Fancy getting on your bike to liven up your commute? Here's how to do just that while still staying safe, visible and alert as the weather gets worse...
Sick and tired of having your face forced into strangers’ armpits on the tube? Bored of being stuck in miles of static traffic? Maybe it’s time to hop onto that roadie you bought all those years ago and finally give cycling to work a go?
But with the winter fast approaching, the evenings set to get darker and the Autumnal Equinox already behind us, how can newbie cyclists stay safe on the roads? We caught up with the brains behind the hugely popular and award-winning ‘Ordinary Cycling Girl’ blog, Donna Navarro, to find out…
Blogging on biking
“When I was younger I had a real love for athletics, and as a young teenager I would compete regularly as a sprinter,” Donna says of her pre-cycling days. “But at fifteen I developed significant back problems, resulting in my first spinal surgery. After that I found it very difficult to do any running without it resulting in pain and stiffness. I went on to have two more surgical operations on my back before discovering cycling was something I could do with very little resulting pain.”
And from then on, Donna was hooked: “It was so liberating to be able to get fit and active again. The sense of freedom riding a bike gives you is wonderful; it provides an opportunity to get outdoors, to be alone with your thoughts and to really appreciate your surroundings.
“Those first few rides were really hard work as my fitness levels were so low, but the great thing about cycling is that you don’t have to measure your ability against anyone else’s – you can go at your own pace and do as much or as little as you want. It’s so addictive, though! And your fitness levels improve really quickly with cycling.”
“Everything I read felt like it had a competitive edge to it or was written by very experienced cyclists.”
But, as with all hobbies, it’s one thing to love cycling and another altogether to start up a blog dedicated to it. So how and why did Ordinary Cycling Girl come to be?
“I don’t know about you,” Donna says, “but I’m one of those people who, when I really enjoy something, I really throw myself into it. So when I first discovered cycling I wanted to read and learn as much as I could about it. And at the time I found it really hard to find something that I felt I could relate to. Everything I read felt like it had a competitive edge to it or was written by very experienced cyclists. I think being a mum brings a whole new dimension to exercise; with work commitments and family commitments we can often find it difficult to commit to a regular fitness routine, but I couldn’t find anything that specifically acknowledged this and encouraged women back on to their bikes – and to just cycle for the enjoyment. So, I thought why not write my own blog aimed at ordinary women?
“What was obvious from the outset was that there was a genuine interest and need for something that was aimed at novice female cyclists. I received so many positive comments from so many different people, and lots of encouragement from the cycling community – both male and female – which has been wonderful. And as the blog’s audience grew alongside Donna’s fitness, OCG duly grew in scope, too:
“By their very nature, blogs evolve, and that’s certainly true of Ordinary Cycling Girl. My own cycling journey has progressed,” she explains. “My fitness has improved and my back has grown stronger. I’ve even been fortunate to incorporate cycling into some travel and I absolutely adore exploring new places on two wheels!”
Feeling inspired? Then maybe it’s time to get out there! But how can those of us new to cycling recreate Donna’s success? And what would her advice be to anyone looking to ride the old iron horse to and from work now that autumn has arrived?
“Just do it!” she says. “If this is your first venture into cycling I can understand your reservations with the unpredictable weather and darker nights, but cycling is so good for both your body and your mind, while cycling to and from work is the perfect way to incorporate fitness into your daily routine.
“My top recommendations for safer autumn and winter cycling are simple but important. Plan your route in advance and make yourself and your bike as visible as possible – lights, hi-viz clothing and reflective wear are essential. Wear layers and a waterproof jacket, too. It’s much better to be prepared and to be able to add and remove layers as necessary rather than be cold and uncomfortable. A good pair of gloves, winter socks and overshoes will help to keep your fingers and toes cosy.
“It’s also well worth fitting your bike with a good set of winter tyres and a mud-guard, and check your bike regularly to ensure everything is working as it should. There are so many YouTube videos available to help you with that kind of thing.”
And then there’s the mobile side of things, which Donna says is just as important to get right:
“Whenever I cycle I always make sure I’m carrying a fully charged phone and a portable charger. If anything happens, your phone is the first thing you will reach for to get assistance – either to Google something to find out how to quickly fix a broken part, or to call someone for help. There are some great cycling apps out there, too, which will effectively measure your route and performance.
“Strava, Endomondo, Garmin Connect and Map My Ride are all great apps for recording your ride stats, and will help you to see just how quickly your fitness is improving, too. They’re brilliant at motivating you, but they can use a lot of battery on your phone so having a portable battery charger in your kit bag is always a good idea!”
“First Aid by British Red Cross is also a really useful app to have on your phone if you’re a cyclist.”
Got that backup charger and your hi-vis gear? You’re almost good to go! But before you head out there’s still time to stock up on a couple more essential apps:
“Google Maps is always a favourite of mine,” Donna says, “although you will need a handlebar device on your bike to be able to take full advantage of it. My sense of direction leaves a lot to be desired, but the GPS navigation available on smartphones is so intuitive that it makes navigating a route really pleasurable these days, and Google Maps is updated frequently with new cycle path and traffic information, too, providing a good sense of security too.
“First Aid by British Red Cross is also a really useful app to have on your phone if you’re a cyclist,” Donna adds. “It’s probably the next best thing to going on an actual first aid course, and means that you’ll be prepared should the worst happen when you’re out and about. The app offers quizzes, videos and step-by-step advice to teach you how to deal with common first aid emergencies, but it’s also an invaluable source to have available if things should go wrong whilst you’re out on your bike.”
That last point is a great one: while Donna’s keen for any and everyone to give cycling to and from work a go, she knows that it can be dangerous out there if you’re not prepared – especially as the nights get darker.
“I think with winter cycling, especially commuting, the main dangers are the dark mornings and the dark evenings,’ she tells us. “So, again, making yourself as visible as possible is crucial and having lights on the front and back of your bike is essential.
“Plan your routes, be seen, always wear a helmet, and always anticipate that drivers may not have seen you. Do all that,” she says, “and you’ll make your ride safer and more enjoyable at the same time.”
Staying fit in colder climes… Here are fitness blogger Carly Rowena’s top tips for staying active as the temperature plummets.