January: the best month for starting
For lots of riders, the real start of the season is November or shortly after, in December. But if you're new to the sport, there's no point in putting pressure on yourself during the worst months in terms of weather conditions. They only tend to start back in November / December because their first races are in February / March. As for you, it's probably safe to say that your big rides (long ones with hill climbs) won't take place until April or May.
From January onwards, even though some days will still be pretty chilly, the worst of the weather is generally behind us. It's from this point on that you can set yourself the challenge of improving with each ride.
Gentle, but not too gentle…
Winter is generally dedicated to what's known as base or endurance training. This means riding at a gentler pace to build up your background fitness. But unlike what has long been recommended, it doesn't mean you can't get your heart rate up from time to time or use a bigger gear.
It just means that most of your ride should be at a slower pace. You should be able to chat with your training buddies without being too out of breath. If you wear a heart rate monitor, you should be riding at around 70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate.
But don't shy away from doing the odd sprint or hill climb at a decent pace to keep those fast-twitch muscles twitching. As long as you're not doing entire 1½-3 hour rides at 85% of your HRmax, you'll be fine.
Don't worry about your speed. Let how you feel dictate what you do.
In march, we up the pace
From mid-March onwards, you can start to ramp things up by reducing the duration of your rides, for example to 2½ hours, and including more specific training.
Do 30-second intervals at 85% of your max heart rate, followed by 30 seconds of recovery. Repeat this eight times, then take a five-minute break before doing it all over again.
Over the weeks, you can reduce the effort and recovery times (20 seconds instead of 30) but do 12 rounds of effort at 88%-90% of your max heart rate, for example.
A bit of strength too
On some little lumps and bumps, play around with a bigger gear (50×16 or 15) so you're only turning your legs at 50 rpm. Your heart rate shouldn't climb. You'll go slowly, but the aim is to get a bit of a strength workout. If you climb too fast, it'll be too intense. For this exercise, you should remain in the saddle.
Practice makes perfect
More than anything else, it's how often you go out riding that determines how much you progress. If you spend 3 weeks cycling regularly but then completely stop exercising for 2 weeks, you'll be back to square one. Cycling is unforgiving: stopping for more than a week wastes all your previous efforts.
From April, if you've managed to ride regularly, you can start having a bit more fun. Consider regularly including some short 10-second sprints in your rides, along with some gradual accelerations (on 1- to 2-km climbs, for example) after a good warm-up. This will up the intensity a bit.