ice cold nose and an ice cold head...is ice cold feet.
- Glove on glove: thick gloves are cosy but layered gloves are more effective at heat retention. I always wear a glove liner under my winter gloves.
Ride in the buff..no, wait, ride in a buff. A tubular scarf that protects your ears, nose, cheeks and head, and doubles as a COVID mask when you stop at your local shop to buy some brandy to warm you up at the end of a long ride home!
Layers..thin layers keep in the heat and are better at controlling your temperature, because whilst feeling ‘toasty’ is lovely when you are stationary, being too hot is very uncomfortable, especially when it’s very cold out. By all means wear something like a down jacket to protect you in freezing temperatures, but the reality is, once you get going, several thin layers are better and more adaptable than just one or two thick ones. In the coldest parts of winter, you’ll find me in a long sleeve base layer, long sleeve cycle jersey, cycling jacket and wind or rain layer!
Be confident, be a Warrior: own the road and be on guard. People in their nice warm cars, somehow seem to be even less aware of cyclists when the weather is bad. I think riding in the rain is where we are most vulnerable; never mind the potholes and the slippery roads..its the containment of a car that is our biggest danger, because the worse the conditions outside, the warmer and safer and more enclosed the inside of a car is.
Get your bike checked and ready for winter. Check your brake pads, check your air pressure, check that your bike is ‘tight’ and if you don’t have the skills and experience, go to a professional or ask someone who does. keeping your bike clean will go a long way to keeping it working well - so after the rain, get the hose out!
So ladies...If you are seriously considering riding through the winter, now is the time to experiment and adapt. Get used to riding in the dark, start adapting to the temperature, see how many layers work for you. Go to your LBS and ask them to demonstrate an inner tube change - or come to me, I’ll show you. We run little workshops here, and as one of a team of 3 female mechanics at Fullcity Cycles, we are all pro 'women on bikes' all year round!
Winter is a time for reflection, for introspection and for owning both the road and your freedom. Yes, It takes more preparation, you have to be hardy and brave, you have to be willing to get wet and be utterly miserable...but I promise you, if you take charge and attack it, it brings the most incredible rewards.