We have six weeks before the clocks go back at the end of October. The days are getting shorter and autumn is here. How do we prepare for winter riding? In this post I will outline what makes cycling in the Dark Season - if not always enjoyable - at least bearable.
The title already outlines the obstacles we face. I will take them in order.
Rain can be tricky as water will make you wet from both above and below. Falling rain can be combatted by wearing a water-proof jacket or cape, along with water-proof trousers and shoes. If you wear spectacles rain on your glasses can be extremely annoying.
Whatever water-proof layer you wear will come with compromises: cheap materials might be water-proof but will not allow any moisture (ie sweat) you produce underneath while cycling to escape. That's ok for short journeys but it becomes bothersome on longer rides. If that is an issue for you, look out for gear made with various types of Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex has very strict standards of production that clothing manufacturers have to meet. That is the main reason Gore-Tex gear is expensive.
The upside is that in 20 years of using it I have only had a single Gore-Tex garment leak (a Rukka motorcycling jacket) - after 4 years and 51 weeks of almost daily use. It came with a 5 year warranty... I took it back to the retailer for repair (comment: "oh, you're cutting that a bit fine!") who sent it in to Rukka. To our surprise Rukka replaced it without quibble with a new garment. With Gore-Tex you really do get what you pay for!
If you wear glasses, wear a short-peaked cap under your helmet. The short peak is very effective in keeping rain off your glasses. Also, if you know you will be riding in heavy rain, try applying some Rain-X before setting out. Rain-X will make the waterdrops bead off the lens surface.
When riding in the rain you will also get wet from the spray your tyres throw up. Mudguards are very effective in reducing this. There are many different models available, for both bikes with and without mudguard fixing holes. Just make sure you do not buy them too narrow. Even with mudguards your shoes might still get wet. Toe covers, Sealskin socks or Gore-Tex lined shoes will keep your feet dry to a greater or lesser effect. If you do not wear water-proof trousers, during a long ride water will find its way into your shoes by running down your trouser or bib tights legs. That's just something with which I put up...
When riding in the dark, it is equally important to see and be seen. There are a lot of decent lights available now. When it comes to front lights you will have to compromise. Small lights are light and do not take up much space on handlebars. Many are powered by button cells and on flash mode have decent battery life. However, they are of little use when you ride on unlit roads. If you actually need to see where you are going, a larger light with decent light output (100 lumens or more) will do the trick. Ensure it is aligned correctly on your handlebar as not to blind oncoming traffic. Buy a light with an IP-65 water-proof rating.
Figure out how long your commute is, double that time and add 20%. That is the minimum run-time you need for a daily commute. For daily use I would recommend rechargeable lights over battery-powered ones. I can recommend Knog, Blackburn, Lezeyne and Exposure lights (in increasing order of cost and light output). These companies have excellent spares availability.
Make sure you can be seen: dark clothing makes cyclists almost invisible to motorists. At the very least wear clothing with reflective panels. Proviz clothing just works, but there are many cheaper (and less visible) options available.
In deep winter staying warm on a bike can be difficult. First rule: layer up. Start with a baselayer. Merino is fantastic, albeit rather costly. Occasionally Lidl has it in stock at good prices. The synthetic stuff keeps you warm, although its wicking properties are often rather poor. Add a long-sleeve jersey (or a shirt if riding in civvies) of your choice. On top of that wear a jacket with a wind-proof front panel.
Bib-tights keep your legs warm. They come in different fabrics, the warmest often being called "Roubaix" after l'enfer du Nord (the Hell of the North). If need be, wear long ski socks instead of shorter socks - they do make a difference.
If you ride in really cold weather, consider purchasing a pair of Gore-Tex winter boots. For a long time I was reluctant to spend the money but in the end got tired of cold toes. Since acquiring a pair of Gaerne boots my tootsies are very happy, even during threee hour rides in -5°C.
Wear a skull cap under your helmet to keep your head warm. If you suffer from a cold neck, consider adding a neck muff. In really cold temperatures I add a hi-viz helmet cover for added wind protection. The linked one from Lomo is inexpensive but unfortunately currently out of stock.
Gloves are a very personal choice. Do not feel obliged to buy cycling-specific gloves - ski gloves will do just fine, provided they provide enough feel to manage shifting. In really cold weather I wear a medium-weight pair of long-finger gloves under an ancient pair of microfibre golf mitts. Those don't look cool but that combination works for me 😉.
Lastly, ensure your bike is ready for the cold season. In Northern Ireland there is a lot of muck on the road: salt, grit and mud are very hard on drive trains so keep everything clean and well lubricated. Wet lube is better in these conditions than dry lube. Do not use motorcycle chain lube. Its thick formulation sounds perfect but in practice is unsuitable for slower-moving bicycle chains and will result in a sticky mess. Don't ask how I know!
In case you were wondering: I run two bikes with waxed chains. One is my go-to gravel and shopping bike, complete with panniers. Having ridden it in winter and gritty conditions I discovered that particular combination is not good for a waxed chain which at some point starts to rust as the wax wears off. In my experience in those conditions a waxed chain needs to be re-coated every 150km or so. Life is too short for that... In October I will remove the wax and apply wet lube before the cold season as it's easier to wipe the chain and apply more lube than it is to remove the chain every week, clean it, rewax and reinstall it.
Consider installing tyres with good puncture protection. It is no fun replacing an inner tube in freezing rain with clammy fingers. You will also get very mucky!
One final tip: if possible buy your cycling apparel counter-cyclically. The summer collections are discounted now, just as the winter stuff was on sale back in February and March. Also, there is nothing wrong with last year's winter collections that are still available from many on-line retailers. Just check the usual suspects. They may have someting in your size.
Like with walking and horseback riding, there is never the wrong weather for cycling, only the wrong clothing! Ride safe!