American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, best known for his epic Hiawatha, observed that ‘into each life some rain must fall’. As cyclists, we’re more aware of it than most, but British Cycling club coach Dan Bennett, who runs Progressive Cycle Coaching, highlights the benefits of a good soaking.
“Riding in the cold and wet gives you the mental toughness to handle a change in the weather in a race or sportive. It also increases your bike-handling skills, teaches you where the limits of your tyres are, and keeps you in better tune with your bike. Apply the brakes in equal amounts – 50 per cent on the front, 50 per cent on the back – and ride a little further towards the middle of the road: you’ll be less likely to pick up flints and other stones washed off the verges that may cause punctures.”
The real key to winter riding is your clothing. “Wrap up with the best training clothing you can afford,” he says. “And when you’re riding in low temperatures on a windy wet day, you need to wear a whole lot more, as the windchill factor will be vastly increased.”
Despite advances in materials and design, road riders have to accept that their feet will, eventually, get wet. Overshoes may be made from waterproof materials, but they still have holes for cleats. Even waterproof socks don’t provide the answer, as the rain runs down your legs and, once in your socks, it can’t get out.
Riding in the wind
While you can dress up against the cold and wet, it’s harder to get away from the wind. Sometimes called ‘the invisible hill’, a stiff wind can turn a pan-flat road into a relentless climb, and make even a modest ascent feel like Alpe d’Huez. All the more reason to get out in it, says Dan Bennett.
“The increased wind resistance makes it harder to pedal, which will increase your heart rate, power output and leg strength, and help you to mimic riding uphill if you live in a flat area,” he says. “Like riding in the rain, it will increase your resilience to tough conditions, and get you ready for riding windy sportives such as Paris-Roubaix.”
As anyone who’s tried it – or just watched the pros – will attest, the best way to beat the wind is to ride in a group. “Riding behind one rider at 30kph, you’ll use 18 per cent less energy. That rises to 27 per cent at 40kph and 39 per cent if you’re in a bunch,” he explains.
What if you’re riding on your own? “Try to avoid the wind by heading into hedged lanes,” he says, “and if you head into the wind on the first half of the ride, you can then turn around and get blown back home. Riding with the wind behind you allows you to mimic the greater speeds associated with bunch riding.”
And for when there’s really no escape, he offers some tips for making windy rides a bit less painful. “Reduce your frontal area by rounding your shoulders and bending down closer to the bar,” he advises, “as this will help reduce wind resistance. If it’s a blustery, gusting wind, choose an easier gear, move slightly further into the middle of the road and hold onto the bar a little more tightly, so you’re ready to control the bike more at short notice.
“If you’re trying to stick to a set wattage or heart rate zone, you’ll need to increase or decrease your efforts depending on wind strength. If it’s reaching gale force, probably best not to head out but spend the time on the turbo.”
Riding in the snow
While riding in the cold, wind and rain has a lot to recommend it, venturing out in snow and ice is a different story. There are similar psychological benefits, but it’s potentially very dangerous – and because you’ll be going more slowly and carefully than usual, the physical benefits may be marginal at best. But if you can’t resist heading out, or have no option, there are ways of reducing the risks.
“Stick to main roads as the surface is going to be better,” says Bennett. “When you see a patch of ice in front of you, go around it if you have time and it’s safe to do so. If you’re forced to go over, don’t brake or turn the bar, as this could have you off the bike in a split second.”
Bennett also recommends riding a mountain bike. “Ride off-road if you can, as your speed will generally be lower and the windchill factor less. You may not get a normal workout but you can have a laugh on the way.”
Sometimes, though, as Bennett himself admits, the turbo is best. “Or watching the snow from the comfort of your armchair.”
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