Winter is a testing time not only for your motivation but for your bike and equipment too. Bicycles really don't like all the water, grit and gunk that comes their way during the winter, but you can help out by using the best equipment and following a simple maintenance routine. Get things right and you'll be riding smoothly and safely through until spring.
Okay, so they’re not the most stylish or, dare we say it, fashionable thing you can stick on a bicycle but if you want to stay dry then keeping the surface water off your butt and lower legs/feet will make a huge difference to your comfort and enjoyment. What 'guards you fit depends on your bike.
If you have mounts and have the space and clearance you could fit traditional full-length mudguards like SKS Chromoplastics. If your frame doesn't have mounts, don't worry, there are lots of mudguards that will clip on to any bike, like Crud’s Race Guards.
The SKS Chromoplastic mudguards are one of the best known, and very highly regarded, full-length options. They’re made by sandwiching aluminium strips inside a plastic housing. The resulting profile is quite deep which makes it stiff and sturdy. Stainless steel stays fix them in place and the Secu-Clips on the front means they pop out of the mount if somehting gets caught between the mudguard and tyre, rather than locking the wheel and putting you on your face. You get a generous mudflap on the front mudguard and a reflector on the rear. They’re available in several sizes to fit tyres from 20 to 45mm.
The other popular option is the Crud Roadracer. As long as you've got 4mm between the top of your tyre and the inside of your brake caliper, the Roadracers will slide in. The Mk2 version is the longest of any clip-on mudguard, almost as long as full-length mudguards, and has a front mech protector too.
You don't need mudguard eyelets. Roadracers attach to the frame with reusable cable ties and some natty little brackets held on with rubber bands. That makes the Roadracer’s incredibly light at just 200g for the pair.
The weight is saved because Roadracers do not use the four stiff metal stays used on conventional mudguards to keep the guards from touching the wheel or tyre. Instead, the Roadracers have just two flexible plastic stays and are designed to 'float' above the tyre, with some little strips of soft brushing on the inside of the stay-clip to rub very gently on the rims and keep the guards central.
Fitting these can be a fiddle, especially getting the mudguards to float centrally over the wheels, but with a little patience it's possible to get a good setup. I've taken a pair of scissors to mine in the past and simply adapted them to fit my bike.
The all-plastic construction means Roadracers are more fragile than chromoplastic guards, an issue for some riders.
Our Buyer's Guide to Mudguards goes into great detail on the pros and cons of the different mudguards available, and will help you choose the right one for your bike.
Punctures are easily the most annoying thing about cycling through the winter. They're more common during the winter, because the rain washes more sharp flints and pieces of glass on to the road and water also acts as an annoyingly good lubricant for sharp objects to slice through a tyre.
Look for a tyre with a thick reinforced breaker belt sandwiched between the rubber tread and carcass. This will help prevent flints and glass from puncturing the delicate inner tube.
Tyre pressure is important, and especially so in the winter when the roads are most likely to be wet. As a general rule, the wetter it is, the lower the pressure you want to run your tyres at. While it might be fine to ride tyres inflated to 120psi during the summer when the roads are dry, it's a good idea to go a little lower the wetter it is. It's not unknown to go as low as 80-90psi.
Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres are essentially heavy duty, ultra reliable commu-touring tyres that inspire unprecedented confidence without feeling sluggish or barge-like, despite their 970g/pr weight.
A lighter option is the Continental Grand Prix 4 Season. A tough Duraskin mesh and two Vectran anti-puncture layers beneath the tread make this a good choice. And at 220g it's a good weight, for the rider wanting a fast winter tyre. Conti's max grip silica rubber compound provides a good level of grip. A good choice for winter and one that can be used in spring and autumn too. If you want even more protection, the Continental Gator Hardshell (see review) is a good option, with a third layer of Polyamide in the sidewalls.
Saddle pack with maintenance essentials
That last thing you want to do on a ride is to have a mechanical and not be able to sort it out. We always make sure we have a saddle bag packed with at least one spare tube, a few patches, tyre levers if the tyres demand it, and a quality multi-tool with a chain breaker. We carry a quick link or chain pin and tyre boot as well. Those are the essentials and should see you able to fix most roadside mechanicals.
By putting everything in a saddle pack you can simply leave it on the bike for the whole winter and it will always be there if and when you need it, and it beats stuffing your pockets, saving them for really important stuff like food and money for a coffee/cake/pint.
A good pump is a necessity at any time of the year, but winter is really not the time to skimp on your pump; invest in a high quality model. I once punctured 40 miles away from home, it was raining hard, and the mini pump I was testing completely failed me. A tiny pump may be attractive because it's light and doesn't take up much space in a jacket pocket, but they're not always much cop when it comes to quickly inflating a tyre to a decent pressure. If you're riding in company its also unfair to keep everyone waiting and getting cold while you struggle with an inadequate pump.
There are lots of very good mini pumps these days. Personally I think a traditional frame pump is best. Yes, it's heavier, but you can inflate a tyre to 85-100 psi every single time, and quickly too. If you can’t manage a frame pump, at least ensure you’ve invested in a high-quality pump that you’ve tested properly before hitting the road, or carry a CO2 cartridge inflator.
The Hoy Hi Pressure mini pump gets tyres up to pressure surprisingly easy and its metal construction means it should keep on pumping for a long time.
The pump has both presta and Schrader options that are easily interchanged through simply rotating the cuff beneath the valve itself. It is also simple to inflate the tyres to 120 psi with considerably less effort than other mini pumps.
Legendary US bike shop Rivendell Cycles calls the HPX "the biggest commercial mainstream normal zero-snobbeury bicycle success that has ever come out of France" and we can't argue with that. The narrow barrel makes high pressures easy, the thumblock grabs the valve firmly and the switchable sprung handle means no wasted effort.
The design's been around since the early 1970s. HPXes are tough and durable enough that we wouldn't be surprised if there are still a few of the first batch in use.
The Genuine Innovations Proflate 16 may not look the smartest, but it's a very cleverly designed CO2 pump that instills trust and makes you feel in control. It uses 16g non threaded cartridges (which are slightly cheaper than their threaded equivalents) and works on both Schrader and Presta valves.
The Proflate 16 has a host of really well designed features: it auto-detects Schrader or Presta valve; it's got a little indicator that tells you if the cartridge is punctured and the pump is therefore charged; it's got a trigger, protected by a security catch; you can store cartridges upside down in the body avoiding the risk of accidental puncturing; you can't accidentally unscrew the body with a charged/punctured cartridge; and it's got an automatic dirt/water shield.
Even if you’re not planning to ride in the dark, it can be very gloomy on some grey, overcast days, so we’d recommend always riding with a set of lights. Even if they’re small single LED blinker lights, you have the reassurance of being able to put them on if it doesn’t turn out to be the blue sky day you'd hoped for.
And sometimes, even with the best intentions, you might find yourself racing to get home before the sun sets and not quite succeeding. We’ve all been there and know what it’s like. It's best to play safe and get some lights on your bike throughout the winter.
Here are a few of our current favourites.
The Lucas KOTR R15 Sport rear light is very neat and compact, with a good beam and battery life for its size. It's ideal for clipping on your bike to alert drivers of your presence when daytime conditions are gloomy, and so you've got a back-up if your afternoon ride goes on later than planned.
The Cateye Rapid Mini is all you could want from a commuter rear light: it's cheap, tough, easy to fit, and provides a good balance between visibility and run time. It throws out a claimed 15 lumens across four different modes. You get the standard constant and flashing modes, plus a subtle pulsing mode and a mode that should come with an epilepsy warning. Each of these are bright enough to feel safe (or as least as safe as is possible) on unlit roads at night, making the Rapid Mini ideal for anyone who commutes on more rural lanes. The side visibility is decent too, an important consideration for more urban usage.
Be sure to check out our rear light buyer's guide + light comparison engine.
The Lezyne KTV Drive Front is a charming wee Be-Seen-By front light, with some neat features that make the whole package pretty compelling.
The single white LED is fixed at 15 lumens. This isn't a tarmac-scorcher, but you get a minimum runtime of over four hours on constant. That bumps up to over six hours for the pulse mode where the brightness varies but never goes out, and over ten hours in either of the three flashing modes. This from a light with the dimensions of a Matchbox car and weighing just 51g on the Road.CC Kitchen Scales Of Semi-Truth.
The Magicshine MJ-858 is a tiny gem of cast, black anodised aluminium with a small light aperture and base that pumps out 1,000 lumens. It runs for 3.5 hours on full brightness with its 4.4Ah battery, and you can easily extend this by reducing the output. However if run time is paramount to your requirements, then just upgrade to the bigger 6.6Ah battery to get well over five hours of bright, well-distributed beam on full power.
I finished a ride the other day and actually had a tidemark along the down tube. There was even a bit of driftwood in the muck. Yes, riding through the winter clearly places a lot of stress on all the moving components so you’ll need to embrace a regular cleaning and servicing schedule.
Ideally ,you should give your bike a very thorough clean straight after a mucky ride to prevent rust setting in. A bucket, some soapy water and a sponge/brush will do for a basic clean. There are plenty of specialised cleaning products on the market that will make cleaning your bike easier.
Keep it lubed
Even if you don’t wash your bike regularly, you’re going to need to keep the drivetrain will lubed. Hear that squeaky chain? That’s not a good sound; you don’t want to be hearing it.
Buy a good-quality bicycle lube and use it, this isn't the time to skimp. Wet lubes are good because they last ages, but can attract muck and grit to the chain and need more thorough cleaning. Dry lubes might not seem the obvious choice in the winter but a good one can work well and has the benefit of keeping your chain clean. On the down side, it does need much more regular application and can be more fussy to apply in the first place.
B'Twin wet lubricant is designed to resist the worst that winter can hurl at us and has me questioning whether it's worth shelling out for more exotic foul weather preps. It's UK-made and comprises water-repelling synthetic oils that seep deep into the links and remain firmly ensconced.
Green Oil proudly boasts that it contains no environmentally harmful chemicals, such as PTFE, and no palm oil, which is implicated in the destruction of rainforest. What it actually does contain is a secret. Green Oil only admit to "naturally occurring plant extracts" and no animal derivatives. But this is all detail; what matters is that it works really well, whether you care about its green credentials or not.
Check that chain
If you’re riding a load of miles in the winter, it’s good to keep an eye on the chain wear. A chain will slowly stretch over time as the components wear out.
A chain checker tool is reasonably cheap and could save you a lot of money in the long run. If you leave a chain to wear unchecked, the chain rings, cassette and jockey wheels will wear out and and eventually you’ll have to replace the whole transmission. Costly!
Essentially a modified digital calliper, Feedback Sports' Chain Gauge eliminates the guesswork when determining chain wear. Compared to a metal chain checker or steel ruler, you're less likely to get errors due to you making a mistake, or tool wear. Being digital it's more expensive, so it will probably appeal to bike shop mechanics more than home mechanics.
Alternatively, if you change the chain regularly, you can extend the life of the transmission hugely. Some people will fit a new chain every three months if they’re do lots of miles. A new chain - and it doesn’t need to be a posh one - is a small price to pay compared to a Dura-Ace cassette, for example.
Inspect tyres and brake blocks regularly
The brake blocks (or pads) will take a beating through the winter and wear out much faster. Every time you wash your bike, pay particular attention to the blocks and replace them before they get too worn. It’s also worth checking the tyres for holes, cuts, gashes and flint/glass lodged in the tyre.
Kool Stop Dura 2s are aftermarket upgrade brake blocks with the dual compound providing good braking performance in a range of conditions and decent longevity too.
Follow this guide and you should sail through the autumn and winter months quite happily. If you've got any of your own tips, feel free to add them below.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.