Let’s face it, cycling isn’t exactly the best sport for the winter. Yes, I understand that cyclocross and fat bikes are all the rage now, but there is a big difference between racing in the cold and enjoying a ride in the cold. As the winter months roll in, more and more athletes will trade in their chamois and Clif Bars for sweatpants and pumpkin pie. Before you know it, spring will roll around and you won’t be able to hide your rolls in your lycra skinsuit. Growing up in Southern California, winter was a pretty foreign concept for me and a freezing cyclocross nationals was always a shock to the system. I’ve spent the last few winters in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest and I’ve made a mistake or two in the cold myself. Being a professional cyclist, though, I had no choice but to quickly adapt to whatever mother nature had to throw at me. Hopefully by reading my embarrassing winter newbie mistakes, you won’t have to make them.
It's December and one of the first cold days of the season. While many of my counterparts had decided to ride the trainer for the day I decided that I was going outside. Sporting a thermal long sleeve jersey and some leg warmers I began my out and back ride along one of my favorite interval roads. When I got to the turn around point, I was shocked to find a strong, frigid headwind on the way back. I didn’t bring any extra layers. I began to freeze and became so miserable I knew I couldn’t complete even another pedal stroke. Two miles from my house I was calling my boyfriend through frozen tears begging for a ride home. Bring Extra Clothes, your pride will thank you.
No matter what you ‘think’ the weather is like that day, if it’s winter, always pack extra. I recommend extra gloves and an extra jacket or vest. I’ve seen people go as far as to pack extra socks.
That being said, one of the worst mistakes you can make in the winter is to sweat it out. Understand Your Sweat-Rate. All summer long you saw it: The Drippers, The Red Faces, and The Never Sweats. Who are you? Do you start sweating before even leaving the house? Do you never break a sweat even in 100 degrees? In the winter, it’s the difference between freezing your buns off, and layering correctly for the conditions. Personally, I sweat enough to feed a small river. This means when I ride; I have to constantly strip off my jackets and save them only for the descents. Water turns to ice, and sweat turns into misery. I prefer not to be an icicle.
Sometimes it isn’t enough to dress correctly. What starts as a pleasant ride can turn into a nightmare quickly. Always Check the Radar. A few years ago, as winter came to an end and we were moving into spring, I left the house for a longer ride feeling joy and warmth. It was the perfect day to be on the bike, with a few light layers and the sun shining through the clouds. Forty miles away from my house the sky turned black and then opened up into a deluge of rain.
I darted for the first covering I saw, but I was already soaked from head to toe. I tried calling for a pick up but my hands and phone was already so wet that I couldn’t use the touch screen. I made a call using Siri but when my friend didn’t pick up I couldn’t use the touch screen to hang up the phone. I think I may have set the record for world’s longest voice message. You can bet my friend played it out loud for everyone later that evening. Save yourself the embarrassment, force your friends to find new comedy material, and just check the radar.
If you’re really going to commit to some big winter miles, Scope It Out before you end up 60 miles from home with a closed road and a long day ahead. Roads also are not the same going uphill as they are going downhill. Training for cross last winter, I discovered a new gravel road climb. It was covered in a light dusting of snow and I thought I had found training gold. After climbing for an extended period of time, I turned around and found that under the snow was a thick layer of ice that I had no defense from when trying to grab the brakes going down the mountain. There was crashing, there was blood, and worst of all I ripped my favorite winter riding gloves! Scope it out, ride within your limits, and maybe put some spikes in your shoes in case you end up having to walk home.
Have you ever tried to fix a flat as your hands quickly freeze to the point of numbness and you can no longer even hold your tire lever? I have, and tried is the operative word. More frozen tears and a phone call later, I was loading my bike in the car and thawing out my hands in front of the car heater. I hate to tell you, but getting a flat in 30 degree weather is always going to be miserable. The best you can do is Streamline Mechanicals. Have all of your equipment ready when you leave the house. If you’re unsure of whether or not your equipment will hold up, fix it before you leave the warmth of home. The extra 10 minutes you spend in the garage is much better than 30 minutes on the side of the rode and a few loud expletives later.
No matter how much you plan, sometimes problems are inevitable. Have Reliable Equipment. Not everything that functions in the summer glides in the winter. Water proof, and water resistant are two different things. A few of my favorite pieces are my rotor powermeter (that thing has gone through swamps and never failed), my Garneau thermal jacket, neoprene gloves, and my waterproof lifeproof phone case. Keep your goods safe and protect your equipment. Dry everything off when you get home. If you are cold and wet, so are your bikes and accessories.
After all of this talk of how to ride outside, truth is, sometimes you just can’t. Whether you just don’t have it in you mentally to go out or the conditions themselves are actually unsafe, every now and then the trainer is inevitable. So when you do ride the trainer, Commit! The worst thing you can do is get on the trainer only to be getting off constantly and looking out the window to see if it has stopped raining or to see if it has gotten warmer. Unless you had a specific plan to ride the trainer and then go outside, don’t waste your training time debating if you made the right choice. Once you lock your bike onto the trainer you are committed to riding to a whole lot of nowhere for the day.
Last but not least, if you are stuck inside doing infinite circles on the trainer, Treat Yourself. Have a TV show or a podcast you only listen too when you ride inside. If I’m doing a really long trainer ride, I’ll line up the Christmas cookies on a tray table and eat one each hour that goes by. The little things go a long way when you’re on the trainer. Relax into it and try not to look at the clock every 10 seconds.
Have fun this winter and try to enjoy the mystery that the weather can bring. Enjoy craving soup, coffee, long showers and all things warm and toasty. Don’t let your bike become a decoration, you’ll need an escape from the smell of pumpkin, pine, and peppermint anyways.
I’ve been racing my bike for 12 years. Starting as a triathlete at the age of 9, I quickly went up the ranks and won the amateur XTERRA World Championship 2x before graduating high school. When I was 17 I was recruited onto the Clif Pro Team and became a mountain biker full time. Having raced mountain bikes professionally for 3 years now, winning 4 collegiate cycling national champion titles, and racing all over the world, cycling is my passion. When I’m not turning the pedals, I’m finishing up my 2 degrees in college, writing, coaching athletes, and all around living the dream. Cheers!
Nicholas Weisman LaFrance has discovered the zen-like experience that is riding with exactly 0mm of suspension. For an encore, perhaps he can teach us how to ride with a cactus in our chamois.
Spencer T Smith returns one mountain bike richer and a whole lot wiser. He takes us along on his debut cruise.
Jason prides himself on taking care of his bikes but once in a while the universe decides it’s time for an upgrade.