Complete guide to winter road cycling

All our top tips for cold weather riding in one article

Beautiful sunrises and sunsets, quiet misty roads with barely another soul in sight – even riding in the rain is fun if you wear the right kit and have a steaming hot brew and a bath waiting for you at the other end.

With modern clothing, equipment and some forethought, you can ride happily all through the winter and you’ll emerge next spring a fitter and stronger rider. It’s all about attitude: if you anticipate that getting up early will be a miserable experience, and spend your whole ride dreaming of those extra hours in bed, it won’t be enjoyable.

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Bad weather should be seen as a reason to get on your bike – negotiating your way through rain and mud will help you learn new skills, improve your balance and push your riding to a new level. Who needs sunshine?

Get out and ride

1 Get motivated

One of the hardest aspects of winter training is getting out the door onto the bike: ‘from bed to shed’. Even the slightest distraction or reason not to ride, such as not having your favourite socks clean, can be enough to return to the warm embrace of your duvet. Counter this by making sure all your kit is ready. Make a deal with yourself that, if you don’t feel like riding, as long as you’ve given it a 10-minute go, you can ditch the session. Typically, once you’re out you’ll feel good and go on to ride a full session.

Many people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during winter. According to the SAD Association, seven percent of the UK population suffer from the full condition, with a further 17 percent suffering from milder but still significant ‘winter blues’. The condition, caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain, can rob you of energy, motivation and enthusiasm. Physical exercise is one of the best ways to combat it, but often the motivation to exercise is low, creating a vicious circle.

There are measures you can use to prevent this though. “The cause is often a lack of light,” says sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson, “so sleep with the curtains open, buy a dawn simulating alarm clock and try to exercise during daylight hours. Doing club rides or spin classes can all help to increase motivation to train and the social contact is another benefit that can help prevent down periods. If more help is required consider getting in touch with a psychologist or speaking to your GP.”

2 Layer up

Invest in some good-quality winter clothing, because getting cold, wet and uncomfortable on the bike is a good enough reason to leave it in the shed and go swimming. With the proper kit you'll be prepared for nearly all that the winter can throw at you. The best way to stay warm on winter rides is to layer up. Here's what we recommend:

  • Shell: Softshell and waterproof jackets should provide wind stopping coverage to the belly, chest and groin – core areas you need to keep warm.
  • Base: A moisture-wicking baselayer that keeps the body dry is crucial. Wear an extra thin layer rather than one that’s too thick.
  • Mid: A thermal layer worn over your baselayer will keep the warmth in, but should work with the base and shell to let sweat vapour out.
  • Legs: Full-length bib tights are an essential.
  • Extremeties: Look after them: a fleece beanie that covers your ears; windproof gloves; and two pairs of socks or outer protection overshoes.

With these few must-haves you can train outdoors in all but the worst conditions. Quality clothing doesn't come cheap, but proves a great investment; a solid winter’s training is priceless. Be positive in your approach – do it despite the weather, not because of the weather.

3 Ride safe

Riding in winter can be exhilarating, but make sure you stay safe by following British Cycling qualified coach Andy Cook’s cold weather counsel...

Be seen: You can’t have enough lights, particularly when riding in urban areas, but they need to be in the right places. So often you see riders with a rear light that isn’t pointing in the right direction or is obscured by their jacket. Make sure your lights are fitted securely and are positioned where drivers will definitely see them. Where you ride on the road is also vital. Take up the primary position and command your space in the road. This has the benefit of allowing you some space if that driver behind hasn’t seen you and tries to squeeze by. And don’t assume you’ve been seen by cars signalling to pull out – especially on cold mornings where commuters might still be peering through a misted or iced up windscreen, or squinting into the sun.

Avoid hazards: Riding a bike in the wet can be great fun, but make sure you do it safely. As with driving a car, it’ll take you longer to stop when braking in the wet because of a build up of water on the rims between the brake blocks and the braking surface. Make sure you take this into account. Also, road markings tend to be slippery when wet, as do drain and manhole covers, so remember to take extra care when riding across them, especially when turning. Avoiding them is the best idea, but if there’s no alternative, anticipate your line and speed as a sharp turn over a wet piece of ironwork or painted line at speed could easily result in a fall.

Look ahead: Everyone’s vision tends to be reduced in winter, especially in the busiest, darkest commuter times of first thing in the morning and in the late afternoon. As a cyclist you need to become very good at anticipating other road users’ behaviour. Always try to catch the driver’s eye, as this is your most effective form of communication. Also watch out for leaf-strewn areas on lanes – wet leaves can create seriously slippery surfaces. If we’ve had a dry spell and then there’s light rain on top of fallen leaves, some of our more rural lanes can be as hazardous as riding on ice. If you’re riding in a group in these sorts of conditions, leave a little more room between you and the guy in front, and try to anticipate any problems that might occur up ahead.

4 Try out new routes

Riding the same roads all the time can become something of a chore. Even if you try riding your regular routes in the opposite direction you’ll find it something different. Circuits can be good in the winter months, as you're never far from home should the weather turn or you run out of juice.

Short of daylight? Find yourself an industrial estate, as they're usually well-lit and traffic-free: great for an hour’s tempo ride, intervals or just working on your cornering technique. Don’t hang around for too long though – at this time of year it's all too easy to catch a chill if you’re loitering rather than training hard!

Winter training

5 Plan to succeed

An early winter's evening is the ideal opportunity to put your feet up and, over a steaming cup of cocoa, look back over your summer performance – before looking ahead at your winter’s training and the spring and summer to come.

Cycling coach and ex-pro Dave Lloyd believes that setting goals is a vital part of the coaching process, and he makes sure that all the athletes he works with do so. “Take stock of what’s gone right and what hasn’t gone so well, and recognise any weaknesses,” he says. “Having new goals – or going for the goals you’ve missed – is vital. This will give you a reason to go out in the cold and wet of the winter months, rather than just going through the motions.”

Hiring a coach costs around £30-£120 a month, and is probably the best way to maximise your potential. Look at it like this: six months of coaching will cost considerably less then a bling wheelset upgrade and it'll make you ride significantly better.

If you simply can’t afford (or you can’t justify to your other half!) a coach, here’s a quick guide to planning – follow the steps below to set your goals for the winter and the racing season to come...

  • Reflect: Look back over your performances in key races, sportives or rides. What went right? And what went wrong? Did you perform as you expected, and if not, why not?
  • Focus: Identify two or three major rides, races or sportives for next season that’ll be your main focus. These, and your expected performances in them, are your long-term goals.
  • Train: Work out how much time you can dedicate to training each week. Don’t forget to include your commutes, and try to be realistic and honest with yourself – there’s no point in scheduling 5am rides if you know you won’t get up.
  • Plan: Work back from your long-term goals and construct a training plan based on your week’s training timetable. There are some excellent books available to help you, such as The Cyclist’s Training Bible by Joe Friel, Serious Cycling by Edmund Burke and Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan. There are also online packages such as www.trainingpeaks.com.
  • Goals: Include in the plan some medium-term goals, which can be less important rides or races or weight loss targets. These should provide stepping stones to your main goals. Set four or five short-term goals each week: completing all your training sessions, not having puddings during the week, cleaning your bike after each ride… anything that will contribute to your training moving forwards. Write them down and stick them up somewhere you’ll see them every day.

One good way to keep yourself motivated is to book a training camp for early March as a reward for getting through the winter months. With some good winter miles in your legs you'll be able to get the best out of a spring camp and the warm sunshine will have been well-earned. Training camps are about building on your fitness – not about getting fit.

Alternatively, organise your own mini camp. You don't need to go far from home, but a weekend away with a few mates, riding different roads with no distractions, can be a great way to keep things fresh. If you do go abroad, try to find a camp that’s been recommended by other cyclists you know, or do a bit of research on forums to make sure you end up with the best experience.

6 Go faster

For pro riders, the winter is all about long, slow rides building base fitness and economy. But you’re not a pro, and if you’ve spent the summer riding long sportives, chances are your steady pace fitness is already pretty good. If this is the case, cycling coach Marc Laithwaite suggests you use your winter training to improve your top speed.

Regular tempo level sessions will increase your ability to ride at a hard level for sustained periods: to ride climbs faster, bridge the gaps to groups and put in stronger turns on the front. Tempo level efforts can also easily be included in your commute.

“A tempo ride is completed just below your ‘threshold’ and is designed to tax your aerobic system for a sustained period,” says Marc. “An example session would be to warm up, ride 20 minutes at tempo and then cool down. The 20-minute period should be done at an intensity just below the maximum you can sustain for that period.

“If you have a power function on your turbo, ride flat-out for 20 minutes and check the average power you achieve. As a guideline, your tempo rides should be completed at 90-95 percent of that average. You can use heart rate (check your average heart rate for the maximal 20-minute test and then ride 2-3 beats below) but a more reliable method is ‘perceived effort’ – how hard do you think you can ride for 20 minutes flat-out? Ride just below that intensity. It’s critical to flatline your intensity: don’t fluctuate above and below threshold because this will not encourage the physiological developments required.”

7 Ride strong

If you haven't built endurance over the summer, winter is a great time to do it. Long and steady training rides – as opposed to hard and fast sprints – will help you build stamina and strength and ride for longer. “Too many riders focus on trying to get faster when actually they’re better off working on not slowing down,” says coach Marc Laithwaite. “This is all about building riding economy and base fitness.”

On long and steady rides, monitoring your effort and sticking to the right intensity requires a high level of discipline. If you’re using a power meter you’ll be riding at 56-75% of FTP (functional threshold power), heart rate will be 69-83% of maximum and, if using perceived effort, leg fatigue should be low and you should be able to maintain a full conversation throughout the ride.

It’s essential you stay at these levels for the whole ride rather than fluctuating up and down. Choose suitable routes without steep climbs, make sure you have low enough gearing and don’t be sucked into racing with your mates. For novice riders a good starting point is 90 minutes, but riders targeting long sportives should build up to 4-6 hours.

8 Group hug

On winter roads, a group of riders is far more noticeable than a lone cyclist. You’ll always have someone with you should you run into trouble, and a helping hand with mechanical issues. You’re also more likely to get out of your warm bed and onto your bike if you’ve arranged to meet a bunch of mates, and riding in a group, with the inevitable banter and competitive edge, will make the miles and hours pass far quicker.

Joining a club is one way to learn the etiquette and skills of group riding, or get a group of like-minded mates together. Add some spice by playing some informal games and racing: set a ‘rabbit’ off down the road as a lone breakaway and then work together to chase them down; agree on a number of sprint markers or King of the Mountains summits and dispute your own versions of the green and polka dot jerseys.

Riding for three or four hours on a Sunday morning is a challenge, so get together with your club mates and share the load. On your own it can just seem like hard work – in a group it’s good fun. Support each other; re-group at the top of hills, stop for any punctures, make sure no one gets left behind. Stronger riders can go on ahead, and then return.

Make sure you have some energy drinks and some food in your back pocket, a couple of spare inner tubes and a multi-tool, and you’re good to go. Enjoy the banter and the miles will tick by. Try a winter event; there are plenty of sportives and reliability trials for you to test your fitness. You might even have a tea stop, just don’t linger too long.

9 Turbo-boost

When the winter really bites, using a turbo trainer indoors is a safe and effective option for interval work. Make sure your setup is right and conducive to training. Good ventilation and a fan are advisable, along with a sweat catcher to protect your bike and a turbo-specific rear tyre. Choose sessions that suit the turbo: long, steady sessions are always going to be a struggle, even with the distraction of a good DVD, but hard and short intense interval workouts are ideal.

This Tabata workout is the ultimate hard and fast hit:

  •  Warm up with 10 minutes of easy spinning, increasing the intensity during the second five minutes
  •  Perform eight 20-second flat-out efforts with 10 seconds of recovery in between
  •  Cool down with 10 minutes of easy spinning

Music can be a great motivator and MP3 players and music downloads mean putting together a training mix is easy. Use tracks you know will put a smile on your face and have a rhythm similar to the cadence you expect to be riding (80-100rpm typically). Create a great music-driven interval workout by alternating fast and slow tracks.

Dr Costas Karageorghis of London's Brunel University has studied the relationship between music and exercise: “Although music doesn’t reduce the perception of effort during high intensity work,” he says, “it does improve the experience. It makes hard training seem more like fun, by shaping how the mind interprets symptoms of fatigue.”

If you're feeling creative, why not have a club turbo night? Set your bikes up in a circle, put the stereo on loud and off you go. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Plenty of fluids are essential and a fan will make it more comfortable.

A basic turbo will do the job but if you just can’t bear staring at the wall, get yourself a virtual reality trainer. Linked up to your PC, you'll be able to climb the Alps or compete against your buddies, all from your front room. Be careful not to overdo it though – the time for high-end training is later. Simply build your endurance for now.

10 Take a break every fourth week

To keep things fresh it’s important to take every fourth week a bit easier. Taking a regular easy week gives you a chance to recover, so that your body can super-compensate for all the training you’ve done. Remember it’s during periods of rest that your fitness improves, not during training itself.

During the recovery week it’s the ideal opportunity to catch up on sleep, family commitments and all that admin that you never seem to get done. You should do less than half of your normal training during this period, and make sure you have at least two days off.

11 Get muddy!

Going off-road and hitting the trails is a great way to improve your bike handling, fitness and pedalling style. Nick Craig – multiple mountain bike and cyclo-cross champion, road and off-road Olympian, and last year’s epic 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross winner – believes that getting off the roads in the winter is the best way to stay fit.

“One of the main benefits of being off-road is if you come off, you won’t get flattened by a car,” he says, “and you’re generally moving slower so there’s less impact from a cold wind. When it snows and the ploughs have been out, the gutters aren't an option and drivers just don’t seem to understand this, so I always think it’s safer off-road in the snow and ice. It also saves your bike from the onslaught of salted roads.

“If you fancy some racing, cyclo-cross is the best way of staying sharp through the winter. Race a winter of cyclo-cross and I guarantee it’ll make you a better rider. It’s easy to get into as you can often enter on the day, ride a mountain bike and it’ll only take an hour out of your Sunday.”

From a fitness perspective, riding off-road will develop cycling-specific strength and power. The higher levels of rolling resistance you’ll come across on the trails and fatter tyres will make your road bike feel like a friction-free magic carpet ride afterwards. On loose-surfaced climbs you won’t be able to get away with muscling up, out of the saddle, and will be forced to learn to sit and spin. This will translate to a more efficient climbing style when you return to the roads.

You can also explore the limits of braking and handling without the fear of looming traffic. Bad habits such as not pushing down through the outside pedal, not lifting the inside pedal and braking too much in corners are punished on slippery off-road surfaces and will be rapidly ironed out. Best of all, winter riding means you can rediscover the childish joy of getting covered in mud!

Off the bike

12 Time out

Taking some time off the bike can be an ideal way to recharge your batteries and rekindle your love for cycling, although as fitness can start to drop after just two weeks of inactivity – and will take nearly three times as long to recondition – complete rest from exercise isn't a good idea.

Cycling coach Dave Lloyd has never taken time off riding, but he does give his athletes the option – though he always insists on some alternative training. "It's really a time to have some fun while still keeping in some sort of shape for the winter ahead," he says.

13 Eat well

Eating well through winter plays a major role in maintaining health and fighting off colds and flu. Many riders worry about weight gain during winter, but being too lean can be counterproductive, and slightly more body fat will make you less prone to the cold. 

Immune boosting: “To help the immune system boost its prevention power during the winter months, we need a wide variety of fruits and vegetables – at least six servings per day to provide the essential bioflavonoids and antioxidants,” says nutritional therapist Amelia Freer. “Foods such as berries, oranges, tenderstem, spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, garlic, watercress, alfalfa sprouts, brown rice and a variety of nuts and seeds, particularly sunflower seeds and brazil nuts, can supply the synergistic range of nutrients needed. A cup or two of fresh ginger or green tea a day can also keep colds and flus at bay.”

Post-ride recovery: After a long ride, a balanced blend of carbohydrates and protein taken within 15 minutes of completing your ride kickstarts recovery. The carbs help replenish muscle energy, and proteins are used for muscle repair and growth. There are many recovery products on the market, but a simple milk and banana smoothie will do the job – just have it made up ready to drink.

14 Hit the gym

In the winter, hitting a warm, dry gym can be an appealing alternative to muddy rides, and gym workouts are among the most productive off-the-bike activities. Some focused strength work will certainly improve your cycling performance.

“When you’re riding a bike,” says ex-pro and coach Dave Lloyd, “you need a strong upper body, whether it’s for climbing, sprinting, holding those tri bars to keep the bike going in a straight line, or staying on the datum line on the track in a pursuit.”

Pumping iron will also make you more robust and less prone to injury. Cycling makes you strong in a very fixed position, through limited ranges of movement, but if it’s all you do then lifting a box or a child, a spontaneous kickabout or a heavy bout of gardening can all be potential minefields. Weight training will protect you from injury and strain.

From the age of 30, unless stimulated, we all begin to lose muscle mass – a condition known as sarcopenia. As well as diminishing levels of strength, with less calorie-burning muscle, controlling fat gain gets harder. The good news is that its effects can not only be halted but also reversed by weight training.

Cycling will provide your legs with a degree of beneficial work but not the most effective high load stimulation of weight training movements such as squats and deadlifts. And cycling will barely touch your upper body.

Two or three sessions a week during the winter will build an excellent strength base that can then be maintained with just one weekly session. Use fairly heavy weights in sets of 6-10 reps, and include these exercises:

  • Lunges: As a single-legged movement, the crossover to cycling is obvious. To increase the load, work with a barbell across your shoulders or hold dumbbells.
  • Single arm rows: When climbing out of the saddle, one arm pushes and one arm pulls with every pedal stroke. This  exercise works those pulling muscles.
  • Dumbbell chest press: Works the pushing muscles of your upper body. Because of the range of movement and control needed, it’s more effective than barbells.
  • Deadlift: This strengthens and increases flexibility of the lower back and the hamstrings, both of which are typically weak and tight in cyclists.
  • Plank: This exercise works the deep stabiliser muscles of your trunk and is far more beneficial and relevant than sit-ups or crunches. Hold the position for 30-60 seconds.

15 Go for a run

Often thought of as a dirty word among cyclists, running is an ideal option for a quick training hit during the winter. You’re probably not going to bother kitting up and getting your bike out for a 30-minute ride, but you can achieve an awful lot in a half-hour run. 

Many cyclists go out for a run, plod grimly round the streets for a bit, and then conclude that running isn't for them, but it’s no coincidence that top cyclists Nick Craig and Rob Jebb are also excellent fell runners. Running steep off-road climbs uses similar muscle groups to cycling and targets top-end strength and cardiovascular fitness.

It’s also friendlier to joints than road running, gets you away from cars and is fun. You’ll need to invest in a pair of fell or trail shoes to give you enough grip, and the low slung foot position ensures stability and protects against turned ankles.

Steep hill reps:

  • 10 minutes easy jogging warm-up.
  • 10 x 30 seconds up as steep a hill as possible at 100 per cent effort with a jog-down recovery between uphill sprints.
  • 10 minutes easy jogging cool-down.

Cruise intervals:

  • 10 minutes easy jogging warm-up.
  • 4-6 x 5 minutes up a moderate to steep hill at a pace best described as ‘sustainable discomfort’. This will translate as 85-95% of max heart rate, or only being able to speak in short, clipped sentences or single word replies, with a jog-down recovery after each.
  • 10 minutes easy jogging cool-down.

Prepare your bike for winter

16 Safety checks

It’s always a good idea to give your bike regular checks for wear and tear, but it’s particularly important at this time of year. Check over your tyres for small flints and pieces of glass that might not have caused a puncture yet but if left will ultimately work through and into the inner tube. Your sidewalls should also be checked regularly because riding an under-inflated tyre will cause the bead to wear excessively and could cause a blowout at an inopportune moment.

Check your brake blocks regularly too, as they can become encrusted with shards of alloy from the braking surface, not to mention grit and gravel, which wears both the blocks and the rim itself. Brake cables need to be checked for fraying. Give your transmission a regular once-over as well, and remember that running your drive system with too much lube will compromise efficiency as much as running it too dry.

17 Get a dedicated training bike

Your bike will take a lot of stick during the winter so why not save your racing bike for the summer? Lightweight components and racing wheels don't like water, salt, grit and all the potholes that seem to appear as the nights draw in. Treat yourself to a winter bike, and spend as much as you can.

The mudguards will keep you and your training partners drier, the heavier tyres will be more puncture-resistant, the relaxed frame-angles will keep you comfortable and of course all the extra weight will make you stronger!

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