The worst thing about winter is probably the steady erosion of time. Coming and going in darkness becomes usual, and precious weekend daylight hours become fair game for a form of domestic bargaining that even the most mercenary negotiator would be ashamed of.
It wouldn’t be so bad if we lived somewhere that had a proper winter – shunt the country just a few degrees north and the snow drifts and power cuts would provide ample excuses for frequent absence from the daily grind: “Sorry boss, snowed in again today (muffled zip of jacket)… Yep, I’m reading my email (stealthy clunk of cleat into pedal)…”.
As it is, bike time must be snatched wherever possible, while trying to remember that ‘dark at 4.30pm’ often means that lights are needed an hour earlier to avoid a head-down dash for safety through dusk’s oblivious traffic. Meanwhile, ‘commuting’ – in the loosest sense of the word – offers a Holy Grail of sorts if you’re determined to keep riding regularly through the winter. There’s a whole chunk of time in most riders’ lives just waiting to be reclaimed from the drudgery of continuously staring at tail lights.
Somehow, it’s a great deal easier to coax yourself out of the door in February’s sideways sleet when there’s a purpose to the ride, so make it easier by eliminating excuses until you’ve got the habit. Prep the bike before you retire of an evening and pre-heap the riding gear by the bed so you fall over your good intentions when you get up. Bribe yourself into taking the longer route home, knowing that the tea and telly will be ten times more pleasurable when you’re comatose from dragging 48lb of mud-leaden mountain bike over the biggest hill you could find.
Weather with you
You’re not just riding aimlessly around in a futile circle any more, you are ‘en route’, going somewhere with intent, and those sofa-bound fat bastardos watching you fly by from the comfort of their front room deserve a fair portion of your contempt. Milk the smugness, as you’ve earned the right to feel a little bit superior for your efforts. Particularly if, as is so often the case once the enthusiasm sparked by a frosty night ride has dissipated, you’re riding alone. All too regularly you’ll doggedly weather the 48-hour assault of ‘organisational’ emails from your MTBing mates that follow a tentative forecast of snow, only to suffer a last-minute plague of mysterious fevers and other assorted excuses that see the biking group dwindle to zero when the rain starts to fall. Relish the opportunity to ride unencumbered; enjoy the immediacy of ‘just going for a ride’.
Battling the elements
There’s a certain gleeful victory to staying on your bike through the worst the winter can throw at you. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you’ll only get rained on a handful of times in a year when you’re cycling. They’re lying. Although full-on rain storms in February can be strangely enjoyable. Those monsoon downpours that start with a thunderclap and soak you so thoroughly in thirty seconds that you find yourself pedalling along completely blinded by spray, and trying to breathe through your armpit because it’s the only way to prevent your nose and mouth acting as a gutter for the water that’s running down your face. Who wouldn’t enjoy battling through that?
Grey is the natural colour of the British Islesfrom the beginning of November until the end of February. We’re an island country with mist and fog billowing through our veins, and some days the sky doesn’t seem to change colour from dawn ’til dusk. Uniform grey, soft and depthless, it penetrates your bones and leaves you permanently chilled. No matter how much tea you consume, how hot the bath or long the shower, nothing but a good solid dose of blue sky day can banish the residual ache that lingers in joints long after you’re home and dry.
Good riding kit will help make the process a great deal more enjoyable. Struggling on with plastic bags in your shoes and parcel tape over your helmet vents is all very worthy, but hardly necessary in these days of wipe-clean space suit rainwear. Don’t mince about trying to get by with one pair of shorts, but while you can easily coax wool jerseys and base layers into use for far too long without needing to break out the Dreft, the intimate nature of lower legwear means that it really can’t and shouldn’t be recycled. Either go for the ‘less is more’ approach and resign yourself to spending a large amount of time feeding the washing machine, or throw as much money at the wardrobe as you can and splash out on a pair for every other day of the week. The better the quality, the happier you’ll be.
There’s no doubt about one thing though, winter riding’s a messy affair. All that water means mud – on your clothes, on your bike and, eventually, in your house. While the thought of grubby footprints on the laminate might turn your co-dwellers puce with fury, point out that it’s water soluble, good for the immune system and hasn’t killed you yet, despite its best efforts.
If their concerns are of a hygienic nature, you could always try reminding them of the common evolutionary theory that the thick, black slush left at the bottom of the kitchen sink after you’ve been washing your shoes/gloves/chain is where their great-great-ancestors-many-times-removed first took their first gulp… Accepting that winter mud is mostly benign fun will improve your mood – and you’re riding skills – no end. Dedicated mud tyres, or something a bit narrower than the usual dry weather choice, will considerably reduce the amount of dragging you find yourself doing when you plan on taking to the hills. Old coach roads and sneaky ‘bridleways’ become legitimate playthings. While the bulk of humanity is absorbed in the depths of rush hour, you’ll have the trails mostly to yourself, and any dog walker you meet is likely to be sharing a similar sense of convention-bucking bonhomie beneath their six layers of GoreTex and fleece.
King of the road
Alternatively, fit some fast-rolling semi-slicks and investigate the quieter roads. Short cuts through suburbia’s cul-de-sacs and alleyways become fair game when you’re racing the traffic to your destination – you’ll not always be quicker but you’ll be having a hell of a lot more fun. Riding on the road opens up a whole new scorecard of games and challenges too. Tarmac can be mind-numbingly dull if you fall into the trap of trudging along like any other commuter, but it can be livened up considerably once you start to engage in the frankly dubious yet captivating sport of ‘hunting’. No hounds required, just a distant glimpse of acid green and tweed on a town bike. Gauging speed and distance, you plot your trajectory and start to wind up the pursuit, reeling them in hill by hill. The victory’s sweet but short-lived, for there are numerous other quarry to stalk and everyone’s fair game – no student bike too shonky, no scooter’s fumes too lung-cloggingly toxic to stop you giving chase. You’re King Of The Road, you travel where and when you please (accommodating traffic signals and the letter of the law as you go, obviously, officer), crushing all those puny mortals dithering about in the gutter with the blinkered glare of one who knows that there’s tea and buns waiting two miles up the road.
However, beware of those Tarmac-bound hazards that a lifetime’s mountain biking can never prepare you for. The wizened man o’ the hills on his steel road machine smuggling teak-tough muscles in his calves. There may be enough space down his baggy homespun socks to hide a full Sunday’s compliment of parsnips, but he possesses an uncanny ability to sense your
‘attack’ before it’s even begun, bringing his decades of tactical experience into play and crushing you with a stealthy combination of relentlessly increasing speed and timely showers of spittle. Try not to tussle with the granny on the creaking shopper either, unless you are absolutely certain she isn’t riding one of those new-fangled electric contraptions. It doesn’t matter how loudly you mutter underneath your breath that it’s not actually a proper bike, and that only 30 per cent of the speed is generated by her own legs, you can guarantee that a mate will appear on the street at exactly the right time to witness your humiliation as she sails gaily past you with a cheery wave.
Rewards for Riding
Seek solace for your occasional defeats in the simple reward of the daily winter rider: food. Fuelling these exploits can take a great deal of effort. While most people use their desk tidy to sort paperclips and drawing pins neatly into their family groups, the winter rider’s conceals a full array of tin openers, condiments and eating utensils. Suppers take on truly epic proportions – opening with a starter of toast and tea wolfed down within moments of taking off your shoes, moving on to a mountainous pasta course, followed by a healthy portion of pudding that’s been liberated of any guilt by the fact that you’ll have burned it all off by the time you’ve done the washing up. Finish off with cheese and crackers snaffled by the light of the fridge and you’ll be ready for the next day’s exertions. Sleep the sleep of the happily knackered and dream of the morning when meteorological benevolence returns and you wake to, if not sunshine, then at least a little bit of blue expansive through the clouds…
The air smells different today. The frost’s thick on the fence posts but the grass is a clear, emerald green. You stop at the top of the hill for a moment and stick your hands in your pockets, searching out a little dry warmth. You find an old chunk of chocolate coated energy bar and pop it in your mouth. As it melts, you feel the rising sun warm your shoulders for the first time this year, and blissfully ride on into spring.