There are a couple of problems with winter, first is the distinct lack of daylight hours, forget the cold, rain and wind, not being able to see your way is single biggest reason for staying in. The problem is compounded by work and family commitments ensuring that much of the watery winter light is wasted. But that's the way of the world so let's not cry. The answer is (for me at least) to get some proper lights for your bike and a spare pair of wheels fitted with road tyres.
With lights on you can get off road when ever you want. Though more than one muddy off road night ride a week does put a toll on the washing/cleaning/drying/lubing cycle, so, and this is where the road tyres come in. Occasional off road excursions aside, I've got into a pattern (providing it's not blowing gale force or raining in biblical proportions) of riding between 9 and 10pm. Maybe a bit before nine as I like to catch the BBC news.
Depending on how I feel, I can do one of three things; a steady ride on the canal tow path (better in the dry), an urban XC session where I'm looking to mix some full power sprints a few steady climbs into an other wise flat (ish) hour. The third thing is my training hill and this is the ride I hit up most often.
A 7 per cent grade with two small false flats. It takes about 8 minutes to climb at a steady tempo (42big ring/26-28 sprocket) I generally aim to get between 6 and 7 reps done. It's more of a spin than a mash as I'm trying to achieve a few goals with it. firstly just time on the bike - any coach will tell you that most riders just need more saddle time to improve. My base fitness is pretty good, riding every day for 25 years does have a side effect. I get a stiff right hip (a related problem from my long term dicky back) so it pays for me to spin rather than mash gears, as it allows the hip joint to find it's way back to alignment. Usually the second rep of the hill sees it getting aligned and, as soon as my muscles begin to flush the river of lactic acid which is buring at that point, from there the pedalling is pretty comfortable. For the most part I'm looking to ride the session at about 80 per cent.
I'm sure the people who live in houses alongside the hill think I'm nuts; on a bike in the dark, snot and sweat being exhaled with alarming regularity but usually with some stupid grin on my chops. I've no problem being labelled by sloths. I take a drink at the foot of the climb and again at the top aiming to get 500ml of Nuun into me through the session.
Anyway, the effort generally build to so that as I get to the final third of the last rep I'm building the speed and intensity right up to the point where the last 50 or 60 metres is as hard as I can go - really trying to hurt my self and just get everything out through my legs. With a good sweat on it's back to the house for a dose of High5 recovery drink/shower/news/bed.
The cumulative effect of this is that I'm building strength, stamina in time usually reserved for staring mindlessly at the box. My pedalling and timing improves and also this sort of riding -where you actively seek hills- -actually makes you less afraid of them. Cycling is largely a mental game and in races of competitive group rides that counts for a lot. You may not learn to love hills, but if you can only hate them less than the other guy - you're already a half wheel up.
None of this stuff is news exactly, or rocket science, but a reminder that bikes and bodies can work in the dark is always good.
Next time I'm out, I'll take some pics.