Building the best bike for … winter and wet weather riding
In a world where more money seems to equal more bike, less might still be more when it comes to a winter bike.
In a world where more money seems to equal more bike, less might still be more when it comes to a winter bike.
Call me old fashioned, but I prefer to build frames into bikes rather than buying stock options off the shop floor. I have a habit of nitpicking and overthinking every aspect of a bike, especially when curating a build for a particular event or goal. To me, it’s not overthinking, it’s simply due diligence to ensure I build the right tool for the job.
Take my Everesting bike, for example. Although I only completed the build just hours before the ride, the bike resulted from what can only be described as an extensive research study that started eight months earlier.
I guess this attention to detail is my nerd power. Rather than confine it to terribly unorganised spreadsheets, the powers that be at CT decided I should (read – I begged them to let me) share this nerdiness. This article is the first in a series of features this year in which we will build the best bike for different events and goals. In each feature, we will look at the demands of a specific event, the bikes and builds most commonly seen at such events, some “optimisation” options, and finally, a custom bike build to meet those demands.
This series is about the perfect bike for each event, as I see it. Think Everesting head tube fairing and three-speed cassette, rather than off-the-shelf builds. As I will decide the entire build of each bike, I thought it perhaps best to start with a bike I was building long before my CT days.
Wet weather and especially winter riding can be pretty tough on bikes and equipment. Rain and road spray can lead to rust and corrosion, which will not only reduce equipment longevity but can be downright dangerous. Dirt and grit washed onto the road can wreak havoc with your drivetrain and braking surfaces. But these are minor issues compared to the bike-eating road salt that gritters spray on the roads in icy conditions. That’s not to mention the added discomfort of riding in soggy kit.
A good winter/wet weather bike needs to protect itself from these elements, as well as protect its rider.
Former “summer bikes” can often find themselves relegated to winter bike status when their owner invests in a new bike. The combination of partially worn components and a reorganised hierarchy means many riders are more willing to sacrifice the “old bike” than reach for the “good bike” when winter sets in.
This relegation offers a practically free option to save the summer bike, provided selling the old bike isn’t partially funding the new bike. Furthermore, many brands now offer clip-on mudguards compatible with nearly any frame, also offering some protection for the rider.
Other riders turn to touring frames or dedicated winter bikes with mudguard eyelets, extra tyre clearance, and typically cheaper price tags. More recently, many riders have turned to gravel and cyclocross bikes to double up as winter road hacks. If you live somewhere that requires these sorts of tires, they’re a great option. But in this piece, we’re specifically talking about winter road bikes.
In the winter of 2019, I set about building my perfect winter road bike. The days of riding my racing bike year-round to “keep the feeling” ended with my “pro career”. Having relegated many old racing bikes to winter riding and almost literally riding them into the ground, I decided it was time to build a bike to last. A bike specifically built to tackle the winter elements and yet close enough to my summer bike that I could happily jump on it for a wet summer’s day.
I made a relatively short checklist of what the bike needed:
Lightweight and aero racing bikes are nice to ride, but winter can sap the life and colour out of frames and components. Aero gains and going fast in winter only serve to increase the wind chill on the coldest days, so for once, I was on the hunt for the opposite of aero. Furthermore, I don’t need to repeat the weight and ride quality benefits of carbon frames, but we all know they don’t like falling and never is a crash more likely than in slippery winter conditions.
A titanium frame seemed to be the best option: corrosion-resistant with good ride quality, but given the typical cost of a titanium frame, this option fell at checklist item number one. Instead, I opted for an aluminium Dolan RDX.
Dolan might not be the most well-known brand, but having built frames for some of the biggest stars of the track, the Liverpool-based frame builder has almost icon-like status within Britain and Ireland. The RDX ticks many of my checklist boxes. It is cheap – I paid £200 for this frame and fork brand new in an end-of-season sale. The RDX features mudguard eyelets, ample tyre clearance for road riding, is full-length-cable-housing friendly, and a drill soon made it electronic compatible. Best of all, with the build I have here, it is properly heavy. 11.2 kg heavy.
This RDX is not particularly sprightly either, simply perfect for winter when going slower is better. The aluminium frame should be content enough to soak up the odd whack, while the carbon forks should offer some level of road vibration absorption up front. Crucially the RDX looks cool, at least in my eyes. The almost-horizontal top tube and mostly round tubing give it a classic road racing look, despite the option for wider tyres and mudguards.
Clip-on mudguards are fine, but if I had a kilometre for every time I had heard them rattle, rub, or eventually break off, I might have won a few more races. More importantly, clip-on guards often only cover a portion of the wheel, keeping the rider’s feet and rear end dry but offering little in the way of frame, bottom bracket, and headset protection. The perfect wet weather bike must have mounting points for full-length mudguards front and rear.
Many riders are adverse to putting mudguards on their road bikes but the protection mudguards offer the frame, rider, and kit is a must for me in damper climates. Getting wet on a warm summer’s day is fine, but even damp roads in winter can lead to wet kit, making it even more difficult to stay warm. There is also the fact my local group ride mandates mudguards to join the group in winter. “If not for yourself, think of the rider behind.”
As mentioned already, winter bikes are built to serve a purpose and simply survive foul weather conditions. Moisture can work its way in anywhere, and the more openings in a cable housing, the more entry points, and the quicker cables need replacing. I guess had a SRAM Rival AXS groupset been lying in my spares box, that might have been the ideal option. Alas, the groupset didn’t even exist at the time and even at its entry-level pricing for an electronic groupset, it almost eclipses the budget for the entire bike.
Enter full-length cable housing. With no breaks in the housing from lever to derailleur, any moisture ingress is limited to just two locations. I’ve only replaced one derailleur cable in three winters of wet and soggy outdoor and sweaty indoor riding. Ironically I changed that cable the morning I broke my leg, so I haven’t actually used it yet.
That leads me nicely to the groupset of choice for winter riding. Winter bikes tend to feature lower-end groupsets with components that are cheaper to replace if the elements do get the better of them. For that reason, high-end and electronic groupsets are usually out of the question.
Undoubtedly, a new Ultegra groupset is a high-end groupset and too good to fit this bill. However, I picked up this pre-loved yet bargain groupset on eBay for a cyclocross build that never happened. The mechanical 2×11 speed with hydraulic discs was too good to sit gathering dust and it’s flawless for winter training.
Unsurprisingly I survived 15 years of winter riding on rim brake bikes before I set out to build the best winter bike. We have probably all had enough of the disc brake argument. Thankfully, there can be no argument when it comes to winter bikes.
I’m not talking about improved modulation or wet weather performance; for winter bikes it’s more a matter of braking surface. Ride a full wet winter in Ireland, with gritty roads and seemingly constant rain, and your rim brake wheels’ braking surface could be all but destroyed. That means frequent and costly wheelset replacements. Ride the same winter on disc brakes, and at most, you’re out the cost of a few sets of pads.
A winter bike is for winter training, not just winter riding, so a power meter was a must in this build. Waterproofing, robustness, and reliability were key. I already had several Verve Infocranks, none of which had presented any reliability issues.
While far from the lightest or prettiest of power meters, the Infocrank is reliable and robust. The bike currently has an SRM power meter as part of an upcoming review.
At the risk of getting the boot from the chief nerds, I am fully behind tubeless road for wet and winter road riding. Priority number one for winter riding is staying warm. Winter roads are littered with grit, debris, and often thorns or tree cuttings. It’s pretty tough to keep warm when stopped fixing punctures. For that reason alone, I’m all for tubeless, sealant, and even more frequently checking tyres on the winter hack.
The option to run lower tyre pressure is an added benefit. Couple that lower pressure with wider tyres and the resulting uplift in grip and increased ride comfort are not bad things on a winter’s day. Sticking with comfort for a second, I had a fairly old Specialized Zertz seatpost gathering dust. Although only a small benefit over the stock post, the chance of finding some ride comfort gains from the carbon post with its vibration-absorbing Zertz insert were too tempting to ignore.
Admittedly, these Prime Stagiaires are not the ideal wheels I had in mind for the best winter bike. The plan was to replace these with custom-built, 32-spoke, landmine-proof hoops when the Primes finally succumbed to the winter conditions. Three winters and just a single cartridge bearing later, the used Primes I bought for £80 are still going strong. For purely sustainability reasons, I can’t justify an upgrade until these have met their maker.
That said, the plan from the beginning was to build a bike not only for winter but also for wet summer days. Wet summer days are much kinder than winter conditions, and we all generally ride faster in summer. As such, I now have the luxury of swapping in plusher wheels, such as the DT Swiss ERC wheels (with QR adapter), I currently have awaiting review when this leg heals. The lighter, snappier ride from the carbon DT Swiss wheels should keep the RDX appealing for wetter days even if the weather is not.
Winters are dark and so being seen is a priority for me in both my clothing and my equipment choices. On the bike, this means front and rear lights and the odd reflector also. I will always ride with a front and rear light in winter, as seen in the photos. If riding in the hours of darkness, I’ll usually add at least another light or two to the front and rear.
Sticking with tech, I will add a temperature data field to my head unit for winter riding. It is good to know if the temperatures are dropping and it’s time to head home or be aware of potentially icy conditions.
Undoubtedly if money was no object there are some upgrades I could make to improve on this winter bike. A titanium frame, an electronic, probably wireless, groupset, and those hardier wheels. That said, a winter bike isn’t about the best of the best. A winter bike is about dogged reliability, always ready when you are and a bike you’re not precious about giving a little abuse.
Of everything in this build, the only way I would want to improve it would be to opt for Dolan’s titanium version of almost the same bike.