Riding in winter certainly has its challenges but it can be comfortable, safe and a lot of fun if you follow some simple advice.
‘Fear of the dark, fear of the dark, I have a constant fear that something’s always near,’ sang Iron Maiden, which goes to show that these prima donna rock star types are a bunch of softies when it comes to year-round bike riding.
But if you can’t get your winter cycling advice from ol’ air raid siren Bruce Dickinson, where can you get it? We can’t hold a note to save our lives here at road.cc, but we do know a thing or two about riding in the cold, wet and dark, so here are 11 of the most common winter riding questions answered.
Isn’t it dangerous to cycle in the dark?
We once spoke to a road safety psychologist who pointed out that, in the height of summer, if you are wearing a bright yellow jersey and you’re riding past a field of rapeseed, you’re effectively invisible. The other side of that coin is, if you’re wearing the same bright yellow jersey in the dreary road conditions of winter, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
The same is even more true at night. By fitting a set of good lights, and especially lights that have some flashing function, you can bring a huge amount of attention to yourself so that you really stand out in dark surroundings. As long as you’re sensible enough to invest in the right equipment, riding at night is a perfectly safe activity.
I hate cycling in the rain – how can I make it better?
The rain really doesn’t have to put anyone off going for a spin. In fact, there’s a certain smug joy to be had in returning from a good ride in the wet, knowing that even the combined forces of Mother Nature weren’t enough to stop you from doing what you enjoy.
However, unless you’re a complete masochist, there are ways to make rainy riding more fun. Whatever the weather, take a lightweight packable rain jacket with you, just in case. And fit a set of mudguards: they might not be particularly cool, but they stop road spray affecting your vision at the front, and a streak of mud developing up the rear of your jacket.
Remember the age-old cycling cliché: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong kit. Collect a modest wardrobe of year-round cycling clothing, pick the right stuff for the right weather, and get out there.
Do I really need overshoes?
Cycling overshoes tend to be one of those bits of kit that mark out dedicated road or sports cyclists from everyone else. But if you’ve spent any time on a bike with cold and wet feet, you will know that it doesn’t matter whether you shave your legs or have a BMI in single figures, you need insulating and preferably waterproof overshoes. Foot freeze is just about the worst feeling you can have on a bike – especially if you’re a long way from home and there’s no potential respite.
We recognise that overshoes can be a bit of a faff, though, so it’s worth knowing that they’re not the only option in town. Waterproof winter cycling boots are an all-in-one way to keep your tootsies toasty, but they’re a significantly pricier option than whipping on a pair of overshoes.
What lights do I need to be legal?
This might get a bit heavy, but we’ll try to keep it brief and simple. When you ride a bike between sunset and sunrise, UK law requires that you have lights and reflectors.
At the front, you need at least one white light, fixed to the bike no more than 1500mm from the ground, pointing forwards, positioned centrally or to the right, marked as conforming to BS6102/3 or an equivalent EC standard if a steady light, or emitting 4 candelas of power if flashing. Yeah, that’s a lot to take in.
At the back, you need a red light, pointing backwards, positioned centrally or to the right, fixed between 350mm and 1500mm from the ground, marked as conforming to BS3648 or BS6102/3 or an equivalent EC standard if a steady light, or capable of emitting at least 4 candelas if a flashing light.
To be totally road legal, you also need: one rear reflector, coloured red, marked BS6102/2 (or equivalent), positioned centrally or on the right and fixed between 250mm and 900mm from the ground; and four pedal reflectors, coloured amber, marked BS6102/2 (or equivalent), and positioned so that one is visible to the front and another to the rear.
I’ve got a good jacket but my body is still cold – what can I do?
It’s nice to have faithful favourite bits of kit, and really great cycling jackets are indeed really great, but the secret to comfortable cycling whatever the weather is layering. In summer, it’s important because you can add and remove layers to prevent overheating; in winter it’s important because different layers can have slightly different functions, and also serve to trap heat between them.
In the case of a cold torso, there are a couple of things to consider. The first is: how good is the windproofing in the central front section of your jacket? Your torso bears the brunt of the air you hit as you cycle, so any chill is going to hit your chest and abdomen first.
If your jacket doesn’t have dedicated windproofing, or it’s not quite effective enough for you, consider adding another specific layer in the form of a gilet. This is an armless ‘bodywarmer’ type garment that will give your torso some welcome extra insulation.
I’ve seen some riders wearing their cycling glasses in winter. Are they really that desperate to pose?
Well, we can’t rule the pose factor out entirely but eye protection in winter is just as important as during summer. In fact, unlike the unseen and cumulative effect of exposure to the sun’s UV rays, the threats to vision from winter riding are all too obvious.
The combination of wet roads and especially grit or rock salt in deep winter means that foreign bodies can be flung up from the road and into your eyes. Also, bear in mind that if you use the right lens – such as something with a subtle yellow tint – cycling glasses can even help to enhance contrast and provide better vision in low light.
I don’t want to wear bright yellow or orange – isn’t there anything else?
Absolutely – there is a growing selection of relatively demure, non-hi-viz cycle clothing that features reflective elements that are subtle during the daytime but really shine when caught in cars’ headlights or even streetlights. These are great for properly dark, night-time cycling.
However, remember that a lot of winter cycling is done in gloomy conditions rather than full darkness. So, while hi-viz yellow or orange might suffer from a bad rep in the style stakes, having the main part of your body clad in a clear, bright colour – anything that won’t blend in with the surrounding greys and browns – is a very sensible move.
Is it worth swapping to special winter tyres or even going tubeless?
In a word, yes. Certainly, when winter road conditions become a fact of life, at the very least it’s worth giving your existing tyres a good once over to check what state they’re in. Then, consider running them at a lower pressure than in the summertime to give you a bit more grip if road conditions turn dodgy and also a very slightly reduced chance of puncturing.
Swapping to dedicated winter tyres or tubeless tyres run at lower pressures can provide more grip and, more importantly, increased protection from punctures. Rain and snow slush bring flints, stones, thorns and all sorts of other rubber-shredding detritus onto the road. Tougher tyres and judicious roadcraft – don’t cycle in the gutter where all this crap collects – can help to stop you from spending rain-sodden minutes at the side of the road fixing a flat.
Can I ride in the snow?
There are two parts to the answer here: yes; but be sensible. Cycling in the snow can be fun and it can improve both your handling skills and confidence on a bike, but pay careful attention to the type of snow that’s out there and the state of the roads.
If the snow has been compacted by traffic, the gritters haven’t had much effect, and/or the temperature is below freezing, the potential for ice and particularly black ice is high. This poses a danger for cyclists – not just because you could fall off but because other road users can easily be caught out by it as well.
Far better is the other end of a period of snow, where temperatures are above freezing, the roads have been treated, and the white stuff is starting to melt. Riding in this on a bright sunny winter’s day is fantastic fun, albeit a pretty damp experience. Don’t forget your mudguards and run your tyres at the minimum suggested pressure (see above)!
Even when my main body is warm, the cold always seems to sneak in somewhere? What can I do?
When astronauts go for a spacewalk, they do a pressure test to check their suits aren’t leaking air. Winter cyclists need to adopt a similar kind of mentality and focus on the potential weak points: even if your torso and legs are nice and warm, the cold can sneak in at collar or cuffs, or even under your helmet. There are simple answers, though.
A snood or neck warmer will help seal the area around your neck. Putting the cuffs of your full-length gloves over the cuffs of your jacket will stop the breeze from creeping in, and a head covering such as a skullcap worn underneath your helmet will keep your head warm. Don’t forget to fit this over your ears to keep them toasty as well. Rather like toes, ears can suffer in the cold. Remember to address your extremities and weak points and you’ll be ok.
What’s lurking in the shadows?
Wouldn’t you like to know? Actually, this is an interesting question and one of the great joys of winter cycling. Once darkness has closed in, all sorts of wildlife is roaming about the place so you may well get to see and hear things in nature that you simply wouldn’t encounter at any other time of year.
There are no bears or wolves to worry about here in the UK so unless it’s a badger with anger issues or a fox that’s been at the old fermented festive bin juice, there’s very little to worry about. So enjoy your very own winter wonderland this year and get out on your bike!