When I first started working at a bike shop, the more serious racers I toiled alongside had winter bikes. That is, they had a bicycle they just used in winter months. It wasn’t as nice as the race bike. Usually, it was just the old racing bike that had been downgraded when a new racing bike was acquired. I had a new racing bike, a Specialized Allez SE, so the old bike, a Bianchi sport-touring model, which was always too big for me anyway, became the winter bike.
At the time, it seemed that pros had training bikes. In the documentary 23 Days in July, you can see that Phil Anderson had a bike equipped with full fenders for training around his home roads in Belgium, even in warmer months.
I treated my Bianchi like a winter bike. Heavy tires. Should have gotten fenders. I let the beast get pretty grimy, only lubing the chain, until the steed was covered in a few layers of dirt. I even rested it in an unheated space, so I often left a water bottle in the cage and the water didn’t get moldy.
When the opportunity came along the next year to buy a used Peugeot frame with 531 tubing for $50 or so, I grabbed it. Yes, upgraded the winter bike; looking back, it probably fit better than the Specialized. But I “needed” the Peugeot, as the Bianchi was converted to a cyclocross bike–in those days, racing 27mm tires, which fit under most sidepull brakes on steel frames, was not uncommon in ‘cross. Then, the Specialized got downgraded because an Eddy Merckx Corsa Extra SLX came into my stable. It’s the one in the picture. Well, mostly. The Peugeot was turned into the ‘cross racer. The Specialized became a fixed-gear bike I pulled out the day after Thanksgiving and rode exclusively until the last week of February, the week before the race season started.
I went hard for the winter bike concept. Not only did I run a fixed-gear, but I swathed the wheels in the heaviest, largest tires that would fit. I even rode with a water bottle called the PIGG, a plastic bottle filled with lead weights. Eventually, I switched back to one bike for all seasons.
There was something nice about having a different bike for winter. It changed my relation with riding. The bike was a reminder that the time wasn’t for going fast, but for time outdoors. LSD, Long Steady (or Slow) Distance, was seen as a way to rebuild fitness, but it was also a mental break. There is some logic behind it, but at this point, I’d argue that benefit was more mental than physical. The fixed-gear was another story. It took more minding; you had to think before turning, before riding over potholes, every uphill was a power effort, every downhill a spin session. It felt like I was learning how to be efficient at cadences from 40rpm to 130. Some days, I felt on top of the gear, some days, it was a struggle.
All the same, I abandoned the winter bike due to group riding. Getting dropped on longer downhills and spinning like crazy just to stay on the back of a fast rotating paceline was the cause.
I’ve been switching back to a winter bike the past few years, but now it’s the Merckx that is coming out for a month. It’s pretty heavy. While the position is the same, and the saddle and pedals match my main bike, the bars, brakes, shifters are quite different. The shallow reach and deep drop bars feel different in hand. Downtube shifting is way faster, even with friction-only. The brakes have a much stronger return spring, presumably to overcome system friction, but the sensation is quite different. Possibly most notably, the brake lever bodies are way smaller, and much less comfy. The skinny bottom bracket spindle is freaky to look down at.
Looking at the geometry, the bike was, in many respects, a proto-gravel bike. It was kind of designed as a cobble-crusher. Clearance for 28mm tires. A low bottom bracket for stability. a long fork for shock-absorbtion. Short trail for light steering when riding slow on rough roads. When it was new, I took it over dirt roads on 20mm tires without issue.
The weight, the flex, the different tone emanating when the bike rolls over bumps, the reach for the shifters, and the brake levers all contribute to a different riding sensation. And that’s nice to go to. Old roads have a new dimension with a different bike beneath me. Returning to basics, trying the analogue bike experience again, well, only with a powermeter (for data collection, at least that’s what I tell myself).
For a while, anyways.