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Winter Cycling: A Beginners Guide to Survival on the Roads

Winter cycling

For 6 long winters, I cycled in London. My first winter was no fun at all. I was on a rickety old upright that someone had given me because it wasn’t even worth selling. And I was cycling out of necessity, too broke to afford the train fare into the city centre to go to work! On upgrading my bike during year two, everything changed and I soon found myself really enjoying my winter cycling through busy London traffic in driving rain and freezing temperatures. On the odd day where I chose to ride the tube instead of my bicycle, I would instantly regret my decision, no matter how bad the weather was outside, and resolved only to take the tube when absolutely necessary.

Sure, there are a few downsides to cycling right through the winter. Putting wet shoes on at the end of the day to cycle home is probably the worst for me. And I’m not a huge fan of those first few minutes of chill before pedaling finally warms me up. But the upsides by far outweigh the few minor negatives. Getting on your bike spares you the uncomfortably close physical encounters that occur with strangers on a tightly packed tube or train. Dodging this means you also avoid sharing all their germs, keeping your winter cold count to a minimum. You arrive at work totally awake and alert, warmed from your physical exertion and invigorated from the fresh (read freezing) air and rain blowing in your face for the duration of your ride. And of course cycling as part of your routine also means that your daily dose of exercise is ticked and done without even trying. It really is win win!

But it takes a little bit of work, preparation and commitment to really get the most out of cycling right through the winter. Take a look at these tips to keep you safely enjoying riding your bike, even in the worst of the winter weather.

Winter cycling gear to keep you safe

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A rainy day for motorists, means limited visibility from rain on the outside and steam on the inside, as well as lower levels of natural daylight. Ride at night, and it’s even worse. So being as visible as possible is without a doubt the most important thing for safe winter cycling.

  • Bike lights for winter cycling

    1Use good quality lights

    A bright white front light and a red back light should be used as a minimum. Many cyclist have two of each, putting one on to flash mode to draw more attention. Don’t scrimp on bike lights. Yes, they can be expensive, but they are well worth the investment.

  • Hi-vis jacket for winter cycling

    2Wear bright clothing

    The brighter the better, so don’t be shy! Fluorescent jackets with reflective panels are best, but reds and orange jackets are also highly visible.

  • Spoke reflectors

    3Use reflectors

    These are especially good to enable motorists that are approaching from your side to see you. Your lights will only be seen well from the front and back, so having reflectors on your legs, arms and spokes helps light up your side profile too.

  • Helmet with lights

    4Always wear a helmet

    Even if you’re just popping to the shop up the road, make it a rule to NEVER ride without it. Adding some lights to your helmet is an excellent way to make drivers aware of your existence, especially if they are by your side and may not be able to see your front lights well.

Winter cycling gear to keep you warm and dry

As soon as you become too cold on your bike, morale will dip, you’ll start wishing you were anywhere else but cycling, and immediately you’ve created an excuse for not pursuing winter cycling. If you’ve not quite nailed your temperature control, then wear more than you think you should. You can always shed layers if you get too hot. Don’t expect to start your cycle warm though. You need to allow for the exertion to warm you up – it’s a fine line!

  • Base layer

    5Layer up

    Wearing layers is key to staying warm when winter cycling. Wear a close fitting thick base layer as a minimum, underneath a windproof jacket. Then add however many thin and breathable layers you need in between.

  • Cycling gloves

    6Get good gloves 

    Winter cycling gloves are a tricky one to get right. Too thick and your hands will sweat and then swiftly cool as soon as you stop moving. Too thin, and your frozen fingers will stop working and probably start dropping off! A wicking inner glove can help with this in really cold conditions.

  • Overshoe socks

    7Try using waterproof socks 

    Numb toes are a common complaint of winter cyclists. Waterproof and windproof shoes will help to keep out the chill, but if you don’t want to upgrade your shoes, then go for waterproof merino socks or neoprene overshoe socks to keep those toes as toastie as possible.

  • Waterproof cycling pants

    8Wear waterproof jacket and pants

    Most waterproof jackets are also windproof so you’ll be covered for all conditions. And if it’s raining really hard then waterproof pants over the top of tights will help to keep you as comfortable as possible.

Adapt to the conditions

Along with the potential discomfort that one might associate with time in the saddle in freezing temperatures, there’s also the issue of excess grit and dirt on the roads. And it manages to get everywhere if you don’t keep on top of it.

  • Fenders

    9Fix on some mud guards/fenders 

    Fix these on at the first sign of bad weather and it’ll stop your winter gear and clothing from being muddied and stained. The lack of water and mud spraying other cyclists will also make you a much more desirable winter cycling companion.

  • Muc-off bike cleaner

    10Clean your bike regularly 

    As annoying as cleaning your bike is, and speaking from experience, being lazy about cleaning your bike during the winter months is just not worth it. Your bike parts will degrade much more quickly than if they are kept clean, and they are also less likely to fail or jam on you when cycling. Use a spray-on tech bike cleaner to make things as easy as possible.

  • Winter tyres

    11Switch to winter tyres 

    Aside from the added safety of extra grippy tyres in wet conditions, winter tyres also provide greater resistance against debris on the roads. Puncture avoidance during the winter will really help to make sure you don’t waver from your cycling routine.

Get into a cycling routine

Don’t expect to fall in love with winter cycling immediately. And in fairness, you wouldn’t be the first to never fall in love with it at all. But you can certainly take steps towards enjoying it more than you think you might.

12Start cycling in the summer

Start a regular cycling routine during the summer months when you can come up with far less excuses not to ride. Then as the weather starts to cool, your habit is already ingrained in your routine. All you need to do is adapt to the conditions.

13Get your gear ready early

Have your winter gear ready by the end of the summer. Not having the right gear is one of the best and most legitimate excuses not to ride in bad weather. So get set up before you ever have the chance to ride without great gear.

13Remember the benefits

Remind yourself of the benefits of cycling in the cold – whatever they may be for you. For me, the idea of getting on public transport is always enough to make me ride in terrible winter conditions. Even when I feel under the weather, a brisk ride will always make me feel better. For some of you it might be the financial savings that spur you on to get pedalling, or the fitness, or new gear! Whatever it is, remind yourself of it when you are doubting your choice to cycle.

About the author


Joey Holmes is based in Cornwall, UK, and runs Cool of the Wild. She can’t get enough of being outdoors – whether that’s lounging around the campfire cooking up a feast, hitting the trail in her running shoes, or attempting to conquer the waves on her surfboard – she lives for it. Camping is what she loves to do the most, but has also spent many hours clinging to the side of a rock face, cycling about the place, cruising the ski-slopes on her snowboard, and hiking small mountains and big hills.

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