Skip to main content

Winter cycling: Everything you need to know

Winter cycling
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Winter cycling means different things to different people. To some, it's a continuation of the necessary bike-based commute to work and back. To others, it forms a period of base training ahead of the following season. For many, winter cycling means braving the cold and wet, donning multiple layers of clothing beforehand, and cleaning the bike afterwards. While to others, winter cycling means a short walk to the garage and spending hours on the turbo trainer, where the only moisture in the air is your evaporated sweat caused by your Zwift endurance ride or TrainerRoad Sweetspot base session. 

The reasons as to why people ride bikes through winter are plentiful, but the truth remains that winter cycling is an altogether different beast to riding in the pleasant rays of summer sunshine. 

Clothing choices for winter cycling

Winter cycling, especially here in the UK, regularly means rain, cold, and occasionally ice, so equipment and clothing choice can be essential. Choosing warm clothing is an obvious first step, but it's important to choose winter-specific equipment such as fenders (mudguards) and tyres. 

Dressing appropriately for the conditions is a skill you'll pick up with practice. There are some basic requirements that will set you on the right path, but it takes time to learn what works best for your body and your local weather.

Luckily, most manufacturers of winter cycling clothing label products with their optimum temperature range, to give us an idea of what to choose, but most hardened winter cyclists will begin with a base layer, so check out our guide to the best cycling base layers, which covers everything from summer mesh garments to deep-winter woollen wonders. For winter, you probably want to look toward to latter end of that scale, and depending on the conditions where you live, you may wish to opt for integrated neck warmers or hoods. 

Most riders will make the switch to dedicated bib tights through winter instead of a shorts and leg warmers combo, and with these, you have a choice of padded (with a chamois) or unpadded(without). The choice is ultimately yours, but this writer prefers the unpadded option worn over a pair of padded summer/autumn bib shorts, which means an added layer of material for warmth, a year-round use for bib shorts, and a resulting need for fewer bib tights in general. 

The choice of clothing up top is very weather dependent, but a good starting point is a warm, water-resistant softshell jersey or jacket such as the famed Castelli Gabba, which can be paired with a waterproof rain jacket for the rainiest days. Check out our guides to the best winter cycling jackets to keep you warm and best waterproof cycling jackets to keep the rain away. 

Gloves

They say the secret to keeping your hands warm on a bike is to keep your core warm, but without winter cycling gloves, you're putting yourself at an immediate disadvantage. The same goes for doubling up, too - two pairs of gloves isn't necessarily warmer than one, especially if it means they're squeezing the circulation in your fingers. Our guide to the best winter cycling gloves runs down our favourite options. 

Socks

Just like in all walks of life, your choice of socks may change with the weather, however, with the repetitive motion of cycling, a bad choice of socks can easily lead to discomfort, add in the inevitable water ingress and that discomfort can quickly lead to blisters. Our guide to the best cycling socks covers all bases from deep winter to race day summer socks. 

Opening weekend tech

When it comes to racing in poor weather, most pro riders turn to overshoes (Image credit: Josh Croxton)

Shoes and overshoes

When it comes to footwear choice when cycling in winter, there are two main options. Option one is to pair your current cycling shoes with a pair of overshoes. The best cycling overshoes will offer a level of waterproofing paired with insulation to keep the rain on the outside and the warmth inside. This is usually suitable down to around zero degrees Celcius (32 F). If you regularly ride at temperatures below this, then the second option is to invest in some winter-specific shoes. The best winter cycling shoes essentially combine a shoe and an overshoe into one sealed system, offering maximum warmth and waterproof protection, often at the detriment of weight and breathability (usually a small price to pay when riding in winter). If you find that this still doesn't cut it, then there's nothing to say you can't then add a pair of overshoes on top, but expect most of the moisture to be coming from your sweating feet. 

Equipment choices for winter cycling

You might have a separate winter bike, or you might want to ride your best bike all year round, whichever your choice, you may want to adapt it to the colder, wetter months. This will not only improve your winter cycling experience, but it will help to ensure your bike lasts until spring and beyond.

Kinesis Fend Off

These Kinesis Fend Off mudguards are aluminium, offer full coverage, and come with additional flaps for maximum rain protection (Image credit: Kinesis)

Mudguards

As any experienced Brit will tell you, the trick to keeping your feet warm on a ride is to keep them dry. This is easier said than done, and in some conditions, it's nigh on impossible, but the longer you can keep the spray at bay, the longer you remain comfortable on your ride. No matter how well made your choice of shoes, overshoes and socks are, nothing will withstand a constant torrent of water that will be ejected from your front wheel on wet roads. That's why one of the most important winter accessories is a set of full-length mudguards, ideally with added extra flaps. 

Not only will this keep standing road water from hosing your feet for the duration of your ride, but it will also keep the same water away from your bottom bracket, which will extend the life of your bearings, as well as your backside and perhaps most importantly, the face of the person sat on your wheel who used to be your friend. 

Many British cycling clubs or group rides swear by mudguards so strongly that without a set fitted to your bike, you'll either be banished to the back of the group or worse, refused from joining altogether. 

Tyres

As the weather takes a turn for the worse, it will often result in an increased risk of punctures as wind and rain wash debris into the road. While your best road bike tyres might be three seconds faster over 40km at 252 watts, there's nothing slower than standing at the side of the road fixing a puncture. For this reason, the increased popularity of tubeless tyres begins to make even more sense during winter, and many of the best winter road bike tyres adopt the technology. If you're a convert, check out our guide to the best tubeless road tyres

In addition to puncture resistance, grip is an important consideration in your tyre choice. Grip is affected by the tyre's tread pattern and the rubber compound, but can also be altered with tyre width. The width will be limited by the clearance offered by your frame, as well as brake caliper clearance, for those who are still part of the rim brake party. 

Best bike lights

We recommend using lights at all times of day, but when the sun drops, they become essential for safety (Image credit: Bontrager)

Lights

As winter looms, the days shorten and the night draws in sooner and sooner every day. For much of the northern hemisphere, the number of daylight hours is slashed in half, and it's not uncommon for the only available outdoor training time to be during these darkened hours. We recommend running lights all year round in all conditions, but while you can get away without them during daylight, the same cannot be said once the sun has set. 

We recommend a minimum of around 50 lumens for rear lights, and while our guide to the best rear bike lights explains all, we suggest running two rear lights, for the reason that if one of them fails, it's unlikely that you'll notice immediately, meaning you'll be unknowingly plunged into darkness. 

As for front lights, your choice of lumens will depend on where you ride. For streetlit city streets, you'll just need your front light to allow you to be seen by other road users, whereas if you ride on unlit roads, you'll need a higher lumen count to light up the road in front of you. Our guide to the best front bike lights provides a selection of each, as well as a full guide on what to look out for. 

Indoor cycling during winter

Not everyone hears 'winter cycling' and pictures layers of lycra from top to toe, without a single millimetre of skin on show behind oversized sunglasses, face-covering Buff, skull cap, jacket, gloves, tights, shoes and overshoes. To some, winter cycling is a veritable pain-cave paradise. 

Winter cycling

You don't need to wrap from top to toe like Julien Bernard in winter, you don't even need to leave your house (Image credit: Getty Images)

The continual improvement of the turbo trainers has changed the game from a discipline reserved for the most committed of athletes to an interactive (dare we say fun?) experience with social interaction, competition and structure. Our guide to indoor cycling explains everything on the subject, including all the tech you need to get yourself started. 

If that's you, your list of clothing requirements will be shorter than those outdoor rides in the warmest of conditions. You'll find solace in our guide to the best cycling shorts and maybe you'll add a base layer at a push. But for some who take it seriously, many brands are starting to offer indoor-specific cycling shoes, but any of the best cycling shoes will perform dutifully indoors and out.  

Indoor cycling apps

But aside from the bike, you'll need to invest in your pain cave setup. Our guide to the best turbo trainers is the first place to start, but if you're on a budget - aren't we all? - then we've already explained the best way to get the cheapest Zwift setup, which essentially explains everything you actually need to make Zwift work (and subsequently, other indoor cycling apps too). At the other end of that scale, the best smart bikes are great for those whose budgets can stretch that bit further. 

Once you're set-up, the next question is 'what do you want from your time cycling indoors?' If you want to capitalise on newfound fitness, then you may be interested in racing on Zwift, using ZwiftPower, what those Zwift PowerUps do and the little indoor cycling hacks that make it a more successful experience. Alternatively, you might want to use your turbo trainer to get fit for 2020. For that, you could follow the Zwift training plans and Zwift workouts, or you could utilise TrainerRoad's plan builder.

Winter cycling training

To many, winter presents an opportunity to introduce a training plan. The official 'off-season' is regularly utilised to introduce long, slow base miles to build the foundations upon which event-specific training can be built. 

Our guide to winter cycling training explains the basics of everything you need to know, including what is FTP, how to periodise your training and the benefits of training indoors, and if you want to add gym work, we've also got a guide to strength training for cyclists

But whether you're training indoors or out, it's important to focus on your cycling nutrition. Without the correct fuel, your body can hit the dreaded 'bonk', recovery, performance and immune systems can become impaired, and in worst cases, illness can become more frequent and severe. 

Schwalbe

Are you commuting by bike this winter? (Image credit: Schwalbe)

Commuting

Perhaps you're not cycling through winter by choice, or at least, you're not doing it for the sake of cycling. Perhaps you're one of the millions of people who took to two wheels during the pandemic and is now commuting to work by bike. Or perhaps you were already doing it before it was cool. 

If that's you, then there's a good chance that weather doesn't stop the boat from rocking. If you see rain out of the window, then the decision isn't 'ride or no ride', it's 'one jacket or two'. 

We've already gone through our recommendations for winter cycling clothing and equipment above, but there are a few additional pieces of equipment that are pertinent to commuters, especially those who cycle through all weathers and seasons. Perhaps most importantly, the best bike lights will enable you to continue riding as the days become shorter and the commutes become darker. In addition, anyone cycling through winter on the road will benefit from road bike mudguards. We know some people think they look dorky, but cyclists aren't exactly known for their fashion sense, so drop the act and do the person riding behind you a favour. 

Motivation

How to remain motivated through winter is a question that doesn't necessarily have a single answer, as everyone is motivated in different ways. To some, motivation comes from improvement, with faster times, and from higher power numbers. Others are simply motivated by the social aspect of cycling, the banter with friends and coffee stops. It all goes back to the question of why are you cycling in the first place. 

However, a big part of motivation is enjoyment. If you enjoy the process, the motivation will come naturally. If you're cycling indoors without a smart trainer or a fan, the enjoyment could be improved with a little airflow and the interactivity that the various indoor apps can provide. If you're cycling in freezing temperatures in shorts, then it's not going to be all that enjoyable, if a little painful, and a pair of bib tights would make the process a considerably more enjoyable experience. If you're cycling alone for hours on end, then the company of friends or likeminded clubmates might make the process less of a bore, and therefore less of a chore. 

Just remember, winter miles equal summer smiles.