Winter bike set-up: advice from the experts

A winter bike should make riding more comfortable. Mudguards protect feet and bottom from the worst of the spray and keep you on friendly terms with the people you ride with – they deplore having cold, gritty water flung in their face. A winter bike is your faithful companion through long, cold and often wet rides. It might not be as fast or flighty as a summer bike but it is solid and reliable.

How you create your winter bike is up to you. Some people downgrade their old, retired race bike; others build a bespoke, winter-specific bike. Using a winter bike saves wear and tear on your best bike. With the salt, mud and grit on the roads, your bike quickly becomes covered with an abrasive and corrosive paste. Even if you clean it religiously after every ride, this pernicious paste takes its toll.

The priority features for winter bikes are primarily weather related: clearance for mudguards and winter tyres, solidly built wheels to contend with rough roads, two bottle cages for long rides, plenty of lights, and thicker than usual bar tape for added hand comfort. Most people building a winter bike don’t worry much about weight; they’re more concerned with longevity and reliability of components. A winter bike doesn’t have to be top-end, just functional.

Cyclo-cross bike: the perfect winter ride?
If you fancy mixing up your road miles with off-road adventures, cyclo-cross bikes are perfect for winter. They are great fun to ride all year round. Designed for muddy and rough off-road conditions, they have plenty of frame clearance for wider tyres. Cantilever brakes, or even disc brakes (as on some new models), are more able to handle mud accumulation and stop more forcefully than road calipers.

Whereas cross racing bikes don’t have bottle-cage mounts – because of the short duration of races and the need to shoulder the bike – some models are hybridised for touring or long-distance off-road riding so you can mount two bottle cages and even panniers, making them incredibly versatile.

A cross bike opens up a whole new way of riding; it’s just as happy on road as off, so you can mix up your rides with a blend of fire-track, bridleway and road. For some extra excitement, throw in some singletrack. If it’s snowy, fit some spiked ice tyres and head off-road, which will give you a tough workout and challenge your handling skills at a time when riding on the road is too dangerous.

Gain from terrain
Slip-sliding in mud and powering through sandy or loose terrain will increase your leg strength and improve your cadence, as you’ll need to pedal in circles to maintain traction. Off-road riding will develop your balance and bike handling, which will benefit your summer riding. Plus, it’s a lot of fun and, because of the slower speeds and higher effort, you’ll feel much warmer than on a road bike.

While there is little debate over the fundamentals for a good winter bike, there is an argument to be had over set-up. Opinion is divided between setting it up for comfort for long, steady rides, or keeping it as close to ‘race’ as possible so that you train your muscles in the position in which you’ll race.

The best choice for you depends on your summer goals. If your targets are long sportives, it makes sense to do your long winter rides in the position you’ll ride in the events. For sportives, your winter training will focus on blocks of low-level endurance riding and long, sub-threshold intervals – similar to the efforts made in a sportive.

Getting your body used to maintaining its position for several hours and being comfortable in the saddle is a significant part of your sportive preparation. Using a different position in the winter is wasting an opportunity to develop your riding posture.

Ring the changes
On the other hand, if your summer cycling is time trialling or track racing, you may well want to set up your winter bike very differently. Being a little more upright than your race position will allow you to cover miles more comfortably, while catching a little extra wind resistance won’t do your training any harm either.
Saddle height should be kept the same, as there is no need to change it.

A lower saddle won’t increase comfort but could result in an overuse injury. How upright you are – the reach – can be altered according to preference. However, if your winter bike position is different from your race position, you will need to factor in training time in your race position before the season starts.

Some argue that your race position should be comfortable anyway, which, to a certain extent, can be trained. Dedicated stretching, strengthening and core work help support a more stretched position and overcome tight hamstrings or lower back issues. If you are going to follow this approach, work with a coach or physiotherapist, who’ll advise on the correct exercises for you and manage the pace at which changes are made.

If your race position isn’t suitable for road riding, make sure you schedule in opportunities to practise it through the winter. Turbo-training provides the ideal opportunity. Start by doing your warm-ups and cool-downs on the drops or tri-bars, so your body becomes accustomed to your race position at a low effort level. Make progress by doing intervals in your race position.

Coach Adrian Timmis: Train like you race

Former Tour de France rider Adrian Timmis runs, dedicated to all aspects of cycle coaching.

“I advise a position as close to race bike as possible, if not exactly the same – ideally with the same saddle and bars, although they don’t have to be the same quality,” he says. “Geometry may be different, due to bigger clearances needed for mudguards, but contact points should be the same.

“The winter is the biggest uninterrupted block of training you will have. It will set you up for the season ahead. Why would you want to have to adapt your position for race season?

“I have a different approach to winter training. Riders I coach work on building the threshold engine up slowly over the winter with sub-threshold training together with steady Zone 1-Zone 2. This has added 40-50W at threshold over four months, even before beginning race prep. This follows the same model coach Tim Kerrison has been employing with Bradley Wiggins. It is important to me that riders train in the position they are going to race in.”

Mudguards: Dave Marsh

Dave Marsh has raced since the late Sixties and has been a cycle dealer in South Yorkshire since the Seventies. He’s a stickler for full mudguards on winter bikes, with the addition of the ubiquitous flaps mentioned by Scott Thwaites.

“Mudguards work for you without fitting flaps, but they don’t work for the person following you,” Marsh says. “Years ago, mudguards had flaps. There was this plastic add-on bit on the bottom of the front and back mudguard, held in place by a strip of bendy metal that went through slots in the guards.

“They don’t have them on modern mudguards so we make them. You need a strip of plastic about three inches long and you can either rivet it, or I use two tiny nuts and bolts, to fasten it on the bottom of the guards. I make at least a rear flap for everyone in the club, and a front one helps to keep a lot of rubbish off your feet.”

Hips down: Ben Hallam

Ben Hallam is head of the BespokePerformance Lab and specializes in bike fittings; he has a background in sports therapy as well as competing professionally on track and road.

“It’s an interesting question. The mechanics hips down should certainly be the same. As for the position hips up, I’d say it depends on how aggressive your race
position is,” he says. “If it has been optimised for crits and races that are up to two hours long, then adjusting the front end slightly higher and shorter will enable you to more comfortably get long endurance miles in.

“If your position has been optimised for long distance races, then I’d suggest that part of the point of winter training is that you train your core strength to maintain your race position and posture for long distances. If the bike has been correctly set up, it should be comfortable over these distances anyway.

“Personally I would always replicate my road race position on my winter bike but make it as heavy as I could using 36 spoke wheels, 25c tyres, a steel frame and mudguards. I’d do all my winter training on this and then switch onto my race bike for my last few training rides before my first race. This always made it feel like I was flying and gave me a good mental boost before the race.”

My winter bike: Scott Thwaites

“You have to have a proper winter bike to go out with the training groups in the Yorkshire Dales, it’s the law. It must have full mudguards, with extra flaps added to them front and rear, and you can ride no other bike between November 1 and February 1. If you come out on a normal road bike they make you ride at the back all day.

“My winter bike is an old Kinesis with ancient Shimano equipment, lights and heavy tyres and full mudguards with added flaps. I pimped the bike up with some blue anodised bits, including a Bike Pure headset spacer, to add a bit of colour. It’s got extra lights on it too, and a heart rate monitor, but I don’t use a power meter.”

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