Winter wonderland: Why you should keep cycling in the darker months

Photo by Holly Chisholm on Unsplash
Winter skies have a magic that's unique to this time of year
Just because the sunsets arrive a lot earlier and there’s a distinct nip of Jack Frost in the air, there’s no reason to hang up your cycling kit. Cycling UK’s Julie Rand has plenty of ideas to motivate you to keep on riding through winter

I don't know about you, but spring makes me think of jumping into the air, while summer has a lazy, dreamy quality to it and autumn immediately conjures up thoughts of log fires, misty mornings and the sound of golden leaves crunching under my wheels.

Winter, however, feels a bit doom-and-gloomy, possibly due to its likely derivation from the Old Norse words for ‘water’ or ‘wet’, as winter was known as the ‘wet season’. It’s also not that dissimilar to the word ‘wither’, from Middle English ‘widren’ or ‘wydderen’ (‘to dry up, shrivel’), which seems appropriate as the leaves wither away on the trees.

Many of us might feel SAD due to the lack of daylight – that is, we suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the symptoms of which can include low mood, irritability, anxiety and the loss of pleasure in everyday activities, becoming less sociable.

We are less likely to do the one thing that might cheer us up – yes, get out on our bikes! Which leads to a vicious cycle of staying indoors, thus making the symptoms worse, and if you're not commuting because of the pandemic, you may be feeling even less motivated than usual to get out on your bike.

Ride the light

However, rides in winter can be among the most magical of the whole year. There’s something precious and incredible about the light at this time, even if it’s at its most fleeting.

Low sun can dazzle you, but it can also produce amazing sunsets and sunrises, with trees and buildings stunningly silhouetted against burnt orange skies. If you’re in the countryside, you may be lucky enough to hear owls shrieking to each other as dusk falls or see skeins of migrating geese arrowed in the air.

Christmas lights appear out of the gloom, brightening up the darkest corners and lending an air of festive anticipation (are those bicycle or sleigh bells tinkling in the distance?).

With a good set of lights, you can even extend your cycling post-sunset with night rides, both on and off road.

Moonrises in winter can be as awe inspiring as the sunsets – just why does the moon seem so big as it appears above the horizon? We need Professor Cox to explain!

Maybe he could also give us the lowdown on the Geminid meteor shower, the most spectacular of the year, at the same time? It should be visible to many of us over the next few weeks, clear skies permitting. Northern areas of the UK could even see the Northern Lights, if conditions are right.

Trees against a sunset sky

Take a view

Winter is also a very special time to go cycling as the lack of foliage opens up the skyline in a way it doesn’t the rest of the year. Familiar views look even more spectacular when framed in a different way and you can spot things you may never have noticed before, such as a country house that’s normally hidden behind a line of trees, or an interesting city skyline that’s suddenly revealed.

Even better is a ride when there’s been a flurry of the white stuff, changing the world around you to one where ordinary and everyday objects like phone boxes are transformed into strange and ghostly shapes, and the paw prints of unknown creatures delineate hidden tracks into the bushes.

Glimpses of hoar frost, morning mist and frozen landscapes are all just some of the extraordinarily beautiful benefits of riding in the winter.

So what if these reasons are not enough to motivate you to keep pedalling, and the elements are telling you to stay put indoors with Netflix, a cat and a blanket? Here are some more ideas to get you off that sofa and into the saddle again.

Faux commute

You may not have to visit a workplace as regularly as you did pre-pandemic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still get out for a regular ride as a ‘virtual commuter’.

Get your clothing ready the night before so you’re ready to head out the door as soon as possible, otherwise you might be tempted to take the easier option of slumping in front of your laptop or worktop over a strong espresso, and instead get out on your bike.

Unlike real commuting, you can choose where to go each day and explore different routes if they are available. Ride for as long as you can before returning home to a shower – and a delicious breakfast, which tastes much better after exercise.

Once it becomes part of your morning routine, you will find it easier to persuade yourself to go out, even if you don’t really feel like it, and will feel a virtuous glow for the rest of the day.

Find a group to ride with

There’s nothing like riding with a group to encourage you to get out the door. We’ve got groups throughout the country who ride regularly throughout the year and welcome new faces.

They offer support, like-minded company and a reason to ride, with great routes and, of course, nearly always a lovely café to warm yourself up at with a steaming hot chocolate, or a pub with a cosy fire, during your outing.

Extra marshmallows and cream with that? Yes, why not? You’ve burnt the extra calories just by keeping yourself warm.

Get festive

Once you’re committed to something, it’s harder to back out of it unless there is a very good reason to, such as ice or a positive coronavirus test. There’s lots of ideas in our Cycling Events Guide.

If there's nothing much going on near you, why not put on your own festive ride for friends and family? The costumes may get a little muddy, but dressing up is always a fun way to ‘break the ice’!

Why not add a bit of tinsel, some battery-operated fairy lights and a glow stick or two for a truly eye-catching blinged-up bicycle that brightens even the darkest days?

And if you’re going to all that effort, a Christmas-themed Cycling Treasure Hunt would be a great way to show it all off – just plot a route that involves finding clues that vaguely go with the theme, such as riding down Holly Lane or a trip to the Partridge and Pear Tree pub, or even just a particularly nicely decorated house and garden.

New year, new you?

Keeping riding through the winter really pays dividends come spring. You’ll feel fitter, faster and raring to go once the warmer, lighter days finally arrive, while fair weather riders are still dusting off their rusty steeds – and possibly their rusty knees too!

Rider next to frozen canal

Weather the weather

It’s all very well telling me winter cycling is a ‘good thing’, but what about the atrocious weather? I hear you ask plaintively.

Yes, indeed the weather in this country can be a bit inclement at times, but it’s by no means that bad, compared to many places in the world where cycling all year round is so normal, it’s just part of everyday life.

Often, it’s just not as bad outside as it seems when you’re looking at it through a pane of glass, making it so easy to convince yourself not to bother.

Did you know there’s a Winter Cycling Federation devoted to the vision of ‘winter cycling for everyone’? They even had an e-Global Winter Cycling Congress in February 2021 looking at ways of enabling people in cities around the globe to keep pedalling through the worst of winter (there’s a ‘live’ event planned for February 2023).

We just swap summer tyres for winter ones, as we do with our cars, and keep pedalling

Hege Berg Thurmann, Norwegian cycle commuter

Cyclist in Oslo

Hege Berg Thurman, a keen cyclist from Oslo in Norway, rides to work all through the winter. She says: “We just swap summer tyres for winter ones, as we do with our cars, and keep pedalling.”

In this country, you mostly just need to wrap up warm, putting on extra layers and wet weather gear if necessary, and push yourself out the door. Invest in an extra layer or two, some overshoes or thick gloves to keep your hands and feet warm, and perhaps a bike cap or balaclava for your head, and you’re all set.

You’ll feel so much better than if you'd stayed indoors gorging on chocolates, I promise, even if you might need a light defrosting afterwards.

You’ll also have the guilty pleasure of allowing yourself to feel a little bit smug when friends and colleagues are amazed by your ‘intrepid’ battle with the elements, as though you were Scott of the Antarctic, rather than someone riding a few soggy miles to your workplace or café stop!

Nevertheless, winning this particular battle can be rather exciting and strangely satisfying in this over-cosseted and risk-averse world.

Many off-road riders, believe it or not, actually relish muddier conditions as they find them more challenging and more exhilarating. If this includes you, though, be careful not to damage the trails by sliding the back wheel too much or braking hard on soggy corners.

Any sort of so-called ‘weather’ in the UK can also have a major impact on motor traffic and public transport. If you’re a cyclist, you can mostly avoid this chaos by finding another route – perhaps an off-road one, perhaps just overtaking the traffic jams – and still arrive at your destination on time.

The only conditions that are to be avoided at all costs, in my view, are where there’s a danger to life and limb, such as ice, especially the black kind, or other extreme weather events.

Benefits in kind

If you’re a Cycling UK member, you can enjoy great discounts on all the best clothing and equipment for cycling in winter at Cotswold Outdoor, Raleigh, Snow+Rock and Halfords.

You can also get half-price membership and 10% off all bookings at the Youth Hostel Association, so a cheap winter getaway pre- or post-Christmas is a real bargain, especially when hostels in many of the most popular areas are likely to be a lot less busy than in peak season.

What better way to banish the winter blues and get a much-needed boost of Vitamin D than with an impromptu cycling trip?

If you know a friend or relative who is not a member yet, our Christmas Gift Membership includes insurance cover, retail discounts and more, plus a bonus free gift of your choice, making it the one present that won’t be exchanged come Boxing Day! And if it’s really too cold to go out, they can stay home and read Cycle magazine instead.

When all else fails

If none of the above is enough to tempt you off the sofa, how else can you fuel your passion for cycling throughout the seasonal slump?

For inspiration for planning cycle trips in Britain, our British Cycle Quest provides plenty of ideas for new and different places to go, and a great reason to visit them, as does Cycling UK’s handpicked selection of 140 brilliant cycling routes for both on- and off-road riders.

Freewheel into spring

So what are you waiting for? There’s no reason not to have as much fun riding in winter as you do the rest of the year, even if your mileage is a little lower than normal. We’re almost at the shortest day of the year now, in any case, so spring can’t be that far behind – can it?