Category Archives: Technique

Winter Riding

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?

 

The Trails

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.

 

The Gear

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.

 

 

The Bike

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…

 

You

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.

 

 

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Natural vs. Manmade

In mountain bike trails, like in breasts, there are distinct differences between the natural and the manmade.  Some people prefer natural.  Some people prefer manmade.  Some think that variety is a good thing and that their preference varies with mood, or with the time of year or the weather.

Frankly we’ve got to the point where it’s becoming difficult to maintain the boobs simile, so I’ll just talk about mountain biking from now on.

There are key differences between riding natural and riding manmade trails.  Here are a few of them:

 

The bike.

You can, to a certain extent, ride trail centre trails on something that is not technically a mountain bike.  You could ride them on something that looks like a mountain bike but cost you a hundred pounds at Argos, and therefore probably isn’t, and you might well be ok.  Many blue trails you could probably get away with riding on a reasonably rugged hybrid bike.  They might work.  Natural trails, however, might well demand a more hardy steed.  You need to have something that works well, that won’t unexpectedly break.  Ideally it should be well maintained and well set up.

Having said that, this is based on gross generalisations, but the truth is that trail centre riding will always come with a nice helpful sign telling you what to expect – and then everything that you ride will match it.  Out on natural trails you’ll face the infinite variety of bridleways and tracks that cover the country, and could find yourself riding on anything.  The bike should match this.

 

The gear.

As I mentioned in the ‘Essential Kit’ page, I normally consider it fine to ride manmade trails with the minimum of stuff.  So I’ll have the bike (it’s tough without it), shoes (for clipless pedals), gloves, helmet, drink, pump, inner tube, tyre levers, multitool and phone.  These means that basically anything minor that happens to the bike I should be able to sort out.  I know there’ll be escape routes back to the start.  I know that more than likely there will be other riders passing at fairly regular intervals.

Out on the hills, I’d always want to take more stuff.  Quite simply, there’s more that can happen when you’re in a less controlled environment.  You should always take more food, more drink, more inner tubes, more tools, more clothing – warm and waterproof, a good map, ideally a compass, and equally ideally a rudimentary first aid kit, emergency blanket, and whistle.  You never know quite what will happen when you’re riding and given the amount of ground you can cover on a bike, it’s quite possible that if you do seriously injure yourself, no-one would pass by and be able to help.  Take emergency stuff.

 

The terrain.

This to be fair, is sort of the whole point of manmade trails.  You know that what you’ll be riding will generally be a hard manmade surface that should shed water nicely and keep a very good riding surface all year round, in more or less all conditions.  Equally you know that everything that you’re going to ride should be rideable – even if it’s not completely rideable for you.  Hills will all be ultimately doable.  Descents will be attainable.  Features will be conquerable, given a sufficient degree of skill and gumption.

Natural trails are a different proposition.  No-one has looked at them and carefully designed them with you in mind.  That drop that looks unrideable?  Maybe it is.  That climb that looks just plain too steep and loose to get a bike up?  Perhaps it is.  If you’re following a route that’s described in a guide then chances are most of what you want to ride will be find, but it most certainly will not be kept neatly within the confines of a chosen trail grade.  An apparently blue route will suddenly have a bit that would probably be red or even black on its own.  A black route will have a long section that seems surprisingly blue.  The surface, needless to say, will also differ greatly.  A lot of places become a great deal faster and easier to ride in the summer.  Hard packed dirt and rocky descents are great fun.  Then winter rolls around and you try to ride the same places and realise that the hard packed dirt is now hub-deep mud.  It’s a challenge.  It’s a different ride.  The rocky descents are now streams and although still technically rideable are a great deal more slippery and unpredictable than they were a couple of months ago.  You should expect to get wetter and muddier than you would on a manmade trail.

A point that also should be emphasised is that in the autumn, farmers and local councils trim the hedges that border rural roads and bridleways.  This means that where you want to ride is often littered with sharp and thorny sticks that are perfect for ramming thorns straight through your tyres and/or jamming in your spokes and tearing your derailleur off your bike.

 

The time.

Natural trails take longer.  Firstly they are a great deal more unpredictable than manmade trails – so a ride that takes an hour in the summer might take two in winter, when everything’s muddier.  Secondly you have to factor in the navigation component, on trails where it no longer consists of glancing occasionally at a coloured arrow on a post but instead means finding a vantage point and staring at the surrounding landscape with a map in one hand, a guidebook in the other, and your Strava feed in your third hand.  No matter how well a route is described it will always take time to find it.  Equally given the changing nature of natural trails, they can be a great deal more exhausting than manmade trails, and so can involve a corresponding increase in you stops to eat and drink.

 

The expectations.

Quite simply, riding manmade trails and riding natural trails are completely different.  Manmade trails have miles of carefully sculpted singletrack – to the point where you’d feel cheated if at least half of a trail didn’t consist of this.  Natural trails are very different, since they often consist of a huge ride whose purpose is to get you to and from a particularly sweet section of natural singletrack in the middle of nowhere.  As a result you can ride five miles on roads and five on fire roads for two miles of awesome singletrack.  This can feel somewhat frustrating to the habitual trail centre rider.

However, for all the strength of the manmade trails is their careful consideration and planning, this is also their weakness.  As fun as it is, there’s something faintly sterile about trail centre riding.  It’s not a grand adventure.  But looking at a map or even at a guide and finding a trail that turns off a main road that you’ve driven along before and explores those mountains that you’ve always glanced at along the way is exciting in itself.  Reaching the far point on a ride and looking out across the wilderness that you’ve just explored – nay: claimed – on your bike is an intense satisfaction.  The five mile ride on the road and the five mile climb on fireroads suddenly seems a great deal less important when the trees clear and suddenly you see ahead of you the next five miles of beautiful, undulating singletrack, that has been there since people first moved into these hills and has been used by people and animals for centuries – and now you can ride it.

This is, in some inexplicable way, real mountain biking, in a way that trail centre riding – for all it’s merits – is not.

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(Very) Basic Navigation

Much as I’m a fan of trail centre riding, there’s something somewhat limited about it.  It’s like being a musician and only playing cover songs.  It’s fun, it’s a skill in itself, but somehow it’s ultimately a little unsatisfying.  Something about the idea of just getting on a bike and heading out into the middle of nowhere has an immense amount of appeal about it.  This is real mountain biking.  Bike vs. mountain.  The wilderness.  Finding an awesome trail to ride miles from anywhere.

However, riding in places that aren’t heavily signposted brings up the problem of navigation.  Many books and guides give excellent step by step instructions on how to complete a route, and yet it’s quite possible to accidentally wander from these, and it is essential to be able to find yourself again.  You need to know how to read a map, and to have one with you.

The map that you need to have with you is ideally the Ordnance Survey Explorer map (the one with the orange cover) for the area that you want to ride in.  These are at 1:25,000 scale and provide excellent detailed mapping that can help you to locate yourself nicely using landmarks.  Failing that, the Landranger maps (pink covers) will probably do, although these are 1:50,000 and can sometimes be a bit short on detail.

It’s a big colourful bit of paper.

Yes.  Yes it is.  If you look at it with the writing the right way up then North is up the page, South is down, East is right and West is left.

What you can see represented on the map are roads, rights of way, and physical features.

Roads?

They should be pretty clear, they’re the solid coloured things that look like roads.  Main roads pink or green, minor roads are yellow and orange, very minor roads will be white, and motorways are usually blue.  Don’t try and ride on blue roads.  Tracks will show up as parallel dotted lines.

Rights of way?

Legal rights of way (apart from roads) are represented in dark green on Explorer maps and pink on Landrangers.  Short dots are footpaths (don’t ride on them), long dots are bridleways (do ride on them), and widely spaced circular dots are restricted byways (ride on these too).  Be aware that for one reason or another, the legal rights of way do not necessarily match the actual paths.  They should, but they sometimes don’t.

Physical features?

The brown lines are contour lines, and represent areas of the same height.  So a bunch of concentric circles will most likely mean an unnaturally circular hill.  Woods are green.  Lakes and rivers are blue.

 

I’m lost!

Look around you.  What is there to see?  Is there a road that you can see?  Woodland?  A stream or a lake?  You should know the vague area that you should be in on the map, so have a glance at it and see if you can see features that match the terrain around you.  If you have a map of your intended route, see if you can work out where you left the route and how you can get back to it.  Look for junctions that should narrow things down.

Bear in mind that in the UK, the sun is broadly South from you in the middle of the day.  In the morning it’ll be vaguely South East, and in the afternoon it’ll be vaguely South West.  It’s a very broad thing to go with, but in all but the worst weather it can be enough to help you get your map the right way round.

You can also do this much more accurately using the stars, but if you’re navigating by starlight then something has already gone rather wrong – or you’re doing an epic night ride and probably know all this navigation stuff already.

If you are out in the worst weather, you should be prepared.  You should have, among your more comprehensive pack of stuff, a compass.  Use it to align your map and see if you can see the trails through the fog.

If all else fails give up on your trail and make sure you can get home.  In most of the UK you will never be very far from a road (bits of Scotland being the distinct exception to this).  Pick some kind of big feature that you can’t miss.  No idea where you are but there should be a road heading North-South somewhere West of you?  Head West in as straight a line as you can until you find it.  River just to the North that runs down to a road?  Find it and follow it.  Once you’ve got to this stage you’ve essentially given up on your ride anyway, and it will be tough getting back to civilisation, particularly if you’re pushing your bike.  Nevertheless, it’s better than being stuck in the middle of nowhere.

 

If absolutely all else fails ring mountain rescue on 999 or 112.  If you can see absolutely no way of getting off the hills before nightfall, and no way of getting home after dark, or if you’re seriously injured, give them a ring.  It’s what they’re for.  In the UK, if you find yourself in an emergency with no mobile signal at all, use 112.  It uses an emergency satellite network that will connect you regardless of whether your phone has signal.

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The Law

There are legal issues surrounding mountain biking in the UK.  I’m sure there are legal issues surrounding riding elsewhere too, but I’m a fair bit less familiar with them, so I’ll limit my discussion of them to saying: make sure you know what they are before you ride.

 

The bike, and you.

There are certain legal requirements that you and your bike should meet for riding on the road.  Your brakes need to work.  If you’re riding on the road at night, you need to have a white light in front, a red light to the rear, and a red reflector at the back.  Orange pedal reflectors are also a legal requirement, although the law is silent on how one attaches these to clipless pedals.  You can’t ride on pavements, you can’t run red lights, and you can’t ride in a manner that is unsafe – which includes under the influence of drink or other drugs.

There are also a whole pile of things that the Highway Code specifies that you should do (but aren’t actual legal requirements), including wearing a helmet, wearing reflective clothing, keeping your bike in good working order, and not carrying anything that would mess with your balance.

To be honest, before you ride on the road, it’s worth checking out what the Highway Code has to say.  Whether or not you stick to the letter of the law, at least then you’ll know what it is.

Of course, some manufacturers get around the legal stuff about selling bikes (they must have reflectors everywhere and a bell) by attaching a conspicuous sticker to the bike before it’s sold that informs everyone that the bike is ‘for event use only’ and therefore not subject to the same restrictions.

 

Purpose-built trails.

Essentially, these will be more or less exempt from most of the legal issues around riding.  So long as you stick to the waymarked routes, you don’t need lights, you don’t need a bell, you don’t even need to worry about rights of way and with any luck you don’t even need to worry about pedestrians.  Good sense should still rule though, so wear a helmet and appropriate clothing, and keep your bike in good working order.

Equally, some trail centres are governed by bylaws or have their own rules.  Bike Park Wales in particular makes theirs very explicit – you must wear a helmet and so on.  In other places it’s less clear, and less obviously policed, but nonetheless be prepared to face some difficulties if you’re stupid enough to ride without a helmet, or with a knackered bike.

 

Natural trails.

Here, once again, you need to pay attention to the law.  I’m not saying for a second that everyone always sticks to the perfect letter of the law, but again it’s worth knowing.  Equally, in our efforts to make sure that cyclists and mountain bikers are respected as road and trail users, it’s worth being seen to ride considerately and legally.

In England and Wales (and I think also Northern Ireland, but I’d be inclined to check first…) it is not legal to ride on a footpath – these are for pedestrians only.  It is, however, legal to ride on bridleways, restricted byways, green lanes and roads.  These are what make up every natural route you’re likely to ever find directions for.  Bridleways seem to often be broad, stony, and relatively uninteresting tracks, and this is one of the reasons why using routes that other people have planned out is an excellent idea – they’ve done the work of exploring the area and weeding out the tedious or unrideable bridleways, and put together a route of more interesting and better trails.

Incidentally, the rights of way for cyclists don’t change on Access Land.  Stick to bridleways, and quietly envy the walkers who can head out into the trackless wilds.

In Scotland, however, the Right to Roam laws apply to cyclists as well, so it is permissable to ride on paths and tracks pretty much wherever.

Wherever you decide to ride, make sure you do it considerately and safely.  Give way to walkers and horses.  Close gates.  Don’t ride over planted crops or interfere with land management in any way.  Don’t try to ride through logging work.  Have some sense.

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Dynamic Riding

I’m not sure that’s the right word.  I’m not sure that better mountain bikers would recognise what I mean by the title.  Maybe it means something else.  I’m not sure.

What I do know is that one of the key differences between riding to get somewhere and riding for fun is the manner in which you ride.

People who ride only to get somewhere seem to see a bike as a device for moving slightly quicker than walking.  It’s a thing that converts potential energy into kinetic energy, and converts chemical energy into potential energy slightly more efficiently than legs alone.  As such, thinking about cycling itself consists of remembering to get the bike out of the shed and making sure it’s pointing the right way before getting on, sitting down, and setting off.

This, of course, is fine.  It’s all true.

However, people who cycle for the joy of cycling have a tendency to think more about the action of cycling itself.  It becomes something that you do anyway, even when commuting on a bike.  And one of the key differences mentioned above is the use of dynamic cycling.

It is demonstrably possible to ride a bike as if you are a sack of potatoes with legs.  You sit on the saddle, pedal, steer, and eventually the bike will get you where you were going.  Tackling harder routes and surfaces, and wanting your ride to be exciting and fun, means that you need to ride differently.  Dynamic riding can, perhaps, be broken down into three categories of things to consider.

Part one: the bike.  This is arguably only a little to do with riding, but means that you need to consider the bike itself.  Choose one that does what you want it to.  Maintain it properly.  Set it up correctly.  When actually riding, this consists of using the gears (as discussed on the ‘basic techniques’ and ‘gears’ pages) to alter the way the bike behaves on changing terrain.  Anticipate changes.  Read the trail ahead and change gear accordingly.

Part two: weight.  If you don’t mind me saying so, you weigh a lot.  A lot more than the bike, assuming that you’re not riding either a heavy downhill rig or a cast iron relic.  However, far from being a problem, this weight is helpful, because once you are in your ‘standing up for fun’ position (as opposed to ‘sitting down for work’) your weight is firstly suspended on the natural suspension of your arms and legs, and secondly exceptionally mobile.  Shifting your weight is an invaluable thing to do when riding.  Shift your weight back when braking, or when a trail feature causes you to slow down suddenly.  When approaching drops or jumps, shifting your weight back and off the front wheel will allow it to float over the features and allow your back wheel to follow through.  You don’t even need to go to the effort of trying to hold the front wheel up, simply moving your weight away from it will do the trick.  Keeping your weight balanced between the wheels when standing up to climb will keep traction on your back wheel – without which you just slip, stall, and put your foot down.  A dubious line can be made easier to ride by keeping your weight heading in a straight line while you flick the wheels of the bike to one side onto solid ground.  Slippery surfaces that slant to one side can sometimes be ridden by leaning the bike away from the slope and keeping your weight above the wheels.

In short, experimenting with actively moving your weight around the bike will provide you with an incredible toolkit that will solve some teething issues and provide ways of riding things that you thought impossible.  It also, perhaps more importantly, helps to give you the feeling that it is your control and skill that got you through whatever difficult section you’ve ridden.  It makes it a great deal more fun.

Part three: pumping it.  In short: use your arms.  In medium: use your arms and legs.  In long: as has been mentioned your own weight is by far the most significant lump of mass on the bike, and so to get the most efficient use out of the energy that you’ve put into the ride, you need to be able to manage where it goes.  Freewheeling down a rolling section of singletrack and blithely ignoring what’s happening underneath you will mean that every rise robs you of speed until you slow to a crawl, every dip will be another sudden acceleration, and every corner will be a surprise.  Pumping the trail is a little difficult to describe in general terms, but the basic idea is that you use your arms and legs to get the most out of each change in the trail.  With each small rise you compress your arms and legs, allowing the bike to rise under you and part lifting it up the slope.  As the trail drops again, straightening your arms and legs will give the bike and extra kick of speed.

That is the essence of pumping the trail.  More advanced stuff will talk about manuals (or ‘wheelies’ as most of us called them before reading mountain biking magazines), and any number of other things, but these are rather beyond me.  Essentially the point is that reading the trail and learning to react to it will make your riding better, more efficient, and more fun.

 

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Climbing

Ah, climbing.  Let’s face it, this is the reason why a lot of people don’t ride much.  As much as the appeal of flying down long downhills or weaving through some complex singletrack might draw you out onto the hills, the idea of climbing the hills to begin with puts people off.  Perhaps it shouldn’t.

 

Alternatives to climbing:

Option one: Choose your routes.  Sometimes you can mountain bike without much in the way of serious climbing.  Some manmade trails are made largely on the flat, and it’s possible to find natural riding that is as well.  Problem solved!  The difficulty here is that it also means you miss out on all the headlong downhills, the swooping berms, the speed that can mean you get (occasionally unintentional) air, and in short you lose a huge amount of the fun of mountain biking.  You also lose a lot of the benefits, as it is the sustained effort of climbing that will do the most to improve your stamina and fitness.

Option two: Pedals vs. feet.  You could simply walk the climbs.  Sometimes this is absolutely necessary, as there are occasionally sections of trail that just get too steep, too loose, or otherwise too technical to ride, so a hundred yards of walking is completely necessary.  Even Danny MacAskill walked up onto bits of the Cuillins, and he’s a god among mountain bikers.  However, let’s say your average manmade mountain bike trail is twenty miles long.  Typically that means ten miles of climb.  Maybe that’s an hour and a half on a bike, perhaps more, but on foot and dragging a bike it’s more like four hours of walking.  Wet, cold, tedious, uninspiring walking that will completely put paid to any wish to go out riding again.

Option three: Uplift.  A potentially more viable option is to take advantage of uplift services where they are available.  You load your bike onto a trailer, load yourself onto a minibus, and get driven to the top of your chosen trail in comfort and warmth.  Lovely.  Bike Park Wales has uplift as an integral part of their model, and indeed the vast majority of riders take advantage of it.  Cwmcarn offers uplift services as well.  However, there are distinct disadvantages to this.  Firstly, you lose out on the fitness and stamina benefits of completing a grueling climb.  Secondly, it’s expensive.  To get a day pass for uplift at Bike Park Wales is £30 or so, which is more than I typically want to spend for a days riding.  They do single use passes as well, but even that will quickly become expensive.  Thirdly, and perhaps most controversially, I personally find that the idea somewhat cheapens the mountain biking experience.  Much as I’m panting for breath and cursing halfway up a climb, there is a huge sense of achievement in reaching the top under your own steam.  You pause for a breath and a drink, you take in the views that you’ve slogged upwards for hours to see, and then when your legs have stopped shaking you clip back into the pedals and turn your bike to the section of singletrack that you’ve been dreaming about.  It will be all the more satisfying because you’ve earned it.

Fine, there’s hills on my trail, there’s no uplift, and I don’t want to walk.  How’s this done then?

I am not claiming it will be easy.  The first few climbs will be painful, exhausting, breathless, unpleasant trials.  The first thing to note is that the more you ride, the easier it gets.  Ride the same trail again after a few rides and you’ll be amazed at how comparatively easy the climb is.  You’ll pass all the places you stopped to gasp for breath last time and wonder why you felt you had to stop there – because this time you feel fine.  Stick with it.

I’m on a road!  If you see a climb ahead, change down through the gears and sit down.  Generally speaking, ignore the temptation to stand up and stamp down on the pedals – this only makes it more exhausting in the long run, since you’re having to throw your body weight around as well as the bike.  Again, sitting down to climb gets a lot easier as you get stronger, but it’s definitely worth it.  Taking a more passive approach to climbing leaves you more able to quietly daydream away long sections of monotonous but necessary climbing.  In terms of gears, you should find one where there isn’t too much resistance to you pushing the pedals round, but equally you’re moving forward at a reasonable rate.  A good compromise in gearing will result in a pace that you can maintain for a good long time, and will mean that the climb falls away behind you surprisingly fast.  There’s no denying that it’s more difficult when your muscles are cold, and when you’re tired.

I’m on a smooth track!  Basically the same as above.  Sit down, change down, slog it out.

I’m on a horse!  Silly.  Get a bike.

There’s a sudden steep bit!  Saying sit down to climb doesn’t mean you have to stay glued to the saddle.  If something’s unmanageable, stand up and give it some more welly.  In the long run it’s more exhausting, but for short bursts it provides more power and control.  Sit down again once it’s over.  It may also be worth shifting up a gear at this point, as the perfect gear for slogging out a climb may be a bit low for standing up.

There’s a sudden loose and rocky bit!  Stand up, pay attention.  Keep your weight nice and balanced over the bike – resist the temptation to lean forward as this will leave your back wheel with little or no grip.  Pick a line and ride through.  Frankly, if it gets too difficult, walk it.  No-one’s judging you.

I’m on singletrack!  This is where the advice runs out and immediate experience has to tell you what to do.  Read the trail ahead and ride accordingly.  Smooth, gentle climb?  Sit down and pedal.  Steep, rooty bit?  Stand up and ride it.  Up and down section that looks like fun?  Stand up and enjoy it – don’t bypass the fun of good sections of trail by categorising them as climbing.  There are some excellent climbing sections to be had on some trails, and they’re well worth enjoying for themselves, not just for the downhill bits they eventually lead to.

There’s a dip!  Well, great, what are you whining about?  Freewheel for small dips, and adjust your riding for big ones.  Change up as you come over the crest of the hill and down as you reach the bottom of the dip.  Try to get some speed up that will help you up the start of the next bit of climbing.  Try not to let your gear changes lose your momentum.

One thing that I find helps is to know where I am on the trail.  Often on manmade trails in the UK, the climb is mostly on fireroad and the downhill is mostly on singletrack.  So if you note where the balance changes on the map, that’s likely the end of the climb.  Once there, it’s all fun.  Get there, enjoy the satisfaction of the ache in your legs and the fact that you’ve made it.  Have a drink, have a breather, get to the more fun bits.

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Gears

If you’ve read the ‘basic techniques’ page, you know that I’ve covered the basics of dealing with gears there.  Here it is in more detail.

Shifters: The things on the handlebars that you use to change gear are called shifters.  There are various different types of these, but they all work in generally the same way.  They control the tension on cables that control the gears themselves.  Generally they work either by twisting something that is wrapped around the handlebars, or by using the forefinger and thumb.  The shifter on the left hand grip controls the chainrings, and the shifter on the right controls the sprockets.

Derailleurs: At the other end of the gear cable is the derailleur.  Both front and back derailleurs are mechanisms that guide the chain onto a new ring.  Once the cable is tensioned correctly and the indexing screws adjusted the chain should shift cleanly onto each ring and run on it easily.  The derailleurs are balanced between springs and the tension in the gear cable, as controlled by the shifters.

Chainset: The set of chainrings – often three of them – mounted between the right pedal crank and the bottom bracket.  These are controlled by the left shifter, and are really for broad strokes.  The higher chainring is for high speed.  The lower chainring will be for power, like when you’re going steeply uphill.  The middle one is for everything else.  See below.

Sprockets or cassette: These are the set of sprockets mounted on the rear hub.  These are, broadly speaking, for fine tuning, although you’ll find you generally shift two or three at a time, as moving one gear is often too subtle to handle a change in terrain.

Chain line: Much as a bike will be described as having twenty-seven gears when it has nine sprockets and three chainrings, this is not strictly true in terms of usable gears.  On the middle chain ring, you can use all the sprockets.  On the others, however, the chain will only reach just over half of the sprockets without slipping out of gear and eventually damaging itself, the sprockets and the derailleur.  So on the higher chainring, you should only use the higher half of the sprockets, and on the lower chainring you should only use the lower half of the sprockets.  The way the gearing on a mountain bike is set up, however, the higher end of one chainring’s range will feel much like the lower end of the next, so the ‘lost’ gears are not missed.  For example 1-5 and 2-1 will feel similar, as will 2-9 and 3-5.

Anticip…

For the chain to switch onto a new gear, you need the chain to be moving forwards, so you need to be pedaling.  However, changing gear with the chain under heavy strain will cause problems.  The chain will not shift cleanly but will grind on the gears, and sooner or later this will damage the chain, the gears, the derailleurs, or all of them.

…pation:

So the solution is to anticipate changes in the terrain.  Changing up for speed is less of an important difficulty, because changing late will still work smoothly, but you’ll lose a few moments of speed or control.  It is still better to anticipate, just in order to get the most out of the ride.  Changing down to climb is much more important.  Failing to do so will mean a massive effort to ride, grinding the gears horribly, or possibly stalling completely.  So read the trail ahead of you.  If you see a climb approaching, build up some speed, change down in enough time that the chain has space to move before you start to climb, and then pick up the pedaling as your speed starts to drop on the hill.

If you should find yourself in a position where you’re in completely the wrong gear for the hill you’re trying to climb – if you grind to a stop and can’t see how to get going again – then lift the back wheel of the bike off the ground, switch down a few gears (normally three sprockets at a time will work ok) and turn the pedals with a hand or a foot until the chain moves.

A final point on gears: For all that mountain bikes have a huge number of gears, you might well not need all of them.  Personally, I only use the middle chainring – at all times.  The higher sprockets are plenty to give enough speed to propel the bike at speed down singletrack fun, and the lower have enough power to get me up the vast majority of climbs.  Given the tension on the chain, it is easier to change the rear gears than the front, and so remaining on only one chainring makes a great deal of sense.  However, don’t take my word for it.  Ride more, experiment with gears, and find what suits you, in terms of which gears suit your riding and are most economical to change to.

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Challenge vs. Fun

If you’re like me (and it has been pointed out that this entire guide is based on the assumption that you are, indeed, like me) then you get a lot of other, better mountain bikers telling you what you ‘should’ do.  You shouldn’t ride blue graded routes.  You shouldn’t use flat pedals.  You shouldn’t use clipless pedals.  You should ride this dropoff.  You should ride this jump.  You should ride this trail.  You should get a better bike.  You should ride faster.

This is all very well.  Sometimes it’s good advice.  Sometimes it’s got good solid reasons behind it.  Sometimes it’s absurd.  If I try to ride something that a better mountain biker finds great at speed, chances are I’ll lose control and injure myself.  If I ride a technical feature that I’m not sure of, I’ll take it badly, fall off and injure myself.  If I ride much much further than I have before I’ll exhaust myself, begin to make mistakes, and injure myself.  If I get a better bike I won’t ride any better, it won’t be any easier, and I’ll (financially) injure myself.

One of the key things here is why we ride, and to a certain extent it’s a good idea to have a good clear grasp on your main motivation for riding quite early on.  It changes the decisions that you need to make.

If you’re mostly riding to get fit, then it’s best to push through tiredness, to set personal challenges, to increase speed and distance.  Consider buying gadgets to monitor not just your route, time, speed and so on, but also your heart rate, breathing and anything else relevant.

If you’re mostly riding with a view to getting very much better, then pushing yourself to ride more and more technical challenges would be great.  You should see rock gardens and look for the perfect line through them.  You should see dropoffs and back off up the track to take them perfectly.  Similarly with jumps.  You should try to ride every surface imaginable, and master technique.  You should buy progressively better gear, and look into the best bike, the best components, the best helmet, the best gloves, the best shoes, the best clothes for the task.

Personally, I ride for fun.  I’d like to get gradually better, but I’m ok if that progress is slow.  What I’m looking for in the trails is something that’s a little bit challenging but is that I can ride.  This is why I like to ride a combination of blue and red routes.  Blue routes typically are not terribly challenging, but are generally an absolute blast to ride at speed.  Importantly, they don’t generally feel like they’re going out of their way to try to kill you.  However, they are ultimately unsatisfying.  I get to the end of them feeling that I haven’t achieved anything at all.  My legs don’t ache for the next day or so.  Red routes, on the other hand, are generally a challenge.  Normally I’ll find at least one bit that I don’t think I can ride, and plenty that’s a bit tricky for me.  However, I come away from them feeling a little bit pushed.  I know there’s work to be done, and that next time I ride the route I’ll see if I can ride more of it, or do the tricky bits better.  But to tell me that I shouldn’t ride blue routes is like telling me that I shouldn’t have fun mountain biking.  Perhaps it’s a guilty secret, but I sometimes ride green routes too.  I enjoy them.  I wouldn’t want to stop there, but they’re fun for what they are.

The important thing here is – ride for yourself.  There’s no doubt that riding with a better or more experienced rider occasionally is distinctly helpful, but don’t let anyone else’s opinion of what you want to ride affect you too much.  One of the beauties of mountain biking is that you can do it at your own pace, at your own level.

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Commitment issues

After a little experience, you start to realise that one o the keys to progress on a mountain bike is commitment.

Confidence is a problem.  As a self confessed bad mountain biker, you might find that as you see a trail feature (or ‘rock’ as we generally called them before starting mountain biking) that looks a tad intimidating, you’re more than likely to slow to a crawl or even a stop to have a look at it.  Now that’s all well and good for a second, if you’re going to go back and then ride it properly.  However, as a way to ride the obstacles it’s not always the best way.

Jumps will react much better at speed, where it should be relatively easy to take your weight off the handlebars and drift easily over, as opposed to being jolted seven ways to sundown as the bike seems to buck uncontrollably underneath you.  The worst is braking sharply immediately before a jump, which causes your weight to be all wrong and more than likely make you stall on the ramp.

Drop offs are a feature where this particularly applies.  Take them slowly and you’ll nose in down the drop, you forks will compress and you’ll sail over the handlebars in a dignified yet undeniably violent fashion.  A little commitment and speed allows you to keep the nose up just long enough that even if you still don’t ride the drop ‘properly’ at least you land somewhere closer to the horizontal and have less chance of losing teeth.

Rock rolls have a similar issue.  Take them hesitantly and your natural fear at being face down over a slab of rock will make you jam on the brakes, lock the back wheel, and sacrifice all control.  A little more speed, a little more commitment, and things will go a lot smoother.

That said, it’s not a wise idea to ride big features completely blind.  If it’s a new trail to you and you can’t see what’s ahead, have a look.  You’re riding for fun, after all, who cares if you back off down the track a few yards to have a proper go at it?  There’s no doubt that taking mountain bike trails at speed and doing your best to commit to any interesting bits makes the experience of riding a great deal more satisfying and, not to put too fine a point on it, fun.

There’s a frustration all it’s own to driving home after a ride and knowing that you’ve chosen not to ride a section that you keep promising yourself you will next time.

Well, next time I’ll do it.

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Pedals

A pedal is not just a pedal.

There’s right pedals, and there’s left pedals.

That was a joke, but now I come to think of it, if you do change your own pedals be aware that they are indeed different from each other, and one of them is reverse threaded.  This is for the obvious reason that it means you don’t slowly unscrew the pedal from the crank as you ride.

There are (aside from the left/right distinction) three broad types of pedals.

Flats: These are the pedals that you’ve been using since you were knee high to a grasshopper.  They’re basically a shelf attached to each crank.  They have their advantages.  For casual cycling, they’re great.  They don’t need any special footwear.  They’re cheap.  If you want to trick it up on a BMX, they’re perfect.  Some people greatly prefer them for everything, including mountain biking.  It’s recommended that you ride on them at least for a while, in order to learn how to properly control the bike.  However, from my point of view as a bad mountain biker, they have certain distinct disadvantages.  Much as I have at times done my best to ride with both wheels firmly attached to the ground, occasionally an unexpected jump coupled with enthusiasm on my part result in being suddenly airborne.  What happens next is the bike drops faster than I do, and I have a couple of seconds wondering what will happen next.  Likely scenario: at the least a bruised perinaeum and barked shins.  There’s a slim possibility of regaining control of the bike before you hit the ground, and there’s equally a possibility of doing more damage.  There are other disadvantages to flat pedals, but this was the most notable one for me.

If going for flat pedals, it is definitely worth getting some that are reasonably grippy to your shoes.  Otherwise when your feet get wet they start to slide on the pedals, and you lose control, power and balance.

Toeclips: One possible solution is the toeclip – basically a plastic thing that bolts to the front of what is basically a normal pedal and then is held to the rest of the pedal with a tensioned strap.  Although these solved some of the problems, they hung upside down and are considered to be broadly unsafe because if the strap jams as you come off you end up with both feet still attached to the bike.  They have largely disappeared from mountain biking, but can still be found if you want them.  Again, no special footwear is required, although the pedals tend to have teeth that wreck your soles and the strap tends to tear off any uneven bits on the sides of your shoes.

Clipless pedals: The pedals are smaller than flats, and have metal pincers at both ends, and on both sides.  You have to have special shoes to go with them, that have metals cleats bolted into the soles.  When getting on your bike, you kick the cleat into the pedal and it attaches you firmly to the bike.  It sounds awkward and dangerous, but the pedals are simple to release with a movement of your foot, and tend to release automatically when under heavy stress (like falling off) in any case.

You feel the benefits immediately.  Climbing is much easier than before, since you now pull slightly on the upstroke as well as pushing on the downstroke.  You can control the bike much easier at all times, not losing power as you slip on the pedals.  It forces your feet into the correct pedaling position, with the pedal under the ball of your foot.  Should you unexpectedly find yourself in the air, you won’t lose the bike.  Whatever happens to it will also happen to you, for better or worse.

The downsides are the expense, since you need both complex pedals and shoes.  There’s more to go wrong, although in my experience this isn’t too much of a problem.  The motions to get in and out of the pedals take a great deal of practise to get right, and you will in the early days have times when you very very slowly fall over on your right, because your balance is wrong and you can’t work out how to get your right foot out in time.

It is, at the end of the day, a personal choice which pedals to use.  I find clipless pedals help.  Other people swear by flats.  Some still prefer toeclips, for some reason.

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