After a hectic summer of blazing trails in the dust, it’s time to accept the inevitable – a cold and wet winter is either here already or on its way. But that doesn't mean you have to knock riding on the head. Embrace it.
Wind is a training aid, puddles are for soaking your riding buddies and mud gives everyone the chance to pretend they’re a titan like Sam Hill as they battle it out sideways through their local woods. Despite the greyness, the lack of sunshine and the shorter days, we love getting out in it and enjoying empty trails.
Last week we explained the vital techniques you need to steer your bike safely through the slop. This time we're looking at what to wear, how to prep your bike and where to go. Here are our tips for your best winter’s riding yet...
1 What to wear
As Sir Ranulph Fiennes once plainly put it, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” The true British spirit of getting out in the elements shines through in mountain biking and kitting yourself out in proper clothing will make your experience an enjoyable one rather than a misery.
If you can afford it, get yourself a pair of waterproof riding shoes. If you buy a quality pair, they’ll last you several years. Even when you get wet from the socks down, your feet stay warm and comfortable.
Whether you have waterproof shoes or not, SealSkinz socks are simply incredible. They’re totally waterproof and very warm.
Keeping your muscles and joints warm is important in winter. Most off-roaders we know opt for three-quarter tights for most weathers, and will go for full lengths when it gets really cold. There are fleecy options available, and a few brands make completely waterproof tights as well.
Most riders like to wear baggier shorts over the top of Lycra and the best ones for winter riding are waterproof. Endura, Gore, Maloja and Madison all offer excellent choices.
Probably the most essential winter item is a good long sleeve baselayer. They’re worn right next to your skin, so it’s important to find what works for you. Some folk like the warming properties of natural materials such as Merino wool, and others prefer manmade options, including treated polyester.
A well-fitting waterproof jacket is essential. Look for long sleeves, a dropped tail and a high neck. Hoods are useful, but can be a pain if they don’t stow away or aren’t removable. It’s worth looking at softshells too, because they’re now as waterproof as the best hardshells and warm too.
Gilets are another great addition to your riding wardrobe. On warmer days, they can be combined with long sleeve baselayers to keep your core warm, but allow faster cooling of your arms and armpits.
These can be worn as a scarf to keep drafts out and your neck warm. They can also be worn like a bandana, keeping either your ears or whole head warm under your helmet.
Although tinted lenses make certain lighting conditions better, clear lenses are consistent in all lights. Make sure the size of the lens fits your face well, because poorly fitting glasses won’t be able to keep wind or crud out of your eyes.
You need to be able to hold on to the bars, so don’t go for something too clumpy – many winter gloves are guilty of having too much padding on the palms. Look for gloves with windproof backs, because your hands remain static on most rides, and thus get cold quickly.
- Chilly beans: Always have a beanie in your riding pack and put it on as soon as you stop. Don’t cool down ﬁrst – layer up straight away.
- That's handy: Take some latex gloves with you in case things get really cold. They make perfect glove liners.
- Soggy bottom: Take a carrier bag with you to sit on at the pub and then to stash your kit in when you reach your front door.
- Wash off: If you don’t have a hosepipe, wash your muddy kit in the shower before putting it in the washing machine – and clean the filter regularly. Also, wash your bike when it’s still wet, because it’s far easier than allowing dirt to dry on.
- Feet first: Fill some old socks with silica gel and then use them to take the moisture out of your riding shoes, eliminating the damp smell.
2 How to prep your bike
For winter, you want a slightly more open tread pattern than you would for dry weather. See what other riders use, or ask the staff in your local bike shop, for the best choice of tyre in the mud around your area. Experiment with tyre pressures too – it’s worth running lower pressures to get more traction, even if you need to add some extra pressure to get home on roads or towpaths.
Keep your drivetrain as clean as possible and use a quality wet lube. Finer dry and wax-based lubes won’t last long when the conditions are wet.
It’s worth installing some fresh inner cables before winter, with some light oil in the housing to help resist friction. If you ride in wet weather a lot, invest in a sealed cable set, such as those from Goodridge and Gore.
When moisture works its way under your grips, it’s just a matter of time before they slide off. If you use regular grips, wire them on. In an ideal world, you’d look into the many lock-on grips around, though.
There are several mountain bike-specific mudguards available on the market. Note that down tube-mounted guards, such as the well known Crud Catcher, deflect the spray from the front wheel. Meanwhile, other styles of guard catch the spray that flicks out front and back in your face.
Give your hubs some TLC before winter by stripping them down, cleaning and rebuilding them. Use quality grease on the hubs, and a thin oil for the pawls on the end of the cassette body.
Remove your seatpost from your bike and clean the inside of the tube before replacing it, adding a bit of quality grease.
Nature makes a mess of brake pads. If your pads are old, remove and inspect them – replace them before they wear through to the metal. Also, clean your rotors to remove any residue.
- Saddle drop: In severe conditions, try running your saddle an inch lower. This lowers your centre of gravity and makes things easier to control when the going gets sloppy.
- Quick fix: Don’t suffer while ﬁxing a ﬂat when it’s hammering with rain. Buy some CO2 cartridges and use them to get out of the cold and wet quickly.
- Lube up: After wet rides, spray water-displacing lubes, such as WD40 or GT85, into bolt heads and around moving parts to help reduce the chance of rust and seized bike kit.
3 Where to ride
If you live somewhere rocky/gritty like Scotland or the Yorkshire Dales, you can carry on racking up the miles throughout the winter. But if your local trails have been reduced to claggy mud, why not look elsewhere for riding thrills?
The great thing about mountain bikes are that they can be ridden absolutely anywhere. If getting off-road is an issue for you, why not make a route around town instead? There are plenty of parks, towpaths, flights of steps and both heart-pumping climbs and eye-watering descents to be had, and they’re all sitting right on your doorstep.
If you’re into technical riding, trying out one of the many skate parks is a great and fun way of improving your riding in the winter season. Indoor parks are better in bad weather, but concrete outdoor parks are worth checking out if you’re unsure about going along for a session in a pay-to-ride indoor venue.
Trail centres / bike parks
Purpose-built to offer the most fun riding possible whatever the weather, trail centres and bike parks are the winter saviour for off-road razzing. So why not find a decent one that’s within travelling distance. Then you can throw your bike in the back of the car and turn up, knowing that the trail you’re about to hit is perfectly rideable and sure to offer some fun.
Disused quarries are ideal for wet-weather riding, because they’re made predominantly from rock. The lack of mud keeps things a little cleaner and more accessible. Remember that even quarries open to the public are still hazardous places, and should be treated as such. You don’t want to spend the rest of winter out of commission.