Winter Cycling: Tips for Riding Through Discomfort
Winter Cycling: Tips for Riding Through Discomfort

Winter Cycling: Tips for Riding Through Discomfort

“I absolutely love freezing my ass off for hours, it’s delightful!” 
- said no one EVER 

 

winter cycling road riding

 

Riding a bike in the depths of winter can truly be a traumatic experience for many, especially for those who live in places like Colorado, where temperatures can be borderline unbearable for days on end. Most people invest in an indoor trainer and become dedicated “Zwift riders” between November and April (or until the thermometer shows 40+ degrees out), but for me, that was never an option for more than one reason: My complete disdain for indoor trainers and the fact that I don’t own a car. 

I remember when I initially moved to Denver in 2015 and went on my first “freezing” ride. It was early fall, cloudy, and my weather app was showing 45 degrees. I was shivering. The brisk air cut through my Brazilian skin like something I had never experienced before. That same day I went to REI and bought my first set of cheap arm/leg warmers and overshoes. Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the only season I’ve ever known was summer and its variations: extreme and mild. Anything below 65 degrees I considered to be cool weather riding …45 was completely foreign territory. 

As the years went by, my tolerance to the cold saw an incredible improvement. Not owning a car and still having to commute to school, work and the grocery store proved to be a great motivator to brave the winter months on two wheels. A good friend of mine once said, “submitting yourself to uncomfortable situations is a great way to build character.” He was referring to experiences in the outdoors, such as camping in the rain and snow, running an ultramarathon, getting caught in a thunderstorm at thirteen thousand feet…although the last one I don’t recommend to anyone, it definitely taught me an invaluable lesson: Don’t ever get caught in a thunderstorm storm at thirteen thousand feet! But you get the point: Riding outside in the winter makes you mentally and physically tougher to face a variety of other challenges, from outdoor pursuits to the struggles of daily life. 

 

winter road riding cycling

 

Cycling became an obsession of mine in the beginning of 2020. After getting dropped multiple times on my first group ride in Boulder - I was hooked! Being a somewhat competitive person, the fact I wasn’t able to keep up with the other riders pushed me to train harder (hoping for a day when the tables would turn). We were still in January, but my will to get better was so strong that I started riding day in and day out, no matter the conditions. I bought a

pair of lobster gloves, fancy overshoes and a proper winter jersey. I felt like a pro, and you know what they say: feel like a pro, ride like a pro…I wish it was that easy. 

Nowadays, heading out on the open roads when temperatures dip below freezing is something I actually look forward to. Putting my full winter kit on gives me a sense of freedom and invincibility, like I’m doing something most people don’t even consider. I have to admit, it feels pretty darn cool! 

“But why not ride the trainer instead?” 

My answer to that is quite simple: because the thought of working so hard and yet not moving drives me crazy (like running on a treadmill). It may sound a bit harsh to some and funny to others, but when the choice is between Watopia and the Front Range, I’ll take the latter anyday. 

“What do you do when it snows?” 

This is a common concern shared by many cyclists. Snow can definitely create some hazards on the road, black ice especially, but fear not, there’s more to cycling than just riding your bike. I’m guilty of ignoring weight and flexibility training in the past. I used to think that the only way to get better in the sport was simply practicing it, which meant riding every day, but that’s so far from what you are really supposed to do. Lifting weights and training your flexibility has been scientifically proven to increase power and reduce chances of injuries. So why not take those dangerous winter days to hit the gym instead? I also find it to be a great way to avoid mid-season burnout. 

“It’s expensive.” 

Winter shouldn’t be a reason to not ride outside, nor should it be a cause for bankruptcy. Go to your local bike shop and get the best lobster gloves and shoe covers you can afford, the other layers you can improvise: wear a set of normal winter tights on top of your summer bibs; wear a buff on your head instead of one of those overpriced cycling hats that never cover your ears properly…be creative, but no matter what you do, avoid cotton at all cost! (FYI: It’s still cheaper to invest in a new cycling kit than it is to buy a trainer and a Zwift subscription.) 

"How do you deal with frozen water bottles and staying fueled?"

Truth be told: If you ride in below 32 degrees for an extended period of time, your bottle will freeze. That’s a fact. However, there are a few tricks I found that should buy you a couple of hours before that happens. 

  1. Use Insulated water bottles. Just like in the summer when you want to keep that water nice and cold, insulated bottles are a MUST in the winter for the exact opposite.
  2. Adding things such as sugar and salt to the water can help reduce its freezing point. Which brings me to…
  3. I rely solely on Gnarly’s Fuel2O during the winter months. It helps my water to stay liquid for longer and eliminates the struggle of trying to open food packages when I can barely feel my hands. It’s a win win!

 

drinking fuel2o while winter road riding and cycling

 All photos in this blog are taken by Leonardo Brasil. 

 

There are many excuses we can find to avoid being uncomfortable outside, after all, humans are indeed creatures of comfort. You don’t have to sell your car or give up Zwift just yet, but if there is something I’ve learnt from pushing myself in the elements, it’s that there’s beauty to be found in discomfort. It makes you more resilient and appreciative of the small things in life,

such as indoor heat and liquid water - try getting inside of a warm apartment after riding for multiple hours in sub freezing temperatures, It’s a magical feeling. Point being, don’t be afraid of winter, embrace it instead! 

Disclaimer: 

This author is not a pro rider, nor is he training to win any “short” races (he considers anything less than 200 miles to be “short”). He is a professional photographer who happens to participate in ultra-distance events (350mi +) and frequently goes on very long tours across the country. Given the fact that he describes those races as “fun”, it’s okay to assume there might be something wrong with how he perceives pain. So take everything he said with a grain of salt.

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