Cycle commuting year-round is easier than you think – so long as you and your bike are prepared…
When you pedal to work each morning, you’re acutely aware of the slow turn of the seasons. You’re in the scene. Around you, spring buds slowly burst into leaf, summer mornings grow bluer and warmer, autumn becomes mistier and more stark, and winter cold deepens, making your breath smoke. It’s rare that Britain’s mild, moist climate makes cycle commuting difficult or impossible. And it doesn’t take a big investment in clothing and accessories to make any day’s ride practical and pleasant.
When the clocks go forward on the last weekend of March, spring evenings become suddenly lighter for much longer. It’s an ideal time to start commuting, since you can ride there and back in daylight. If you might conceivably need lights, take them with you anyway to avoid being left in the dark by a delay.
March proverbially comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, with blustery winds giving way to more settled conditions. Regardless, the weather invariably picks up through March and into April, with May often one of the nicest months of the year.
It rains less in spring than in winter – even April is one of the drier months – yet it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security by a blue sky morning and then get soaked by a squally shower on the way home. Isn’t that what a showerproof jacket is for? No. ‘Showerproof’ tends to mean ‘you’ll be okay if it’s spitting’. In a heavy shower or sustained rain, most showerproof jackets will leak like sieves.
Keep your waterproof jacket in your commuter bag until you’re sure, or just continue wearing it. You can prevent overheating by shedding a mid-layer, wearing the jacket over a long-sleeve shirt or baselayer and omitting a jersey. Better ventilated jackets, made from more breathable fabrics and with openings under the arms or across the back, cost more but can also be worn comfortably on warmer days.
Wind is arguably a worse enemy than rain. A headwind slows you down and saps your energy. Allow yourself extra time to get to work and use an easier gear. If you try to do your commute in your usual time, you’ll arrive a tired, sweaty mess. Beware sudden crosswinds when passing gaps in rural hedges or street openings between tall buildings.
Summer is your reward for riding to work the rest of the year. June and July are usually fairly warm and dry. August tends to be wetter than spring, partly due to summer storms that can leave roads awash. Best not take those mudguards off!
The problem with summer, if you can call it that, is that the extra warmth means you’re more likely to sweat. The best way to avoid getting sweaty is to avoid wearing a backpack. Put your luggage on the bike instead. Your clothing may be light, airy and breathable, but it will be none of those things if you cover your back with a bag.
If you commute in cycling gear and you’ve got showers at work, you can ride as hard as you like. You’re getting changed anyway. No showers? Pack some wet wipes or take a flannel in a plastic bag. Spruce up by washing your face, armpits and groin in the loo, then applying some fresh deodorant.
If you’re riding in the clothes you’ll wear at work, slow down. Undo a button. It’s worth having spare underwear in your bag or at work, so if you do end up getting uncomfortably sweaty, you’ve got something to change into. Use your wet wipes/flannel first.
Shorts are an option in summer, either Lycra or something looser and more casual. For your upper body, you seldom need do more than keep the breeze off. A lightweight windproof – either a jacket or a sleeveless gilet – is usually sufficient. Add arm-warmers for chilly starts. You don’t need expensive cycling eyewear, but check that any glasses you do use don’t impinge on your peripheral vision; the frames of some sunglasses do.
Average temperatures in autumn are comparable to spring, with occasional ‘indian summers’ that feel like August hasn’t ended. But conditions are more unsettled, with stronger winds (see above) and more rain. Your windproof, waterproof jacket will once again be earning its keep.
Autumn mornings are often foggy, while daylight is suddenly diminished on the last weekend of October when the clocks go back. Check and charge the batteries in your lights. You’re required by law to have a white front light and red rear light between dusk and dawn, and dusk falls earlier and earlier. You’re not legally required to have cycle lights in fog, but it’s a good idea to use them anyway.
Be careful when riding over fallen leaves. You don’t know what they might conceal – a pothole? And wet leaves are extremely slippery. Try to avoid braking or turning if you have to ride over them. Go straight on if you can, as if you were riding over ice.
Traffic levels suddenly change at the start of September as children return to school after the summer holidays. School-run parents can drive and park erratically, so be on the lookout for badly communicated manoeuvres and car doors opening suddenly if you cycle anywhere near a school.
Gloves will likely be the first change to your cycling wardrobe, and you’ll probably want cycling tights instead of shorts if you ride to work in bike gear. As autumn wears on, you’ll start to need an extra layer under your jacket again – a long-sleeve jersey for Lycra commuters or a baselayer (ie a vest) or a light sweater for normal-clothes commuters.
Ready for your next Cyclescheme package?
Cycle commuting can seem daunting when it’s dark, cold and wet. But bad weather is seldom as bad as it looks, especially if you’re dressed for it. You might find that you arrive at work warmer and drier than your colleague who hustled 200 yards from his car without a coat.
Keeping warm is easy by bike because you generate body heat by riding. It’s best to be barely warm enough rather than snug when you step out of your house, so that you’ll be at the right temperature a mile down the road. The exceptions are your extremities: head (particularly ears), hands, and feet. These get very cold from windchill and from your body diverting warm blood to your torso. Wrap them up. A pair of warm, waterproof, breathable gloves is essential. You also want warm socks, possibly waterproof ones, and either overshoes or a pair of winter-proof boots or shoes (not trainers or summer bike shoes). For your head, a winter cycling cap or stretchy ‘Buff’ will cover your ears and can be worn under a helmet. A peaked cap has the advantage that it will keep rain, snow and sleet out of your eyes. (A helmet peak can do the same job.)
Keeping your body warm is simple. It’s mostly about having a barrier to keep out cold wind and rain. The waterproof element is important: windchill is much worse when you or your clothing are wet. So your normal, uninsulated waterproof cycling jacket will be fine, with a couple of thin layers underneath it. Waterproof overtrousers are effective but can soon get very hot; only wear them when you really need them. All this rain gear will keep you dry as well as warm. If you’re commuting in bike gear, don’t worry about waterproofing your legs; winter cycling tights will generally keep your legs warm enough.
Beware slippery roads in winter. If you can see your breath, you might encounter black ice on a shadowed corner. Sheet ice or compacted and refrozen snow can be equally dicey. If you’re going to commute in these conditions, ride slowly and avoid turning, leaning or braking the bike anywhere you suspect ice. Metal-studded tyres are available but UK winters are seldom cold enough for long enough to get much use from them. Maybe just miss that day’s cycle commuting if it’s icy? Tomorrow might be better – and spring is on its way.
Useful all year
Frame-fitting mudguards like these SKS Chromoplastics will prevent dirty water from being sprayed over your feet, in your face, up your back, and all over your bike. They save misery, laundry, and maintenance.
RRP: £36.99 | Cyclescheme price: £26.26*
Breathable waterproof jacket
From winter windchill to summer rainstorms, a waterproof jacket is your first line of defence against the elements. Invest in a decent, breathable one like this Endura Luminite II so you don’t ‘boil in the bag’.
RRP: £89.99 | Cyclescheme price: £63.89*
Gloves with removable liners
Winter gloves with removable liners like these Altura Night Vision Waterproof ones are versatile because they can be worn three ways: together; just the outer; or just the inner. And unlike stitched-in liners, there’s never a problem fitting your fingers in them.
RRP: £39.99 | Cyclescheme price: £28.39*
It’s more comfortable to carry your commuting gear on your bike than your back, reducing the strain on your shoulders, backside, and hands. You sweat less too. A small pair of waterproof bags like these Ortlieb Front Roller City ones is all you need. (See page 50 for more.)
RRP: £64.99 | Cyclescheme price: £46.14*
*Based on a lower rate tax payer including an Extended Use Agreement forecast - a total saving of 25%' (not including an Extended Use Agreement forecast)