BOISE, Idaho (AP) — I used to think winter mountain biking was a stunt you did once to say you’ve done it. That was before I learned to enjoy the unique feel of frozen trails, and I am rarely alone out there.
Lots of other folks are riding trails or running during winter, and there’s no reason you can’t join them.
As you can imagine, it’s more challenging than riding on a 75-degree day when you can throw on a pair of riding shorts and a T-shirt and hit the trails.
It takes more effort, but don’t worry, you won’t freeze to death during an hour-long mountain bike ride; just dress for it and pay attention to trail conditions.
On your first winter ride, you’re more likely to overdress and overheat because it’s easy to put on too many layers.
Expect to a be a little cool (usually at the start) and a little hot at some point during a ride, usually while climbing. The challenge is finding the happy medium so your clothes don’t get sweaty, clammy and chilly.
We’re all a little different, so what keeps me comfortable may not work for you, but here’s my basic kit:
A pair of tights (or synthetic long johns), padded cycling shorts and maybe knee warmers.
A good mid-weight base layer, a fleece mid layer and breathable jacket is enough to keep your core warm. A vest adds insurance.
Zippers are your friend. You will want to dump heat if you get hot. Breathable is usually more valuable than waterproof, and wind resistance is a plus.
Protect your feet, head and hands, which are most vulnerable to the cold. I wear a lightweight beanie that covers my ears and easily fits under my helmet. Others prefer a balaclava that covers the whole head and neck.
Finding the right gloves is tricky, and personal preference will dictate what works because some people have better circulation than others.
I have cold hands, and the best gloves I’ve found are The North Face “Apex” gloves, which have the right combination of warmth, breathability and still allow manual dexterity. Cross country ski gloves also work well.
Thick gloves can make your hands sweat and make it difficult to operate the shifters and brakes, while thin gloves may let your hands get cold and numb, which is worse.
I wear my biking shoes and neoprene shoe covers. Mid-weight wool socks keep my feet toasty inside.
Plan to experiment with different clothing combinations and tailor them to the temperature and conditions. For example, it’s easier to stay warm on a clear day because you absorb a lot of heat from the sun.
A rule of thumb is every 10 to 15 degrees colder, add a layer or thicker insulation.
Now you’re ready for the trails.
First, let’s dispel a common misconception. You’re not riding on an ice rink. Trails will be different than they are in spring and summer, but that’s not a bad thing.
Ideal conditions for me: a cold (well-below freezing), sunny day because the trails will stay frozen, which means better traction and less chance of encountering mud.
Traction tends to be more consistent early in the morning before the sun hits the trail. It will surprise you how quickly conditions change (and rarely for the better) when the sun comes out and the air temperature gets above freezing.
Direct sunlight on the trail means softer, slicker and muddier trail conditions.
Snow has many different characteristics that are constantly changing. Fresh snow is tough to ride, so wait until people have hiked on them for a few days.
Cold, hard-packed snow provides surprisingly good traction. It’s similar to summer, when trails are rock hard with a thin layer of dust or sand on top.
Sometimes the snow is smooth, and other times it gets pocked and bumpy like cobble. You’re likely to encounter both on any given ride.
Watch out for glaze ice, which is common where snow has thawed and refrozen. Obviously, it’s slick. Don’t hesitate to get off and walk if the traction looks sketchy.
Some small patches of trail can get muddy where there’s direct sunlight, even on days when the temperature is below freezing.
If you encounter a muddy spot, ride through it, not around it. If you start encountering lots of muddy spots, or long stretches of mud, it’s the wrong day to be on the trails. Turn around and go back.
Riding in winter will help you become a better rider because you have to be more focused on pedaling, braking and cornering.
You may want to use flat pedals rather than clipless pedals, but I use my same riding shoes year round because I like consistency.
I drop my tire pressure by about 5 psi to get better traction. If you’re using inner tubes, winter riding is a good excuse to convert to tubeless because you can run lower air pressure and not have pinch flats.
Think smooth over speed. Pedal in a smooth, steady cadence to avoid spinning out on snow and ice. Keep your body loose and your eyes focused as far up the trail as you can.
Keep your body centered over the bike. If your tires start to slip, you want to counter it. If you’re not centered on the bike, that’s harder to do. Same with cornering. As much as is feasible, lean your bike into corners, not your whole body.
Use a combination of front and rear brakes to slow down before a corner, but as you’re entering it, lay off the front brake so your front tire doesn’t wash out. When in doubt, use more rear brake than front (which is opposite of riding on dry trails).
Avoid the edges of the trail. The 3-foot wide trail you’re used to riding might be about 18-24 inches of packed snow with soft edges. Those edges have poor traction.
Keep an eye out for other trail users. Traction can be surprisingly good on hard-packed snow and even crusty ice, but your stopping distance still increases. Remember, it’s also harder for hikers and other riders to step off the trail because the surface is slick.
Stay in control and enjoy the scenery. You’re not going to set any speed records, and you shouldn’t try. It’s too risky to yourself and others.
Winter is a bonus time to maintain your cycling fitness, but it defeats the purpose if you crash and injure yourself.
I prefer shorter loops so I can figure out what sections have the best traction and conditions and stick to those during winter.
I may ride a few trails several times, and mix them up by riding in one direction and then in the reverse direction.
Despite my long-winded explanation, don’t overthink it. It’s just bike riding.
Go for it, and enjoy yourself.