The Camcycle guide to cycling in winter

This article was published in 2018, in Magazine 141.

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Winter can be a lovely time to cycle. There is snow on the ground in the fields and commons to marvel at. The clear blue skies allow fantastic stargazing as you cycle around in the evening. But there is also the small issue of the weather.

It’s cold, it’s dark, and if there aren’t leaves and mud and rain to contend with there will be snow and ice and wind. When put like that, winter may not sound like the most cycle-friendly time. However, colder weather need not mean losing enjoyment on the bike. Keep the following tips in mind and you can keep cycling all the way through to spring.

As the saying goes, there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing. It’s much easier to keep yourself cycling through winter if you are warm and comfortable. This will keep you safe too – if you feel happy on the bike, it frees your brain to concentrate on getting to your destination, rather than grumbling about the cold. You warm up when cycling, but it usually takes 10-20 minutes to do so, depending on the rider, conditions, your clothing and how much effort you’re putting in. You don’t want to be shivering on the bike, but by the same token sweating in your clothes isn’t helpful either. So, what can you do?

Keep yourself warm and comfortable

Lay it on

Layering is key to keeping warm. Instead of throwing on one thick jacket, layer your clothing as this gives you more flexibility with your fluctuating temperatures.

  • Start with a base layer – usually very close-fitting and long-sleeved.
  • Add an insulating layer or two – can be anything from a long-sleeved t-shirt to a thick fleece depending on the temperature.
  • Finally, add a windproof and waterproof outer layer such as a jacket.

Any outdoors store will carry suitable jackets. Cycling-specific jackets are typically closer cut than normal waterproofs, with various extra pockets that are easy to reach when on the bike, and will normally have reflective strips on them (see below). If you buy one, just make sure you get one large enough to fit a bulky insulating layer underneath. Waterproof trousers are also very helpful for keeping rain and dirt kicked up from the road off your clothes.

Layering is key to keeping warm. It gives you more flexibility with your fluctuating temperatures.

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I glove cycling

Gloves are essential too. Again, look for windproof and waterproof versions. You can also use the layering principle with gloves. In autumn and spring, just wear the shell gloves, in winter wear thin wool gloves beneath them. While you can find heated versions of these, they tend to be very expensive. If your fingers are still freezing even with layering, you can try mittens – with all the fingers together it should keep the hands warmer for longer. Just make sure you can still operate brakes and gears safely.

Looking buff

Other elements of clothing worth considering looking for are buffs or scarves for the neck and hats or ear-protectors for those particularly bitter days. If you wear a helmet, you can find thin hats to wear beneath them and still keep warm.

Carry more

If you are carrying things, it’s better to carry them in a pannier bag (or trailer, or cargo bike) than on your back. You’ll be less tired and suffer much less from back ache, as well as be less sweaty there.

Members’ Recommend:

  • Snoods/buffs are great – they weigh almost nothing and take up no space so can live in bottom of your pannier in case of miserable weather.
  • Neoprene overshoes for when it’s cold and/or wet. Too many are sized (and priced!) for bike racers and specific, tiny, shoes, but if you look round you can get some cheap simple neoprene and velcro ones that will fit over normal shoes/trainers. Particularly good when it’s proper soggy and your waterproofs concentrate all the water onto your shoes.
  • Bulk buy hot pad hand warmers from eBay. Strider are the hottest and last for longer. I use one and swap it between gloves but it does usually last all day especially if you keep it warm when not using it, by wrapping it in a scarf for instance.
  • Mittens – because they keep the fingers together they are much warmer than gloves with separate fingers.
  • Two pairs of gloves – Merino on the inside and Gore-Tex on the outside.
  • Fit a hub dynamo and lights. Then all your lighting issues will be sorted forever!

Keep your bike maintained well

Salt from gritters, combined with rain or snow, can quickly rust your chain and gears so give everything a quick wipe down with a cloth (or gloved finger) at the end of your ride.
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A well-maintained bike is a joy to ride in good conditions. In bad conditions, it’s a confidence-giver. You don’t want cables or chains to snap when you’re crossing junctions, and you certainly want to make sure your brakes will slow you down. Winter can be harsh for your bike. Prepare your bike well and keep a close eye on it through these challenging months, and you’ll be able to take on any journey with aplomb.

Brake point

Your brakes are super important in winter. For rim brake, have a quick look at your brake pads. If they’re worn down to, or near, the metal, or just very old, they need to be replaced. Pads should be evenly worn – this means the whole pad is being used for braking, and that pressure is even from each pad onto the wheel rim. If the pads look unevenly worn, it’s definitely worth setting up the brakes again. If you’re not confident to fix it yourself, book your bike in for a service at your local bike shop. If you have disc brakes, it’s worth checking the pads at the start and end of winter, but because they are much harder wearing than rim brake pads, you don’t need to keep as much of an eye on them. Likewise, drum brakes are very weather resistant, and it’s usually better to take them to a bike shop than to service them yourself.

Gripping stuff

If you have the choice, take the bike with the wider tyres and knobblier tread. Wider tyres have more surface area so give you more grip. Knobblier tread provides channels for water to flow aside, so less chance of aquaplaning with puddles, and much more grip. Fit wider tyres with treads, if your bike doesn’t already have them. Puncture protection for tyres has improved significantly – Schwalbe Marathon Plus or Continental Gatorskins are recommended.

Light up the world

Winter brings lengthy periods of darkness and bike lights are required from sunset to sunrise. They light your way and help you to be seen by other road users. Typically, the more expensive a light is, the brighter it is. If you’re cycling around town, in well-lit areas, you just need enough for other road users to see you – so look for around 50-100 lumens for the front light, and 10-15 for the rear. If you’re doing more cycling out in the country, you’ll need much brighter lights to light your way. In either case, make sure your lights are angled towards the road so that you don’t blind people as you’re passing.

Flashing lights are allowed: 2-3 flashes per second is best. Many lights are USB-chargeable, making it easy to keep them charged up using the same charger as your phone. Some can even be plugged straight into a USB socket, no extra cable required.

As a backup, it may be worth having a couple of very small and cheap LED lights in your jacket or bag at all times, just in case you get caught out without lights – e.g. having spent an unexpectedly long time out, or in case your main lights get stolen or broken – as it means you can still get home.

A red rear reflector and amber pedal reflectors are also required by law. An alternative to screw-on reflectors is adhesive reflective tape stuck to the forks or struts of your bike. Just make sure forward-facing surfaces have white reflectors, and rear-facing surfaces have red reflectors.

A well-oiled machine

Finally, a couple of simple maintenance tasks can keep your bike in trim, and make it feel easier to ride.

Firstly, keep the bike oiled – particularly the chain, gears (derailleurs, shifters and cables) and brake pivots. Check weekly (it’ll take seconds!) and oil when required. Check the cables for signs of fraying, and just make sure clamps holding the cables are secure.

Next, keep your tyres pumped up – make sure you’re at least above the minimum air pressure. The minimum and maximum recommended air pressure of a tyre is usually printed or embossed on the side of the tyre. Find out how much pressure you have in your tyres by using a gauge – you can get pumps with built-in gauges, making it very easy to inflate to the right level.

If you’ve been out in wet or snowy conditions, try and give your wheel rims and chain a quick wipe down with a cloth (a gloved finger will do too!) at the end of the ride.

Salt from gritters, combined with rain or snow, can quickly rust your chain and gears. Likewise, grit from the road can prematurely wear rims and brake pads for those bikes with rim brakes.

If you have disc brakes, you’re less at risk, but it’s still worth considering.

Consider fitting mudguards to your bike. Not only do they help keep the worst of the rain and dirt from ending up on you, they also help keep it away from more parts of your bike – particularly the chain and gears.

Cycle for the conditions

Rain, ice and snow all mean longer braking distances. It doesn’t snow much in Cambridge, so it can catch you out when it does. Winter means there’s a much greater chance that you’ll be cycling in the dark, so visibility remains an issue, both in terms of lighting up the road ahead of you (particularly away from the cities and towns), and being seen by other road users.

Before you go

Plan your journey, and look at the forecast to see what the weather holds in store. Tailor your clothing and your route to the conditions. Immediately before setting off, do a quick test that your brakes work.

Well balanced

Keep your weight balanced on the bike between front and back wheels, use both front and back brakes gently and be as smooth as you can with cornering. Brake in a straight line wherever possible, before you take a corner. Accelerate after the corner, again in a straight line where possible. This means the maximum amount of grip is available for the important actions – changing speed and changing direction. If you brake and turn at the same time, you’re more likely to end up spinning or sliding.

Rain it in

It will take you longer to slow down when you brake in rainy conditions, and when there’s ice/snow/frost on the ground. Keep your speed lower and plan in advance. A long but light press on the brakes every so often will help clear water, and mean your braking is more effective when you need it.

Snow problem

In snowy conditions, back roads are much more likely to have snow and ice on them (but on the other hand, car drivers tend to drive slower and more carefully when there’s snow around).

Don’t be afraid to ride in the tracks cleared by motor vehicles, as this may be far safer than cycling in compacted or frozen snow near the gutter, or on an unsalted cycle path.

It’s ok to walk!

Don’t be afraid to get off your bike and walk if conditions get too bad. It’s better to arrive late than not at all.

End of your journey

Park under cover where possible. Have a quick inspection of your bike, and if you can, clear water and dirt from wheel rims and the chain. It’ll help keep your brakes and gears in good condition for the next time.

Keep riding with your essentials

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Winter can throw many hurdles at you, at a moment’s notice, from a sudden downpour to the inevitable pothole-caused puncture. This may seem like quite the kit list, but it’s amazing how small kit is nowadays, and it can all be packed into a small bag.

  • Waterproofs – a jacket or cape at least, but waterproof trousers are very helpful too. Consider carrying a small spare insulating layer, such as a base layer, a spare top or an insulated gilet, in case the weather is colder than expected.
  • A small folding tool kit – for quick roadside get-you-home repairs.
  • Bike pump, spare inner tube and tyre levers – in case of punctures, it’s much faster to replace an inner tube than it is to apply patches. However, this won’t do much good if you can’t or don’t know how to replace an inner tube.
  • Bike light and spare lights – While you’re more likely during winter to have lights on your bike, you may still get caught out. Small, thumb-sized lights kept in a bag or jacket (or left on your bike if you’re feeling brave) can keep you legal.

See you in the spring!

So there you have our tips for staying safe on the bike throughout winter. Take care of yourself, take care of your bike, cycle according to the conditions, and pack some small backups. Winter can be enjoyable – conquer these conditions and nothing can stop you cycling for the rest of the year

Winter Checklist

  • 1 minute: Check your brakes and oil your chain
    Do a swift test of your brakes before you start cycling, and inspect the pads for signs of wear. Give your chain a drop of oil.
  • 5-10 Minutes: Report road maintenance problems
    You can report potholes, ungritted roads, flooding, damaged signs and more by going to highwaysreporting.cambridgeshire.gov.uk. You can see progress of other reported issues too!

Extra tips for cycling with children

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Riding in the winter can help to ensure that you continue to get around. But staying warm, being safe and having fun on the bikes isn’t always easy if little ones are in tow. Winter clothing can be bulky and impractical; drivers are less accustomed to seeing cyclists on winter roads; snow banks make the roads narrower; and the ride home from nursery or school is often dark when the days are shorter.

On the whole, Cambridge is a city whose inhabitants are reluctant to put the bikes into hibernation. We asked those of you who ride all year round with children for your best ideas this winter. You told us that the things to do are dress appropriately, ride slowly and have a backup plan or two in case the weather changes.

Thank you to those who responded with practical and ingenious suggestions! Here’s a compilation of your top tips:

Choose your path

When it’s dark, stick to the cycle paths as much as possible, even if it means a slightly longer route. If snow has fallen, however, the main roads are often cleared first so, as long as there isn’t so much grit that it will destroy your bike, they can be the best option.

Extra lights

Many people add a string of coloured LED lights to their bikes. You can buy them in a length of clear, flexible PVC tubing which has plastic stoppers in each end, such as the JML Wheely Bright (available from www.jmldirect.com). They are battery-powered and secured by weaving the rope through the spokes, with clips to fasten at each end. They don’t last forever but are easy to fit and make the bikes stand out – especially from the side.

If using the rain cover on a cargo bike, try wrapping a set of battery-powered fairy lights inside the frame. This has the added benefit of keeping babies happy as well as meaning that pre-schoolers and older children can read on longer rides!

Finally, it sounds obvious, but include charging front and back bike lights on the household daily to-do list…

Pedals

Swap cages and clipless pedals for wide mountain bike pedals that are big enough for warm, grippy boots.

Tyres

It might seem over the top for the relatively mild winters in Cambridge, but if you’re planning on riding in icy conditions, you could invest in studded tyres. If not, consider practising on ice in empty spaces such as a car park. As with sand or mud puddles, as long as you keep pedalling, you can usually stay upright.

Helmets

If you choose to wear one, helmets with adjustable fittings come into their own in winter because they will accommodate hats (certain manufacturers also offer liners for their helmets). Downhill ski helmets are also worth considering because they often come with visors that offer extra wind protection.

Clothing

Warm kids are happy kids! Think head-to-toe and cover the extremeties:

  • Balaclavas or buffs with attached neckwarmers under helmets
  • Vaseline on cheeks protects the exposed skin on longer rides
  • Wool sweaters, long johns and socks
  • Wind and waterproof top layers including gloves and boots (Bogs are great boots because they are waterproof, made from flexible fabric and cosy warm).

For transporting babies on cargo bikes or similar, a snowsuit with attached gloves, hood and feet is great if you’re just lifting them out and straight indoors at the other end of your journey. If you’re staying outside for longer once the ride is over, avoid the big snowsuit and use blankets or cosytoes in the bike and transfer baby into a sling under a babywearing coat.

On longer rides, or when the wind is blowing fiercely, I stop to check the kids’ fingers and make sure they’re warm enough. A few times my daughter hasn’t been warm enough, so I invited her to hop off the bike and we walked together for a few minutes until she heated up.

Make yourself heard

Winter often ushers in the use of thick hats pulled down or ear warmers, making road users less able to hear you. To avoid injuring them or yourselves, use your bike bell and encourage children to do the same in order to communicate your position and offer a friendly warning if you are about to overtake.

Don’t make it a chore!

Finally, remember that we want the next generation to enjoy cycling as much as (and more than!) we do. If the ice, cold, wind, rain and darkness are making your children unhappy on their bikes, then consider getting the bus or train to wherever you need to go instead. Nobody will judge you; many will understand. Ride little and often enough through the winter and the little ones will, in time, learn to enjoy it – the puff of air fogging from their mouths, the glitter of frost on sunlit commons, the swift, magical dusks and those wet, blustery days when being on a bike feels like being lashed to the mast of a ship in a storm.