The Lost Art of Winter Cycling
It's never too cold to ride outside. (Well, almost never.)
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
While the joy and beauty of cycling may be timeless, tempus does fugit, and certain practices that were once routine for the cyclist are now becoming lost arts. Gluing tubulars, adjusting cantilevers, and drilling strategically placed holes in your bike are all going extinct as trends change and technology evolves. But while there’s little reason besides nostalgia to cling to obsolete knowledge (it’s unlikely you’ll need to overhaul a rod brake anytime soon), there are certain skill sets we need to preserve for posterity, and chief among them is riding in winter.
In the pre-digital age, cyclists rode outdoors all season long. It’s tempting to say this happened because people were hardier back then, but mostly it’s because pretty much the only alternative was attempting to balance on spinning aluminum drums, so braving the cold was a no-brainer. As indoor training equipment becomes more sophisticated, virtual reality becomes more immersive, and technology allows riders to not only stay fit but actually compete (and even cheat), freezing your ass off becomes a far less compelling value proposition.
This is a shame. Adversity breeds creativity, and if it weren’t for cyclists trying to stay sane during winter, there’d be no such thing as cyclocross, or the fat bike, or the ski bike. (OK, fine, maybe we didn’t need the ski bike.) Plus, if everybody fritters away the winter with Zwift instead of asserting their 365-day-a-year right to the roads, then motordom has already won! So here are some tips for how to bridge the formidable gap between autumn and spring the old-fashioned way.
Even though the gravel phenomenon is helping blur the line between disciplines, many cyclists still have deep allegiances to one particular form of riding. Unfortunately, these are the weakest hands, ready to fold just as soon as the weather conditions turn against them. When the icy winds blow, the dirt-averse roadie fails to take refuge in the woods and instead retreats to the trainer. Conversely, when the trails are too snowy or muddy, instead of riding the road, the terminal mountain biker shifts focus to home-brewing beer or whatever it is mountain bikers do in the off-season. Meanwhile, by being an ambi-disciplinary cyclist, you can instantly double your riding time. Think of the winter as a recession: being just a roadie or just a mountain biker is like being all in on tech stocks instead of having holdings across different asset classes.*
Move the Goalposts
Since giving in to Strava, I’ve noticed that a lot of riders don’t slack off over the winter. Instead, they maintain their hefty averages and intensity all year round, but during the winter, they simply convert much of that mileage to indoor riding. What do they gain from that, really? (Apart from staying warm, maintaining a high level of fitness, and not having to get bundled up like Randy from A Christmas Story before every ride.) As the days get shorter, so too should your rides. Not only is it important to take a mental break from heavy training, but our refusal to acknowledge the seasons is destroying the planet: in summer we refrigerate ourselves rather than dressing down, and in winter we crank up the thermostat so we can walk around in our underpants. Sure, one day perhaps every indoor cyclist will be plugged directly into the energy grid, and our nation will be powered entirely by bike racers and fitness nuts. But until then, rather than pushing yourself hard indoors, why not treat yourself to short, mellow outdoor rides until spring? (If you need a definition for “short,” figure that your saddle time should be roughly equal to the time it takes you to get dressed and undressed for your ride. So basically an hour and a half.)
Dress Down and Loosen Up
Ratcheting down your intensity isn’t always enough to get you through a winter of outdoor riding. You’ve also got to adjust your general attitude toward style. Your attire is a big part of this, especially if you’re a roadie. Indeed, one of the hardest things about riding all winter long is maintaining your whole roadie-aesthetic sensibility—and while there’s certainly some fantastic cold-weather bike-specific gear available, it’s always going to be a challenge to properly insulate yourself while maintaining that minimalist silhouette. When the temperature really drops to face-freezing levels, it’s perfectly fine to augment your ensemble with knit caps, sweaters, thermal underwear, and hiking boots. You don’t have to look like you’re working out to get a workout. Sometimes the best cycling clothes are the same ones you’d wear to shovel the driveway.**
At $180 for a full year, Zwift isn’t a bad deal, and all you need to wear is a chamois. (Assuming you live alone, that is. You should probably spare your family the sight of you doing intervals naked.) But you’ll also need a decent smart trainer, which can cost as much as a bike. Instead, why not buy yourself an actual bike to beat on all winter long? Trails snowed in? Don’t want to get your precious carbon bike dirty? Buy a cheap road bike, throw some fenders on it, and sacrifice it to the road salt! Contemplating spending over a thousand bucks on a device so you can ride without going anywhere? Buy yourself a singlespeed mountain bike instead, hit the woods, and go nuts! Or just buy some studded tires for the bike you already have. Electronics are fun, but aren’t bikes and parts why we all got into this in the first place?
Don’t Listen to “Reason”
You may question your own sanity when you head out for a ride on a subzero day, and, unfortunately, plenty of people will amplify whatever doubts you may be having: friends, neighbors, and even passing drivers will all offer unsolicited commentary as you set out on your ride, most of it some variation on the theme of “You’re crazy.” But you’re not crazy for riding in the winter—far from it. In Copenhagen, everybody rides bikes all winter long, and they’re not even doing it for fitness; they’re just doing it so they can get to their minimalist offices where they design contemporary furniture. And you’re hardier than a Danish chair designer, right? Of course you are.
But the most important reason to keep riding all winter long is that, once the preparation becomes second nature, it’s fun. Winters are beautiful, and we should get out there and enjoy them. The crunching sound of snow beneath your tires, the tinkling sound of ice-encased tree branches in the wind, the firmness of frozen singletrack, the sublime absence of poison ivy and bugs. Thanks to climate change, who knows how many winters we have left.
*Disclaimer: Columnist is a financial idiot. For investment advice, consult a qualified planner or a Magic 8 Ball.
**Disclaimer: Columnist lives in New York City and has no idea what you’d wear to shovel a driveway.