Pat Horscroft enjoying Peak conditions
I was puzzled to read in last March's edition of a well known mountain bike magazine that, after a winter of inactivity, it was time to get the bike out again. Really? Well, I can only deduce that mountain bike magazines are written by shandy drinking southerners who moth-ball their bikes for the winter and take up knitting or, worse still, road riding. Up here in the Peak District, we had the best winter season I can ever remember. What's more, given the snowfall this December, we could be in for another opportunity to hone those winter riding skills.
Don't stay out too late. We nearly did!
That's not to suggest that winter riding is for the faint hearted. Taking on the elements demands some forethought but if you prepare properly, wear the right kit and work on certain core skills it can be equally rewarding as riding at any other time of year. Getting out into the wilds when everyone else is snuggled up in front of the telly is that rare pleasure, a truly adventurous outing on a crowded island. The inner glow you experience when alone in the snow is second to none. Also, the skills you acquire to cope with snow and ice will transform your riding for the rest of the year and give you a head start when conditions dry up in the spring. Prime winter conditions include that first dusting of snow or bone hard ground after a frosty night when winter gloop is replaced by bullet hard trails that will transform that winter grimace into a smile.
A couple of years ago, I took a friend of mine who can best be described as an occasional mountain biker out in freezing conditions. At one point the trail ahead was frozen solid with large patches of ice. I noticed his worried frown and told him, "Don't worry mate, it's easy. If you're on ice, don't brake, don't steer."
Even though he made it through unscathed he's never forgiven me. The advice is valid though. The key to riding in icy, snowy, frozen conditions is to be light on the bike and controls. No sudden movements, gentle on steering and brakes and be as relaxed as possible. There are, however, some specific skills to work on to help in this endeavour.
Stay relaxed, keep your weight towards the back of the bike. Simon Jones showing how it should be done.
When I did my Mountain Bike Leader's course a while back, I was amazed when they said that track stands are a useful skill. What for I thought? Looking cool at traffic lights? The instructor then patiently explained that the balance gained from a track stand is crucial to staying on the bike when things get tough. Eventually convinced, I've worked assiduously on my track stand skills for some time and lost count of the times I would have come to grief on a ride had I not done so. On a number of occasions caught out by slippery mud or ice, I've managed to keep the bike upright when all seemed lost.
The video above demonstrates what is meant by and how to achieve a track stand.
I know, you think swiss ball is only useful for people trying to look cool at the gym. Wrong. The very same improvement in balance that comes from track stands will be reinforced by working on a swiss ball. Make sure the ball is well inflated and work on balancing on your knees. Having your arms out to the side will help initially, but after a time try to have your arms in front of you just as you would on a bike. When you get really good at it, try turning your torso right and left or bouncing on the ball. Next time you hit a slippery section or get out of shape on a rock garden, you'll be thankful for every minute you spent practising.
In normal British conditions, keeping your weight forward ensures that your front wheel grips and the bike goes where you're pointing it. On ice and snow that doesn't necessarily work. Too much weight over the front will lead to an almost inevitable loss of grip and an uncontrolled fall. As you approach an icy patch, shift your weight back as if you were taking on a steep rock garden. All being well, the front wheel will remain true and you'll be in a better position to deal with a slide if it does happen.
Secondly, stay relaxed. I know this is a mountain biking truism, but it's absolutely crucial when riding in winter conditions and, particularly, deep snow. Maintaining momentum in snow is tough, but as soon as there's a gradient involved, it can all get really exciting. The front wheel will tend to break away when you least expect it. However, if you stay relaxed, there's every chance it will correct itself. The crucial thing is to stay with it, don't bale at the first opportunity, keep those arms and legs as relaxed as possible and you may well ride out of situations where you thought a crash was inevitable.
Nicole Etherington making light of the conditions
Top Tip - Try riding without wrapping your thumbs round the handlebars so that there's less temptation to grab the bars if the bike begins to slide. Any sudden movements translate rapidly into a loss of control, so let it slide, go with it, bend the knees and allow the bike to carry you through.
Another old mountain bike saying is 'look ahead'. If there's snow on the ground that becomes easier because all the usual technical challenges are covered with a blanket of the white stuff. This means you're less able to predict how the bike is going to react and therefore it's all the more important to keep your gaze level and well ahead of your front wheel. The only thing that's going to keep you upright is balance, and that is always improved when your gaze is along the trail, not fixating on the next amorphous lump in the snow.
David Cook looking well ahead
It goes without saying that your bike should be in top nick if you intend to go out into the wilds on a winter's day. Trying to repair a broken chain with frost-bitten fingers is no fun, so take a few simple precautions. Carry a Sram powerlink or similar, spare cleat bolt, spare general purpose bolt (an old brake caliper bolt is as good as any), two or three zip-ties, a good quality multi tool and a Leatherman or similar.
Punctures can be a real problem if it's really cold because in the time it takes to repair, body temperature can plummet. Glueless patches such as those available from Park Tools and Lezyne can be all but useless in freezing conditions which render the adhesive inefective. Carry at least two spare tubes and consider investing in a Co2 inflator. If you do break down, use whatever shelter is available even if it's only a dry stone wall.
Carry spare gloves, at least one extra layer, a hat or buff and if conditions are really bad, consider taking a bivvy bag or emergency shelter.
Mobile phone is a must and some kind of energy food is a good idea, as is putting warm water in your hydration pack.
If you are new to the winter riding game and conditions are really bad, stick to a route you know well. Getting lost is no joke and it's worth bearing in mind that you will in all likelihood be one of the few people out in the wilds, so you need to be sure you can cope alone. Don't underestimate the speed with which a relatively comfortable situation can turn bad. If you've worked up a bit of a sweat on an ascent with the wind behind you, turning into the wind and heading downhill can result in debilitating wind chill. Pre-plan by considering where the conditions will change, where your energy output will alter and don that extra piece of clothing before you need it, not when you're already chilled. Going out with a mate is a good idea as is taking some form of GPS device to ensure you don't get lost.
Don't get lost when it's closing in.
In the words of Bob Dylan, "Layer, lady, layer....!" Get your layers right and riding in severe weather will be a real pleasure, insulated from sub zero temperatures and biting winds. I tend to rely on a synthetic base layer, followed by a thermal layer, a Marmot Driclime Vest and a Driclimb Windshirt. This combination allows me to cope with the inevitable changes in conditions that occur on a winter ride. However, I always carry an extra warm layer in my pack.
I'm a big fan of water proof shorts combined with leggings.
Keeping your feet and hands warm and dry is crucial. I've been using Shimano MW80 waterproof boots for three years now and they are absolute life savers. They seem expensive, but there's no need to buy goretex socks, a good pair of walking socks will do fine.
Don't penny-pinch when it comes to gloves. I remember getting caught out in sleety weather in a pair of standard gloves. Within a very short time, I couldn't feel my hands and the hot-aches when I got home and feeling began to return brought tears to my eyes. An ideal choice for extreme weather are Sealskinz gloves.
Last but not least, take a buff. It took me a few years to be fully converted to the delights of using a buff, but following the paralysing cold of the past few weeks, I now take it every time and make sure I put it on to cover head and ears before I ride into a paralysing headwind.
Finally, make sure you stay safe. Think about the route you've chosen, shortcuts and possible shelters along the way. Think about the conditions and revise your plan - if things suddenly take a turn for the worse, consider turning back. Remember, riding alone is a serious business - you can't afford to fall off and hurt yourself, so ride accordingly. Better still, take a mate with you. There's safety in numbers and you'll have someone to back you up when you return to civilisation and boast about how adventurous you've been.
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