Bust the Crust: Winter Mountain Biking
Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you have to stop ridingby Dan Hall
Your significant other’s caught you fondling and caressing your bike ... again? Surfed the web dry of mountain bike content? Eyes tired of staring at digital spinning discs? It might be time to get a two-wheeled fix—something besides doing circles in the basement lab. Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can’t ride. You won’t be bombing down double-black diamond trails; however, the addition of snow to your favorite cross-country trails boosts their difficulty, and you’ll hone technical skills while enhancing endurance and strength.
A quick overview of the gear you need to most enjoy your snowy experience
You don’t need a dedicated snow bicycle to ride in the winter. A simple, classic hardtail works awesomely, and the larger the tire the better (Read: 29er). But don’t let that fact keep the squish indoors: your dualy is plenty tough and will perform admirably when tuned correctly. Just remember: winter conditions are harsh on components, including pivot bearings and shocks.
Shocks smooth bumps—including ones in the form of snow banks, ice chunks, and Narwhal carcasses left by satisfied polar bears. If your bike’s equipped with suspension, some quick adjustments will enable big performance rewards. If you don’t have any squish, you’re either in the know and already ice hard, or ... you’re one of these pedal pushers.
Keep in mind that, if your bike lives inside where it’s nice and warm, you’re going to want to tune the suspension after its acclimated to the outside, ambient temperature.
Air shock pressure changes as a result of temperature fluctuation. Colder temps equal less air pressure, so you’ll need to increase pressure to your air shocks—or you’ll be bottoming out your suspension, and the bike’s geometry will be off.
Near freezing and freezing temps cause oil’s viscosity to increase, which results in rebound that’s too slow. A shock with slow rebound ‘packs up’—meaning it never returns to full extension. This leaves the bike less lively and with poor geometry. Increase rebound by opening up the oil passageway; this allows thicker oil to flow freer for faster rebound. In some extreme cases (if you live in a constantly cold climate), changing your suspension oil to a lighter weight will be beneficial.
Knobby, widely spaced, large volume, and low durometer tires work well in snow, and that’s probably what’s already on your bike or hanging around. You’ll want to set tire pressure about 7.75 psi lower than what you normally run—this’ll provide enhanced traction. For the best traction, dedicated snow tires exist, complete with ultra-low durometers—and black-ice-thwarting studs.
The best brakes for winter cycling are disc. They’re mounted as far away from the snow as possible to avoid buildup, and have a self-cleaning surface. Even though disc brakes are leaps and bounds better then rim brakes, make sure you do periodic brake checks as you ride, they can still pack with ice and snow.
If a disc brake starts to drag while riding, the pads may have snow or ice packed behind them. This won’t allow the pads to retract into the caliper, causing drag. If this is the case, pull the pads out, chip the ice away, put them back in and keep riding—or, retreat home to some hot, hard cider.
If your bike’s not equipped with disc brakes, rim-based stoppers will work for a short time. However, they quickly pack with snow and eventually, undoubtedly will fail. Do yourself a long overdue favor and make the upgrade to disc brakes.
Like brakes, clipless pedals have moving parts that can pack with ice and fail to allow entry or exit. If you’re going to use clip-in pedals, coat them with a water-displacing oil to prevent ice buildup, or better yet, ride with platform pedals. Winter riding can require extensive use of tripodding (think crotch on the top tube, feet on the ground—while sliding for your life) and platform pedals let you plant your feet quicker.
Sure, flannel-lined canvas pants provide warmth for the outdoors, but keep in mind you have a hungry drivetrain (read: pants ripped or caught in the chainring), these pants have irritating seams where the cheeks meet the saddle, and you’ll be working up a sweat while riding—which will leave you cold and damp when it’s time to rest. Dedicated cold-weather cycling clothing exits from the feet to the legs, torso, arms, hands, and noggin. Expect these garments to provide easy temperature regulation, freedom of movement, and moisture management.
Now go ahead and hit up the trails, or better yet poach a ski groomer run. Keep in mind that riding in snow increases wear on your bike. You may be traversing on grimy roads or transporting your bike by car and exposing it to corrosive elements ... be prepared to scrub it afterward. If venturing outside is just too daunting, options like indoor trainers, indoor parks, and vacations in warm climates exist.