Five things I wish I knew before my first winter of road riding

There's a special satisfaction to riding through the winter - but also plenty of challenges!

Female cyclist riding outside during the winter
(Image credit: Future)

Back when I experienced my first winter of road riding, a lot was very different. I was running narrow 23mm tires, I was yet to get my first bike computer (it would be a Garmin Edge 500 - an absolute classic), and the cycling kit I did have was neither breathable nor properly waterproof.

Fortunately, so much has improved in terms of the componentry, kit, and electronic accessories which are now available today - there is an awful lot I am so thankful for on every ride!

But even so, there are some staples which never change, no matter the advancements in tech. Similar to how, despite the plethora of training tools which now exist, there is still no substitute for putting in the hard miles when it comes to getting fit - there are some facts of winter riding which will remain true forevermore.

And so, here are the five things which I wish I knew before my first winter of road riding (and which I still have to remind myself at the end of every summer!)

1. Getting out takes so long; prep the night before

Life is so easy in the summer: there are just seven items of kit you need to throw on - shoes, socks, shorts, jersey, sports bra (delete as applicable), helmet, sunglasses - then just grab your bike and roll down the drive.

Not so in the winter. Once you’ve made your call on exactly what the temperature, windspeed, precipitation chance demands in terms of your kit (is a 7 degree, 20 kph wind and light drizzle a bib tight or leg warmer kind of day?) - then comes the task of equipping yourself with all that getup.

A fairly standard winter’s ride might see me wearing: overshoes, shoes, socks, leg warmers, bib shorts, sports bra, base layer, jersey, gilet, arm warmers, rain jacket, gloves, helmet and photochromic sunglasses.

Pulling on 14 layers takes enough time in itself - running round trying to locate them all in an early-morning daze easily triples that time. So, do your future self a favor, and get all that kit lined up and ready to go. Setting off in the cold is hard enough as it is, you need to make everything else as easy as possible!

2. Bike lights should be taken, just in case

You set off at 10:00 in the morning. You’re only planning on being out for a few hours - surely there’s no need to be bringing bike lights along with you? Like the tide, it’s so easy to be caught out once a few things start going wrong. 

If your average speed drops from 33 to 25kph because the new roads you were trying weren’t as you thought - or a similar percentage drop from 20 to 15 kph when riding on gravel - you can quite easily end up out for an extra hour at least. Throw in a couple of mechanicals and a short detour to a supermarket for some extra food and your total elapsed time can easily creep up from an intended 2hrs 45mins to nudging 6hrs. 

Frustrating, but not a serious problem in the summer. Depending on your latitude, the sun could have already sunk behind the horizon in the winter. 

Given the situation you could find yourself in, strapping on some lights ‘just in case’ is a precaution I would always advise - even if you’re quite sure you’ll be back well before sunset. 

3. Cafe stops are the best and worst idea

Coffee, gloves and sunglasses on a cafe table

(Image credit: Future)

What could be more inviting than a pause at a warm, dry and bright cafe - picking up a much needed coffee and a generous slice or two of cake (which might be a little surplus to requirements)? The perfect milestone to break up a long winter ride in the wet and the cold, is it not? 


But with every snuggly stop, there is inevitably the pain of leaving it. Pulling back on your cold and damp jacket, winter cycling gloves and helmet; trying to coax your stiff and heavy legs firstly back into the motion of pedalling, secondly into putting out any degree of power - which you so desperately need to generate the warmth you're emphatically lacking. 

But no. Stiff, cold legs will turn at the rate they wish. And anyway, half of your organ-powering blood is preoccupied with aiding the digestion of that three slices of cake you’ve just eaten - there’s not much in the way of spare capacity to go round.

What should one do? Well, there’s nothing else but to embrace it. You’ll never feel relief quite like when slurping down a hot drink after hours out in the cold - but with those heady highs, so too come the lows.

4. Extra layers are useful for mechanical stops

Female cyclist riding outside in the winter cold

(Image credit: Future)

Always pack an extra layer. This extra bulk might be frustrating, especially in hillier terrain with patchy cloud cover. This can necessitate unzipping down to your base layer when grinding up 20% climbs in a (brief) period of full sun - only to be followed with hastily wrapping up once you reach the exposed top and drop down the other side, invariably into the shade.

But say you get a mechanical part way down that shaded descent. A nasty puncture which proves a nightmare to fix. It’s quite astonishing just how much heat you generate while riding and, by extension, just how cold it’s possible to get in just 10 minutes of standing around. I promise at that moment, the extra layer is worth its weight in gold.

5. Even the best fenders don’t hold off all the muck

So, you’ve decided to ignore the detractors and their wailing of ‘clean lines’ and ‘weight savings’ and invested in a pair of the best bike fenders / mudguards. Good choice - they’ll keep both you and your bike cleaner, as well as those riding behind you. 

But focus there on the operative word: ‘cleaner’

Yes, it’s sadly true. Despite fenders doing so much to reduce the road spray and associated mess, they’re not a magic bullet. Your drivetrain will still end up collecting dirt, as will certain areas of your frame. Your washing machine will thank you for not sending such grit-saturated clothing through its drum, but you won’t be sparkling clean at the end of a foul weather ride. 

But that’s not a reason to dispense with them and not to bother - the improvements that a pair of the best fenders will bring to your winter riding are indisputably massive. Still, if it’s your first experience using a set, you might need to slightly adjust your expectations.

Here are 20 more hacks to beat the cold and keep riding through the winter.

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