Gravel Culture: How to make winter gravel riding fun

Posted By Gravel Union On 14 December 2020

We sent James The Intrepid out into the cold to try and figure out the best way to make winter riding fun. Now that he’s come back inside and has thawed out a bit, here’s his top tips.

If only winter riding was always like this! Image courtesy of 3T

Tasked with writing down some tips on how to ride through winter, my immediate thought was simply “don’t bother” For many riders, winter marks the point at which many cyclists switch their riding from analogue to digital. Zwift and the multitude of other smart trainer related tech means that we really don’t have to suffer the struggles of winter!

But spinning without moving is soooo boring! So how can you prepare yourself for the rigours of riding your gravel bike through the winter?

First things first, up your cleaning routine. It might be freezing cold, wet and usually dark when you come back from a winter ride and getting out the cleaning tools will be the last thing on your mind! But washing your bike down rather than wheeling that muddy and soggy bike into a cold shed or garage until the next ride isn’t going to do the mechanicals any good.

We don’t advise you leave your drivetrain looking like this after a ride

Gear cables and winter riding are never very happy bed-fellows. Water and grime will find its way in somewhere and inevitably, your shifting will suffer. Riding is never fun when things refuse to work properly, and this is only exemplified when the mercury is low. Ever since watching the cyclocross pros last winter hammering Shimano’s Dura Ace Di2 in the thickest, wettest peanut butter style mud, lap after lap without fail, I’ve dreamt of electronic gears. Electronic shifting has been a game changer throughout the seasons, but it’s really shone through the last few weeks of winter.

At a minimum, wash your drivetrain of dirt, mud and grime. Our top tip is to use a bucket of scolding hot water and wear a pair of washing up gloves! Use a stiff brush and ideally some proper bike wash (or car wash) detergent. Ensure all moving parts such as derailleurs are free from any debris which could impede their movement. Pay particular attention to your jockey wheels - a pet hate of mine, make sure they’re not packed up with oily detritus. Once everything is cleaned and dry, add a thin coating of lube your chain with a suitable wet weather grade lubricant. But remember, less is more!

If you are in the fortunate position of having a dedicated storage space for your gravel bike (and it has a power socket), another top tip is to buy yourself a mains-powered dehumidifier and a plug-in timer. Once your bike is washed, leave it to drip dry close to (but not over the top of, in case water drips into it) the dehumidifier and it will help to suck the atmosphere dry of excess water. Leave the timer set to run for a couple of hours and you will be amazed how much water you can pull out of the atmosphere (and away from your gravel bike)

How to make your gravel bike look really ugly in the minimum time possible

Normally, a winterise your bike guide wouldn’t be complete without the recommendation of fitting mud guards. In my experience, they’re great… so long as you stick to the roads. But even the slightest excursion off-road has resulted in me finding some piece of the countryside lodging itself firmly between tyre and mud guard. Usually resulting in a broken mudguard and some very long, cold minutes as I fumble with a multi-tool to try remove them.

Accept that you are likely to get wet whatever the weather. The majority of modern gravel bikes have such stout downtubes, that front wheel spray is normally minimal. For the rear, I use an Ass Saver – these simple little guards attach to your saddle and as the name suggests, save your ass from the wet and dirt kicked up by your rear wheel.

Lights – good for helping you see in the dark and for making your bike look beautiful

Lights! Even if you don’t ride in the dark, having some lights on your gravel rig is an important consideration in the winter. The sun is much lower, the shadows longer and more often than not, mist and fog can roll in without warning. Make yourself seen on those road transitions rather than run the risk.

Perhaps the greatest liberator for me this winter is making the upgrade to dynamo power. I regularly forgot to charge my lights and found myself with a golden weather window to get out riding only to find my batteries were flat. If you’re as disorganised as me, a dynamo is great for just jumping out at a moment’s notice. Plus, you’ll never experience flat battery anxiety again!

Perfect winter riding conditions. Image courtesy of Erwin Sikkens

I should probably mention clothing. It’s obvious, but you want to be prepared for the cold and the wet. I prefer to layer up rather than overload my wardrobe with too many winter specific items. Get yourself a good heavy duty winter base layer – something like this. Full length bib tights with a DWR (water repellent) coating are far more comfortable than a pair of leg warmers that will undoubtedly slip down during your ride, exposing your pink legs to the harshness of winter just when you least expect it! A winter jacket, preferably windproof and with a high collar will give you plenty of adjustability and temperature control. You’ll appreciate the ease of zipping down the collar on a tough climb when your body temperature inevitably rises. And the windproof element will come in to its own on the icy cold descent. A light rain jacket will not only spare you from the elements, it’ll also act as an additional layer should you get cold during the ride.

Don’t forget your extremities – a helmet liner, decent gloves and overshoes will make a world of difference. In emergencies, plastic sandwich bags on top of your socks and nitrile mechanics gloves under your riding gloves will both make your ride a happier place!

Even with all the best kit at your disposal, some days it feels impossible to drag yourself out there. So, set yourself small goals. Set yourself a small target distance, once you reach it, any additional kms you can clock up past that goal earn you big points. The winter shouldn’t be about heroics - simply getting out, spinning your legs and having fun is the aim.

Coffee never tastes better than when you brew it yourself outdoors. Image courtesy of Erwin Sikkens

What is a ride without a coffee? Unfulfilling! With coronavirus prevention measures creating a number of restrictions, many of my favourite coffee stops are either closed, or operating takeaway only. Why not take a thermos flask of your favourite hot beverage (or even a soup) with you on your ride? There’s a number of insulated flasks available that’ll fit a bottle cage or, you can stash one away in a frame bag or similar. Or if you’re super organised and fancy a bit of daypacking, you could take a small stove and make the king of brews.

Ultimately, the whole point of riding out in winter is to have fun. Even if you get out for an hour, the combination of fresh air and endorphins will mean you’ll definitely have more memories to take home than you ever would create sat spinning in front of a screen in your garage! Just make sure to look in the mirror on your return so that you don’t scare the children.

Image courtesy of 3T

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