An old-school approach to winter riding

Embrace the outdoors even in the cold and snow

January 3rd, 2019 by | Posted in Training | Tags:

by James “Cranky” Ramsay

Another calendar year has passed. It’s the holiday season again. We all know what that means. First, it means that your favourite cycling columnist is slightly balder, a little more hard of hearing, and another year closer to death. Second, it means that most of us abandon outdoor riding for a few months. This is the time of year when we retreat to secret underground training bunkers where we build strength, power and mental fortitude so that we can emerge in spring – balder, deafer, older and faster on our bikes.

But what if there’s another way? Well of course there is, I hear you say – the way of the sloth. You can spend the winter resting (though not necessarily upside down from a tree branch in Costa Rica). A winter of total rest is one option. I’ve tried it a few times. I can say with confidence that you’ll come out of winter with truly fresh legs, as the saying goes, but they won’t be much use to you when you finally swing one over a bike.

No, the other way I’m advocating is to swear off indoor training entirely. Choose to embrace winter riding in all its glory. There are a number of compelling reasons to take this approach.

First, you’ll suffer more outdoors than you will indoors – or at least you’ll suffer in more varied and wonderful ways. I’m sure you’ll agree that the ability to withstand discomfort and pain is the chief attribute of a winning cyclist. While it’s true that indoor training brings its own brand of suffering to the sport, it doesn’t come close to matching the brutality of a wet three-hour ride in subzero temperatures. It’s a full-body experience, encompassing frozen fingertips, hoarfrost-encrusted eyebrows, chapped lips, painful knee joints and numb feet. It’s bad enough alone, but if you ride behind a friend, you also get a face full of filthy spray from your partner’s back wheel. There’s little question that this builds character.

Second, you’ll shorten the life of your bike (or at least of its component parts). Riding on icy, slushy roads means that you’re actually riding through a mixture of water, dirt and unknown ice-melting compounds, the most benign of which is road salt, with doubtless many more corrosive and dangerous chemicals in the mix. Because it’s minus -20 C, the odds of you washing your bike properly (or at all) after such a ride are slim to none, so your poor steed will be left to drip dry in the basement while the toxic cocktail eats away at your ceramic derailleur pulley bearings and ostrich-leather handlebar tape.

But wait – how is murdering your bike with dirt and salt water a good thing? Stay with me here. Clearly it’s not, which means you have one of two solutions available: you can either buy a new, purpose-built winter bike or you can repurpose your current “good bike” to become a winter bike, thereby ensuring that you need to buy a new “good bike.” Either way, you have an ironclad argument that will allow you to exercise the “n + 1” clause within your household. (You’ll recall that “n” equals the number of bikes you currently own. The equation helps you to achieve the proper number of bikes in your stable.)

Third, who among us doesn’t enjoy a justified shopping spree? If you’re going to brave a Canadian winter on the bike, you’ll need much more than a dedicated bike to ride. You’ll have to buy a bunch of new winter gear and accessories. Insulated bottles? A rider has to drink. Windproof bib tights? Can’t do without them. And the list goes on, from waterproof shoe covers (industry secret: these are not actually waterproof) to USB-rechargeable heated mittens, to merino wool underwear hand-knitted by Mario Cipollini’s grandmother. (It fits a bit loose in the thighs, but she’s an old lady and I don’t have the heart to send it back.)

So there you have it: a new approach to getting through the winter, the old-fashioned way. Now get out there and ride, uphill both ways into the wind. It won’t make you any younger, but it will make you stronger. And who knows – all that fresh, cold air whistling through your helmet might stimulate a little hair growth on the top of your head.