It was Robert Millar who first opened my eyes to one of the bitter realities of cycling: we spend more time riding our bikes in ‘winter’ than we do in any other season. For a bike rider, winter isn’t a neat division into a three-month segment: it is when you need mudguards and tights and is the part of the year which lasts, if you are unlucky, from October to April.
Millar was the only pro I ever knew who, at his own expense, had a winter bike custom made for him by a local builder, partly on the premise that he wasn’t going to get a machine with mudguard eyes out of the sponsor – and, more to the point, that if he did and then changed teams, the sponsor was liable to ask for it back just at the point he was going to need it most. But mainly, he got that bike in the knowledge that he was going to ride it as much if not more than his race bike, and he might as well keep a bit drier while he did so.
Although I never went to Millar’s extreme of putting a tubular inside a clincher to avoid punctures, I followed his winter bike example in 1996. It felt like a curious step, asking a builder to make me a frame to the same dimensions as the bike I raced on, using the same light steel tubing but with big clearances, longer forks, and all the relevant braze-ons.
Everyone I knew had the same approach to the winter bike. They either used a racing bike they didn’t race any more with the guards attached in various unreliable ways, or they bought the cheapest steel frame they could find off the peg and lived with it. That was cycling tradition: you didn’t invest in something that was going to take the battering from water, potholes and road salt that your winter bike would have to take.
I’ve come to regard those few hundred quid (well, it was 15 years ago now) and the regular sums I’ve spent on resprays as the best investment I’ve ever made in a single item of cycling kit. And not just because taking the guards off and racing on a bike with mudguard eyes and a big fork rake, that looks a bit, well, battered, is an excellent way of winding up fellow bike riders. Mudguard eyes plus long forks equals heavy, right? Not necessarily. (Knowing smile.)
For a sport which we associate so much with summer, there is a curious amount of pleasure to be found in winter bike riding. Even this diluvian winter – where many roads seem to have reverted to a pre-modern, non-tarmacked state – doesn’t have to be hell if you have decent mudguards, substantial tyres, an obsessive regard for wind direction and air temperature and a fair collection of gloves, not to mention an old trick or two like the spare undervest for the café stop. The fact that winter kit is now the best it ever has been, across the board, makes all the difference.
I’ve come to realise that although much of the pure joy from British bike riding is to be had in summer – probably because those sensually pleasing shorts and short sleeve days are so few and far between – winter riding is the source of the most memorable experiences.
The extreme stuff that sticks in the mind seems to happen when the days are short: the time when I was a kid and the water froze in the bottle on a 100-mile sponsored ride; the first and, I hope, only time I braked on an icy descent; the club run where we ended up wandering through four foot snowdrifts in our cleats chucking snowballs at each other.
There is plenty to take from this winter too: a Sunday spent dodging epic floods, topped by a half hour on an islet in a flood plain watching a mate repair two punctures as the waters rose around us; the way that constant rain made new and extreme ways of lubricating a chain a constant topic of conversation; a hilarious low speed pratfall on a sheet of black ice that materialised from nowhere; a new climb in the Welsh borders to the top of a mountain tackled (cunning laugh) with a gale force easterly tailwind in dazzling sunshine.
Winter cycling is like teenage love. You dream about the pleasure, you remember the pain.
Extract from Rouleur issue 36. William Fotheringham is cycling correspondent for the Guardian and translated Laurent Fignon's autobiography We Were Young and Carefree, published by Yellow Jersey.