Winter's here and the trails have turned from grippy hardpack to slippery mud. Roots and rocks slime up and dips ﬁll with water, sludge and hidden rocks.
Believe it or not, this is the perfect time of year to tune up your riding skills. The other solution – packing your bike into the shed until summer returns – will leave you missing out on miles of fun and the best-ever chance to hone your bike handling prowess.
We'll look at the main challenges that face the winter mountain biker, and give you solid advice on how to step up your skills to match the conditions. It’s also about getting real thrills out of the new ways you can ride and slide.
The most challenging problem is the lack of traction caused by so much water being around. If you work through the advice here and master your trails when they’re slippery, by next summer you’ll be able to hit new speeds, pushing your bike and yourself even harder.
The narrow twists and turns of a singletrack trail can throw rider and bike into all kinds of situations with almost no warning. You have limited line choice and can’t avoid mud, wet roots or rocks, so you need to have bike, body and brain set-up and ready.
As you speed up it’s easy to let your vision drift onto the trail immediately in front of you, but you need to focus ahead. Driver training talks about looking for the point of convergence – where the road disappears out of view – and the same applies here. Keep lifting your eyes to that point even if you need to scan down now and again.
Taking control of your thoughts is harder but just as important. Many riders hold their breath and tense up on slippery terrain. As such, they don’t ﬂex their bodies to absorb bumps and end up sliding around even more. Self-talk is a powerful tool, so use it. Tell yourself to breathe, look ahead and relax, or create your own mantra for the things you need to do.
On wet singletrack you should be standing up, centred and loose, with cranks level, heels dipped and legs wide like John Wayne. It’s tempting to grip the saddle with your thighs to stabilise the bike but each little movement will upset your balance. You need to be able to lean the bike quickly from side to side to make turns, looking for ruts or sloping trail edges to act as berms wherever possible.
Follow these tips to stay confident and, more importantly, upright in the wet:
1. Stay down, relaxed and ready to pump the bike for speed on the downslopes. Good ﬂex in the arms and legs helps absorb every bump and ensures that the wheels stay in contact with the contours of the trail. When getting your weight low, it’s tempting to move back, losing traction on the front wheel. If you have this problem, try getting a friend to observe your body position or video you on a section of trail so you can see where you're going wrong.
2. When you’re moving at speed it’s vital to keep looking as far ahead as possible. Copy the Formula 1 drivers and focus right ahead down the track, letting your peripheral vision do the rest. You also need to keep your heels down, ready to absorb any shocks through the feet rather than the bars. This keeps pressure off the hands and wrists, eliminating neck and shoulder pain – an added advantage.
3. A ﬂexible body and bow legs let the bike move under you smoothly without upsetting your balance. You can then lean the bike but not your body into turns for maximum grip.
Fast riding on slippery singletrack is all about staying smooth to keep the bike gripped to the trail. Being low and open to movement in all directions is the starting point.
Focusing ahead lets you plan, while having your heels down and weight balanced means you can absorb bumps and pump those manuals with speed and style if an obstacle needs to be cleared.
Dealing with descents
The body position for descending and singletrack riding is similar. Dipping your heels on downhills allows you to use the front brake more aggressively rather than sliding the back wheel down the trail, locked up and ineffective.
If you’re feeling pushed forwards into the handlebar when you brake, your feet are too ﬂat and your ability to steer and control the bike is being compromised. To stay ﬂexed, think about keeping your shoulders lower to the bar than normal, which will bend your elbows and push your hips back at the same time.
Think about the line your bike takes as it moves down the trail. Head for areas of traction but don’t make sharp turns – it’s better to straight-line the bike over a slippery pile of rocks than try to avoid them with a desperate twist of the bars.
Shifting weight back and forward is another key skill. You need enough pressure on the front tyre to grip when you turn, but be ready to shift your weight back quickly to allow the wheel to ﬂoat over thick mud or chunky rocks and roots that can throw you off.
The ﬁnal step is to ﬁgure out what you need to be thinking. Again, talk to yourself. If you have a mantra like ‘Dip heels, look ahead, stay low’ it will help you focus.
Roots, bloody roots
The common advice for riding roots is to hit them as straight as possible. That’s a start, and for a single root it works pretty well, but trees aren’t usually like that. When you see a jumble of roots ahead of you there are all kinds of line choice decisions that need to be taken, and looking for a direct way in isn’t always going to give you the best way out.
If you can manual the front wheel up over the ﬁrst root or two then their position doesn’t matter. You’ll need to be looking further into the cluster to see what you’ll hit and which way it will send you. If you can see a patch of ﬁrm ground anywhere, decide quickly if you can make a turn or have enough grip for a pumped manual that’ll get your front wheel airborne again.
Don’t be tempted to shift your weight back – it’s better to be central on the bike, lifting the front wheel over anything big while preventing the back wheel acting like a heavy anchor as it slams into roots with all your weight on it. Shifting your body back and forth can smooth the ride out as you cross multiple bumps. As with descending, your mental approach is vital – if you tense up you’ll fail to absorb the impacts, so think about ﬂexibility and ﬂow.
Big knots of slippery roots can be daunting, but not if you follow these tips:
1. Lifting the front wheel clear of a root just needs a small wheelie or manual. Get the wheel back down to steer and shift the weight forwards again.
2. Keep your weight centred to ensure the back wheel doesn’t stall as it hits a slippery surface. Loose arms and legs also reduce the chance of a slip.
3. Level out your cranks for bigger roots to avoid pedal strikes. Be prepared to ratchet a quick stroke to get you over safely.
Cornering in the winter is all about being smooth. Any sudden twist on the bars or dab of the brakes can send the bike into a skid. It’s also important to think about the contact patch between tyre and trail.
As soon as the bike leans over you go from a short, fat contact area to a longer, thinner one, with the chunky, angled side lugs of the tyre biting into the ground. Even at low speeds it’s vital to get the bike leaning over, letting it move between your wide legs as your bodyweight moves onto the outside foot.
If you twist your hips, shoulders and vision lines when you come through a turn and let them lead the bike around, you’ll feel everything happening more smoothly. Dropping your outside foot and avoiding touching the brakes during the turn will also help.
As with singletrack riding, you need to look for trail edges, ruts, rocks or roots that form natural berms and will help you turn. You can even oversteer slightly in thick mud, drive a wedge of crud up in front of your tyre and push off it to complete your turn.
It’s not the fastest approach, but front wheel skid turns are only possible in these conditions and they’re great fun. Just be aware of other riders and don’t tear up good paths. Back wheel skid turns are also possible with a ﬁrm bit of braking and a twist of the hips. It’s not always fast but it can be rewarding.
Follow these tips to get round those turns without losing traction:
1. Lean the bike but not your body as you transfer your weight down to the outside foot. This will keep the pressure straight down onto the tyres and reduce the risk of slipping out as you come round the turn.
2. When entering a corner at speed be sure to do your braking before you start to lean the bike or turn the bars. You can then drop the outside foot, keep your weight in the centre and push the bike smoothly into the corner. If you brake at this point there’s a good chance the back wheel will lock up and slide around behind you. Avoid the front brake once you’ve gone into the turn, except in real emergencies.
3. Even a gentle berm or rut can help guide the bike round a slippery turn, making it more stable and easier for you to keep your speed as you rail round. Plant your tyre in the middle of the line.
Cornering on slippery trails is great fun and a fantastic challenge because it highlights where your riding style is jerky or too aggressive, rewarding you with a slide onto your backside. Leaning the bike creates a much better line of tyre grip. Combine this with picking a good line, using natural berms if possible, and you should begin to ﬂow more quickly.
Sending spray into the air as you tear into a huge puddle is one way to get a kick out of winter riding, especially if one of your mates is trying to potter through without getting wet.
Your body needs to be positioned to absorb two big hits – the ﬁrst is the water as you suddenly slow down, the second the huge rock that may or may not be hiding in the depths.
As you prepare for contact, shift your weight back, stop pedalling and raise your bum off the saddle. Meanwhile, level your cranks, drop your heels and make sure your legs and arms are bent.
If you want you can pump the front wheel forwards just before you hit – this manual should lift it gently into the air so your back wheel hits the water while your front one lands safely on the other side.
By ensuring that your body position is good you’re increasing the chance that, if you hit a rock, your front wheel will rise over it rather than dig into it. But there’s always a risk that something big is lying in wait beneath the surface, so be prepared for a thorough soaking if your bold approach ends up being beaten by a boulder.
Use these simple techniques and you'll take to puddles like a duck to water:
1. Keep your body loose and your weight back to absorb the impact of any big rocks under the surface – you never know what’s waiting for you!
2. Your rear wheel will strike the water ﬁrst, so keep your heels down and cranks level to avoid shocks. You might just exit with dry feet if it’s shallow.
3. Float the front wheel over the ﬁrst half of the puddle with a smooth pumped manual. Keep your weight back afterwards so you come down gently.
Climb like a goat
All the summer techniques for climbing still apply in the winter – dipping your chest, sliding to the front of the saddle, tucking your elbows in and pulling down on the bars to brace the bike against the thrust on the pedals. But now trails are slippery we need to focus more on ﬁnding and keeping traction.
Climbing wet tracks means focusing on rear wheel placing. Normally you point the front wheel where you want the bike to go, but as you twist up a technical climb it’s vital that you consider the position of the back wheel as it drives you forwards.
On hairpins or twisting sections of trail you also need to think about the line the back wheel is taking, even if it means sweeping the front end wide to hit the right spot for maximum rear wheel grip.
When you do ﬁnd a bit of decent trail you need to manage your power to make sure you don’t spin out or wheelie. A good cadence of 70-90rpm combined with a smooth application of power as you push forwards and then down, sweep back and pull up will prevent any power surges that create wheel spins and stop the climb dead. Think about spinning in smooth, even circles and gliding up the climbs.
Tips for maintaining traction and control on slippery climbs:
1. Select an easy or moderate gear so you can apply power smoothly with no potato mashing on the pedals that could cause you to spin out and then stall.
2. Pulling back and down on the bars gives the bike real directional stability and creates an upper body tension you can push against as you drive the pedals.
3. Plant yourself on the nose of the saddle to keep pressure on the back tyre for grip but weight on the front for steering. Slide to add balance or grip as needed.
Riding from a regular trail surface into thick mud is like slamming on the brakes as your tyres connect with a bed of superglue. Prepare your body for the impact and, at the same time, set your gears up for the ‘climb’ out.
When you’re about to hit the mud get your heels down, body off the saddle but loose and low, and weight moved back a little. You need to shift into a gear that’s easy enough to spin in after you’ve lost speed – try and grind a big gear through the mud and the uneven power will result in wheel spins followed by a grinding halt.
To get through thick crud you need to ﬁnd enough grip to keep you going forwards. Try sitting back heavily on the saddle and bouncing on each pedal stroke. It’s also important to keep your steering light, allowing the front wheel to ﬁnd its own way to some extent, rather than ﬁghting it and ending up digging it in.
Picking a line through a thick muddy section can be hard and it’s tempting to stay at the edges. But environmentalists warn that this keeps extending the puddle outwards. If you’re wrapped up and want to avoid off-camber surfaces then just plough through the middle.
Be prepared for sludge by mastering these techniques:
1. Be bold! Maintain speed and keep your weight back, toes pointing upwards and ready to lift the front wheel, and you’ll stand a good chance of clearing even the worst sections. Be prepared to dab a foot if you misjudge it.
2. When the back tyre gets bogged down be ready to bounce ﬁ rmly onto the saddle as you pedal, helping the tyre to search for grip in the bottom of the quagmire and keeping you moving slowly forwards.
Getting through a river or stream in winter is satisfying but risky. Before you even attempt it just think about how far away you are from a warm place and how prepared you are to protect yourself from hypothermia should the worst happen and you get soaked from head to toe.
If you’re going for it, make sure you pick your line through to the exit before you hit the water. Scan for obstacles and estimate the gear you’ll need in the middle or end section. Make sure you shift early. Your bike will slide off stones and rocks, usually without warning, so be ready to stand or hover over the saddle quickly – this puts your weight through the bottom bracket rather than the saddle and makes a big improvement to bike stability.
Keeping a smooth pedal stroke while standing is important, but so is maintaining a trackstand. When that moment comes and the bike stalls, it’s your ability to stay upright even at really low speeds – giving you time to think and look ahead – and accelerate or wheelie out of trouble that will keep you dry.
Just be sure that all your valuables, phone, camera and spare clothes are in a dry bag. You can then ride with greater conﬁdence.
Water crossings aren't for the faint-hearted but these tips will help you avoid getting wet:
1. Get right back behind the saddle and keep your heels down, ready for whatever lies beneath. Stay ﬂ exed and loose, ready for the underlying rocks.
2. Have the front wheel light and even manual it into the water or over rocks so you don’t stall. Transferring your weight back will help with a lighter landing.
What to expect in part 2...
In part 2 of our Complete Guide to Winter Mountain Biking we'll cover what to wear, how to prep your bike and where to ride, along with some top tips picked up over the years.