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.
With all that brainwork going on and only a thin layer of leather upholstery and hair keeping it insulated, it’s not suprising your body loses masses of it’s heat through your head.
This means that even if your head doesn’t feel that cold, your body is working harder to re-warm blood before it pumps out to other areas, so covering your bonce is a very smart way to keep your core temperature up.
The problem is that you need to fit this extra insulation under a helmet, which rules out bobble hats and the like. There are still plenty of thin thermal devices that will slide underneath your lid though. Various companies such as Pearl Izumi do specific thermal skull caps, while Buff’s are stretchy thermal tubes in all sorts of colours that fit around head and neck in a startling number of ways to keep you cosy.
Don’t be tempted to use a cotton bandana as it’ll soak up sweat and end up conducting heat faster than your bare head. If it’s really cold then simply taping up the front vents on your helmet stops freezing draughts.
Ears are another potential sore point but again there are several brands of fleece or Windstopper ear warmers available, and the ever useful Buff will also keep the ice from your lugs.
Although not srictly an extremity, your neck carries a lot of blood near the surface, and keeping that warm massively increases your feeling of cosiness. Scarves are generally too cumbersome but a short strip of fleece or a Buff plugged into the gap between your jacket and your head will work winter wonders, though look for high collared jackets in the first place for maximum draught exclusion.
Many a winter ride has been turned miserable by frozen mitts but there’s no need for it to happen. There are countless excellent gloves out there but you don’t need to spend a fortune if you pay attention to a few essential points.
Cramped circulation is the cause of most frozen fingers, so make sure you buy gloves big enough, with no tight spots anywhere. If you’re buying a mid or lightweight set then make sure there’s enough room to slip a thin pair of thermal gloves underneath for extra insulation when needed.
The second point is making sure the cuffs are long enough to overlap your jacket sleeves, so they don’t gap when you reach out on the bars or bar ends. Gloves that need to go round the outside of the jacket are cosy in the wind, but if it rains, water will just run down the jacket arms and into the glove. However if you tuck the sleeves over the glove make sure they can be snugged down enough to stop draughts.
Make sure you check the glove around a grip before you buy it too. Some heavily insulated mitts have too much movement between palm and liner for easy control, while others can bunch up and feel lumpy. Make sure the fingers don’t tighten up when you grip the bar either or they’ll cut circulation. If in doubt over how much cosiness to get, we’d normally plump for bigger and better insulated mitts as you’ll only lose control if your fingers go numb anyway.
Frozen feet are so much a part of winter mountain biking it almost seems cheating to try and keep them free from the misery of frost bite but there are now increasing numbers of new weapons to line up alongside traditional warmth wisdom.
Specific winter boots are now available from several manufacturers. The cost might seem extravagant at first but considering you’ll be riding for about 5 months in them they’ll soon more than pay you back with joyful toe cosiness, thanks to waterproof outers and fleecy woolen liners. North Wave Arctic or Sidi Inverno boots get our vote, unless you can still find a pair of the monster Lake MX winter boots.
Waterproof socks from (Porelle or Sealskins) have been a saviour for many feet but if your circulation is on the sluggish side anyway they offer little thermal help. Make sure you aren’t cramming them into tight shoes which then restrict circulation, and if there’s room slip some thin thermal liner socks underneath – the difference in warmth is phenomenal.
Basic woolly socks are also excellent insualtors even when soggy, and don’t be afraid to go for knee length specials for lovely hot legs.
If you can’t run to a new pair of shoes, and the pair you’ve got are too tight for thick socks then add the protection on the outside. Neoprene overshoes aren’t totally waterproof but they’ll still be warm when wet and they’ll keep your shoes clean too. Make sure you get a pair with cut outs for sole tread, but expect the toes to flip up and fill with mud / snow if you have to walk very far in them.
At the risk of howls of derision from riding mates, walker’s gaiters are also very handy for keeping water off shins and calves if your trails are as flooded as ours at the moment. Try and find a pair with a front hook that will fit onto your lower laces or straps, and make sure they’ve got an instep strap to stop them riding up.
Technique after dark
The main problem of riding at night is visibility. Even with good lights you can only see where they are pointing and as they say, it’s the ones you don’t see that get you.
Like any riding situation where you’re not totally sure what happens next, keep your weight back so the front wheel rides up and over trouble rather than burying itself and lobbing you over the bars. If there’s too much stuff and too little light raise yourself off the bike, keeping your limbs relaxed and ready to react to any slips or slaps the bike takes. It’s also a good idea to run tyres harder than normal as unseen rocks can cause pinch punctures and fixing flats is no fun on dark wet winters nights.
Even if you can see what’s going on low light situations can cause curious problems. Beware dark bushes such as holly which can often look like the trail gap but quickly prove otherwise in a prickly fashion. On the opposite tack beware silver birches that look like the light strip of singletrack on moonlit nights. Or is it just me who’s that stupid.
Watch out for target fixation too. Your lights might be lighting up the trail perfectly but overhanging branches are all too easy to overlook (espescially if you use a peak) which can have truly stunning consequences.
Even if you reckon you know the trail like the back of your hand, lack of light can cause chaos, so always ride well within your daylight limits, we guarantee you’ll still have fun.
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 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.
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.
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