The essential guide to winter cycling survival

Year-round cycling isn't for everyone, but with the right kit and a bit of effort it can be a real joy. Follow these tips to help you stay safe and comfortable in the saddle throughout the worst of the British winter.

1. Relax!

We've all watched with pity from behind a car or bus window as an unlucky cyclist struggles through an unexpected downpour, and silently thanked the nearest available deity that we're not in their soaking wet shoes.

But while this nightmare scenario isn't unheard of, it's actually much less common than you'd think. Even if you're a dedicated daily cycle commuter, you'd be unlucky to get properly rained on more than five or six times in the course of a winter.

Of course you do need to take a few extra steps to stay safe and comfortable, but nine times out of ten, winter rides are an absolute pleasure.

2. Dress for it

Jacket and gloves

Jacket and gloves should be numbers one and two on your checklist – you won't make it much past the end of October without them.

Photo: James McCaffrey, Creative Commons

Photo: James McCaffrey, Creative Commons

Your jacket needs to be waterproof and windproof, but also breathable and not too thick. It's amazing how quickly you can overheat while cycling, even on the coldest days, and you can always add extra layers underneath if necessary. A specialised cycling jacket isn't essential, but it doesn't hurt to have one (if you can find something you like), especially as they tend to have visibility-enhancing reflective bits built in.

Gloves should ideally be windproof, waterproof and long enough to cover your wrists  – if you've never cycled in really cold weather before you'll be surprised how chilly your hands can get. You can buy dedicated bike gloves, but ski gloves have always served me well.

When the going gets tough …

Jacket and gloves will see you through cold, wind and light showers, but if you want to keep going when things take a turn for the torrential you'll need a way to keep your legs and feet dry. That means breaking out the waterproof overtrousers and overshoes.

Goes without saying

A helmet and hi-vis are a good idea all year round, but become even more important as the evenings get darker. If you regularly cycle with a rucksack, consider getting a reflective cover.

3. Get your bike ready

Book a service

Bike parts tend to wear out and work loose more easily in the wet, so it's worth making sure everything's in good condition to start with. Avoid a nasty surprise by arranging a general once-over and tune-up at your local bike shop.

Let us spray

Mudguards can be a pain, but are probably still preferable to the wholesale soaking you (and everyone in a four-metre radius) could get without them. Clip-ons can be tempting, but if you're serious about staying dry, the wrap-around commuter style is the way to go.

Get grippy pedals

Some bike accidents are painful, some are dangerous, and some are plain humiliating. Losing your grip on the pedals gets top marks in all three categories. If you don't feel confident clipping in, wet-weather cycling calls for stable, relentlessly grippy pedals. I use these ones, which are designed for BMX riding and have small studs to keep your feet in place. If you have an adjustable spanner, you can fit them yourself without too much trouble. 

... and grippy tyres

In summer, grip is never much or a problem for the urban cyclist, but winter is another story. It seems counterintuitive, but unless you're riding through mud or snow, tyres with a deeper tread pattern won't actually improve your grip at all. This article explains why.

The trick is to maximise the amount of rubber that's in contact with the road at any given time, so to get the best grip on wet roads, you're looking for a wide, smooth tyre. (Thanks to Peter Smith and James Russell for pointing this out.)

Going easy on tyre pressure can also help: firm tyres minimise rolling resistance and make hills less of a slog, but I tend to keep mine a tiny bit softer in winter for safety reasons.

Light 'em up

Safe winter riding calls for a good set of lights. If you're doing the first half of your journey in daylight but think there's any chance you'll come back after dark, don't forget to take them with you.

Bike light tips:

  1. Get sidecut lights for extra visibility.
  2. Save money and reduce waste by investing in rechargeable batteries.
  3. Make sure you remove your lights when you leave your bike locked up. For some unfathomable reason, people like to steal them.

4. ... then look after it

Water (particularly mixed with road salt) is really tough on your bike. After riding in bad weather, it's a good idea to give your bike five minutes of TLC to keep things running smoothly.

First, give it a general rinse and wipe-down to remove dirt, salt and grit. Pay particular attention to the chain, gears, brakes and wheel rims.

When you're done, dry it off with an old towel. Disperse any excess water in moving parts with a spray of WD40, then add some bike oil to the chain and gear mechanism.

If you're tired and cold after a long ride, you might not always be able to summon the energy for this routine, but your bike will come through the winter in much better shape if you do it as often as possible. 

Either way, it's worth booking in a service every few months, just to keep everything in good working order.

5. Take care

These last few points might seem obvious, but they really can't be repeated enough.

After dark, you're basically invisible to motorists (especially tired, grumpy ones) unless you are hi-vis'd up to the nines. If you don't believe me, try sitting in the passenger seat of a car one night, and marvel at how inconspicuous the cyclists are compared to everything else on the road. It's quite an eye-opener.

Watch out for metal drains, wet leaves and manhole covers. Hit one on a sharp corner in the wet, and you might find yourself horizontal, stationary and hurting, in roughly that order.

Keep an extra-keen eye out for pedestrians – who are usually the only group less visible than cyclists.

Share your winter cycling stories

Got a winter cycling tale to tell? Share your tips and experiences on our Facebook page or send me an email.

Photo: A Shino, Creative Commons