Like most provinces in Canada, with the exception of B.C. perhaps, Ontario is generally snow-covered for much of the winter. Depending on the part of the province ground cover lasts from late November/early December to the middle of March and in some places the end of April. This makes outdoor riding nearly impossible for much of the winter on a standard road bike. However, since racing season and the first three Ontario Cup races are held in March and April it is necessary to train throughout winter, starting sometime in October typically.
If you follow a periodization training model, as I do, then typically the long hours on the bike to build endurance in the Base period often coincide with the harshest months of the year. This means many long hours spent on the trainer for most racers. However, there are other alternatives to solely using the trainer, although it is nearly impossible to be free of it completely unless you spend your winters in more temperate climates. For those of us stuck here in the winter wonderland there are three primary ways of logging miles in the winter.
The Indoor Trainer
For most people this is the only option available to them. If stationary riding is your only option, make sure you invest in a good trainer that will make your riding experience as road-like as possible. Many of the lower end models are loud and do not have a sufficient flywheel to make for an enjoyable ride. The first trainer I ever bought was an old Giant trainer with magnetic resistance. It was a great trainer to use on occasion when I felt the itch to ride when there was three feet of snow on the ground but when I started training daily in the winter for racing, it become a nuisance. It was so loud that I had to connect my laptop to a stereo system just so I could watch TV and hear the sound.
Now I use the Kurt Kinetic Rock and Roll trainer. It has fluid resistance and a large flywheel, which makes for a smooth and relatively quiet ride. I highly recommend investing in a trainer with fluid resistance rather than magnetic or turbine resistance because of the difference in realism and noise. There are several brands out there, Cycleops, Tacx and Kurt being the three that in my opinion produce the best trainers. The Rock and Roll by Kurt Kinetic has a rocker plate that allows the bike to sway from side to side as if riding on the road. This is beneficial if you can’t also afford a set of rollers but want to work on developing a smooth pedal stroke. It also has less stress on the frame of the bike.
Rollers, which require the rider to balance himself so as not to fall, are useful for working on speed skills, form sprints, and pedal stroke. They are a great addition to a trainer if you can afford it. I do not, however, recommend rollers in place of a good trainer. Rollers offer no resistance aside from the gearing and therefore are not suitable for force and strength workouts. For those who are just starting out and not interested in training for racing but want to ride in the winter, rollers are probably a better option since they require focus, thus making them much less boring than a trainer. Rollers are fun.
The Indoor Track
Unless you live in Southern Ontario and are willing to drive up to three hours each way, this option may not be available to you. Currently there are only two indoor tracks in Ontario. Forest city Velodrome in London and the new Pan Am Games velodrome in Milton. The Forest City Velodrome is the shortest track in the world at 138m and has a bank of 55 degrees. Most tracks range from 32 to 45 degrees at 333m and 250m respectively. Thus FCV can seem daunting to new riders. Having only just started riding here this year I can tell you first hand that my first time seeing the bank up close was enough to make me for than nervous about riding on the track. The short length and steep bank, however, do make it one of the most exciting track experiences you will find. The FCV also offers a very relaxed atmosphere and plenty of time for riding. The Milton velodrome, while a new facility, has to accommodate much more ridership and therefore has a more limited riding schedule for drop-in users. However, some might enjoy the longer course and gradual bank of the turns. There is an initiative to open a velodrome in Ottawa but currently the city is ‘not interested’ in hosting a velodrome.
Track riding in general is a great way to log miles in the winter if you can get to it. Be mindful of speed on the track, particularly if you are in the base period and need to maintain a lower power/HR output. Black line riding at the FCV is between 32-35kph on average. Depending on the gearing of your bike this can equate to more power and higher HR than what you need for those low intensity base miles. Those with higher starting fitness won’t find this a problem. Also keep in mind that it is easier to go faster on the track than it is on the road because of the surface, lack of terrain variation, and complete lack of wind.
If you do opt to ride the track it is recommended to buy a track specific bike. Single speeds are not acceptable on the track. They must be fixed gear. In addition, most track style commuter bikes with a fixed gear are not suitable for the track. They have a smaller gear ratio, longer crank arms and lower bottom bracket. Long crank arms means you may strike the track surface when going around the turns of the track. A smaller gear ratio means you will be pedalling furiously to keep up with the pack. Use an online speed/cadence calculator to determine what your gear ratio should be for your desired speed and cadence. Black line riding at FCV, as I mentioned, is supposed to be around 34kph on average, which means that I have to ride at least this pace in order to keep up and not annoy the other riders. My preferred cadence is 90 RPM so to maintain that speed with that cadence my gearing is set at 46T (teeth) on the front crank and 15T on the rear sprocket. If I were blue line riding, which is much faster, I would opt for a different gear ratio more appropriate to the faster speeds. An entry-level track bike can be purchased for $500-$600 new and will serve you well for training purposes.
Cyclocross is gaining popularity in Ontario and has become a common method of winter riding in recent years. If you are brave enough to handle the cold and have the appropriate clothing you can ride outdoors almost all year round on a bike similar to that of your summer road bike. While it is a lot of fun, it is in my opinion the least favourable way to train in the winter. It requires a specific type of bike or a modified road bike, which can be costly, nearly as much as a road bike or more. Riding is also largely determined by weather. Although cyclocross bikes can used on snowy roads, they are useless during periods of heavy snowfall and accumulation. Relying solely on a cyclocross bike for training means that your training schedule is at the mercy of the weather.
Unless your purpose is to become a cyclocross racer, I would recommend this be used as an occasional alternative to the trainer or track in the winter. Others may disagree but it is impossible to get the required workouts on a cyclocross ride alone. There are so many more variables about riding in the winter, particularly vehicles, which don’t usually expect to see cyclists in the winter. If you live in places with heavy snowfall like Ottawa or London, you’ll know that the streets get narrower as the winter progresses from accumulated build up of snow on the sides of the roads. This can make urban riding very dangerous. In addition it is nearly impossible to do speed skill workouts and form sprints on a cyclocross bike because of the unpredictability of the terrain and conditions. Cyclocross riding peaks in the fall before the snow hits. If you are going to get into cyclocross, this is the best time of year for it since you won’t be on the road bike much and there is still no snow on the ground. Single track trails, hiking paths and gravel roads in particular are great for cyclocross riding but watch out for fall hikers looking to see the colour changes.
The perfect scenario would involve a combination of all three. This would allow for a scheduled and regimented training plan allowing you to do all the workouts required throughout the year while still being more exciting than just plain trainer riding.