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Winter training in Britain: a how to (get by) guide

Joe Reilly serves up a bittersweet ode to the realities of winter training in Britain

Winter training in Britain is sideways rain, gale-force winds, and cheeks that are so frozen that it would put a Botox surgeon out of business

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”, the saying goes. Well, the person who said that was clearly not a cyclist who resides in the British Isles during the winter. 

The romanticism of cycling is regularly magnified in interviews, books, and column inches. Those three weeks in July – or September as it was this year – captivate a worldwide audience so absorbed by the theatrics of the racing it’s more akin to a West End theatre production. The on-screen dramatics of a 200 strong peloton soaring up and through alpine passes and the frequent costume changes as the multi-coloured leaders’ jerseys are awarded build to a tantalising crescendo in the closing act, ending in champagne showers and a standing ovation on the streets of Paris.

However, those short summer weeks in France and the reality of British winter training are as far apart as the countries themselves, separated by a channel of water so dark and cold, it reflects the aura of the daily riding routine.

The Wheelbase-Cabtech-Castelli team. Photo: James Vincent

From November to February, there is no vibrance, only gloom. Gone are the reflective shades of the summer months; we use bright Oakley lenses to act as an Instagram filter to mask the dim and murky reality. It is repeating a season-long apology for the smell of damp training shoes, festering on a radiator. Winter training in Britain is sideways rain, gale-force winds, and cheeks that are so frozen that it would put a Botox surgeon out of business.

For us, winter cycling starts the night before, checking the weather with nervous anticipation. Five hours is a long time to turn the pedals, whatever the meteorological situation. The impact on morale that a small emoticon suggesting that there will be sunshine can do to a cyclist, or the blow it can have when indicated otherwise, cannot be underestimated.

Nothing can bring a cyclist to their knees quicker than checking the forecast and seeing that five-word killer: “high winds and heavy showers”

Heartbreak is a terrible and painful process to go through; the feeling of loss and abject anguish is unbearable. However, nothing can bring a cyclist to their knees quicker than checking the forecast and seeing that five-word killer: “high winds and heavy showers”. Those 24 letters haunt us for the remaining hours of the day like a nagging voice suggesting almost certain impending doom. And, being religious or not, we all go to bed that night praying for a miracle akin to the parting of the Red Sea: sunshine in December.

Breakfast is considered the cornerstone of a good day, and that applies more so when fuelling for a significant day of training. Quality meals are a thing of the past; quantity is the buzzword we strive for from November to February. Porridge, eggs, cereal, last night’s pizza crusts; the more calories consumed, the better, even if it does require breathing in when zipping up the jersey. 

A rider without a spare rain jacket in the back pocket would be like a knight without a sword, a Garmin without charge, or Ant without Dec – it’s possible, but it wouldn’t work

Clothing is yet another aspect where quantity is the ultimate goal. Double base-layer, double jersey, double jacket if it’s awful (every day). A rider without a spare rain jacket in the back pocket would be like a knight without a sword, a Garmin without charge, or Ant without Dec – it’s possible, but it wouldn’t work. 

Underneath all these layers lie a heart rate monitor, a vital apparatus to support a successful winter of training. Words cannot describe the perishing sensation when putting on a cold heart rate monitor. Nothing can successfully depict the feeling of that piercing icicle being slowly wrapped around your chest, taking your breath away quicker than a right hook from Anthony Joshua. Had they have known, I’m almost certain the Soviet Union would have used it as a torture method.

The Wheelbase-Cabtech-Castelli team. Photo: James Vincent

A group ride is a preferred method of passing away the hours usually. The great and esteemed Martin Luther King once said: “the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict”. I can only agree with such a statement. Still, I’d also like to volunteer a type of person to reside in hell alongside those neutral beings: those in a group ride without winter mudguards. If I had £1 for every hour that I’ve sat behind such a rider in a group ride getting nothing but spray from their back wheel I’d be moving to Monaco to be Chris Froome’s neighbour. You have to question the morals of a person who would subject their fellow cyclists to what sometimes can feel like standing at the bottom of a gritty British Niagara Falls, facing upwards and struggling to breathe from the torrent of grey, glacial silt. 

Then there are those sensible riders who bypass both of these options entirely and choose to stay indoors on the turbo trainer. This is a brave choice as the complete lack of visual stimulus often leads to a dystopian time warp akin to the Inception movie, where one hour feels like three in the real world. That said, staying indoors often feels like preferable option when the weather conditions involve high winds. In these times, a helmet is the primary source of defence, not from crashes, but falling branches and the occasional squirrel.

Arriving home from a long ride battling the winter conditions can often be as difficult as the cycling. Aching muscles freeze in rebellion, feet seize up, and walking takes on a penguin-like quality. Hands so cold and unresponsive that it proves impossible to get the keys into the door. It is not uncommon to resort to unlocking the door using the keys in your mouth. That’s if your teeth would stop chattering.

Photo: Joe Reilly

And so, after a hearty meal – protein shakes and rice being a thing of the past; beans on toast with a pot of tea is the new fallback – many of us will go out to work to earn some money. Unfortunately, not on seven-figure salaries like many of those who get to enjoy the sensation of donning a leaders’ jerseys and experience champagne showers.

It isn’t long before the memories of the day’s events fade, and the realisation that you have yet another long training ride tomorrow dawns on you. And so, yet again, you open the weather app with nervous anticipation. 

After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and gale-force headwinds”… or words to that effect.

Joe Reilly rides for Wheelbase-CabTech-Castelli. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

1 comment on “Winter training in Britain: a how to (get by) guide

  1. Mick Tarrant

    Much enjoyed the article but not the memories. You neglected to mention punctures, when road slime and frozen fingers make you wonder how you’ll ever replace the inner tube.

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