When the rain is running down the windows on a winter morning, it can be hard to summon up the enthusiasm for cycle commuting you had in summer. Don't despair: it looks worse out there than it is. British weather is seldom bad enough to stop you cycling if you're prepared for it.
Light rain and showers are common, but according to the Met Office heavy rain (more than 10mm) falls on fewer than 40 days per year across most of the UK – and fewer than 15 days in eastern areas. So while the odds of a damp commute now and again are high, the chances of getting soaked are low. Often the rain won't coincide with your commute at all, so you'll only have to cope with wet roads.
Wet roads will nevertheless make you wet through if you don't have mudguards. Full-length mudguards, preferably with a front mudflap to keep your feet dry, are the single most effective wet-weather accessory. A light rain shower can evaporate from your clothes by body heat alone. Dirty road water jet-washed at you by your wheels will have you squelching around all day.
If you change when you get to work, it's not vital for you to stay dry, only for your work clothes to do so. Invest in a waterproof pannier or backpack, plus cycling clothing that will keep the worst of the weather off. If you commute in your work clothes, get a proper waterproof jacket, some over-trousers, and either overshoes or waterproof socks. Cycle at an easy pace or you'll get soggy: you can sweat faster than your waterproofs can breathe. Give yourself extra time for your commute on wet days.
When you're cycling in or after rain, take care when crossing drain covers, tramlines, shiny tarmac sealing lines, and painted white lines. They can all be very slippery, so avoid steering whilst on top of them. When it rains after a dry spell, the water can lift spilled oil or diesel, making roundabouts and junctions slick; corner with care. Be careful riding through puddles too. Any one could hide a pothole.
Brake sooner and more gradually in the rain. The brake pads have to skim any water from the braking surface before they'll bite. And your tyres have less traction, making skids more likely.
A cyclist's worst enemy is not rain but wind. Riding into a headwind is like riding uphill, without any sense of achievement and without a guaranteed freewheel in return; you might get a tailwind later but you might not.
As with hillclimbing, it pays to use your gears in a headwind. Shift down so that you can spin at a relatively easy cadence. This won't tax your body as much, and you probably won't go any slower than if you were grinding along in a big gear. If your bike has a drop handlebar, use the drops. Hunker down out of the wind, making yourself as aerodynamic as you can.
A tailwind is free speed. Crosswinds, on the other hand, demand your attention. Buildings and hedgerows shelter you from the wind, but when you pass a gap or a gateway the full force of the wind will suddenly hit you. This can push you yards into the road or off the road entirely. Brace yourself and be prepared to lean into the wind. If it's so windy that there aren't any birds in the sky, you might want to leave the bike at home…
So long as you have a windproof layer, it's seldom a problem keeping warm while cycling. Pedalling generates heat. You don't need the same level of insulation as a pedestrian. Even in the depths of winter, you torso can be toasty warm with only a long-sleeved base layer (vest), a thin, long-sleeved jersey, and a windproof outer layer. If you cycle in normal clothes, you might want to keep your jumper in your bag until you get to work.
Your extremities get much colder while cycling, however. There's more windchill. Ears, forehead, fingers and toes bear the brunt of the cold. Wear a Buff or cap (either will fit under a helmet) and invest in good winter gloves. If your hands are still cold, wear liner-gloves under your main gloves.
If you commute in normal clothes, get some good thermal socks. If you wear cycling shoes, don't use summer ones by themselves. At the very least, use neoprene overshoes. Better yet, invest in winter cycling shoes, sized big enough that you can comfortably wear thermal socks with them.
Cold air will chafe your lips while cycling. Use a lip salve or vaseline before your set off on any day when you can see your breath.
Any cold night over from, say, October to March brings the risk of ice. If you live somewhere where ice is more than a sporadic problem, it's worth investing in metal-studded tyres. These are the are the only tyres that will grip properly on ice. Otherwise, cycle with extreme caution, memorising anywhere you've encountered ice before, as it tends to reform in the same places. More heavily used roads will tend to be gritted, so are less likely to be icy than backstreets or rural lanes.
If you find yourself on ice, try to keep going in a straight line. Don't brake or turn. Be ready to put one foot down. That way you can lay the bike down on its side if you slip instead of going down hard on your hip. If in doubt, don't cycle.
Turn on your lights so that other road users can see you sooner. Your front light must be on your bike (where it should be in any case). If it's on your head or helmet, the light will reflect right back at you off the fog. Even with the lamp not in your eyeline, it might not throw much of a beam. Slow down so that you're able to stop within the distance that you can see ahead.
As far as possible, use lightly trafficked roads with lower speed limits. Any drivers will have longer to react and brake, and you'll be better able to judge where traffic is by sound.
Fog is cold and wet. Dress appropriately, and bear in mind that your stopping distance will increase a little due to wet braking surfaces.
Falling snow makes it hard to see. It stings your eyes. Wear a cycling cap – under a helmet if worn – so that the peak shields your eyes. Other road users will have difficulty seeing as well, so it's worth turning on your lights. If it's dark, your front lamp will reflect back off the snow, particularly if the lamp is on your head. It's weirdly hypnotic.
Riding in falling snow is similar to riding in rain, only harder. Snow is more slippery and compacts into ice. Slow down. Make any manoeuvres with care. Brake gradually and early.
Riding on top of fallen snow is harder work but can be quite pleasant. The deeper the snow, the more you'll benefit from bigger wheels and fatter tyres, run at lower pressures. A mountain bike can make good headway in snow a few inches deep, where a small-wheeled folding bike would stall.
Weather beating, taken from Cycle Commuter #13. Read the issue in full online here.
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