Days are Short. Skies are Dark. Winter is coming to the USA: How do you ride?

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The Gravel Cyclist crew resides in the Northern Hemisphere most of the year, namely in Gainesville, Florida, USA. Gainesville is mostly known as a college town, home to the University of Florida and a diverse community of residents within its city limits. Gainesville may not be one of the great meccas of gravel cycling, but its network of dirt, limerock, gravel, sand and off-the-pavement roads is simply amazing. Mostly on the north and north west side of town, these gorgeous and often tree-lined roads provide a haven for the Gravel Cyclist crew, and the growing community of local gravel cyclist types to enjoy riding year round.

Look! We spotted a car!
Look! We spotted a car!

Summers in Gainesville are a bit of a challenge. Hot and humid conditions make for some tough riding, but riding in the heat plays well for acclimatization to remote events where the summers aren’t quite as hard. Citing Dirty Kanza 200 as an example, is the hardest race I have done in my life. I completed the race in my first attempt, and attribute that to the long endurance miles I did with my teammates for the race, Mr and Mrs K-Dogg. I couldn’t have asked for two better companions during those rides from February to May of 2016, culminating with a monster 177 mile / 283 kilometre gravel training ride.

Heading out for a sweet ride!
Heading out for a sweet ride!

That was then, this is now. November is here, Summer and the sweetness of Daylight Savings Time have ended. The days are short, the skies are dark and Winter is already making its presence felt in parts of the United States. Even here in Gainesville, we’ve seen low November temperatures of 45 degrees Fahrenheit / 7 degrees Celcius – these temperatures are quite shocking to some in the area! Cue up your jokes please :mrgreen:

As Winter makes its presence felt, our extremely mild temperatures will continue to drop, possibly once or twice into the high 20’s Fahrenheit / -3 Celcius. Positively balmy by real winter standards and sans snow, we’re able to ride year round, and at night time – the cooler temperatures are my favorite time of the year in Gainesville.

Super moon.
Super moon.

Kicked off first by K-Dogg and his mates in the 1980’s, and later experiencing a rebirth sometime around the year 2006, my good mates K-Dogg, Mrs K-Dogg, Dr. Pain and others, began riding our local network of gravelish roads at night time. We were completely fed up with riding mind numbingly boring loops of a local paved office park during the winter evening hours. Since 2006, we’ve seen so many changes in gravel cycling, even within our local scene.

Riding some rough roads at a not so slow pace.
Riding some rough roads at a not so slow pace.

We first began riding mountain bikes or cheapo touring bikes rigged up for the job. K-Dogg rode a 30lb steel contraption we named the “Panzer”, while Dr. Pain sported a heavily modified mountain bike complete with Spinergy 4-spoke front wheel and unique handlebar setup – aka the “limerock assault vehicle”. I had the newest bike, a circa 2005 Trek Fuel full-suspension 26″ wheel mountain bike, which was ill-suited to the task. The suspension did almost nothing on the washboard roads.

Then, the arms race began.

A top notch then local racer type, one Mr Gary Yates, showed to our rides on a 15lb Scott carbon cyclocross bike, shod with carbon tubular wheels. He is a talented fellow and could have destroyed us on a 35lb pizza delivery bike. But that didn’t matter. I ditched the MTB immediately and rocked up with a Campy-equipped Redline cyclocross bike a few weeks later. Not much longer after that, our entire group sported all manner of new or used, spanky cyclocross rigs – not that any of us ride cyclocross. One hour just isn’t long enough to ride or race!

Pinky's Place. A local area landmark.
Pinky’s Place. A local area landmark.

Lighting technology has changed from Halogen to HID to LED. From mechanical shifting to electronic, absolutely bulletproof in disgusting conditions – and we don’t exactly shy away from riding in nasty conditions at night. Whee! Tyres with tubes to tyres without and filled with spooge – thanks to our sponsor Orange Seal! Cantilever brakes to disc brakes and carbon wonder frames – Canti brakes are still awesome but the braking power of hydraulic disc brakes bombing down a real mountain descent – yeah!

So, what is the message behind this story?

Even though dark and cold is setting in around 5:30pm – 6:00pm, you don’t have to sit around moaning about it. The Gravel Cyclist crew and friends ride at night time during the fall and winter hours – we love it. We average anywhere from six to ten riders on any given ride. Sure, we don’t have snow but the cold can be real – think humid cold – which has a nasty habit of biting one’s extremities. Other areas of the United States definitely have it much tougher with snow and bitter cold. But if you have friends, time, proper clothing and the motivation to train in the outdoors in the dark – but keeping an eye on the weather and playing it safe where appropriate – riding at night time on gravel roads is a total blast.

Lately, conditions have been super dry and super washboarded.
Lately, conditions have been super dry and super washboarded.

Suggestions to begin your own night time gravel training ride:

  • Talk to cyclist friends, talk to your local bike shop, use social media – post an online poll! Garner interest in a fun night time ride. Encourage participation at all levels, not just the elite racer types. If there is enough interest, “A” and “B” groups could be established.
  • Keep some simple rules in play – regroup at the end of dirt and gravel sectors or agreed waypoints. Nobody likes to be left alone in the dark. For the Gravel Cyclist crew, come late December / January, our Tuesday Night Gravel Worlds ride is the hard ride. But Thursday’s evening ride is the chill out recovery ride.
  • Sick of riding an indoor trainer? Cycling on gravel roads at night time is the perfect remedy!
  • Cars? What cars? Car and other vehicles hate getting dirty and at night time, even more so!

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Don’t forget:

  • Good lights – front and rear. Lights have gotten incredibly cheap, so there are no excuses to skimp on the lumens. Look for at least 700 lumens minimum up front, and a good and bright flashing red taillight. I suggest adding two taillights – redundancy is a good thing.
  • Dress in layers. If it’s cold out, begin the ride feeling a little cool – the pedaling motion will soon have you warmed up. Starting a ride feeling toasty is a guaranteed recipe for overheating on a ride. Garments like vests, base layers, knee and arm warmers provide much flexibility to one’s shorts and jersey collection. For colder conditions, you’ll need appropriate head warmers, thermal jackets, gloves, shoe covers, etc. Don’t forget to add extra time for your winter dressing routine… ’tis almost akin to preparing for a fancy dress party!
  • Mobile Phone – I always carry a phone with me, mostly for photos. But, if one needs to cut a ride short, a mobile phone is pretty handy… “err Hi mum… like, my legs are knackered and I need a ride home. Plus, I ran out of gels, so…”
  • Fun – Riding in cold can be challenging, but meeting with friends to ride makes everyone accountable. Riding with company is much easier than riding alone at night time.
Night time braaaappppp!!!
Night time braaaappppp!!!

So, get out there and ride. We’ve already begun our “winter” season, hope you have too.

Thanks for reading!

10 comments on “Days are Short. Skies are Dark. Winter is coming to the USA: How do you ride?

  1. In contrast to JOM’s advice to dress so you are a bit cold at the start…..I find it best to be a little OVER dressed at the beginning. Unlike day rides the temperature gets steadily colder after dark and there is no radiant heat since the sun is gone. You can always take stuff off if you overheat but this rarely happens to me. Also always bring a snack. Bonking in the cold is horrible.

    Not – Hott – Dogg

  2. Looks like fun. JOM, I do enjoy your website. I am really interested in some nighttime gravel. Do you have a scheduled starting spot?

  3. Days are long, skies are bright…. Summer is coming to Oz…..
    And after a VERY wet Winter I’ve discovered it’s wise to not stop for too long for a pee, or mend a puncture/mechanical fix, ‘cos the Aussie Mozzies will eat ya alive! And the black and brown snakes are out too, makes a gravel ride here, interesting at times…not to mention the DROP BEARS!

  4. In hillier areas, after dark I find a little comfort in being able to spot headlights of oncoming traffic on the backside of a hill. It’s nice to have that warning as we have a tendency to drift to the center on our sandy dirt roads here in West Michigan.

    1. Nice – I too have a tendency to drift all over the road at time. Safety first!

      Hope you lads stay warm up there in West MI… I hope to make Barry Roubaix in the not too distant future.

  5. I know that this is gravel cyclist, not mtb cyclist, but still…
    If it’s cold, go ride mtb/fat bike in the woods. It’s not usually the cold temp that gets you, it’s the wind. In cold temperatures, the slower speed reduces apparent wind and the trees block actual wind. Together this means I’m a LOT warmer on Singletrack than on the (gravel) roads.
    Plus, night riding in the snow is great fun, it’s easier to see, and with a full moon you can actually ride without lights(off-road)

    1. Slim, we’re lucky that it doesn’t get *that* cold here. Your points are spot on though… I’d be all over a Fat bike and in the woods if I lived in a colder climate… for the record, I don’t even own an MTB!

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