Winter puts the skids under your riding in more ways than one, but it’s also the best time of the year to pick up new skills and experience the best the countryside has to offer in terms of fresh cold air, and deserted trails.
So wrap up warm and pay attention as we bring you a brief BIKEmagic guide to getting the best from the darker 6 months of the year.
Firstly we’ll discuss how to handle the winter trail conditions.Mud
There have been few autumns to match this one in terms of sheer volumes of rain, and that has turned many bridleways into absolute quagmires. So how do you deal with all this filth?
The first answer is tyres. The ideal is switching to a set of narrower, toothier treads such as Panaracer Fire Mud or IRC’s Mud Mad tyres, which bite deeper and clear faster for better grip in the wet and don’t clog your frame. Just be careful when you hit road or rock sections though, as those tall knobs will scrabble and slide if they can’t dig in.
If you can’t afford new tyres just for winter, or you’ve got a reasonable set of all rounders (we recommend Panaracer’s Smoke / Dart, or Fire XC Pro, WTB’s Velociraptor, Continental’s Traction or Cross Country or the Jones AC from Bontrager) then playing with tyre pressure makes a big difference. Dropping the psi means a floppier tyre that’ll mould itself to uneven surfaces, and spread out for a bigger tread “footprint” and more grip. The lower you drop the pressure the more soft condition grip you’ll get, but again you’ll need to be wary on the hard stuff. Low pressure tyres will squash against the rim easily if you hit rocks, so you’ll be more prone to pinch punctures unless you slow down. Floppy tyres can also squirm badly under cornering – particularly with lightweight thin sidewall tyres – so let pressures down gradually till you find a comfortable compromise level.
Secondly you’ll need to change your technique to get you to the far side of the marsh. Carrying as much momentum as possible into the mud will help you get a good way into it, but will increase problems if you get it wrong. Make sure you keep you weight well back, and if you can lift the front wheel without wobbling around that’ll also reduce the risk of ejecting clean over the bars.
Once you’re in, use slower but steady ’round’ pedal strokes to keep the wheel churning smoothly through the mud, and keep your butt on the saddle for that extra bit of traction weight. Spinning the wheel too fast or stamping on the pedals will just make it break traction and slip. Keep your weight well back too for extra traction on the rear tyre and learn to pull the handlebars back and downwards towards the rear axle (try bending your elbows low) to force more weight onto the tyre when you push on the pedals.
In downhill or cornering situations, weight distribution is more tricky as pushing weight back will just let the front wheel slide, but push weight too far forward and you’ll be vaulting the bars. The best technique is to “hover” above the bike ready to counteract any slide of the wheels, front, back or sideways as soon as it starts to happen. Make sure you keep knees and elbows bent and relaxed though as if they’re stiff and rigid you won’t be able to react nearly fast enough. When you’re cornering keep the inside foot ready to unclip and dab in case the front end does slide unexpectedly. Hanging your leg forward alongside the front wheel will also make sure the back wheel slides before the front.
Lastly you’ll need to learn a new set of line choices to avoid the worst of it. IMBA – the American trails and access campaigners – always advise riders to go through rather than round puddles to avoid spreading the damage round the edge and making it worse. Whether you follow the advice depends on the conditions of surrounding ground. There’s no point wallowing in the puddles of double track or fire road if the centre’s clear, but chewing up grass around the edge of a narrow path isn’t the most environmentally friendly move around. The centre of wet sections is also often the easiest – if not the cleanest – part to cross, as wetter mud is less sticky and easier to push through. You’ll also find wheel tracks might be deeper but they’re also better compressed as opposed to stirred up half trodden mud round the edge. For the same reason aim for the rocky, hard sections – even if they’ve got running water over them – as they’ll drag far less, letting you get up speed for the next bit of slop.Snow
Lovely cuddy and white it might be, but snow doesn’t make the rocks underneath any softer. Watch your tyres and watch your speed, and remember that it can often sit happy and fluffy over dirty great ditches, icy patches or overhangs just waiting for your wheels. The lesson is don’t ride fast unless you know the area and have been there recently as winter rainfall and erosion can quickly cut ditches or ruts through previously smooth trails.
Snow also has a mischievous tendency to either fling the front wheel wide or grab it and turn it under on you, depending entirely on how it feels. Again ride relaxed but waiting to counteract any move, as if you stiffen you’re almost guaranteed to be heading for the deck. The same tyre and weight distribution advice as for mud apply and as for line choices just avoid big lumps that probably hide rocks and don’t ride through the yellow snow.Ice
Undoubtedly the most lethal trail condition, with no respect for tyre choice, lines or technique. Treat it like anything dangerous and unpredictable – stay relaxed, show it no fear but don’t make any sharp or sudden movements. If the ice is unavoidable, plot the straightest, cleanest path across it to firm ground. Keep yourself relaxed and ready to react above the bike, don’t touch the brakes (especially the front one) and keep pedalling very smooth. Make a mental note not to put your hand out if you do fall or else you’ll be pulling Christmas crackers with a broken collarbone.The upside
We’ll admit this all sounds like nasty, scary, hard work, but the great thing is that once you’ve learned these skills they’ll stick with you. You’ll be sliding round corners and floating your bike through tricky sections like a minor trail god when spring comes around and you’re hibernating mates start floundering around in the bluebells wondering why they can’t ride anymore. So whatever the weather and condition of your local trails get out there and practice tonight, and come back tomorrow – hopefully not too bruised – and we’ll let you in on a few secrets of riding after dark.