Should You Ride in Extreme Conditions?

As road cyclists/triathletes we generally pride ourselves on being hard. Riding up a mountain for 90 minutes? No problem. Dropping down a hill at 50MPH? Hold my beer. 12 hours straight with no break? Walk in the park. However there comes a time when cycling is simply not very sensible and has a high margin of risk associated with it. Never is this more appropriate than in cold weather, but not wanting to comes across as being a bit soft can make it difficult to make the distinction between it being a bit chilly and dangerous. Here’s an overview of different factors and how they should affect your decision on whether to ride or not.

Icy roads

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Untangling bikes following my crash in Richmond Park, with a London Dynamo member crashing on the same spot we just went down on

You don’t need snow for ice to appear, and it can be invisible in the form of black ice. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had very few crashes on the road, but one time did involve dropping it in Richmond Park on black ice. It’s impossible to spot until it’s too late and your front wheel will simply disappear from underneath you, giving you no chance to react or avoid a crash. To reduce the risk you can lower your speed, giving you more time to react in the unlikely scenario you spot it before it’s too late, and reducing the likelihood of injury/bike damage if you do hit the deck.

Top tips:

-Watch out for frost on grass/pavements as you leave. If there was a frost last night there is also a reasonable chance black ice will be around

-If there was standing water on the roads the day before a frost, this will likely translate into black ice come morning

-Avoid areas that are shaded by trees/buildings. Most frosty nights will be followed by a clear morning which helps to clear the ice as the sun rises, but dark lanes will be exposed to less sunlight and more prone to icing over. If you’re desperate to get outside try to keep on more exposed roads which will be more likely to warm up in the sunlight

-Roads with a camber will be more likely to collect water, ride further away from the kerb than normal

-Avoid bike lanes. This may attract the ire of drivers, but there’s a very low chance that your bike lane has been gritted, where the road adjacent likely has

Snow

Milan - San Remo
Riders of Milan Sanremo in 2013 experienced horrendous conditions before the race was stopped and riders shuttled further along the course in team buses where the race was resumed. Image copyright Cycling Weekly

It’s pretty obvious when it’s snowed, and just because of the endless pictures of people’s gardens on social media. However when it snows the bicycle is the preferred mode of transport for many, with lots of ‘fair weather’ cyclists breaking the mountain bike out of the shed when all the trains fail and the roads are gridlocked. Where cars will likely lose grip and end up involved in an expensive accident, the correct bicycle tyres will have a good level of grip and any crashes will be far less dramatic/expensive. However once the snow becomes more than a few inches deep it is far safer and quicker to walk, unless you happen to own a fat bike…

Top tips:

-Stick to bike paths and/or quiet roads, you don’t want to run the risk of sliding out on the snow and falling into the path of a car, or being collected by a driver which has got it wrong and lost control of their vehicle

-If you live in an environment with frequent heavy snow, consider fitting snow tyres to your wheels. These are wider tyres with studs/spikes in to help you gain purchase

-Slow it right down, leave more time for journeys and don’t try to use the ride for training

-You can gain extra purchase in the snow by wrapping cable/zip ties around your tyre (disc brakes only)

Low air temperature
Sometimes the fact that the air temperature is below -5 can be enough to put you off of cycling. The air will be so cold it will be difficult to inhale and exposed skin will sting, making for a thoroughly unenjoyable experience. The correct clothing will go a very long way to making the experience more bearable, but keeping your extremities warm is a real challenge, and if you are unable to effectively operate your brakes you are putting yourself at great risk.

Top tips:

-If you are experiencing cold hands invest in high quality winter gloves and a pair of merino wool glove liners, these will make a world of difference

-Invest in a pair of winter shoes or some overshoes, and use a layer of tin foil underneath your sole to reflect heat back

-A cycling cap/skull cap will make a big difference, some even include ear flaps which will benefit those whose ears resemble pork chops after a ride

-Layers, layers, layers. Using a base layer, a short/long sleeve jersey and cycling jacket is far more effective than simply putting on a big coat or the thickest jacket you can find. Each layer traps warm air, resulting in a very insulating effect. It is also very flexible if you feel start to overheat and you can start to remove/undo layers without exposing bare skin

-Don’t stray too far from home, try to ride laps of an area rather than a huge out and back ride in case you start to develop the early signs of mild hypothermia. These can include shaking, confusion and slurred speech. If you or one of your riding partners goes from excessive shaking to feeling surprisingly warm, call an ambulance immediately. For more information on hypothermia symptoms and treatment visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Hypothermia/

-Exercise extreme caution when exerting yourself in extremely cold temperatures where capillaries shrink and it becomes harder to pump blood, vastly increasing the risk of a cardiac event.

Gusting winds

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Geriant Thomas gets caught by a sewing and ends up in a ditch during Ghent Wevelgem 2015 (image copyright Eurosport)

Strong, constant headwinds that you battle into are one thing, but a strong sideways gust can immediately displace you into the middle of the road or a ditch. These are normally associated with gales and hurricanes, so think very carefully before riding in these conditions. Even Geriant Thomas ended up in a ditch during Ghent Wevelgem 2015, and if it can happen to Geriant Thomas, it can happen to any of us.

Top tips:

-Use weather forecasts to check the direction, intensity and gust factor of the wind before riding

-Ride in a position that will give you the chance to react to any gusts to give you time to react. If they are trying to blow you into the ditch, ride slightly further out than normal. If you are riding in a group, single up to reduce the risk of getting taken out by another rider

-Don’t risk high winds in an effort to bag your local KOM, not only are you putting yourself in great danger, you’ll also have the nagging feeling that you didn’t really deserve it

-Avoid exposed roads, and favour quiet lanes with buildings/hedges that will act as a buffer

-Don’t run deep section wheels in gusting winds, particularly in coastal areas (read: IRONMAN Wales) unless you are very experienced in handling them

Heavy rain

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One of my all time favourite sports photos, Richie Porte, Romain Bardet and Geriant Thomas hit the deck during a wet stage 2 of the 2017 Tour de France (image copyright Cycling Weekly)

We’re not talking a quick shower here, more a constant, torrential downpour that can result in flash flooding. While top coaches are often quoted as saying “Don’t worry about the rain, skin’s waterproof!”, and this is true to an extent, there is a point at which heavy rain can put you in more danger than it’s worth. Firstly there is the obvious lack of grip and increased stopping distance in the wet, especially when running rim brakes. There is also the risk of flash flooding which can leave you no choice but to ride through deep puddles with no idea of what lies below the water; there are a variety of videos you can find on YouTube of cyclists riding through a puddle and disappearing over the handlebars as they hit a pothhole. Mixing cold temperatures with heavy, consistent rain is a fast track to hypothermia, so I recommend you turn around and head home if the heavens open on a cold winter’s day.

Top tips:

– Avoid riding through puddles

-If riding in a group allow extra space between you and the wheel in front. This will give you extra time to react to any crashes and reduce the spray from the wheel in front

-Allow for an increased stopping distance, brake earlier into corners and when approaching junctions

-Run lower tyre pressures to improve grip, 10-20 PSI should do it as running them too low will put you at risk of pinch punctures

-Invest in a high quality waterproof jacket such as the Castelli Idro to protect yourself from the worst of the rain, and keep you warmer for longer

So with the worst that winter can throw at us, how do we decide when it’s too dangerous to ride? We’re all individuals who love the open road and want to get out there as much as we can, but there comes a point when you have to put things in perspective and ask if it’s worth it. How likely is it that you’ll come off? How much will it cost you to repair damage to your frame? How much fitness will you lose if you break a bone? Will you lose income? And ultimately, what do you stand to gain from heading out in the foul weather? If the risk outweighs the reward, it’s probably time to jump on the turbo trainer, find our introduction to turbo training here: https://phazontriathlon.com/2017/09/26/introduction-to-turbo-training/

Or if you are in the southern hemisphere and more worried about the scorching summer sun, fund our tips on hot weather training/racing here: https://phazontriathlon.com/2017/06/21/training-and-racing-in-hot-conditions/

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