The onset of winter means the arrival of mud. Sometimes it seems like it never goes away, of course, but during the winter months there’s no avoiding it. You can try, though – careful route planning can often keep you on trails that have harder surfaces, drain better or just have a slightly less tacky style of mud. Some areas of the country are better than others, though, so if you’re stuck with felge, here’s some pointers on making the best of it…
Get kitted out
Mud usually goes along with wet and cold, so make sure you’re adequately kitted out. Mud-friendly pedals are a boon – Shimano 959 and similar, Time ATACs and Crank Bros. Eggbeaters are all better than average performers in mud. If your local mud is really thick and sticky you might struggle with any clipless pedals – give flats a try… Waterproof footwear, either socks or shoes, is likely to be useful too. If you’re not going to have to walk any distance, neoprene overshoes are very effective – they tend to suffer in extensive off-bike excursions, though.
Mudguards are a bit geeky, but they’re damn handy. Avoid traditional-style guards – they sit too close to the wheel and tend to clog up. Downtube and seatpost-mounted guards, of which the legendary Crud Catcher and Race Guard are the leading examples, work really well to keep mud out of your eyes and your bum dry. Both of those are bona fide good things… Guards that fit into the bottom of the fork steerer are effective too, but the looks are a bit moto for some riders.
As we’re often keen to point out, it’s not the bike, it’s the rider that contributes most to success. But that doesn’t mean that the bike’s completely irrelevant, and mud and slop is one of those situations in which equipment can make a real difference. Tyres are the key thing, although which is best depends on what sort of mud you’ve got locally. Talk to local riders and shops and find out what the popular choices are. Good mud tyres have some common attributes, though. An open tread design with open paths between tread blocks leading out to the sides of the tyre lets mud escape rather than blocking up. Pointy tread blocks dig in to soft ground without bringing too much of it off the trail. A narrow casing gives more space between the tyre and frame to reduce clogging and also tends to cut through mud until it finds something solid. Obviously this is only good if there actually is something solid down there…
Spin, don’t mash
Spinning the pedals in circles rather than stamping on them like a gibbon is sound advice at the best of times, but in the mud it’s vital. Watch people trying to drive out of muddy fields – the ones who get stuck are stamping on the gas and spinning the wheels. The ones who get out are feeding in the power steadily and keeping it controlled. What you’re trying to do is maintain steady power output without exceeding the tyre’s ability to grip.
If keeping it steady is important to keep going, it’s vital to get going. Pay particular attention coming out of corners. In the dry you’d maybe stand up and put in a couple of hard pedal strokes to get back up to speed. With enough grip a well-timed pedal stroke can even tighten your line if you’re running a bit wide. But in the mud you don’t have enough grip and aggressive pedalling out of corners is just going to send the back wheel sideways. If you’re quick a dose of opposite lock and maybe a foot out will save it, though. If you’re quick.
Get in gear
Going along with this is gear choice. Again, the motorists in the muddy field will succeed or fail largely on gear choice. Lots of gas in first gear and you’re spinning. Controlled power in second and you’re away. Excessively low gears make it easier to spin wheels, so click up one or two. You’ll have to pedal slower and harder but keep the circles going and it’ll all be fine.
Weight shifts are fundamental to riding bikes off-road, and never more so than when grip is at a premium. Be on your guard for wayward wheels and be ready to shift some mass in the relevant direction. If you hit some deep mud on a flat stretch you’ll need to sit back a bit to keep the back wheel gripping, and in corners you may have to exaggerate your usual forward weight shift to keep the front from sliding off the trail sideways. It can be pretty unpredictable – be vigilant!
Brake it down
Often in the mud you’re slithering about just trying to steer and pedal. Try to chuck braking into the mix as well and you’re asking for trouble. The trick is to follow all the usual braking tips, only more so. In particular, braking in corners is a no-no – with the bike leaning over and steering there’s just not enough grip to go around. Make sure you’re going slowly enough for corners before you reach them.
The bike knows best
It’s easy to get all out of shape in the mud, but if things start going a bit wayward don’t fight it too hard. Remember that all the bike wants to do is go in the direction it’s going in – it might shimmy about a bit but if you don’t do anything to upset it it’ll get to where it’s going.
Linking in with letting the bike find its own way is not making too many sudden movements. Yes, you need to brake, pedal and move your weight about, but the key is to do all those things as little as possible and do them smoothly. Any sudden move is likely to be an over-aggressive move too which is almost bound to upset the equilibrium of something. You need to move your weight around, you don’t need to throw it…