Martijn Maaskant of Garmin-Cérvelo on the Muur. Photo by Jered Gruber
Riding through winter is very much like riding through summer. Only it tends to be colder. But, as you’ve no doubt read in countless magazine articles and forums and on websites, there’s a whole host of pitfalls to side step, heart rate zones to ride in, perfect rain jackets to purchase, and actual Phd theses on winter tyres to digest. So as if you didn’t need any more advice on how to ride your bike, here are my - characteristically verbose – tips on arriving in spring ready to attack the racing season with gusto…
Create your own mythology. The fundamentals of any training plan will be founded on goals and targets. But those are simply words, abstract ideas, accumulations of numbers and times. To survive a winter of continuous training, to make the cold rain bearable and for the intensity of intervals to not seem like an insanity, you need to dream. Allow yourself to visualise the highs of summer – the highs created by peak fitness, the highs of conquering mountains. Your goal is not to finish in first place – it’s to feel the euphoria, to bask in the glow only bestowed on the victorious. Hold onto these vignettes – of gritting your teeth in the sprint, the feel of accelerating away from the bunch as the road climbs upwards – it’s these expectations of success that will help you make sense of riding through the drudgery and the many challenges winter will throw at you.
Wrap yourself in cotton wool. True, it’s sometimes good to tough it out and ride through miserable conditions. Just knowing how your body copes when sodden and frozen can help you deal with similar conditions when encountered during a race. But there’s little benefit in putting yourself through it day after day – eventually you’ll crack and want to spend a week wrapped up in bed. And if you get ill you might not have any choice in the matter.
Perhaps more importantly, always err on the side of caution when temperatures dip below freezing overnight and there’s a chance of ice on the roads. Last year we had to abandon a club run when half the group fell on the same patch of black ice – and that was on a main road before we’d even made into the country lanes. It can be extremely frustrating as chances to ride slip past, but the consequences of a bad fall make patience a far more sensible option.
Wrap yourself in sportswool. The amount of hours you spend riding on the road is probably easily matched by the time you spend checking out bike kit in shops and online. Looking for the best deals, comparing the weights of wheels, the lumens of lights, co-ordinating your arm warmers to your bar tape. Winter is a particularly enjoyable time of year for the kit fetishists as the amount of clothes required triples – baselayers, overshoes, jackets, hats, gloves… Spend wisely, but don’t scrimp on quality. Sportswool and merino are usually better than synthetics. Have multiples of the necessities – you can’t be washing the same kit night after night. Being prepared for the conditions means it’s more likely you’ll get out of bed and tackle them.
Too little is better than too much. A plan will never, it seems, go to plan. No matter how thorough your Excel spreadsheet might be, how flexible you try to make your schedule, life and weather and circumstance will inevitably get in the way. Christmas will come along and force you to drink and eat more, to go to parties and socialise, and you know, all that terrible enjoying yourself stuff. Illness will enforce rest. It’s hard not to panic, to not throw in extra hours to make up for those already missed. To up the intensity in fear of the races beginning to draw into view. But keep your progress steady, add training stress incrementally, even if that means reaching the start of the season slightly undertrained. The season is long, and you’ll soon catch up.
A little less pressure. That applies to your tyres, but also to your mindset. Get a group of guys, set them on a task together, and watch as the testosterone levels rise and everyone tries to outdo each other. Almost every group ride will at some point deteriorate into a race or a competition; if it’s not who can get up the hill first, it will be who does the longest pull on the front. And if your training is not on the same schedule of those around you, and it’s you getting dropped on every climb, it can get pretty demoralising. Leave the racing and competition for the actual racing and competitions. Riding at the pace that’s right for you is not always easy, so try to find a like minded group, or failing that, ride solo. In the end winter is actually a great time to enjoy a ride as just a ride – be serious and structured about how you approach your preparation for the following season, but also see it as a rest from all the pressures it will inevitably bring.