Why road cyclists should ride a different bike this winter

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Road cyclists who train on a cyclocross, gravel or mountain bike over winter will boost their power and fitness and pick up a wide range of performance-enhancing skills

Road cycling is a proudly tribal sport but embracing another genre of cycling is a great way to stay active and learn new skills over the winter months. Riding a cyclocross, gravel or mountain bike will freshen up your training and turn you into a much stronger, fitter and more skilful road cyclist, so you feel fitter and sharper on the roads in the spring.

Off-road cycling is above all else a really fresh and fun way to stay fit and active over winter when the road conditions and bad weather can be challenging. But riding a different kind of bike will also equip you with new performance benefits, from sharper bike-handling skills to a more efficient seated climbing technique.

If you need any proof, just take a look at the pro peloton. Two-time Tour of Flanders winner Mathieu van der Poel of Alpecin–Deceuninck owes his power and technical gifts to his cyclocross background. And three-time world road race champion Peter Sagan honed his raw power and race instincts in the muddy worlds of mountain biking and cyclocross.

Don’t underestimate the motivational power of change, too. Riding a new kind of bike in new environments will provide you with a welcome mental refresh and a new wave of self-motivation over the bleak winter months. Riding off-road will also nudge you out of your comfort zone, helping to enhance your confidence, skills and adaptability.

So revitalise your training and enhance your riding skills by trying one of these off-road disciplines this winter.

Try cyclocross

The electrifying success of professional road riders who have come from a cyclocross background – including Strade Bianche and Amstel Gold Race winner Mathieu van der Poel and Tour de France stage winner Tom Pidcock – says everything you need to know about how beneficial cyclocross can be for road cyclists.

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Cyclocross was originally invented by road riders looking for ways to stay fit during the winter months. Back in the early 1900s Tour de France cyclists used cyclocross to maintain their aerobic fitness when the roads were too hazardous to train on. And the sport remains a brilliant winter training tool for road cyclists today.

Although a cyclocross bike looks like a road bike thanks to its drop-bar design, it has a very different geometry, including a shorter frame reach and a taller bottom bracket. This enables riders to navigate highly technical race courses more skilfully. In cyclocross races riders pedal over mud, grass, roots, sand and other obstacles during short, sharp laps of an off-road circuit. The course is usually 1-3km long and the races last around 30-60 minutes.

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The unique challenges of cyclocross – from the need for constant power production to the importance of balance and visual awareness – makes the sport a brilliant winter cross-training choice for road cyclists. When riding a cyclocross bike you need to navigate mud-caked trails, which helps to sharpen up your bike-handling skills. You’ll certainly notice the difference when avoiding hazards, following a wheel, or riding in a peloton out on the road.

Because of the intense and frenzied nature of cyclocross, your heart rate and oxygen uptake will remain higher for longer than when training on the road, which makes this discipline a fantastic aerobic and anaerobic training tool for roadies. You will also need to unleash repeated bursts of power – and you’ll be glad of the extra watts you have gained when you next need to maintain a high speed during a road race, or climb in the mountains.

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As cyclocross encourages you to tackle unpredictable off-road courses, it also teaches you how to climb efficiently while sitting down, select the right gears and pedal efficiently. Riding on muddy surfaces requires a really precise timing and application of pedalling forces to ensure your tyres grip the ground, helping to develop a more fluid pedalling technique.

Cyclocross bikes offer some extra bonuses over winter too. Because they are designed to be ridden off-road, you can skip the roads on foggy or dark days and enjoy some off-road adventures instead. As the longer wheelbase offers extra stability in slippery situations, and the slightly shorter top tube gives you more control, many road cyclists use a cyclocross bike for winter commutes too. Fitted with a set of mudguards, a cyclocross bike makes a great winter training machine. And with that extra tyre clearance, you won’t be so worried about snow, dirt and ice on the roads either.

Try gravel biking

Although visibly similar to road and cyclocross bikes, gravel bikes are completely different machines. They have the slim, aerodynamic design of a road bike, but they have a higher clearance and come with disc brakes and wider tyres. This enables you to go on more diverse rides which combine roads and off-road terrain. But gravel bikes tend to have a more relaxed geometry than cyclocross bikes, and they use tyres which are less aggressive. This frees you to complete much longer rides than you would on a cyclocross bike.

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This all makes gravel bikes a fantastic choice for winter training. If you ride a gravel bike you will be able to plot interesting routes which combine fast road sections and scenic off-road segments through forests or over trails. And the adaptability of gravel bikes means you can change your plans mid-ride to adjust to the changing weather, light and conditions.

On a gravel bike you can enjoy long, slow winter training rides which will boost your stamina and cardiovascular fitness. As gravel bikes can be fitted with panniers, they are also handy for multi-day adventures.

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But riding on gravel provides a host of additional benefits too. Navigating unstable terrain forces you to perform endless small body movements to maintain your balance, which makes gravel riding an excellent core conditioning tool for road riders. And it’s much more fun that doing planks and sit-ups at home. Gravel riding will enhance your safety on the road too, as you will learn to respond to the bike moving underneath you, and deal with any slopes and obstacles, helping to refine your reaction skills and visual awareness.

You’ll develop a much smoother pedalling style too. If you’re riding on a gravel trail and you turn too quickly, you’ll slip and lose traction. So gravel riding teaches you to stay balanced and fluent on the bike. This will really benefit you when you go back on the road and encounter wet conditions or hazardous roads. 

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Don’t underestimate the sheer joy of being able to explore woods, trails and tracks over winter too. When you’re stuck indoors and craving fresh air and new scenery, gravel bikes open up a whole new world of outdoor adventures. They also enable you to ride off-road in the evening or at night so you can unlock extra training hours over the short winter days.

Try mountain biking

Mountain bikes are wrongly seen as the most inaccessible of bikes for road cyclists. Some of this is down to the historic ‘road versus mountain bike’ culture clash. And it is certainly true that road riders who are accustomed to avoiding every bump and stone on the road will have a shock when they go bouncing over technical off-road trails on a mountain bike. But road cyclists who dare to hop onto a mountain bike will enjoy astonishing gains to their road-riding performance – as mountain biker turned road rider Peter Sagan can attest.

Mountain bikes are slower, heavier and more technical than cyclocross or gravel bikes. But they have much thicker and more stable tyres, they often feature suspension, and they have a more upright geometry. They’re designed to bounce over rocks and roots and other hazards on seriously technical terrain, which helps to turn previously inaccessible locations, like off-road mountain trails, into new adventure playgrounds over winter.

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The uneven terrain you will encounter on a mountain bike will help to develop your core strength and stability, which will translate into a more stable and balanced technique on your road bike. As mountain biking will help to develop your upper-body strength, in order to stay upright on the unpredictable terrain, this will help you to stay strong and in control when you adopt a more aerodynamic position on your road bike.

The short, sharp bursts of effort required when blasting up muddy hills will boost your top-end power and leg strength when you’re back out on the road too. These repeated bursts of high-intensity effort are hard to replicate in training rides on the road over winter. But they are the same kind of effort you need to win a sprint, accelerate out of a corner, or close down a gap out on the road.

And the sheer variety of obstacles, hills, mounds and gradients you encounter while mountain biking is fantastic for your overall fitness. When road riding, it is easy to slip into cruise control on longer rides, especially over winter. But when mountain biking you have to keep pumping out the power and adjusting your effort levels. This will trigger welcome physiological adaptations which will help you in races or training rides on the road.

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Mountain biking also teaches you about efficient gear selection. While you can get away with being in the wrong gear on the road, on a mountain bike you will suffer. So mountain biking will help you to become a smarter, savvier rider, as well as a fitter and stronger one.

Riding a mountain bike will make you a more skilful descender too. Speeding down mountain roads remains a nervy challenge for many road cyclists, but mountain biking will build your confidence as you will learn how to ride downhill over uneven and unpredictable terrain. It will encourage you to hone a better descending technique, like changing gears in advance of the bend, controlling your speed, leaning into the bend without losing your momentum, and powering out of the bend. This will really help to improve your reflexes and bike handling skills when riding downhill on the road.

Riding off-road also offers some bonus health benefits. Scientific studies suggest mountain bikers have a healthier bone mineral density than road cyclists, as the strength and extra loading that comes from riding over challenging terrain helps to build stronger bones.

But above all else mountain biking is a thrilling adventure, which is exactly what you need over the cold winter months. Instead of avoiding cycling on the road in case you get wet and dirty, when riding a mountain bike over muddy trails that is all part of the fun.