Yep, sure as eggs is eggs, no sooner do we start enjoying the warmth of the summer sun and the opportunities to get out on the bike after work (or for some the joy of being able to ride a longer route home), the air changes, the leaves start looking a bit less green and people start mumbling about things like clocks going back. And so begins the steady and inevitable decline towards Winter.
For many there's no specific end date to their cycling year. Not like the end of season show at Kellermans, or a pre-determined last ride that's been marked in the calendar since spring. Very often the evenings will have become just that bit too short, the weather will have been crap for a couple of weekends in a row, and suddenly we find that subconsciously we've already 'checked out' and started dreaming of next years long all-day rides in the sunshine and balmy evening post-ride pints.
But for others there is a deliberate questioning of whether it's best to pack our two-wheeled buddy away for a few months, or whether this is the year we'll push on through December, January, February, doggedly reciting through gritted (and often gritty) teeth "Winter miles = Summer smiles". Oh how bored will we be of that phrase by about the second week of January.
For me, well, there's been winters when snow thick enough to have many commuters 'working from home' just gave me the perfect excuse to ride through London on my mountain bike and take a longer route through Richmond Park on my way home. There's been years when the road bike has been put away in October with zero hope of seeing daylight again until it is officially T-shirt weather. And there's been years when come mid-March I've suddenly realised it's four months since I went out for any form of bike ride whatsoever.
This winter I hope will be a 'riding winter'! I've already put new mud tyres on my single speed hack bike and my full-suss. I've stripped down and serviced my xc hardtail and plan to do the same with my bamboo adventure bike, both bikes also to be shod with some slightly more capable rubber. But more importantly my main road bike, which until this October had in near five years of ownership not ventured out on anything even resembling a wet road, has been prepped for a full seasons action. I've even dug out the neoprene overshoes for my disco slippers.
But why, Dazza? Why this year?? Of course that's what you're asking. You've bothered to read this far, so you may as well indulge me a while longer. I'll spare us all the tedium of the last four winters worth of excuses, they generally fall into one or more of three categories;
Interestingly though, categories two and three have mostly been flags of convenience for excuse category number four...
Pussy, Wimp, Nancy, call it what you will, but I look out of the window and see frost on the ground and all of a sudden I'm just not up for it. I'd love to go out and was really looking forward to it, but I'm feeling a bit run down after a busy week and hey, those leaves all over the lawn aren't going to rake themselves up. Oh I've got excuses alright. I've got a list as long as your arm. I am truly the master of procrastination.
In truth though, I'm transported back to the first weekend of December, seven years ago. Saturday, December 1st, 2012. A cold but dry and mostly sunny day, perfect for a gentle leg-stretcher around the New Forest, prior to a Sunday sportive on the Isle of White. https://www.strava.com/activities/30393477/analysis, if you're on Strava.
It had all started well. My buddy Grant and I (the advance party) had driven down after work on the Friday evening, found our accommodation grabbed a couple of beers and a ruby, and had a relatively early night with a plan in place for a leisurely breakfast in Lymington whilst waiting for the forecast sun to work its magic and warm up the tarmac. Saturday morning went precisely to plan, an overly thorough investigation of Lymington's only bike shop followed by excessive consumption of caffeine and cake-shaped cycling fuel. Back to the 'chalet' and onto our bikes for a 90 minute spin, nothing too taxing, save our legs for Sunday.
There is a bend on the B3055, Arnewood Bridge Rd, just outside a place called Tiptoe (ironically) that is on a -5% gradient and slightly off-camber and, just for future reference, not very grippy after three days of rain and sub-zero overnight lows. It also faces north-east (enough said).
The irony is that up to now, whenever I have relayed this tale to friends, I have always said that we were very conscious of the conditions and were absolutely tiptoeing around that section of road. But as I write this, looking back at the analysis on Strava, I realise I went into that bend with what some might call naive optimism, others reckless abandon. Needless to say, It didn't go as planned, for either of us.
In hindsight I was the luckier of the two of us for a few reasons;
By the time we'd picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves down adrenaline had kicked in enough to see us through the rest of the ride, and by the time it had worn off an industrial mix of Ibuprofen and Guinness had started working its magic. The rest of the guys arrived. More Guinness was drunk and we lost count of the amount of times we had to tell Grant to man up and stop moaning about his shoulder, and warned him of the ribbing he would get if he wimped out of tomorrows ride.
Sunday morning came. Grant insisted he wasn't fit to ride. We poured forth all the ribbing and jibing that our hangovers would allow and left him in a cafe near the start line to look after our bags. It wasn't until the drive home that evening, when he asked me to drop him off at Ashford Hospital A&E and phoned his lady to come meet him there, that I started to take him seriously. I was bruised and aching from my off and had road rash up my thigh and hip and arm. But I still got on my bike and did the ride (albeit having settled for the shorter 43 mile route), so I guess I just thought if that's all I had sustained, Grant can't be in too bad shape, can he?
I can't remember if it was three or four pins they had to put in his shoulder blade, or whether he'd also cracked his collar bone. To date, this was the first of three times that our riding together has ended in me dropping him off at A&E, so his collection of X-rays and injury names has kind of blurred into one painful mass, but he was off the bike for a longggg time, and he would be the first to admit that he is now quite a nervous road rider. And since that crash, I've also gradually become more and more nervous about road riding in the winter.
The silly thing is, that was the one and only time I've come off a road bike. I've had plenty more and worse crashes since. All of them on a mountain bike. Many of them slow enough for me to register what is happening and know that what is about to happen next is going to hurt. Cracked ribs, concussions, cuts, bruises and gravel rash, they've all conspired to keep me off the bike for a couple of weeks here and there. And yet, as soon as I possibly can, I'm back on a bike, back in the woods, trying to go faster than last time down narrow trails, through the trees and over jumps. Often with my heart in my throat, thinking I may have just bitten off more than I can chew. It's how I ride, it's how I ski, how I snowboard. As a kid it was how I water-skied, windsurfed and sailed a dinghy. I've always just wanted to do that run faster than last time.
But the idea of going round a bend on my road bike and having it slide out like it did that time in 2012, man that still totally fills me with fear. And it's the main reason why a four year old road bike's only experience of getting wet has, until recently, been a gentle hose down followed by an hour or so of basking in the mid-summer sun.
Here's the thing. I live on a cycling route that goes from being very popular in the winter, to massively busy in the summer months. For at least six months of the year you'd be forgiven for thinking either the start or finish of almost every weekend group ride in the south east, mysteriously occurs somewhere very near my house. And the weekdays are not much quieter. It's no surprise Dorking is such a 'cycling town' (despite Mole Valley Council's general apathy towards it).
However it's around about mid-October time that the popularity of cycling and the dedication of its community starts to show. Yeah, the size of the club-ride groups that pass my door starts to thin out a bit, and we don't get quite so many solo or pairs. But generally speaking, for many riders of this county and beyond, the changing of the season just means the unpacking of the cold weather bibs and long sleeve tops, and maybe even the switching from their 'good bike' to their 'winter hack'.
For the last four winters I've watched these dedicated individuals roll past my door. Not always from the comfort of my nice warm living room. Sometimes I've been heading out for, or returning from some off-road fun around Peaslake or Leith Hill. Sometimes I've been chatting to them as I fix a puncture or other mechanical that they've suffered when I've been the only workshop nearby that opens on a Sunday morning.
We swap phrases like 'Improvements feel better than excuses' and 'next summers PB's are achieved this winter'. All great bravado and all quite unnecessary, because at the end of the day winter riding is just as enjoyable as summer riding. It's different, granted. And yes, it may not always look as appealing as a bone dry, warm August morning. Not every winter ride can be a refreshing blast in the clean, sharp morning air, revelling in the gorgeous golden light of the low winter sun. Sometimes it's just grey and grim and downright shitty.
But still, you're out there in the fresh air, getting the blood pumping, clearing your mind. Building up all those endorphins, just ready to be released when finally you kick back for that post-ride coffee and cake, either at home or in a nice warm cafe, windows steamed up from all the other cyclists combined body heat.
Most importantly - and this is the point I've come to realise - It's not just about 'Winter Miles = Summer Smiles'. The improvements I have made on the mountain bike over previous winters have really been more about technique and bike handling. Yes I've mostly spent these months favouring upping my mileage on longer cross-country rides over hooning around the woods, testing the limits of my nerve and talent and the grip of my tyres. But long wet and rooty climbs, and controlled descents off slimy chalk-faced hillsides give you a lot to focus on. Every ride is a mental workout as much as a physical one. And of course, why would a road ride be any different. It's just a different bike to master in different but equally challenging conditions. Perseverance will bring its own rewards.
So this is it. This is the winter of my discontent! No more house-chores or other domestic duty-based excuses! I have demons to rest, a bike that needs to stop being mollycoddled and given a taste of road salt and grit (a white bike at that). Techniques to learn and improve, and frosty bends to tiptoe around.
...but getting faster