How to ride through winter

09 01 23

Words by Phil Deeker

Bike riding to me means well-paced long days (“dawn2dusk” whenever possible) with lots of climbing.

The ride needs to be challenging but at all times enjoyable. Over the years I have learnt how one’s mental attitude is where it all starts.

I live in the heart of the hilly Belgian Ardennes, at 500m altitude. Hardly mountainous, but despite climate change, winters can still regularly get real enough to make Zwift training sessions on a turbo the ‘sensible thing’ to do. In fact, a coach might tell me it’s a more efficient way of training. Unless it’s still -7C outside at 10am, no coach will stop me getting outside. I feel that it’s the best way to prepare for the long summer rides in the mountains. It is also something I genuinely enjoy. Here’s five reasons to explain why:

1 . Body Heat. Inside or out, winter is about how you keep warm. As much as I love the generous radiant heat of a wood stove, my favourite heat of all is the one I make! The life-affirming glow coming from your well-wrapped body makes me smile. In the season when motivation to get the miles in your legs may be lacking, working up that body heat can be a genuine morale-booster. Get there and the rest gets easier! Winter tries to bite at your fingers and toes, but then gives up. You win! It sounds so simple, but in my case, anyway, it’s been the result of years of trial ‘n error of my bike-wardrobe.

2. Clothing Combinations. Fact is that a day out on the road-bike can require a more complex use of clothing than almost any other outdoor activity. The mortifying windchill factor of a long descent can be followed by a wave of body-sweat beneath too much clothing on a short, steep climb. Rain can come at you hard and suddenly, or can slowly work its way into your bones. But these challenges can also be part of a ride in August, if you’re on your dream trip in the French Alps. So NOW is when you need to learn how to use your wardrobe. Buying LOTS of kit is not the answer. You need to know how each item works and more importantly, how it works for YOU. I still enjoy smelling the outside air then choosing different ways of combining my range of ride-clothing. Not as a bike-dandy, but as part of my quest for that Perfect Ride. Feeling “just right” in your kit, be it 5°C or 35°C is as much part of that ride as the road itself.

3. Bike handling. OK, so it’s not the best time of year to fine-tune your cornering and descending skills, but riding outside through winter will improve your overall ability to assess danger, sharpen up your ability to stay focused and maybe even teach you to stay upright when your bike is trying to take you down. I’m not advocating that we should all go out and find an icy patch or a nice slippery white line to have fun on, but I remain convinced that just learning to “ride sensibly” in harsh weather can teach you a lot, both about ride technique ( focusing, braking, anticipating) and about cleaning your bike after the ride!!

4. Landscape. Looking sideways is for me always part of any ride. Winter often provides us with minimalist landscape with which we can communicate in a more immediate way than in the leafy seasons. There are less people around, less traffic. The outdoors belongs to those who dare to get out there. It’s an intimate thing. A time for reflection. For me, it’s the time of year when riding comes closest to “active meditation”.

5. Mental strength. Finally, to get real, riding in the cold and wet is not all fun. Despite all I have written here, I still get myself into moments when I wonder why I am still so stupid. Nothing required me to be here! We all know these moments are just part of the ride. They are the building blocks for growing our mental resilience. To get through them is to make each ride, each day, your self BETTER! But all the above needs to start with a good choice of kit. Layering is the key, we are often told. Totally true, but if only it was that simple …

Here’s my Favourite Five items of Albion kit for winter riding:

Rain Jacket 3.0 (Slate)

1. Rain jacket 3.0

As well as keeping me dry throughout any ride, this is breathable enough to wear after the rain, as a perfect windshield. It’s so packable that it’s always in the back cargo-pocket of my tights. Every ride.

Zoa Rain Trousers (Olive Grey)

2. Zoa Rain Trousers + Three Season Tights

I’ve cheated a bit here and rolled these two into one. If worried that the deep winter tights might be too warm, I will wear the lighter three-season tights and have the rain-trousers roll-packed into a pocket. They work exactly like the jacket: a great water-block and then a superb wind-block for cold descents. Legs stay warm with zero interference to free leg movement.

That’s “The Blocking” done. Now let’s think thermal. Just two simple items can cover most of this, under the ‘Block’ layer:

Long Sleeve Jersey (Fluro Green)

3. Long Sleeve Jersey

This breathable and lightweight jersey, with a merino base layer underneath, seems to always create real warmth under the Block layer. If the sun does make a brief shine though, then the jacket comes off and I still have enough protection from the cold air to really enjoy the moment. Equally useful as an inner or an outer layer, this has often made that “Perfect Ride” feel almost within grasp!

Insulated Gilet 3.0 (Black)

4. Insulated Gilet 3.0

On the coldest days I would use the insulated jacket, but for this limited list I would choose this gilet as the most effective way of really making the difference when extra warmth is needed. I wear it occasionally underneath the long sleeve jersey. It seems to keep me even warmer. I find the two-way zip really useful in spring to keep my shoulders sheltered from the cool air whilst the lower unzipped
part allows full ventilation where it’s needed.

Merino Neckwarmer (Dark Slate)

5. Merino Neck warmer

Along with a riding cap (trying to sneak that onto this list!), I never ride without this in winter. A cold neck and shoulders can become truly painful on a long winter ride as the muscles tighten up. Just wrapped around your neck, or this can also be pulled up over your mouth to shield your lungs from the icy air. For even colder rides, pull it right up over the back part of your head, thereby covering your ears too. Simplicity + Flexibility = Efficiency. Job done.

PS. Have you thought about how you would keep that hard-earned body heat if you have a flat out in the cold ‘n wet? The Zoa Insulated Jacket tucks up nicely in the lightweight back-pack, and can be easily worn under the rain jacket. Job done!