Wet weather creates challenging riding conditions, even on familiar terrain. The trails around the mmb office, for example, have changed beyond all recognition during the winter months. Rain run-off on poorly maintained trails has led to huge chasms opening up, with muck piled up in areas — an effect rather like the oxbow lake formation you were told about in O-level geography. As a result, traction is changeable. Climbs that were rideable in the summer now have a greasy coating. Tracks that were simple, sweeping downs now have trenches within which you can make out the very bowels of the earth, and everything’s wet and clarty. Hit the wrong line, in the wrong gear, at the wrong angle and you’ll spin on to your arse, or fly over the bars as your front wheel digs in, or just stop, horribly, in the middle of knee-deep gloop. Let’s look at how to keep going and beat the mud into submission. Mud wrestling, in fact.
Know your enemy
The key to any battle plan is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your adversary, and being able to select the correct weaponry for the attack. Soil is just ground-up rock — clay is the really fine particles, silt’s a bit bigger, and sand is really coarse. Stir in water, leaves, assorted dead things, squirrel shit, grass/straw and soggy old porno mags, and you’ve got mud.
Pure clay sticks together so well it doesn’t wash away like other mud and you’ll often find it sat in big shiny lumps. These are slippier than soap, so keep any steering or braking to a minimum or you’ll end up on your arse. Add in straw and grass and clay and it binds even better. Run big grippy tyres through it and you’ll be lucky to get more than a few revolutions before it clogs solid. But as it’s sticky, it can’t move fast and relies on slow-moving prey. Keep yourself out of its clutches by hitting it as fast as possible, either aiming for the wettest section in the middle (too wet to stick) or the dry section around the edge (stiff enough for you to skip over). As it’s so sticky, traction isn’t as important, so run thin and treadless tyres for clearance. The more silt in the mix makes the mud less sticky but ‘faster reacting’. In stickier mud, use thinner tyres and a faster approach speed. The wetter and slippier the gloop, the less cloggage, so run bigger tread for more bite and use a steadier approach for traction. At the wet sand end of things, use the biggest paddle tread you can find at really low pressures to float you across. Now work out the recipe of local trails and choose your weapons.
Just keep moving
Only go fast where you have to because mud wrecks traction. It means you can’t stand up and muscle through a section that you would normally get through on brute strength. Strength is still important in winter riding, but technique is crucial. Putting on a spurt of speed when you see a mucky section is probably the last thing on your mind, but the extra momentum you gain by doing so will allow you to exert less energy when you’re in the slippery stuff. There’s less chance of sinking, slipping or not making it to the other side. Hitting stuff flat-out, willy-nilly is going to get you into trouble with the plethora of obstacles that the trail god has laid out for you to trip over. Rocks, hidden holes, wheel-sucking bogs and the like are all traps for your high-speed attack approach. But, provided you’re going in quick, with your weight positioned for front-wheel lightness (that’s weight over the back wheel without looping out), you’ll just bounce off most of the troublesome lumps and bumps.
Walk slowly with big stick
Quit the high rpm stuff and grind. Mountain bikes are blessed with gears so low that, with suitable traction, you can climb any slope gravitationally possible without breaking into a sweat. But, those same low gears aren’t the sort of thing you want when traction is dire. Higher gears allow you to pedal more slowly and with less torque. But, rather than just stomping your big gear round, you can resist it with your ‘back’ leg. To do this, use both legs together to pedal with and, rather than thinking ‘stomp-stomp’ and pushing down on whichever pedal’s at the front, concentrate on turning the pedals round at an even pace. Think ‘circles’ — it helps. What you’re trying to do is to keep the rear wheel turning at a constant speed and rolling along the ground at that speed, no faster. Stomp on the pedals and you’ll spin the rear wheel. Think about keeping the wheel turning at ground speed, and, occasionally (twice through the pedal stroke), having the bike rolling a little faster than you’re pedalling, then you’ll maintaining traction. It’s better to pedal more slowly, and have the bike freewheeling a little, than to stomp on the pedals and get wheel spin — unless you want to.
It’s a rear-wheel drive vehicle, so use it. Racing drivers and motorcyclists utilise the fact that their vehicle is driven by the rear wheel when cornering, so much so that they don’t even think about it. However, only on-the-edge, downhill mountain bike riders use rear wheel steering techniques to position their bike on the track. But, in winter, because of the traction, the rear wheel has a huge effect on how your bike turns. Pedalling hard out of a corner, or carrying speed with your weight to the back, will cause the rear wheel to swing out wide, causing over-steer. This means that the amount you’ve leant over, or turned the bars to go round the corner, will now be too much, and you’ll have to steer the other way — opposite lock, it’s called.
Brake, slip, bang
Don’t brake unless you can. Pulling on the anchors when the bike is leaned over hard, or your handlebars are turned, is a recipe for disaster. The further away you are from the dead-upright, dead-ahead position, the greater the chances are of your braking action leading to a front-end washout. Of course, tyres and terrain play a part in this. But, all things being equal, you’ll be able to tell when you shouldn’t be doing it, ’cos you’ll be on your arse. Wet conditions mean that you can’t put the normal amount of steering input into the trail. Your tyres will just slide. Traction will get so bad, that you can still be making progress when your front wheel is locked. Providing that you’re in an upright position, with the bars straight ahead, then you’ll slide straight on, and you can then release the brakes to live another day. Lock the front wheel up in a corner, and the front end will push wide, which can be controlled with a dab of the inside foot. If you’re quick. mmb2.1.