We're all used to the sight of motorists stamping their feet and shivering as they scrape the ice off their windscreens on those cold and frosty winter mornings. And they're all used to spending a little more cash during the winter, using additional fuel to run the engine and warm the car prior to departure; buying screen wash to help take the ice off first thing in the morning, and to keep their windscreens free of winter salt and slush as they drive. And snow chains or even winter tyres are not exactly cheap.
There is a healthier, more economical alternative to a cold and expensive winter drive. This is something that you might have considered during the warmer months, and you may even have tried it once or twice before the winter set in. Or perhaps you already know the benefits of car-free commuting because you're a year-round cyclist.
There's a great deal to be said for a ride to and from work: the financial and health benefits are there for all to see. If you have yet to try cycling during the winter months take heart: you can actually enjoy it.
Clearly you cannot simply pull on your cycling shorts in mid-February and nonchalantly pedal off into the distance. Granted, you’d soon warm up but only to a point. So here are a few tips to make a winter cycle ride not just more economical than the equivalent car journey, but also rather more enjoyable.
Firstly, let's talk about keeping warm. The very act of pedalling is going to raise your body temperature no matter what the season, but during the winter many people give in to the temptation to put too much clothing on.
Enough clothing to stay warm at the beginning of a winter ride will rapidly turn into too much clothing a few minutes later, when your body becomes too hot.
That might be fine while you're moving, but if you have to stop for any amount of time at traffic lights, or at a junction, all that extra heat is simply going to dissipate until you’re no longer warm and sweaty but wet and shivering.
When it comes to clothing, layering is the key. For your base layer, synthetic wicking fibre or Merino wool is a far better option than cotton, which you should avoid because it not only soaks up the sweat, but also holds it next to your skin.
You need to keep your chest, stomach and groin protected from the wind, so you should have a thermal layer to let the sweat out, and then on top of that you need some form of waterproofing outer layer.
You should be wearing full-length bib tights on your legs, and have additional insulation in your footwear. It's worth investing in a slightly larger pair of shoes for winter use, so that you can either double up on pairs of regular socks or enjoy the warmth of a single pair of thick socks.
Cotton, again, isn’t the best material for socks: they will absorb road slush and ice, rain or even simply sweat. And they won't keep you warm when they're wet.
And on the outside, you can windproof and waterproof your bike shoes with a pair of booties. An alternative option could be a pair of waterproof hiking boots to keep your feet warm and dry through the winter.
As for your other extremities, including your ears and face, a wool cap plus balaclava or scarf will keep them protected. And of course you’re going to need waterproof gloves. Those snowboarding gloves lurking in the cupboard may be good for warmth, but they might be a little too heavy when it comes to operating the gears and brakes. Opt for specially designed winter gloves which will keep your hands warm without restricting movement.
It goes without saying that winter conditions are not as cyclist-friendly as those in the warm, dry weather. And the same most definitely goes for motorists, especially at the start of their morning commute when tempers are frayed and windscreens are fogged up, resulting in limited visibility.
Perhaps ironically, sunshine doesn't help on cold mornings, especially if your journey takes you eastwards, heading into a sun that's low on the horizon. So visibility is key not just in the evenings, when you really do need as much light and reflective material as possible, but also in the mornings when, for drivers, it's often a case of too much rather than too little light.
Whether you’re cycling in the morning or the evening, don't assume that people can or have seen you. In fact, it's best to operate on the assumption that they haven't or won't. For safe enjoyable winter cycling, make yourself as visible as humanly possible with flashing strobe bicycle lights and reflective everything.
Obviously ice can be a hazard, but wet leaves can also be dangerous, even if the recent rainfall has been light. Snow that has melted once the sun comes up can re-freeze as the sun starts going down again.
If you find yourself starting to skid, this may be because you're on a patch of black ice. Skidding is no fun in a car and less so on a bike. Your best (and only) option is to ride slowly through it.
Some cyclists believe that winter conditions call for mountain bike tyres - the wider the better. Whilst these may offer additional traction, the more traction gained, the more friction you gain as well which can make riding in snow and slush rather more difficult.
Others consider winter to be an ideal time for thinner tyres: they can cut through surface slush and get a better grip on the surface beneath.
Whether you are riding on thick or thin tyres, reducing the tyre pressure to the lower end of the recommended scale will give you greater contact with the road surface.
Keeping your bike in good shape
You will need to check and clean your cycle rather more thoroughly than in the warmer months, keeping it free from the grit and salt used on winter roads. In particular, the chain and gears are vulnerable to the abrasion caused by road debris. They should be thoroughly cleaned and re-lubricated on a regular basis.
You will also need to keep a very careful eye on your tyres, especially if you're running them at lower than normal pressure during the winter. Your brake blocks and the wheel rim itself can also suffer from excessive wear thanks to the grit on the road, and will thus benefit from regular inspection and cleaning.
Keeping yourself in good shape
It's usually fairly obvious when you're dehydrating in the summer time, but less so during the winter. Winter clothing can raise your body temperature and make you sweat more without you realising it. And because the air around you is usually somewhat drier during the winter months, you're going to be losing moisture every time you exhale.
In hot weather you'll feel thirsty when you haven't drunk enough water, but not so in winter. You'll only start feeling thirsty long after dehydration has set in.
One key difference between hot and cold weather is that in hot weather if you haven’t eaten enough you'll still stay warm while you become more and more tired. In cold weather, you'll still tire easily if you haven't eaten enough, but you'll start feeling the cold long before then.
To keep you both warm and hydrated while you’re on the road, many riders recommend a thermally insulated bottle of tea.
Yes, you can enjoy winter cycling
Winter cycling can definitely be a more economical way of getting to work, and with the right clothes, equipment and attitude it can not only keep you healthy and fit throughout the winter season, but it can be fun, too.