Tag Archives: winter riding

Slip Slidin’ Away

There's always a few on the roads...

A great swirling mass of cool moist air welled up from the south overnight, blended itself with the bitterly cold high pressure system that has dominated our weather here for the past week, to create a good old-fashioned winter storm, and by morning even those of us living on the usually mild south coast woke to find our countryside mantled with about six inches of snow, and the roads a slushy, slippery mess.

Much as I wanted to go for a ride – quiet Sunday mornings are always my favourites – one look out the window was enough to convince me of the folly of that idea. Even if I hadn’t cared about keeping upright myself, to say nothing of avoiding the fish-tailing cars as they skidded and swerved and drifted frighteningly sideways down the slippery, unploughed roads, the thought of all that salt-gritted slush working its way into my drivetrain and chain would have been enough on its own to keep me off the bike.

And so I gave my bicycle, and myself, the morning off and instead shrugged into my heavy old Barbour jacket went out for a walk in the snow. It was beautiful, pristine. I am fortunate enough to live fairly near an ancient wood and for my walk I took a path through it to the churchyard of a thousand-year-old Norman church, which looked like an old Christmas card this morning, the church building and its old graveyard all decked in fresh fallen snow.

One of the particularly nice things about walking through the woods on such snowbound mornings as these is that there are so many other people out walking too – families returning home with bags of groceries from the big Tesco supermarket on the other side of the wood, couples hand-in-hand, dog-walkers, gaggles of kids dragging bright plastic toboggans.

With the roads so slippery and treacherous only the extremely arrogant and the extremely foolish were taking their cars – or their bicycles – anywhere. Walking was the only sensible option. And with this slower, human pace, comes a friendlier, more natural and relaxed ambience, with strangers nodding familiarly and smiling and saying hello to one another as they passed along the trail, everyone sharing in the moment. Tomorrow it’ll all be back to normal again. The snow will have mainly vanished and the salted roads will be bare and bustling with traffic. But for now it felt pleasingly old fashioned, village-like, almost Dickensian, and made me realise once more the heavy price we pay for our cars and our insular haste.

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The Goldilocks Zone

A touch of frost in the air this morning made a wintry change to what – temperature-wise, at least – has been an unusually mild winter here in Sussex thus far. While there has been plenty of wind and rain about, the mercury has seldom dipped below freezing, even during the chilly pre-dawn hours when I go out for my rides.

I don’t mind the cold as a rule – in fact I prefer it to heat. I grew up in the White Mountains in New Hampshire where back in the pre-global-warming days of the Seventies we could occasionally see January temperatures of minus-40 or even colder, and until a few years ago I was a fairly regular visitor to Antarctica. English cold, on the other hand, is something else entirely. It’s a raw, damp cold that creeps into your marrow, so that even when the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing it can be unpleasant, and when it does, it can be damned unpleasant.

And nowhere are you going to feel more exposed to the wonders of an English winter chill than on a saddle of a bicycle as you’re spinning down a darkened seafront, with a sharp breeze in your cheekbones or the cold clammy fingers of a sea mist curling around you, especially when you’ve only just rolled out of a nice warm bed.

This is where dress sense comes in. Over the past few winters, and much trial and error, I have worked out what is for me a successful winter clothing regime. The trick of course is to keep yourself dry and comfortable which sounds like the merest common sense but is actually rather hard to achieve.

Cyclists generate a surprising amount of heat, even at modest speeds and in chilly temperatures. It is all too easy and tempting to over-dress, especially when the thermometer outside the kitchen window is hovering below freezing, there’s rain coming down and you’re fresh from a warm bed. In general, if you are still cosy and warm a few hundred yards down the road at the start of your ride, you are going to be hot and sweaty a few miles further on and that is not a good thing – especially if you are unlucky enough to be visited by the puncture fairy or have some kind of mechanical issue and have to make an unscheduled stop by the roadside. Chill can set in pretty quickly. And even if you don’t have to stop and fix something, hot and sweaty is a distraction that can pretty quickly drain the joy out of a ride.

Ideally, in my experience, you should be chilly enough when you first set out so that a couple hundred yards down the street you are still half-wondering if maybe you shouldn’t have worn that extra base layer after all. A couple miles later, though, you’ve forgotten all about it, having by then pedalled into that elusive Goldilocks Zone – not too hot, not too cold, just right. You forget all about the air temperature, and never give a thought to anything but the ride you are taking.

Finding that Goldilocks Zone is an idiosyncratic thing of course – we all feel the cold differently and our bodies respond in different ways. What works perfectly well for me, may be too warm, or too cold, for you. With those caveats in mind, my own winter cycling outfit, evolved over a few seasons now, and which keeps me happy and on the road, is as follows: a pair of Gore Windstopper tights, a Rapha long-sleeve sportswool jersey, and either my Rapha softshell jacket or my Gore Fusion waterproof – both with pit-zips left at least half un-zipped; I wear an old Macpac fleece cap with ear flaps worn under my helmet, heavyweight Bridgedale woollen socks in Shimano touring shoes, and for my hands a set of Assos winter-system gloves, although I seldom use the lobster-claw outer shell – it would have to be very cold indeed for that.

Occasionally, when it is that cold, I will put on a woollen base layer and an extra pair of socks; and just as occasionally, when the winter nights have been mild, as they generally have been this year, I’ll wear a short-sleeve jersey instead of a long-sleeve one and make adjustments to the pit zips on the jackets as required. Simple.

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