Photo by Carlos Almendarez
Riding through the winter can be punishing for your road bike, all that rain, mud and salt can quickly bring it to a grinding halt.
Whether you’re commuting every day or training for an event next year, or just heading out at weekends, it does pay to pay closer attention to your bike if you want it to keep working smoothly through the winter months.
Here are our 10 top tips for looking after your bike this winter.
1. Keep it clean
Washing your bike frequently might seem like a chore, but it’s vital to wash away any dirt and muck accumulated straight after a ride, washing the bike when it’s still wet is far easier than letting the road muck dry onto the frame and components. Horse droppings have a particularly tenacity on a bicycle frame. If riding on gritted and salted roads, it is especially important to wash your bike as soon as possible, otherwise you’ll come back to your bike the next time you ride it to find some rusty parts.
A bucket of hot soapy water and a good sponge or brush is all you need, and doesn’t have to take all that long. You don’t have to be absolutely thorough every time you wash the bike, the main thing is to get the worst of the grime and muck off. There are a raft of specialist bike cleaners and degreasers available that will make a proper job of cleaning your bike and that can make even giving it a quick once over that bit more effective too.
2. Lube that chain
Once you’ve cleaned your bike, a good wet lube is an ideal choice for winter riding. The drive train consists of many expensive parts, and if left un-lubed these will simply wear out more quickly, work less effectively while they do so while making a sound like a load of hungry mice that have just spotted a large lump of cheese.
So invest in a decent lube – don’t skimp now – and keep the chain running smoothly over the cassette and chainset. Wet lubes are good at this time of year because they last a long time and work well in adverse conditions. It’s best to apply lube to a clean degreased chain, so it’s the first thing you want to do after washing the bike.
3. Winter tyres
If you’e bike is running them it’s worth swapping out the sub-200g race tyres for some heavier duty puncture resistant tyres in the winter. There are many available with thicker sidewalls and reinforced breaker belts sandwiched between the rubber tread and carcass.
Some manufacturers make tyres with a rubber compound designed to provide a little more traction on wet roads, generally it will be a softer compound. A softer compound will wear out more quickly however. It’s the rubber compound and not the tread pattern – those sipings and grooves make marginal difference on such narrow tyres – that is key to a tyres traction on wet roads.
Wider tyres are a good choice for the winter, as they can be run at lower pressures so offering extra comfort and grip, from the little increase in contact patch. How wide a tyre you can fit depends on your bicycles. Typically race frames won’t take anything wider than 23mm, or 25mm at a push. Many touring and commuting bikes, and the new breed of endurance bikes, will take up to 28 and 32mm tyres quite happily.
It’s good to keep a regular eye on your tyres. When you’re washing your bike, have a close look at the entire tread of the tyre, and remove any flint, glass or sharp stones that might be buried in the tread.
Buyers guide: The best tyres to get you through the winter.
4. Tyre pressure
When the roads are wet, letting a bit of air out of your tyres can increase grip by slightly increasing the size of the contact patch. A little less air will also improve the tyre’s ability to absorb vibrations from riding over rough roads, so you get more comfort too.
I regularly run my tyres at about 90-95psi during the winter, and softer than that if the roads are likely to be really wet. You don’t have to inflate the tyres to the 120psi maximum indicated on the side of the tyre, that’s just a guideline, in fact one school of thought is there is no actual gain from inflating a road tyre above 100psi in any conditions.
5. Preventing punctures
During the winter the roads can become coated in glass, flints and debris just lying there waiting for an unsuspecting cyclist to trundle over. Believe me it’s no fun fixing a puncture when it’s lashing down with rain. Slightly more fun maybe than waiting for a friend to fix a puncture in the rain, that is.
Slime-filled inner tubes, or adding some liquid latex to your existing inner tubes, can help to reduce a flat when something sharp cuts through the tyre deep enough to hit the inner tube. You can buy protective strips that go between the tyre and inner tube, acting as a breaker belt in a tyre, which while adding weight and reducing the ride performance a bit, will greatly reduce the potential for a puncture. I’ve heard people to slice up an old inner tube and lay it as a strip between tyre and inner tube.
Going tubeless is another good choice. Alghough it’s an expensive upgrade if you don’t have tubeless-ready wheels, the main benefit of tubeless is that there is no inner tube to puncture, with the space occupied by a small amount of liquid sealant. When something sharp goes through the tyre, not only is there no inner tube to pop, but the sealant will react with oxygen and plug the hole.
One way to prevent a lot of the water and filth being sprayed all over your bike as it’s churned up by the wheels, is to fit some mudguards. Not only do they keep the road spray of your body, but they can help to protect the bicycle, including the brake calipers and front mech, and bearings in the headset.
If your frame is designed for mudguards, then a set of traditional full-length mudguards is a sound investment. They offer the most protection for you and your bike. If you don’t have mudguard eyelets on your frame, fret not, there are many mudguards that simply clip on to the frame. Their advantage is they are very light, and can be easily removed.
Buyer’s guide: Mudguards for keeping you dry this winter
7. Avoid rust
Treating those components likely to rust quickly during harsh, wet conditions with a corrosion preventative such as ACF50 will make sure your bike lasts the winter, and that under the encrusted dirt lies a gleaming, unsullied machine just waiting for the restorative flush of hot, detergent-filled water.
8. Regular maintenance
Winter accelerates the wearing process of mechanical components, so it’s worth checking them regularly, monthly at the very minimum, but more frequently if you ride a lot of miles. Brake pads will wear out much more quickly in the poor conditions they’re having to deal with, so keep an eye on the pads. Most brake blocks will have a wear line indicator, so don’t let yourself get caught out with rapidly disappearing brake blocks. It’s also worth checking the condition of the blocks regularly, to make sure they are wearing evenly, and remove any grit that might have lodged in the grooves.
If you have disc brakes you might find it easier to pop the wheel out to have a closer inspection at the brake pads. Sintered brake pads are preferable to organic pads in the winter as they’re harder wearing, so will last longer.
While you’re checking the brakes, pay some attention to the condition of the rims. Are they very concave in shape? That’s the sign the rim is wearing out, and for safety reasons you don’t want to be riding on rims with a dramatically concaved rim wall. I’ve seen the result of a rim wall collapsing because it was so worn out. It wasn’t pretty.
The drivetrain gets a hammering in the winter, and it’s the most expensive collection of parts on your bike. Replacing the chain, cassette and chainset in one go will hit your wallet hard, but an easy way to extend the life of the chainrings and cassette is to regularly replace the chain.
Popping a new £20-40 chain on your bike at regular intervals will save you money in the long run, and is a lot cheaper than buying a new cassette and chainrings when the whole lot wears out at the same time. Some people will replace the chain every couple of thousand miles, if they’re keeping track. Or you could buy a chain check tool that, while seemingly an expensive purchase, will save you money in the long-term.
9. Check gear and brake cables
Water can get into the gear and brake cable housing, and over time will reduce the performance of your gear shifts and braking performance. Changing the cables at regular intervals – cables are relatively cheap – is a good idea. Removing the cables, cleaning them and adding some lube as you insert into the cable housing can bring a tired set of cables back to life.
Lined and coated cables for gears and brakes offer a low maintenance solution. The likes of Jagwire produce cables sets with a proprietary L3 liner and Fibrax make a Pro-formance sealed cable kit, which should keep gears and brakes working smoothly through the winter grind.
10. Slippery coating
A top tip from the British Cycling squad is one that stops mud sticking to the frame and other components as easily. A silicone spray, widely available, can be used on the frame and parts of the transmission with the idea to create a slippery surface that dirt and mud just can’t stick too.
Be sure not to get it anywhere near the braking surface though. You could use a car wax polish instead for a heavier duty coating on the frame.