Why we embrace winter cycling; miles, coffee stops and banter

Posted on: November 28th, 2018

cycling winter training

You may be getting a hammering by the elements on the bike at the moment, but memories are made on these tough winter days. 


Embracing your cycling winter training


The mix of rough winter conditions and sanctuary of the coffee shop mid route, are the training days that great memories are made from, writes former international rider Brian Ahern.


I remember a pre-Christmas winter training spin at some stage in the early 2000s with a group from the old Cycleways team.

We met in Clonee, Co Meath, and in true off-season fashion decided to go for a coffee stop at the Hill of Tara.

We filled up on scones and coffee before continuing on our way home via Dunsany where we bumped into Seamus Kennedy.

Seamus won the Rás in 1978 and was still exceptionally fit for a man of his age and still doing lots of cycling.

He was a well respected tough competitor and he sadly passed away in 2012. I was sitting last man in the group so he tucked in and rode beside me.

I mentioned we had just stopped for a coffee, expecting him to reply “that’s nice” as most people would. Instead, he gave me a bollocking!

“What would you be doing that for? You’re supposed to be training. But you’re only wasting your time; fooling yourself.” Seamus was old-school, especially about winter training.

The coffee stop has always been a part of cycling culture throughout mainland Europe. It has now infiltrated club training spins all over Ireland.

It’s perhaps one of the most abused training methods, often completely negating any benefit accrued over the course of a training spin.

Stopping for a quick espresso wouldn’t do any harm. But stopping for a cappuccino, muffin and a cream bun wouldn’t be advised for a rider with hopes of racing and has precious little time to train.

When cycling on the Continent, there was something very appealing about a leisurely ride to the nearest town. You’d stop for a coffee and sit back and watch the world go by.

For a full-time racing cyclist with a clean bike, the coffee spin may be the only thing they have to do on a rest day. This lifestyle may sound idyllic but it’s actually harder than it sounds.

My first year racing in Belgium with the ‘Irish Academy’ was 2002. The project would later develop into the An Post professional team.

The Irish house was in a small village free from distraction called Sluizen, close to the Dutch border.

A favorite coffee spin was from Sluizen to the pretty Dutch city of Maastricht about 20kms away. Or we would sometimes take the longer, more scenic route around by Sint-Truiden.

When a group of young, hyper, male Irish cyclists are abroad together, the coffee spins end up being more like a comedy show.

It’s often a time for innocent childish fun and horseplay.  Pulling skids, doing “no hands”, trying pedal wheelies, and practicing alternative victory celebrations.

The group would cause a scene as we arrived in the town square. And after a few minutes of debate we’d choose the café with the best looking waitress.

Without exception, the waitresses always had an impressive grasp of about five languages. And they somehow understood the most colloquial Irish jargon.

If she was willing to entertain the pathetic attempts to impress her and engage in some banter, the lads left in the belief that they were in there with a chance and they would be back.

Unfortunately for her, cyclists are generally broke. And we could only just afford the cup of coffee. We never left the tip she so richly deserved.

It was a pleasure to sit in the pretty town square in Maastricht enjoying the sunshine. We’d watch as people of all ages were cycling their traditional ‘high-nelly’ Dutch machines to and from their destinations.

Regardless of age and gender, they all had exceptional bike handling skills. They’d put many of us racing folk to shame.

And the good looking locals’ healthy complexions were a good advertisement for a healthy lifestyle.

One particular coffee stop stands out in my memory.

A group of us were enjoying our coffee and engaging in the usual banter when an awkward silence fell over the table.

A few metres away from our café a disabled teenager in a wheelchair struggled to negotiate a rough patch of cobbles.

We didn’t really know where to look and not wanting to cause offence, we didn’t offer to help. Instead we silently encouraged him to get to the smooth section of footpath.

Thankfully he made it unaided. And we all breathed a sigh of relief. But the awkward silence lingered.

The silence was broken by one of the lads who made a rather philosophical statement which made a change from the usual conversation:

“Lads, the next race you’re riding, when you’re starting to suffer, when you’re getting it rough and you start feeling sorry for yourself – just think about how lucky you are to be able to do what you’re doing”.

Every cyclist experiences bad days on a bike in both training and racing.

Usually these are the days when you’re out in foul weather. They’re days when your hands are so cold you can hardly pull the brakes or change gears.

They are days when you get caught out in heavy showers of sleet, snow. Or you get hit with dreaded hailstones that feel like golf balls as they give you a hammering into a headwind.

With the summer over and the winter training approaching the cold weather spins are nearly upon us.

It’s quite possible on some days your hands will be too cold and shoulders too stiff to get food from your pockets.

And you’ll make the schoolboy error of not eating enough only to get the dreaded hunger-knock.

It’s quite likely that you’ll start moaning and feeling sorry for yourself.  If you’re a drama queen you may even feel like you might actually die.

All of this drama, despite the fact that you know when you arrive home there will be a hot shower waiting for you that will rekindle the feeling in your fingers and toes.

The bowl of hot wholesome home-made soup with brown bread will taste so good. And you’ll start to feel human again.

You can lie on the couch wrapped up in a blanket with a fresh hot coffee and proceed to demolish the packet of jaffa-cakes.

When you have one of those character-building hard days on a bike – whether training or racing – try to keep things in perspective.

Having a positive attitude towards winter training will carry through to your racing and help to yield results. Whatever your motivation, make the most of what you’ve got.

There may come a time when you’re entitled to have a whinge; that will be the day that for whatever reason, you can no longer ride your bike. In the meantime, go easy on the muffins.