Summer may well be a long and distant memory, but a cold and wet winter is no excuse to leave your bike in the shed while your waistline slowly expands. With the right kit, preparation and advice winter riding can be a thrill rather than a chore. Here's what you need to know.
Don't forget to check out our guide to winter mountain biking where we explain the bike handling skills you need to stay rubber side down in this slippy season of slop... but there's no point having perfect technique if you're too cold to function and your bike is falling apart...
1. What to wear
As British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes once plainly put it, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” While that might seem a bit rich coming from a man who has lost a fair few digits to frostbite on his extreme travels, the sentiment is totally accurate. Being warm, dry and comfortable will make a huge difference, both physically and psychologically.
A set of waterproof and/or insulated riding shoes are a very specialist purchase, but your toes will thank you once the temperature plummets and the rain starts coming down. If you invest a bit of money now, they'll last you a very a long time too. Some riders also like to move to flat pedals and matching shoes during the winter, as they allow you to quickly dab in slippery conditions as well as making the inevitable bit of pushing much easier.
Whether you have waterproof shoes or not, a set of waterproof SealSkinz socks are simply incredible. They use a liner to prevent water getting in, which means that splashes from puddles and wheel spray doesn't instantly leave you with cold, wet feet. While water can still get in over the top of the sock, they're still a great weapon to have in your winter riding arsenal.
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. If you want to boost the warmth of a standard set of shorts, then roadie-style knee warmers are a good option too.
Unless you prefer the form fitting shape of unadorned Lycra, most of us prefer baggy shorts. Using a set of waterproof shorts over a padded liner means a drier bum and more comfortable ride. Some models just use a waterproof patch to help fend of wheel spray, leaving the rest of the short more breathable and comfortable.
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 man-made options, including treated polyester. It's worth bearing in mind that while wool tops stay warm when wet, they don't tend to dry as quickly as synthetics.
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 so get cold quickly.
Top tips & hacks for staying warm in winter
- 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. Failing that, use news paper and change it regularly!
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 your bike doesn't have an unbroken outer cable, consider switching to one. Even if you have to zip-tie it to your frame, your shifting will stand much more chance of staying sharp.
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. Lock-on grips are a much better idea though. If you regularly ride in muddy conditions, consider a grip with a pattern that'll still give you traction when it's smeared in muck.
Mudguards / fenders
There are several mountain bike-specific mudguards available on the market. Note that downtube-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, especially those that are fitted to the fork brace. They can be cheap and light too. A rear mudguard isn't as essential as a front one, and you'll usually struggle to make it work well with a full suspension machine.
If you have user serviceable hubs, give them 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. if you have sealed cartridge bearing hubs, look after them not not blasting all the muck out with a pressure washer. They'll thank you in the long run.
Remove your seatpost from your bike and clean the inside of the tube before replacing it, adding a bit of quality grease (or carbon prep paste if you have a composite post) to prevent it becoming seized. If you have a dropper post, make sure you clean the shaft regularly and lubricate the seals with a silicone based spray.
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.
Top tips and hacks for winter mountain bike setup
- 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 and gritty like Scotland or the Yorkshire Dales in the UK or the eastern United States, you can carry on racking up the miles throughout the winter. But if your local trails have been reduced to claggy mud, why not give them a rest instead of cutting them up and look elsewhere for riding thrills?
Purpose-built to offer the most fun riding possible whatever the weather, bike parks are a 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. Most offer uplifts too, so you can save your sweat and take a break before your thrills.
There are more and more trail centres popping up, meaning there's a vast array of great off-road riding of every description, with routes to suit all abilities. Having a nice cafe at the start and finish is a godsend for getting warmed back up too and many also have a bike shop attached, just in case you have forgotten your shoes/jacket/innertubes...