Winter cycling: Be cool in the cold

Don't put your bike in the shed, just get prepared with good clothing and lights, says David Prosser
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Despite the warm weather in which much of the country has basked over the past week or so, winter isn't that far away. British Summer Time ends in just over four weeks and most cyclists have already been hit by at least one autumn squall, not to mention some strong winds.

Cycling may be enjoying a renaissance in Britain, but there's no doubt that the number of bikes on the roads will drop markedly over the next couple of months. While almost every cyclist enjoys riding during warmer weather, the clocks going back is a major signal for many - both new recruits to bikes and old-timers - to put their machines back into hibernation in the shed.

But there really is no need to give up cycling this winter. With a bit of a preparation over the next few weeks, you'll be able to pedal through the cold and the dark perfectly happily.

The first priority should be making yourself safe for the winter. For safe, read visible: every single item you can add to your bike or your person that makes it easier for other road users to see you coming will add to your protection.

At the very least, the law requires cyclists on the road after lighting-up time to have a white front light and a red back light, as well as a red reflector somewhere on the back of your bike and amber reflectors on your pedals. This is simply a legal minimum, however.

Cyclists who have dynamo-powered lights need to remember that they only work when the bike is moving. Take extra care when you're stopped at junctions, or consider upgrading to detachable lights.

The next step is to make your bike even more visible. If your wheels don't come fitted with additional reflectors, get them put on, or fit them yourself. In addition, Halfords sells a range of reflective stickers you can put on bikes, as well as on accessories such as panniers.

Fitting a red blinking light to the back of your cycle helmet will also help. And you can buy a day-glo yellow vest for less than £10, which will hugely boost visibility. Failing that, consider a sash that fits across your shoulder and around your waist, or simply some reflective arm- or wrist-bands.

Once you've made yourself safe, you can think about the real issue that puts most cyclists off winter cycling: Britain's intemperate climate at this time of year. The first thing to say is that your chances of getting wet this winter may be lower than you think. Statistics from the London Cycling Campaign show that the average London commuter gets caught in the rain just 12 times a year.

The figures sounds unbelievably low - and will, of course, vary around the country - but they are more logical than you might think. While Britain puts up with many more rainy days than just 12, in many parts of the country it doesn't often rain solidly for hours on end. Commuters spending half an hour on a bike in the morning and evening have as good a chance of missing the day's showers as someone popping out for lunch.

Nor is cold weather the horror that fair-weather cyclists might expect. There's no getting away from the fact that it will take you a few minutes to warm up when starting a journey, but no longer than it takes for a car heater to cut through the chill. And if you're walking to the nearest public transport rather than biking, there's a good chance it will take longer to get warm.

In any case, the real key to surviving cold and wet weather is having decent clothing - and that doesn't have to mean spending hundreds of pounds on hi-tech gear.

Winter tights - whether you're a man or a woman - are a good start to keeping warm, particularly as when the body is cold, the torso retains more heat than the extremities. Gloves are important too - any cycling shop will sell you a decent budget pair.

Most heat is lost through the head, so a helmet liner may be a useful investment. Look for something that will cover your ears to keep them warm, but be sure you'll still be able to hear traffic coming.

Also think about your body, where it does pay to spend more on a decent weather-proof coat and under-layers. The best option is breathable fabric, that will allow heat and sweat generated by your body to escape, without letting in the wind, rain and cold.

Finally, there's your feet to protect. If you wear simple trainers to ride, thick socks will help, while those who use cleated bike shoes can buy waterproof and warming overshoes.

Often, however, cyclists travelling in the winter are too hot rather than too cold, because the exercise generates so much warmth. It may take several days of experimenting to get used to wearing the right amount of clothing.

Cycling is possible in almost all winter weather, as long as you take care. If you're cycling in the rain, remember that it will take longer to bring your bike to a stop. If you're riding on icy roads or snow, make sure your tyres have decent tread - it may even be worth upgrading to more knobbly tyres for the coldest months of the year.

Above all, however, don't be put off by the winter. And if there are days you want to catch the bus instead, don't feel guilty about it. There'll be plenty of other opportunities to ride.

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