Winter Mountain Biking Skills: What Should you be Working on this Season?
8th February 2018. Mountain biking is more than just riding a bicycle over rough terrain ? it's a pursuit that engages your entire body. The sheer physicality of riding a mountain bike ties directly into the mental aspect as your eyes scan the path ahead for obstacles and your mind tries to work out the best place to ride. Sometimes you need to make decisions in a split-second, and other times you have the breathing room to re-adjust yourself in the saddle and figure out where to go next. That's just when the weather is good. What about when winter arrives and settles in with a snowy, icy blanket? Winter riding provides an opportunity to hone unique skills that you won't get a chance to practice at other times in the year. Rather than shying away from the added challenges of winter mountain biking, you should run towards embracing the potential for some big spills. From improving your track selection to bettering your balance and even seeing some fitness gains, there's a lot on the line when riding conditions aren't at their best. So how do you tackle the task if you want to challenge yourself? Here are the skills you should be improving this season.
Devilish descents staying in control
Descents are some of the most thrilling moments in mountain biking, as you gather speed and test your ability to stay on the track. In the winter, descents that you might normally slam through at top speed suddenly become much more intimidating. Accumulated leaf litter and even the potential for ice and snow all mean that you need to maintain much better control over your body position and weight distribution during winter biking. Your goal with practising this skill is to learn how to find the right spots for the best traction while also staying on the path. In a single-track situation, there's very little room for error, so prepare for the adrenaline to start flowing. Maintain the right body position, keeping your body flexed and shoulders low. Your weight should keep the bike in control as you stay in line with its centre of gravity during the descent. Try to avoid over-steering ? stick to as much of a straight line as possible. Commit to your route, and you can avoid most spills while making it to the bottom.
Master your single-track skills on slippery slopes
Do you normally ride in double-track conditions? There's plenty of room to manoeuvre and all the time in the world to see threats before they crop up ? but not every mountain bike trail is so wide. With the winter making things more challenging but also providing more interesting riding conditions, now is the time to think about challenging the single-track trails. While learning them in the winter is tough on its own, it will give you a chance to flex all your major skills. From path selection and bike control to body positioning and situational awareness, it's a situation that will put you to the test. However, riding single-track also gives you the opportunity to explore areas you might have missed in the past. There are often excellent descents, hills, and obstacles to avoid on these paths. Not only will this improve your riding ability overall, but the sheer physical challenge of riding single-track can give your body an important fitness boost.
Practice dodging roots and other obstacles
Speaking of obstacles, you'll undoubtedly need to hone your skills for dealing with them in the winter. All kinds of new threats can appear ? or disappear. For example, if you ride in an area where snow has recently fallen, you may not be able to see some of biggest obstacles, such as tree roots or potholes. While you can't use X-Ray vision to see under the snow and spot these threats, you can use it as a chance to try to stick to the established path wherever possible. Watch for trees on the side of the trail and assume that there will be a root or some other barrier in the way that you must avoid or tackle. Watch out for exposed stones and be aware of any ravines that might have been created by rain or run-off. Nothing is worse than coming to a jolting stop as you jam your front wheel in a crevice, after all. Keep your head on a swivel and try to spend a few rides where you actively focus more on your environment than your bike.
Muddier conditions make for better cornering
Getting around corners on rough mountain biking trails is already a challenge, but what about when the ground is a muddy mess? You'll have a lot of opportunities to tackle cornering control in these conditions. If you find that you often lose control or skid through your turns, this is a good time to learn how to balance speed, braking, and the way you move the bike all at once. With a wet ground, you're more likely to slip and slide ? so avoid being too hard on the brakes. You want enough pressure to induce your turn, but not so much that you lose control and bleed off too much speed. You shouldn't need to spend energy pedalling too hard around a corner. Instead, focus on leaning the bike away from your body so you can use as much of your inertia as possible to swing through the turn naturally and without losing control.
Finding better positions for puddle jumping
Puddles and seasonal streams aren't uncommon in winter, especially as the weather frequently changes over the weeks. When you come across water hazards, you'll have to decide which way you want to approach them. Should you try to ride around them entirely, or do you need to forge through a crossing? Remember that hypothermia could be a real threat based on the temperature outside. Judge carefully ? but commit when you do decide to cross. Find the right gear that will give you the most control and don't wait until you're in the water to shift. Prepare to skid by standing up in the saddle. Forcing more of your weight down through the bike will help it to maintain as much traction as possible on the slippery surface beneath the water. Practice manual control over the front wheel and feel out the right way to learn your weight backward. If you take a spill in the water, be sure to move to a warm, dry place without delay ? you can always return another day for further practice.
Managing slippery climbs
It's not all downhill, even though we might sometimes wish our trails could be so easy. When you start trying to practice your uphill manoeuvres in the winter, the first thing you'll encounter is a lack of grip. You'll spin your tyres and slide backwards, pedalling as hard as you can, but you can't seem to figure out the right way to get up to the next part of the trail. What gives? That's why it's time to practice. When going up, think about where you're placing the rear wheel, as it needs the most traction to keep driving you forward. It may mean you need to move the front wheel to a position you wouldn't expect to maintain the line of the rear. Meanwhile, work on developing a consistent cycling cadence. Even applications of power here are key ? too little and you'll go backwards, too much, and you'll stop in your tracks. Finding the correct gear in these situations is essential, too ? don't give yourself a job that's harder than necessary. Choose a gear that gives you the most power with the fewest strokes.
Grab your gear and hit your favourite trail
Your first few rides out this winter might be uncomfortable and even scary as you try to adjust the new and different conditions. However, remember that you're out there for a thrill ? so go looking for them! With tonnes of ways to practice old skills and develop new ones, the winter is fertile ground for making improvements that can make you into a better rider for the rest of the year. From mastering muddy climbs to staying in control during icy descents, there's something to suit every style of rider. Start scoping out your preferred trails and make sure you put some rides on your schedule soon. This article was written exclusively for Sports Fitness, a online sporting goods store where you can shop for cycling gear and accessories. Follow @SportNessUK