Coping strategies for winter cycling blues

Coping strategies for winter cycling blues

I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s winter.

First of all, for anyone reading this who isn’t in the southern hemisphere, I know it’s not real winter, but it is to us.

See, although it’s never, or at least rarely, below freezing, there is still a fairly broad temperature range between seasons, so if you are used to a number followed by a ℃, then 40 less of it is cold. Plus it’s wet, and windy. And, nobody here has ever heard of double glazing or even making doors without massive gaps between the frames, so if it’s cold outside, being inside is just a bit better than driving in winter with the top down but with the heat blasting.

Anyway, as I was saying, it’s winter down here. And that means that most people who like to do the bicycle riding have to face the fact that the motivation to do so isn’t quite the same when it’s cold, and wet, and windy. Oh, and dark.

What’s the problem, and what’s the solution?

Not everyone feels the same way, of course. Some people aren’t put-off by any of this, and to you I doff my cap. There are, however, a few different reasons why the rest of us are. The same problem may have different solutions that depend on your motivations for taking the bike out when part of you doesn’t want to.

There are two rough categories we need to break this down into. Those who ride for the pleasure of it, and those who ride by necessity.

By necessity, I mean that one has a reason for riding that goes beyond recreational purposes. This could be  that you have chosen a bike as your main means of transportation, meaning that if you want to get anywhere, you have to ride, or it might be having to gain a certain amount of fitness by a certain time. Fitness goals are easily pushed aside, though, so I would think that there would be more of a necessity attached to utility cycling over anything else.

So, there may be a spectrum of what people would consider “necessity” that crosses over into other people’s “recreational”, but let’s just keep things simple and say that if you are simply riding a bike for the sheer pleasure of it and nothing else, then that’s one category, and everything else is in another.

How to cope with winter cycling if you don’t have a choice

The methods here can all be used for either category, but basically it’s all about the equipment and planning.

If it’s cold, rug up. If it’s wet, get waterproof. If it’s dark, use some good lights.

If it’s far, or even if it’s near, leave earlier and ride slower to avoid being a bundled up and sweaty mess on arrival. Don’t worry about how you look – at least you’ll be comfortable.

Mudguards are your best friend.

Realize that even though everything seems like it adds up to misery, when dressed and riding appropriately, it’s really no big deal at all. If you think about it further, you realize that being harder than everyone else makes you feel warm and fuzzy in a hard-as-nails kind of way. See Rule #9.

I guess you can add in all of the “it’ll save you money, and you’ll be fitter, and happier, and healthier” and all that.

Compared to recreational cycling pursuits, however, this isn’t overly difficult to overcome.

Ways to cope with winter cycling if you do have a choice

It’s infinitely more difficult to make yourself leave your warm, dry abode and head into a cold, wet, windy, and dirty environment when you don’t actually have to. This is the situation I, and many others, find themselves in at the moment.

Sometimes you find that it’s surprisingly easy to get out there and brave the elements, but for all of the occasions where it’s not, try some of these.

Address the easy things first

Firstly, figure out what your motivation is. What are your goals? Why are you riding? Fitness? Fun? Different motivations may change how you respond to the weather.

Then, figure out what bothers you most about riding in inclement weather (however you define that). If it’s the cold or wet, then just as above, you don’t have the right equipment. Sort that out. Again, if all else fails, return to Rule #9, and take pleasure in the fact that you are hard as nails.

I’ll be honest and say that now and then, the prospect of returning home with a filthy bike is enough to make me second-guess my intention of riding it. I don’t have a convenient place to clean it, but I can tell you that since I’ve had a bike that I don’t care about nearly as much, that doesn’t bother me. It’s filthy at the moment. It probably will be for the next while.

If you can then, and I know that this sounds a tad pretentious, but, a second winter bike is a pretty handy thing to have. Here’s a good way to justify it: it’s actually your commuter. Obviously you don’t ride your super-sweet bike to work (right?), so you need a commuter. Just get a commuter bike that also happens to be just good enough to rip around with on the weekends. In other words, get a cheaper CX or gravel bike. For various reasons, it will be the best thing you ever did.

In general, eliminate all the mechanical concerns you can. Disc brakes are the best in the wet and won’t ruin your rims. Tougher tyres are worth the extra weight because fixing a flat in the cold and wet is the worst. Mudguards.

Non equipment-based coping strategies

Firstly, and most importantly, try this: think about the last time that you came back from a cold, filthy ride and regretted it. Can’t? That’s because it’s almost impossible. I’m always under the impression that I’ll be miserable on the bike, yet although there may be times on the ride where I actually am miserable, I’m always glad I went.

Along same lines, ensure that you are as comfortable as possible before going out to avoid giving up before you even start. Keep yourself from getting even slightly cold while getting ready. Put the heat on. Layer up. Eat some warm food. Have a tea or coffee. Even put your kit in the dryer for a bit to get that next-level coziness. Set aside the kit you’ll need the night before. Don’t start with a negative mindset.

However, don’t grossly over-dress for the ride itself – you’ll heat up and don’t want to have your jersey bulging with discarded kit for the entire ride. With that said, I’d much rather be too warm than too cold. Last weekend I did have a bit of Quasimodo going on with a not-so-light jacket stuffed up the back of my jersey pretty early in the ride, but was quite glad of it at the end when we were sitting around after… There’s no getting around the fact that you’ll be too warm at some points, and too cold at others.

Go somewhere new. Maybe the same old routes aren’t doing it for you anymore, so try heading in a new direction or taking some of the smaller roads you’ve always wondered about.

Similarly, if the prospect of simply riding around for the sake of it is all a little too boring, then steer yourself into some dirty great big hills, or make it a sprint session, or do something that forces you to really engage with the ride.

Make plans to meet someone so it’s not just you that you’re letting down. I always find it far easier to get out of the house for rides that have been organized with others.

Open your eyes and your mind to the unique flavour of winter. The crispness. The different light. The freshness. It just needs a different perspective.

Consider a routine. We are creatures of habit, and sticking to a riding routine could make the whole process that much easier. I usually ride first thing in the morning, and I know that when I leave riding until even a little later in the morning (on days off), it’s far easier to end up pushing it back a little more, or starting something else, or simply giving in to laziness.

If all else fails and it’s just fitness that you’re after…

Finally, if it’s fitness that you’re after and you simply can’t get yourself outside, there’s always the home trainer. There are ways to make this less awful. First, try a training video, like Sufferfest or something similar. It’s effective training and an effective way to pass the time, because everyone knows that simply sitting on a trainer and spinning your legs over is the most boring thing ever invented.

If you don’t have such a video, then music or, better yet, watching cycling or something else that interests you is good. I can’t watch movies because a) there are always tons of quiet spots in the dialogue that I can’t hear, and b) I repeatedly end up concentrating on the movie only to realize that I’m hardly working.

Whatever you do, keep to some kind of program, however simple it may be. Interval training, 3 minutes on, 1 minute off, high cadence sets, pyramid training, whatever. Have a routine. That’s the difference between me lasting 20 minutes before quitting and putting in a good hour on the trainer.

Finally, even if you can’t get outside, and you can’t get a solid thrashing on the trainer, then to keep yourself going over winter just aim for 20 minutes at an easy pace. It will keep that routine of riding going and prove healthy for both body and mind.

If you are going to take one thing away from this, then it is this: no matter how much you think it will suck, it’s always worth it in the end.

Do you have any tips that I missed here? You know where to put ’em.


Header image: The Sticky Bidon