Ah, winter riding. The crisp-packet rustle of drifts of fallen leaves. The creak and snap of icy puddle under tyre. The seductive flick of mud into eye. The trail that rode so well in summer, which is now like trying to plough your way through the bottom of a pigsty. The delightful uncertainty of not knowing whether your hands and feet will ever be warm again. Sitting outside the pub, shivering uncontrollably because you haven’t brought a lock and even if you had, you couldn’t sit inside because you resemble a melting chocolate sculpture, but with a much worse smell. The post-ride cleaning of your bike, yourself and your house. And finally, the realisation that you’ve buffed a million tiny scratches into your frame, your drivetrain is mangled and your forks are making a noise like a bottle-feeding baby goat.
Winter riding can grind you down, literally and figuratively. We’ve all reached the point where, if it was an option, we’d hang the bike up, make a big ball of leaves and twigs, crawl into it, and hibernate until spring. But sadly, humans don’t hibernate. Instead we go shopping, and eat and drink like we’re celebrating the end of rationing. Which means that when we do finally get on a bike again, sometime in January when things have really turned to shit, it’s even more unpleasant. What, then, can we do to keep some modicum of fitness, finesse and sanity through the dark months? Here are some suggestions, and no, I’m not going to tell you to join a gym.
It takes a fair amount of obstinacy and bloodymindedness to take a bike with skinny tyres and drop handlebars off road. So it’s no wonder that us British are pretty good at it. ‘Cross has been a thing almost since there were road bikes, but it’s had something of a renaissance in recent years. A tough, versatile bike that you can ride anything from club runs to commutes on is always a handy thing to have, “gravel” has become an industry buzzword, and there are now cyclocross bikes to suit every sub-niche, from race thoroughbreds to monstercross monster-trucks.
There are thriving local CX race series all over the UK, and if you fancy a dabble you can ride your mountain bike at most of them too. Don’t expect, cowbells and beer hand-ups – the UK race scene is more low-key than its Belgian and US cousins. But it’s cheap, honest racing. You might be riding round a playing field, but they’re still tough to do well at, and for around a tenner to enter, who’s complaining?
And racing isn’t the whole story. ‘Cross bikes might be less than ideal for technical trails, but they’re capable of going as fast as you dare on everything else. Skinny tyres handle winter mud and slop brilliantly, without flinging it all at your face. Trails which would be dull on a modern mountain bike become ticker tapes of terror and terrificness. And if you’re wondering what awesome adventures you could do with one, lucky you, we’ve got a whole other website dedicated to that, at Grit.cx.
2. Trail building
One recurring theme with mountain biking is that we’re always meant to do more upper body exercise. Now there might be a time and a place for structured weight training (particularly if you’re riding competitively) but for most of us, it’s time that we could spend riding.
Don’t worry though, help is at hand. Find your local trail maintenance group, grab a spade, push a barrow, and you’ll build some arm strength and core stability in no time. You’ll help the trails when they need it most, the ground will be nice and soft for digging, and whatever you build or maintain will be riding sweet come spring.
3. Bike Polo
If you haven’t heard of bike polo before, the concept is really simple – ride your bike with one hand, wield a mean-looking mallet with the other, and try and get a ball into a goal while a team of other people on bikes tries to stop you. But that description doesn’t hint at the ludicrous fun to be had from such a simple sport, from the thrill of outflanking your opponent to the countless comedy crashes. With its roots in the cycle courier scene, bike polo might seem like Hipster Ground Zero. But it’s no exaggeration to say that some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike has been on the polo court.
Modern bike polo is played on asphalt or even indoors, so it’s the perfect sport to keep you sane over winter. There are active clubs all over the place, from Canterbury to Sheffield, plus regular national tournaments. If you can ride one handed, track stand, and don’t feel too precious about your bike’s paint job, you’ll get the hang of it immediately.
4. BMX/pump tracks
Decent, all weather mountain bike trails are thin on the ground in most of the UK. There are, however, huge numbers of facilities for our small-wheeled brethren, many of which are fun on your big bike. Check out the awesome BMX and Pump Track Directory map for your nearest one, blow your tyres up, put aside your fear of being laughed at by small children, and get down there for an afternoon.
Riding a BMX or pump track isn’t simply a case of pedalling like mad down the start ramp and sailing through all the jumps. It’s incredibly physical but the technique, once you’ve mastered it, will help with all sorts of situations out on the trails. Traditionally, winter is the time of year when one’s riding abilities wither away like a frostbitten cucumber. Just imagine emerging from the other side with your skills actually enhanced.
“Why are you running – has someone stolen your bike?” So goes the typically hilarious response when I let my mountain biker friends know that I’ve been for a run. And not so long ago, I felt the same way. I would look at people pounding the pavement, going barely faster than walking pace, looking miserable as sin and probably giving themselves shin splints, and ask myself why anyone would do that voluntarily. But then, as with cycling, I discovered that your could do it off road, and suddenly everything clicked into place. Exploring your local countryside, free to go anywhere you want regardless of steps, stiles or slop, and all you need is a pair of shoes.
Running is also a great sport if you want company in your stupidity. Like cyclocross, there are a tonne of small grass roots local races you can get involved with. My fell running club is rife with legends about people who managed to do a race every day for a year, and they probably aren’t that exaggerated. Or if proper hills and kit checks seem a bit intimidating, find your local Parkrun, a mass timed 5k run that takes place at multiple venues up and down the UK every Sunday, which has a reputation as one of the most welcoming, supportive sports events in the country.
Climbing is a lot like mountain biking. People were doing it for years before it became a sport. It has a complicated code of ethics, sparking debates to rival anything on the Singletrack forum. It gives you the same satisfying feeling that comes from flicking the fear switch to off and breaking down scary challenges into their constituent parts. And telling your normal workmates that you do it will make them think you gobble up adrenal glands for breakfast.
Unlike mountain biking though, it’s quite possible to enjoy an acceptable facsimile of the real thing indoors. In contrast to its outdoor cousin, indoor climbing is also a really easy sport to get into. I once owned a 70s boardgame wth the slogan “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master” which pretty much sums it up. And unlike cycling, it’ll do wonders for your core strength, particularly your upper body. Just be prepared for the pinchy shoes…
7. Road riding
I felt a little hesitant about including road riding in this list. Not because of any clichéd roadies versus mtbers nonsense (if you feel that way, there’s a job for you as a writer for MBUK, circa 1995) but because a lot of the drawbacks of winter mountain biking (weather, maintenance) also apply to winter road riding. Plus you have to interact with black ice, freezing headwinds, and folk in motor vehicles, all of which can be less than delightful.
Nevertheless, there’s a point in winter when road riding makes complete sense: a few days after it’s rained heavily, when the trails are still a quagmire but the tarmac is dry and inviting. You’ll almost certainly ride further than you would on a mountain bike, your feet will stay drier and you’ll pass more cafes too.
8. Indoor cycling
Once upon a time, turbo trainers were strictly for warming up at races to show everyone how seriously you were taking things. Or they were bought in a flurry of good intentions, used once, and then released back into the wild via the Classifieds Forum.
Thankfully, though, technology has stepped in and Zwift and its ilk are making indoor cycling fun again. You might have misgivings about cyclists retreating en masse to their spare rooms and garages every winter. But there’s also a steady stream of feelgood stories from people who’ve used them to get through the winter slump, or even fallen back in love with cycling after drifting away from it. Quite frankly, the internet is full of enough people judging things they’ve never tried, so I say, if you fancy giving virtual trainers a shot, go for it. Plus at some point they’ll cave in to pressure and add a level based on Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road, and that’ll be awesome.
Finally, if you decide that none of the above are your cup of tea, and you’d rather plough on with your trusty MTB, save yourself some unnecessary misery by checking out Sanny’s top tips for winter riding.