If you’re going out for a winter ride, you’re going to get dirty - driving rain, slippery roads and poor visibility. But rather than battling the grime, embrace it and improve your cycling skills with a little rough-stuff riding.
Get off-road and you don’t have to worry about drivers not seeing you, or scrubbing out on a greasy corner into oncoming trafﬁc. Test and improve your ﬁtness and bike handling by seeking out the gloop, getting on your cyclo-cross or mountain bike and hitting the trails.
1. Cyclo-cross promotes silky smooth pedalling
In a study on efﬁcient pedalling technique, mountain bikers came out on top of all types of cyclist.
This is because on loose or slippery surfaces the power going to the back wheel has to be consistent or you’ll just slip and slide. Off-road riding will make you spin perfect circles – try stomping a big gear and you’ll get nowhere.
2. Cyclo-cross improves your gear selection
Muck up a gear shift on the road and usually you’ll get away with dropping back a bit, wasting some energy, or a ribbing from your mates. Get it wrong off-road and you’re likely to end up walking.
Cycling off-road will teach you to plan shifts further ahead and develop a much more drive-chain friendly and efﬁcient technique.
3. Cyclo-cross develops your strength and power
Sometimes when you’re riding off-road, with all the skill in the world, you just have to muscle it. Whether it’s a short steep rise that catches you out or momentum sapping conditions under your tyre, you just have to dig in. But all the time you’re slogging away you’ll be developing your ﬁtness in a much more cycling-speciﬁc way than you could at the gym.
4. Cyclo-cross improves your bike handling
Off-road cycling is probably the best of all for teaching handling.
- If you can corner well on mud or gravel then wet roads will hold no fear.
- Learning to position your body correctly when climbing transfers directly to wet or green roads in spring or autumn.
- Skills such as unweighting the front wheel and bunnyhops also have their place on the road.
Master them and you’ll never again have to swerve round a pothole or dismount for a kerb.
Even cyclo-cross-style mounts and dismounts can be useful. In this year’s Paris-Roubaix sportive there was a big pile-up on the second cobbled sector, but for some riders it was second nature to hop off, sling the bike on their shoulder, scamper round the obstruction and remount in one ﬂuid action – without losing momentum.
5. Cyclo-cross lets you enjoy exploring
If hardcore cyclo-cross really isn’t your thing, you can still explore the minor roads, tracks and bridleways that you’d never dare go down on your road bike, without worrying about expensive race wheels or delicate tyres. Sometimes you can even ﬁnd real hidden gems that you can revisit in the summer.
Don’t get frustrated if the going gets too tough to ride – you still get to practise your mounts and dismounts, and a bit of running is always good for ﬁtness.
6. Cyclo-cross teaches you race techniques
Cyclo-cross racing is probably the most accessible of all bike sports and, aside from learning the skills listed above, you’ll also gain great ﬁtness and learn a lot about race tactics. It’ll teach you the importance of sprinting out of corners to maintain contact with a group, how to judge when and where to attack based on the terrain and by sensing how the riders around you are performing, and most importantly it will help you to pace your effort for the duration of the race.
- Keep your bike well maintained. Check all bolts, bars and seat-tube. Adjust tyre pressures to the trail conditions
- Add extra lube, a power-link, spare brake pads and a rear mech hanger to your usual spares
- Carry a map, compass and mobile phone. Let someone know where you’re planning to go
- Pack a waterproof whatever the conditions. In the hills, bad weather can develop in minutes
- If in doubt, walk. Ride within your technical ability and try to feel in control at all times
- Stick to legal rights of way and be considerate to other trail users
Rediscover the joy of getting dirty and, come the spring, your mud-plugging will have made you a better rider.