Commuting by Bike – Getting Through the Winter

You might think it counter-intuitive but if you are new to commuting by bike, the winter is probably the best time to start.

Surely you can’t be serious?!

Well, actually, we can. You see, winter is long, bleak and depressing. It’s also a time when cars tend to break down; the trains are often flummoxed by the wrong type of leaf, rain or snow; and a lack of bus station in Cardiff now means that nobody is really sure where their bus is.

Aside from that, it is the hardest time to be out on your bike, but if you can get through it, the spring and the summer are going to be an absolute treat.

You will earn a new appreciation for the changing seasons too. Winter is full of ups and downs, some days it rains, others it blows a gale or even snows. These are interesting challenges when you are self-powered, but also incredibly fulfilling ones. However, you will need to be prepared. First up, clothing.

1. Clothes

Unfortunately, this can be a bit expensive, depending on how much laundry you want to be doing and how far you need to go. For short commutes you really can just wear your normal clothes, but for longer commutes we’d go for something a little more comfortable and breathable.

Whether you are 1 mile or 10 miles from work, you’ll want to consider bringing a change of clothes on your journey. You never know what is going to be thrown at you and chances are, even with waterproofs on you might arrive at work a little damp.

As far as what to wear on your ride is concerned, we’d recommend the following:

  1. A thermal or Merino base-layer –you can get these quite cheap and they don’t necessarily need to be cycle-specific. We have tried a couple of cheap Didoo ones bought on Amazon, but they’re worth it for not only keeping you warm, but keeping the moisture away from your skin when you ride. However, as mentioned in our Base Layer post, synthetic base layers need to be washed every day, but Merino is naturally deodorising.
  2. Cycling tights with a padded rear –lets face it, you’re probably new to cycling and you may well get saddle sore initially. It’s worth getting a pair of padded cycling tights to not only keep you warm but to protect your rear too. With shorts and tights you do get what you pay for, but Wiggle’s DHB range of Aeron and ASV shorts are excellent for the price.
  3. A thermal skull-cap or balaclava–Whether you decide to wear a helmet or not (we’re pro-choice here…) you are going to get a cold head. A skull-cap will keep both your head and your ears warm and wind-free. Best of all, it will fit under your helmet should you choose to wear one.
  4. A jacket –Winter is a season that is mostly dark. You’ll probably be heading to work in the dark and heading home in the dark, so being seen is pretty important. A good jacket will not only keep the wind and rain off, but some will incorporate reflective panels and piping helping you to be seen. We have tested the Altura Nightvision Evo jacket, which is is covered in reflective panels. The black one looks quite understated by day, but lights you up like a Christmas tree when headlights shine on it. We’re not fans of dressing like a highways engineer though.
  5. Waterproof trousers –There are two schools of thought here. Wet, cold legs are no fun, but nor are waterproof trousers. You can buy water-repellent lycra shorts or tights should you not like the rhythmic drone of baggy waterproofs rubbing against your frame. However, this is Wales after all and it will rain, snow, hail and all manner of other things during the year, even in summer.
  6. Glasses –Even if you don’t normally wear glasses, keeping the wind, rain, insects and debris out of your eyes as you ride will make your journey a lot safer and more pleasant. A set of multi-lens glasses (clear lenses, dark lenses etc) should see you right through most winter scenarios.
  7. A snood  –You won’t want to be messing about with a normal scarf, but you also want to keep the cold off your face. A snood is an inexpensive but effective option.
  8. Gloves – Last but definitely not least, a good pair of winter cycling gloves. Something waterproof and thermal would be ideal. Something like these SealSkinz would do. You can also layer your gloves as well, perhaps with a thin neoprene base pair and some woolly mitts over the top. Depends how cold & wet it is.
  9. Overshoes – The unfortunate thing about waterproof trousers is that they tend to deposit rainwater into your socks. Not only that, most cycling shoes, if you wear them (shoes & cleats we’ll get to at some point) are designed to be well ventilated (Read: freezing cold in winter), so warm and rainproof overshoes are a must. Best of all, they’re only about £20 at your local bike shop. As with the gloves, neoprene works well as overshoes inevitably leak anyway. Wet neoprene will at least keep your feet warm…

 

2. The bike

So, you’re dressed and raring to go, but what about your bike? If your bike is new you should be fairly well sorted already, but it is important to check that your tire pressures are within the recommended range; that your brakes work well and that your chain is sufficiently lubricated. However, you do need to get into the habit of washing your bike regularly. Salt, muck and rain play havoc with your components and will see you wear through parts more quickly than you need to.

Tire choice is something you might also want to think about. You might want to consider prioritising puncture resistance over weight and performance for the winter months. Schwalbe’s Marathon Plus’ is a durable, virtually puncture-proof and grippy tire with low rolling resistance, but they are heavy and quite expensive. Still, there are few experiences more grim than repairing a puncture at the side of the road in the rain and with temperatures barely above freezing.

The other thing to think about is lights. Yes, you can get some cheap lights from the supermarket, but might I suggest that you invest in something a bit more robust. You can get USB rechargeable lights and headlights that not just make you visible but able to see the way ahead on an unlit cycle path –like the Taff Trail for example. The Taff Trail is unlit most of the way north of Castle Street and south of Tongwynlais. We’ve ridden it at 11pm at night and it’s not for the faint of heart. A set of these Cateye ones are a good starting point. They’re a bit expensive, but the battery life is excellent and the front light is pretty good on a dark trail. We have a whole article about lights, by the way…

As for carrying your luggage, you can either use a rack and panniers or a ruck sack. Panniers will save you getting a sweaty back, but a ruck sack requires a bit less fiddling at either end of your ride and have less of an effect on the balance and feel of the bike. A pannier rack often doubles as a useful mud-guard though…

However, if you have a locker at work, you could keep a few changes of clothes there and dispense with the luggage for most of the week.

Finally, your lock. If you like your bike at all and want to still be there to take you home, invest in a good lock. Whilst a good D-lock is heavy, they are effective. Locks are rated according to their thief-flummoxing power by Sold Secure. A gold rated lock is a good, safe bet and something like a Kryptonite Series 2 is a good investment. If you have quick-release wheels, a cable to loop around your front wheel is also a wise investment. The lock you buy may even come with one. However, please, please, please do not rely on a single cable lock to secure your bike. They are completely and categorically useless.

When you come to lock your bike up at work, put the D-lock around the seat stay (the tube leading from your seat to your rear wheel hub) and onto the stand. Loop the cable around the front wheel and into the D-lock before placing the bar on the end and locking it. Both wheels and your frame should now be secure. We also have a whole article about securing your bike and also securing your bike at home.

3. Your route

It is probably safe to assume that if you are new to commuting by bike, you won’t want to jump straight onto the main roads until you have built up some confidence in your bike handling skills. Before you set off –preferably about a week before, start planning a couple of potential routes to work. You can use Google Maps to draw a cycle route from point A to point B. This is a useful starting point, but you can also do the same thing with CycleStreets. Where CycleStreets excels is that it gives you a number of route options depending on how busy the route is in terms of traffic vs how quickly you will get there. Start with the quietest route and start varying it as your confidence grows.

If you normally drive to work, chances are you’ll gravitate towards different roads on a bike than you would by car. Now would be a good time to familiarise yourself with the bicycle trails, traffic-free and low traffic routes. In Cardiff these are often “shared paths”, which, if you are lucky will have a curbed demarkation between pedestrians and cyclists, such as around Morrison’s in Cardiff Bay. Others will look like slightly wide pavements, with just a blue sign at strategic points to distinguish it from the sort of pavement you are not allowed on.

It’s no wonder people get it wrong though. However, if you are unsure of the best way to go, even with the various online mapping services available, feel free to post a start and end point in the comments (it doesn’t have to be the exact location if you’d rather not give too much away –major landmarks or villages would be fine) and we’ll endeavour to recommend a route for you. We’ll even try it out and write a post about it. Guess what, we also have a primer on Cardiff’s cycle network

4. You

If you are already physically active, you may already be well aware of this, but active commuting places different demands on your body than more sedentary forms. You may need to start thinking more carefully about what you eat and when. However, cycling’s ability to burn calories like crazy can be used to your advantage.

If you are carrying a bit of excess weight, riding up to 30 minutes in a “fasted” state as you are before breakfast will train your body to use fat for fuel, just keep the intensity low so that you are not getting out of breath. This is a great way to shed weight quickly, but make sure you have a good breakfast when you get to work, school or college. Preferably include some protein and carbohydrates in your breakfast –porridge, scrambled egg on brown toast, cereal bars, that sort of thing.

A bit of trial and error may be necessary to see what works for you, but as long as you keep the sugar down and the protein up, your leg muscles will quickly firm up and your rides will get easier. Well, that’s possibly a slight fib –they’ll get quicker at least. You probably will “bonk” once or twice though as you try different foods. Too many sugary snacks before riding will spike your insulin levels and turn this excess energy into fat for safe keeping.

Ultimately, your winter commute will either leave you wanting more as the weather breaks, or it’ll dampen your spirits. Joining our Strava club and connecting with other riders in the area can help to keep you motivated.

Other riders are a tremendous source of information and moral support. Besides, it is always nice to look back at the early rides and see how much you’ve progressed.

 

Gavin

Bike commuter, randonneur and cat wrangler

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