Can I Bicycle in the Winter?
This article is by the highly regarded Coach John Hughes, who has written extensively about bicycle training including nutrition, conditioning, slowing the aging process and otherwise keeping fit. Among his personal accomplishments in endurance racing, John set the course records for the Furnace Creek 508 in 1989 and Boston-Montreal-Boston in 1992. He has been a USA Cycling certified coach since ’96, and has lectured on endurance at numerous events. John has coached CRW members and has earned high praise for increasing their fitness in preparing for ultra-endurance cycling events and facilitating recovery after major surgery. Photos are courtesy of Ride Headquarters, Sherborn,MA.
Will asks, “I started riding this year and really enjoy it. I’d like to keep riding this winter but a trainer sounds boring. Is it reasonable to ride outside in winter?”
Coach Hughes: Take it from a Coloradoan. Yes you can ride outside and with proper gear you can enjoy it.
Some hardy riders think that there’s no such thing as bad weather just bad gear. You don’t have to go that far, but picking the right clothing will make a big difference.
- Loose clothing. Dry still air provides the insulation so wear loose clothes.
- Layers. Different layers serve different purposes. They also allow you to adjust your clothing as conditions change.
- Upper body. On your upper body start with a base layer to wick away your sweat so you don’t get chilled. Wear a short or long sleeve underwear made of silk or man-made fibers. Next wear one or more insulating layers, such as a heavy jersey or a vest. Finally a wind breaker or rain coat depending on conditions.
- Knees. These have poor circulation and injure easily so keep them covered if it’s below 60F (15C).
- Legs. Depending on conditions, in addition to cycling shorts you can wear knee warmers, tights, knee warmers under your tights or thicker warmer tights.
- Head. Your scalp has lots of blood flow so your head chills easily. Wearing something on your head makes a big difference. Depending on conditions wear a skull cap or cap that covers your ears. You could also cover the ventilation holes in your helmet.
- Hands. On your hands wear glove liners under your cycling gloves. If it’s colder insulated split finger (lobster claw) mittens made for cycling are a good choice. Your hands stay warmer because your index and second fingers are in one half of the mittens and your third and fourth fingers are in the other half. The lobster claw design allows you to use the index and second fingers to shift and brake easily.
- Feet. Start with thicker socks and loosen your shoes enough so your socks aren’t compressed. If your feet are still cold get booties but not the very tight racing booties. Another option is to put on flat pedals and ride with winter boots.
- Chemical heat packets. When activated these produce lots of heat for your hands or feet. Wear gloves or socks between the heat packets and your skin so you don’t get burned.
- Cotton. Don’t wear cotton, which will stay damp instead of wicking away your sweat.
- Start out cool. As you ride you’ll warm up so start with the clothing you’ll want then.
- Pack extra clothing. Conditions change so carry an extra insulating layer, warmer gloves and a warmer hat.
Drew Boure at Bouré Bicycle Clothing in Durango, CO makes excellent cycling clothing for summer and winter as well as clothing for cross-country skiing. I’ve been wearing Drew’s gear for over 30 years. I particularly like his thermal vests and jackets with pockets on the back.
Here’s more information on what to wear in the winter.
- 12 Tips on Dressing for the Cold from a Coloradoan Cyclist
- Choosing the Correct Cycling Clothing is Key to Enjoyable Cold, Winter Riding
You burn more calories in the winter staying warm so you need to eat more. You still sweat so you also need to drink. If you are commuting or riding for fitness for up to an hour, then nutrition isn’t much of an issue. Just eat and drink before and after you ride. For longer rides nutrition and hydration are different. Here’s how to stoke the inner furnace.
Calories of carbs per hour.
Just like in the summer you should eat primarily carbs with a little bit of fat and protein. In the winter based on the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations here are the amount of carbohydrates you should eat every hour based on your weight.
- 120 lbs (54kg) 100 – 150 calories per hour of carbs
- 150 lbs (68kg) 150 – 200 calories per hour of carbs
- 180 lbs (82kg) 200 – 250 calories per hour of carbs
For longer rides eat toward the upper end of the ranges.
Eating this many calories every hour isn’t hard in the summer. Just pull something from your jersey pocket, peel the wrapper and eat it. But in the winter your jersey is buried under several layers. Here are some suggestions.
- Small handlebar or top tube bag. Snacks are more accessible in a front bag than from a jersey pocket or a seat bag.
- Quick stops. Make your stops quick so you don’t start to chill. Just put your foot down, get out a snack, open it and start riding.
- Soft food. Your favorite bar in the summer may be rock hard in the cold. I eat soft cookies like fig newtons. Three newtons are about 165 total calories with 135 calories from carbs. A jelly sandwiches (two slices bread and two tbsp. jelly) is about 250 total calories and about 90% carbs. Add two tbsp. peanut butter to the sandwich and the total calories increase by about 190 calories but carbs increase by only 25 calories. A large blueberry muffin is about 375 total calories with 265 calories from carbs. Gels have no performance advantage but are easy to eat even when it’s cold. A typical gel has 100-125 calories almost all from carbs.
- Keep food warm. Another option is keep your food in a jersey pocket under several layers of clothing. This requires slightly longer stops to get out food eat.
- Rewrap food. Food sold in a wrapper is harder to deal with in the cold. Just unwrap it and put it in a plastic bag.
- Longer stops. It’s almost impossible to eat enough calories per hour on the bike in the winter. Every few hours take a break to eat and drink more.
- Multi-task. You’ll probably stop to adjust your clothing so eat, too.
- Gloves liners. If it’s pretty cold your fingers may get cold while eating.
While your caloric requirements increase in the cold, your hydration requirements decrease, although you still need some fluid. Just drink enough that you aren’t thirsty.
- Hot drinks. Hot coffee or tea, hot chocolate or a warm sports drink are a treat and may provide some of your calories. And they don’t freeze as fast.
- Insulated bottles. An insulated bottle keeps your hot drinks hot and keeps other drinks from freezing. You can either get an insulated bottle that fits into your regular cage or you can get a larger insulated bottle and adjustable cage.
- Hydration pack. Some small hydration packs will fit under your coat. Keep the tubing and valve inside your coat to keep from freezing.
Here’s more information on what to eat and drink:
- Winter Cycling Presents Different Nutrition Requirements
- 9 Tips for Eating and Drinking during Winter Rides
You can ride your regular road bike in the winter with some useful modifications:
- Fenders. Clip on fenders keep both you and the rider behind you drier.
- Winter wheels. Because wheels are the contact points with all of the road grime if you can get afford it get an inexpensive set of robust wheels rather than using your high end wheels.
- Winter tires. Some tires are made especially for winter.
- Wider softer tires. So you have better traction use wider tires designed to run at lower pressure.
- Check tire pressure. Always check the tire pressure before every ride.
- Puncture resistant tires and tubes. Change your tires and/or put sealant in the tubes.
- Studded tires. If you’re hard core these allow you to ride when it’s icy.
- Flat pedals. These are the simplest way to keep your feet warm because you can wear winter boots.
- Yaktrax. These fit over your boots and provide traction when it’s icy.
- Gear bags. Even during a ride of just a few hours, conditions can change so you need a pack to carry extra clothes and with extra room to pack some of the clothes you start out wearing if it warms up.
- Richard Stum at eogear makes a modular set bags that have been tested by endurance cyclists for hundreds of thousands of miles. I use his small seat bag in the summer. His larger bag compresses and expands as needed, which I find quite useful in the winter.
- Clean your bike. After every ride do a quick basic clean. Lon Haldeman runs cross-country bike tours at PAC Tour and each day has equipment set up to clean bikes. Here he explains how to clean your bike in less than two minutes.
Here’s more information on equipment from Jim Langley and RBR readers:
These are John's relevant eBooks:
(1) Productive Off-Season Training for Health and Recreational Riders is $4.99 and has two 12-week programs for:
- Healthy Riders, which includes a weekly program of aerobic exercise, strength training you can do at home and stretching. The 12-week program starts at four to six total hours a week and over 12 weeks builds to 5:15 – 7:15 hours a week. Cross training, indoor cycling, core strength training and stretching are also explained.
- Recreational Riders adds intensity training and training drills to the weekly program of aerobic exercise, strength and stretching. This 12-week program also starts at about four to six total hours a week. It has more volume and over 12 weeks builds to 7 – 10 hours a week. Cross training, indoor cycling, core strength training and stretching are explained.
- Review of the physiological effects of aging.
- Training modalities to combat these.
- A 12-week off-season training program with a range of options
The basic 12-week program has options to tailor it for new riders, health and fitness riders, recreational riders, club and competitive riders, endurance riders and also riders with limited to train. The 12-week program starts at about 3:30 – 6:30 hours a week and over 12 weeks builds to 6 – 10 hours a week.
You can ride in the winter to build fitness for the summer, to manage your weight, to get more outdoor exercise to combat the winter blues, to commute because it’s green and inexpensive and to have fun! I explain how to fit winter training into your overall cycling year, techniques for riding in winter conditions and more information on nutrition, clothing and equipment. The 15-page Year Round Cycling is $4.99.