Are you thinking about building or buying a road bike specifically for winter riding?
BikeRadar’s experts have immense combined experience of winter riding and in this guide we’ll discuss some different approaches to choosing a winter road bike, and which components and accessories matter the most.
Whether you’re looking to buy a whole new bike, revive an old one, or adapt your current machine, this is the guide for you.
Before we go on, I’m sure comments are already brewing to the effect of “that wouldn’t work for my winter”, and that’s fair enough. We’re talking here about a UK-style winter where the main obstacles to riding for most of us are relentless wet weather, cold, darkness and road salt.
It’s fair to say that in many parts of the world (and indeed more northern parts of the UK), conditions are far more extreme and riding through the winter is a completely different proposition.
The premium option: a dedicated, purpose-built bike
The platonic ideal of a winter road bike is one built from the ground up with poor-weather riding in mind.
For many years, the archetypal winter bike was a cheap aluminium-framed road bike with a low- to mid-range groupset, skinny tyres, rim brakes and full-length mudguards – something like the Ribble 7005 Winter or the Dolan Preffisio.
These were sturdy, unpretentious machines that made up for their lack of glamour by being incredibly cheap and very functional.
This breed of machine has all but disappeared in an age of disc brakes and big tyre clearances, but the principle remains valid.
We’ll get into component specifics below, but if you have the space and the budget, a dedicated poor-weather bike with thoughtfully chosen components is the gold standard.
These days, it’s well worth considering a gravel bike for winter because these often have useful mounts for mudguards and accessories, and can adapt to both road riding and rougher stuff with minor spec adjustments.
Examples would be the Canyon Grail AL, the Fuji Jari 1.3 and the Pinnacle Arkose Dirt D3. The line between gravel bikes and fatter-tyred endurance bikes is very blurry in any case, with the differences sometimes being more about spec than the underlaying frame.
There’s also considerable overlap with more traditional touring bikes and it’s worth considering one of these, particularly if you’re interested in carrying lots of stuff.
The budget approach: an old hack
If you don’t want to subject your ‘best’ bike to the indignities of winter riding, you can of course use any old clunker you have lying around, or cobble something together from parts.
The downside to this approach is there will inevitably be compromises – old road frames typically have limited tyre clearance, for instance, and many won’t accept full-length mudguards.
You’ll also likely be stuck with rim brakes, which can be perfectly adequate but, as we’ll discuss later, aren’t ideal for the purpose. On the other hand, there’s great satisfaction to be found in repurposing old things or assembling a unique parts-bin special.
The non-conformist: a fixed gear
Legend holds it that, in days of yore, road cyclists would flip their rear wheels around and fit a fixed gear sprocket for the winter, citing various probably-mythical advantages.
Despite our scepticism, we’re big fans of fixies here at BikeRadar and there are valid reasons for choosing to ride one. They’re ultra low-maintenance compared to geared bikes and consumable drivetrain parts (chains, cogs, chainrings) are comparatively affordable.
They’re also loads of fun, but most of us wouldn’t choose to ride one full-time because having just one gear does have drawbacks, and of course it deprives you of the pleasure of freewheeling.
If the simplicity of fixed gear appeals but you don’t want to pedal ceaselessly, a singlespeed with a freewheel is also an option, one that offers similar advantages from a maintenance perspective.
But I can’t afford/don’t have space for another bike!
Plenty of us ride our one and only road bike through the winter, and that’s a valid approach too, particularly if you can easily fit mudguards (more on these below).
If you’re fond of your bike, the challenge will be protecting it from the onslaught of muck and salt that winter brings. That means staying on top of cleaning and lubrication.
It’s also worth considering if there are specific components you might want to change…
Key components and accessories for winter bikes
In many parts of the world, the roads don’t really dry out for long stretches in the winter, and that means there’s a continuous spray of moisture coming off your tyres even when it’s not actually raining.
As a result, mudguards (or fenders for North Americans) are an essential for winter riding, and full-length mudguards with mud-flaps both front and rear are the ideal because these will reduce spray to a minimum both for you and anyone riding behind you, and also help protect your bike’s components.
For a frame to accept standard full-length mudguards, it needs to have mounting bosses or eyelets to bolt on to, and sufficient clearances that the ‘guards won’t catch on the tyres, get in the way of the brakes (on rim brake bikes), or cause toe-overlap issues.
Most rear mudguards require one boss at each dropout (or on the seatstays), one at the front of the chainstays, and a seatstay bridge of some sort to anchor the top of the ‘guard (this will also be a brake mount on rim brake bikes).
Front mudguards need a mount at each fork dropout (or part-way up each fork leg), and either a brake bolt or a dedicated mount at the fork crown to attach to.
If your bike has clearances but no mounts, it’s possible to get creative with P-clips or aftermarket accessories such as Axiom’s Axle Runners.
If your bike won’t accept full-length mudguards full stop, there are various alternatives, with long clip-ons being the next best thing. Head to our buyer’s guide to mudguards for more.
Winter is hard on components, and so there’s a good case to be made for running cheaper kit that you won’t mind wearing out relatively quickly.
That might mean opting for a more affordable groupset such as Shimano Sora, Tiagra or 105, SRAM Apex or Rival, or Campagnolo Centaur, rather than Ultegra, Dura-Ace, Force, Record etc.
Even if you choose higher-end components, consider whether you need the wear items to be groupset-matching. For example, if you have Shimano Ultegra, there’s nothing to stop you fitting a cheaper 105 cassette and chain, both are 11-speed.
You might also choose to go with third-party parts to save money, such as a chain from KMC.
There’s no question that disc brakes are the better overall choice for winter riding, although that does come with some caveats.
Disc brakes typically go hand-in-hand with larger tyre clearances, they offer consistent performance whatever the weather, and they’re easy to operate safely even if your hands get cold.
Disc brakes also have the advantage that they don’t chew through rims – traditional rim brakes wear rims out rapidly when you throw abrasive filth into the mix.
If there’s a downside to discs (aside from extra weight and upfront cost), it’s that they can be noisy and irritating at times, and also liable to suffer pad contamination.
In wet, gritty conditions you may experience continuous low-level noise as muck finds its way between the rotors and pads, and some brakes are also prone to howling when wet.
Most annoyingly, disc brake pads can become contaminated by oily substances from the road surface, rendering them far less effective (if not useless).
If this happens, the best cure is to clean your rotors thoroughly with brake cleaner and fit new pads, although some riders advocate baking the pads in the oven (or on the hob) to burn off contaminants. This isn’t a practice any manufacturer would endorse and BikeRadar staffers have experienced mixed results, so proceed with caution.
Nevertheless, if you’re starting from scratch, discs are unquestionably the preferred option for winter riding, and hydraulic discs in particular are ideal because, unlike their mechanical counterparts, they don’t need frequent adjustment to account for pad wear.
You can ride any wheelset in the winter, but some will take the abuse better than others.
With rim brakes, accelerated rim wear is an issue in the winter and so you may not want to be riding your expensive Sunday best wheels. The effectiveness of rim brakes also suffers dramatically in wet conditions. It’s not too bad on aluminium rims, but even the best carbon braking surfaces are typically less effective than discs in rainy conditions.
There are other reasons not to use more performance-oriented wheels.
Racy wheelsets often save weight by using hubs with small, minimally-sealed bearings. These will quickly wear out if water and grit find their way inside, and then you’ll need to buy new bearings and potentially pay someone to fit them.
Lightweight wheels also frequently feature aluminium spoke nipples, which are more susceptible to corrosion. Given the option, brass nipples are the better choice for winter.
If you’ve got disc brakes, rim wear isn’t a particular issue, but much of the above still applies.
If you’re shopping for winter wheels, now might be the time to consider if you want to try road tubeless, which brings us on to…
With more debris on the roads, punctures are more of a problem in the winter, and also more of a pain – no one wants to be wrestling with tyres when they’ve got stiff, cold hands or it’s raining.
That means it’s a good idea to choose more puncture-resistant tyres for winter riding – head to our winter tyres guide for some options.
If you’re shopping for new rubber, this might be the moment to consider trying something new. Would you, for example, enjoy the comfort benefit of fitting slightly larger tyres? (Check you have the necessary clearances before committing.)
If your wheels are suitable, it’s well worth considering road tubeless for winter riding because the risk of punctures is reduced by the sealant, and you can run lower pressures for added grip on greasy roads.
Lights are an absolute essential in the winter, even if you’re technically riding in daylight, where the sun will be low in the sky and overall light levels will be reduced.
There are endless options for lights and your choices will depend on budget and specifics, such as whether you need lights solely to be seen, or also to see with (if you’re riding on unlit roads in the dark).
The Rolls Royce option for a dedicated winter bike is permanent fixed lights powered by a dynamo hub or even a modern rim dynamo. These give you the advantage of never being without a light as a result of flat batteries.
The downside is cost and, in the case of a dyno hub, the need for a specially-built wheel.
In any case, it’s always best to have some redundancy in your lights – we’d advise running at least two fronts and two rears so you have a backup for each in case one dies unexpectedly.
Spares and other accessories
In cold weather, getting stranded by a mechanical failure comes with more serious consequences and so we’d recommend taking a more belt-and-braces approach to spares.
You want to be in a position where punctures won’t leave you high and dry, so it’s worth carrying a couple of inner tubes and/or a tyre repair kit if you’re running tubeless.
A multi-tool with a chain tool on it (plus a quick link for rejoining) is a good idea too, as is extra clothing for unanticipated changes in the weather.
All this means it’s worth thinking about on-bike storage when you’re speccing a winter bike. Do you want mounts for a bento box top tube bag? Or rack bosses? Will you be running a bar bag (for maximum trendy points)?
Specialized’s SWAT (Storage, Water, Air, Tools) system deserves a mention here – bikes such as the Diverge offer generous in-frame storage, so you don’t necessarily need lots of luggage.
It’s not (just) about the bike
Enjoying your winter riding isn’t just about the bike, it’s about mindset too, and also having the right kit.
If you’re taking your training seriously, have a read of elite cyclist Tom Bell’s advice and watch Jack Luke and Joe Norledge talk through some of their favourite winter kit.
Can’t face any of it? Maybe indoor training is for you. Our guide to the best smart trainers is here.