Now in its 10th year, the Festive 500 has become an institution for many cyclists. The concept is simple. Clock up 500km on Strava between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve for kudos, camaraderie, fitness and possibly the chance to win prizes from event organiser Rapha.
For many of us, the festive period means time off to spend seeing family and friends and time on the bike takes a back-seat until the new year. However, a growing number of riders are taking on the challenge of ending the year on a high with the Festive 500.
Winter cycling can be beautiful and rewarding. Getting out on two wheels to enjoy frosty mornings, red skies at sunrise and crisp, clear days refreshes the body and mind at a time when it’s tempting to slow down and wallow in front of TV box-sets.
It can take some planning to get those miles in but, from experience, it’s really worth making the extra effort.
I'll be embarking on my fourth Festive 500 this year. Living on the South Coast of England, the weather can be unpredictable and I've experienced everything from freezing fog and ice to unseasonably mild and sunny days. I've had the luxury of planning rides over the full eight days and I've had the pressure of completing it in only three days too.
Here's what I've learned about getting that 500 km ticked off so you can start the New Year with a smug feeling of accomplishment.
Make a plan
500km in eight days seems like a lot, but it's only just over 70km per day, allowing one full rest day.
The two main challenges will be fitting your rides around family and friends and dealing with adverse weather. Getting out early means that you can spend the rest of the day doing 'normal' Christmas stuff, although it does mean you might need to cut back on the evening sherries.
Adverse weather shouldn't be too much of an issue if you kit up appropriately. Plan your routes in advance so that you know the distance will add up to that magic 500, but be flexible. For example, if torrential rain is forecast on one of your longer days, you might need to switch it with a shorter one. Fog and ice can make road riding extra hazardous so, if you have an off-road capable bike, why not hit the trails and bridleways instead.
Winter-proof your bike
During the colder months, the increased rainfall can wash more dirt and grit onto the roads and storms will blow loose leaves and branches down. If you have the luxury of a bike with disc brakes, you’ll be grateful for the more reliable stopping power in wet, muddy conditions. Whatever bike you ride, there are a few things you can do to get it ready for winter riding.
- Service - Consider treating your trusty steed to a service at the start and end of winter – spotting problems early can increase the life expectancy of your bike and it’ll feel brand-new once you get it back.
- Tyres - Nobody wants to fix a puncture with cold hands or in the rain. Consider switching to a winter-specific tyre that can cope with the extra debris on the road. Last year I switched to the Continental Grand Prix 4 Season tyres which feature a reinforcement under the tread and in the sidewall. The extra weight was worth having the reassurance. You might also need to decrease your tyre pressure slightly to improve grip.
- Groupset - Dirty roads can also wreak havoc on your components, particularly if there’s salt on the roads. Mudguards will prevent debris from flying full-speed into your groupset (as well as protect you and your riding buddies from road spray) but it’s also important to get into a cleaning and maintenance routine. During winter I use Muc-Off C3 Wet Ceramic Lube which has been formulated to repel water and inhibit rust.
The Christmas morning ride is the highlight of the Festive 500. There's hardly any traffic on my local roads but I do see a growing number of runners and cyclists, some decked out in tinsel or Santa hats. Even with fewer cars on the roads, it's important to make sure you can be seen.
As always, make sure you have front and rear lights. Setting them to blinking mode can make you more noticeable to other road users, especially in fog or low light. Since it's Christmas, you can also have a bit of fun and wrap battery-powered fairy lights around your bike, or even yourself.
I’m obsessed with checking the weather forecast, even just before I head out on my ride in case it’s changed from what it said the previous night.
Experience has taught me that layering is key. If you can keep your core warm, you're less likely to experience numb fingers and toes.
- Base layers - I love merino base layers like the one from dhb. Merino has excellent temperature-regulating and wicking properties. It doesn't retain odour-causing bacteria like some synthetics do so you can get away with not washing it for multiple days - perfect if you're riding every day. A base layer is also so valuable for 'nature breaks’ – I ride in bib tights so I’m grateful that I can at least keep one layer on if I need to make a loo stop.
- Winter jerseys - On the coldest days, when temperatures hover around 0 degrees, consider layering a weather-proof jersey or jacket over a long-sleeved jersey. The Castelli Perfetto and the dhb Aeron Deep Winter Softshell have a performance fit with the bonus of a wind-and-rain resistant treatment.
- Water-proofing - If there's even a possibility of precipitation, arm yourself with a waterproof jacket. Ride in wet clothes and you'll get a chill which could be the difference between completing the challenge and dropping out. Water-proofs have moved on from the flappy boil-in-the-bag monstrosities of days gone by. Here's our guide to finding the right one for you.
- Bib tights - Bibs or waist tights? It's a personal preference. Whilst bibs make loo stops a bit more tricky, the straps mean they stay put, minimising the chance of cold drafts. The latest winter bib-tights incorporate many of the weather-proofing technologies you would expect to see in a winter jersey or jacket. The dhb Aeron Rain Defence tights feature Schoeller® Nanosphere® Water Repellent Treatment making them perfect for winter riding. On those really cold days, the Polartec® Windbloc® technology used on the dhb Aeron Lab All Winter Bib Tights makes them super-cosy.
With all these layers, expect to do more laundry than usual. I swear by Halo Proactive Sports Wash for keeping my cycling and gym kit odour-free but for those nasty black road-splashes a soak in the sink with Assos Active Wear Cleanser generally gets things looking as good as new. It might seem expensive but a little bottle goes a long way and it's worth it if it keeps my expensive kit looking good. I also use the Assos liquid for waterproofs as it doesn't seem to affect the finish.
Protect your extremities
Cold fingers and toes can be painful and potentially dangerous if your digits end up too cold to operate your brakes and shifters. Keeping your extremities warm starts at the core so make sure you check the weather and layer up accordingly. Make sure you're not wearing anything that's too tight as it could affect circulation and if you start to feel that tingle, give your hands and toes a wiggle or shake your arms to get the blood flowing.
Once you've got your layering right, finish your outfit with some key accessories to keep the cold out.
- Winterize shoes - If you ride a lot in winter and suffer with cold feet, a pair of winter-specific cycling shoes could be the answer like the Northwave Extreme XCM. If you don't do enough cold-weather riding to justify the investment, you can winterize the shoes you normally ride in. Cycling shoes often feature ventilation holes which you can stick some duct-tape over. Check out our guide to overshoes to see how they can add some warmth and weather-proofing.
- Layer up socks, with caution - Doubling up on socks can help to trap a layer of warm air, but be careful that you don't end up restricting your blood flow which can make the cold feel ten times worse. A decent pair of winter socks like Woolie Boolie, coupled with winter boots or overshoes, could be all you need. Some riders even swear by wrapping tin foil over the top of their socks before they put their shoes on.
- Glove up - A thin pair of glove liners worn under winter gloves can offer additional insulation. Look for ones that have touch-screen compatibility so you can operate devices without taking them off. Consider the conditions you'll be riding in when you choose your outer-layer - many winter gloves incorporate wind and rain protection, as well as reflective elements. Don't forget to make sure you're not restricting circulation!
- Keep your head warm - Your usual helmet has probably been designed to aid ventilation during the warmer months. If you do a lot of winter riding, it could be worth investing in a more closed-in helmet like the MET Manta. Another option is to wear an insulating cap under your helmet like the GripGrab Winter Cycling Cap which has built-in ear-warmers.
Don’t forget to eat and drink
Some cyclists find that when the weather's cold they don't feel like eating and drinking as much, but it's still just as important as it is in summer.
If you can find an insulating bottle that fits your bottle cages, HIGH5 ZERO electrolyte drink in the Apple & Cinnamon flavour is a real warming treat, although it's just as nice to drink cold. I'd also recommend something that contains immunity-boosting vitamins like HIGH5 ZERO Protect so you don't end up cutting your Festive 500 short for the sake of illness.
During the festive season, there's lots of delicious food readily available at home which can be wrapped and stuffed in jersey pockets. I prefer solid food rather than gels when it's cold so I take things like Cliff Bars along with small squares of Christmas cake. If you struggle with wrappers in winter gloves, just remember to rip the tops before you set off.
See you out there?
Quiet roads, winter sun, an excuse to eat more tasty treats... Whatever appeals to you about riding through winter, the right kit and preparation will ensure that you can beat the weather and enjoy some festive fun on your bike. Invite some friends, join us on Strava and share your photos by tagging us on Instagram. Just get out there!