So you’ve had your summer fun. You’ve cruised over hard packed earth at high speed, you’ve gone riding with nothing but shorts, a teeshirt and a pair of sunglasses.
Then suddenly you look outside and Storm Barney is ripping signs off shopping centres, closing roads and blowing sheep sideways down the road. Why should you go out in that?
Well, you probably shouldn’t. But when the wind dies down to less suicidal levels, there is still riding to be had in the winter. Incidentally in this post I am not discussing riding in snow, or any other genuinely extreme weather. That requires skills and gear that would make you more of an expert mountain biker in any case.
Riding in less extreme winter weather, though, can be very fun and very rewarding, and there’s nothing like the sense of achievement and peace when you get back to a hot shower and a warm house soaked to the skin and exhilarated. Don’t let the weather and the temperature put you off!
So what should you expect?
You still have the same choice of natural and manmade trails to ride on. However, this is the time of year to ride mainly manmade trails. Firstly, they’ll be largely better and easier to ride. The surface will stay good even in awful weather (although be aware some trails will still be muddy and wet – just not as muddy and wet as some natural trails), and navigation will be a great deal easier, which really makes a difference in adverse weather. You may have reconciled yourself to getting soaked through in the name of adrenaline, but that soon starts to fade after the first few minutes of standing in a waterlogged field staring blankly at a waterlogged map and trying to match landmarks that you can’t even see through the drizzle. The second reason to ride manmade trails in winter is that they’ll largely be through woodland and therefore a great deal more sheltered than natural bridleways across bleak mountains. Finally, the socially responsible bad mountain biker should be aware that the soft surfaces of natural trails can take some serious damage from bike tyres in wet weather – and so sticking to purpose built trails means less erosion and more rideable (walkable, horseable…) trails in the summer.
This varies according to the conditions, so check the weather forecast before you go and prepare accordingly. It also varies according to you, so have some sense with your planning. If you feel the cold a lot, bear that in mind.
At the very basic level, in good winter conditions, I’ll ride in exactly the same stuff I do in summer, but with a waterproof over the top. The waterproof keeps you dry, keeps the wind off, and gives you an extra layer.
Having said that, worse conditions mean more gear. The ideal here is to get hold of a complete set of winter gear – heavier gloves, base layers for you body and legs, waterproof socks, heavier shoes, trousers or more waterproof shorts, warm mid layers, waterproof jacket. Personally, I can’t afford to buy a whole new set of gear and I don’t intend to let this lack put me off riding in the winter. My light gloves tend to keep my hands warm enough, my shoes are fine with the possible addition of waterproof socks. I still ride in shorts, and only add a base layer under them when the temperature really drops. Again, I generally stick to a teeshirt and waterproof on my body, but there’s no doubt that on longer, colder and wilder rides, it’s worth having warm dry clothing with you (a lightweight fleece in a plastic bag, for example) in case something happens. If you feel the cold more than I do it’s worth layering up a little more. A helmet with a peak is handy in the rain, particularly if you wear glasses.
The essential point is to be aware of the conditions you ride in and how they will affect you and the bike, and plan accordingly.
If you were riding in the summer without taking a phone with you, then firstly stop it. It’s stupid. Secondly, definitely take one in winter, ideally in a waterproof container of some sort. Remember books and maps get wet, so either invest in waterproof versions or keep them in something waterproof and use them sparingly. On all but the shortest rides, take extra stuff. More food, more water, more clothes, more tools. Essentially you want to make sure that an accident is an annoyance rather than a genuine danger.
Have warm dry clothes in your car. Driving for an hour in wet, cold, and muddy clothes is no fun.
Largely, your bike should function fine in winter. However, mud does a lot more damage to things than summer dust does. Clean the bike after each ride and keep an eye on the moving parts. Mud gets in and grinds. Lube stuff up to keep it moving. On long rides it might be worth adding a spare set of brake pads to your gear, since abrasive mud can wear them down to nothing in a couple of hours with heavy use.
Some suspension forks (by which I mean, my suspension forks, and no others that I’ve come across) seize pretty badly in low temperatures. There are fixes for this, such as replacing the oil in the forks with a thinner one for the winter – but honestly that would either be difficult or expensive, and I haven’t done that. Personally I have tried to rectify the issue by never locking my forks in winter. Hopefully this means that rather than having a long climb in the rain to get cold and stop working, the forks will be kept moving enough to generate a little heat and keep them moving smoothly. I think it works. Sort of.
The point is, be prepared for there to be occasional things that stop working properly in inclement weather. Speaking of which…
Things simply work differently when they’re cold. Cold air into hot lungs will make them spasm and you’ll cough and gasp for breath – so try to warm up gently and give those alveoli time to adjust.
Personally, I find that my forearms, legs and feet get very cold. Cold feet is uncomfortable but not too troublesome, but cold legs find the effort of cycling a little too much, and cold forearms can lock your hands up and make braking a bit of a trial. Try to keep your muscles warm while you’re out, and take things a little more easily if you realise that the cold is making your hands a little slow to react. Equally, everything that gets cold or uncomfortable distracts attention and resources away from riding. You are likely to need more concentration in winter to deal with mud, slippery leaves, poor visibility and other adverse conditions, so its worth remaining aware of your body and trying to counter anything that gets too troublesome.
Remember that the conditions around you will have an impact on your energy and mood. If you’re trying to ride through thick mud, you’ll use a great deal more energy to cover the same distance. If it’s raining sideways, now is not the time to try to push your distance record. Be prepared for the person you’re riding with to spend ten minutes standing under a tree and grumbling when it starts to rain. Speaking of which, if you’re riding with other people, try to keep an eye on them as well. A sudden drop in mood or energy can be a warning sign that someone is in need of some warmer clothing or food.
Thanks to Bad Mountain Biker’s resident Good Mountain Biker, for his sage advice on this post.