Mountain biking in snow and ice
With the onset of snow, you have the opportunity to encounter some truly fantastic environments on your bike. Despite the ice and the heightened risk of slips and crashes, riding in the snow is actually quite safe (as you are travelling slowly and there are lots of drifts to fall into) and most of all, its fun!.
Like anything new, there is a bit of working out how to do it so you feel comfortable. First though you do have to get out there and try it.
In the meantime, here are a few tips from CTC's Senior Off-road officer Dan Cook to help you ride safely in the white stuff and have some fun.
You don't really need anything specific for riding in the snow, but if you can get hold of these, it can help:
- Make sure you have enough clothing on. It's clearly cold, and hands, feet and faces are especially prone to frostbite.
- Use two thin pairs of socks rather than one thick pair.
- Wear winter cycling boots, or overshoes to keep the wind off and (as much as possible) the snow out. Even walking boots and flat pedals work well. Whichever shoes you wear, grippy, knobbed soles are essential.
- Use a thin skull cap hat or bandana under your helmet to keep your head and ears warm.
- Ensure that you have sufficient spare clothing and waterproofs to keep you warm and keep the wind off. Windchill can be incredible at this time of year.
- Most knobblies still work in snow, but if you are looking for something specific, for general riding use a thinner tyre with big pointy knobs, like a serious mud 1.8.
- If you want a specific snow and ice tyre, you can buy studded tyres, or you can take a pair of old tyres and put a couple of hundred small self tappers in each, and line it with a thin piece of tough flexible plastic. These are great on ice, but very sketchy on tarmac, so beware where and how you ride them on the black stuff.
- Between your party, you should also take some extra emergency equipment, like a plastic bivvy bag and/or group shelter if you have one, lights (don't forget it gets dark early!) and a hot drink (preferably in a flask rather than your water bottle).
- Take some food with you. You'll need it to both deal with the additional energy demands of riding in snow, and to keep you warm.
- Don't forget the snow shoes or cross country skis for when the going gets too deep as well!
- Don't expect your bike to work like it does on a hot, dry day. Your chain, cassette and mechs will freeze up, so you may well end up leaving it in a single sprocket and using your chainrings to change gears.
You are heading out in conditions where most people prefer to sit in front of the fire. Don't let yourself get into a position of requiring rescuing (it can take a lot longer in winter conditions). Therefore:
- Head out in a group rather than on your own.
- Tell someone else where you are going, when you will be back and any alternative routes or places you might stop (like the pub!).
- Make sure you also tell them what to do in the event of you not getting back (i.e. how much time between when you intended to get back before they need to ring for help, then to ring you to check if you have got back, secondly, who and how to ring the emergency services and what information to give them.
- When you do get back, make sure you ring your contact - it should be the first thing you do. And if you are all OK but aren't going to get back on time - tell them as early as you can too.
- Don't be afraid to use roads, tracks and easy routes. You don't need the most technical section to make riding in snow demanding! Gentler climbs will be achievable and easier descents mean you can keep your speed going.
- Don't be ambitious - depending on the conditions, it could take you from twice to four times as long to do your route in comparison to normal riding.
- Be flexible - winter conditions demand it. If your intended route is going to involve 5 miles of walking through thigh deep snow, look at the alternatives - and tell your home contact of your changes.
Hone your riding skills, reaction times and balance by riding in snow. Certain conditions are grippier than velcro, others are slippier than a banana skin. Learn to read the conditions and anticipate early. Slamming on the anchors is likely to end in tears.
- Head for firm snow. Slush is terrible, deep stuff unrideable and ice feels scary. The best stuff is that where a handful of people or vehicles have travelled your route previously creating a firm, smooth line.
- Where the deep stuff is soft and fluffy, then it can still be quite rideable, as long as you get down to a firm base.
- Keep a straight line as much as possible. Tracking your bike helps in wheel ruts and even where the route is wider, you can obey Newtons law (bikes continue in a straight line and speed unless influenced by external forces. Generally external forces aren't a good idea on ice!).
- Keep an eye out for surface changes. Look for colour and texture changes to the snow surface to anticipate where the grip might change. Shiny or clear surfaces that can even look wet indicate slippy ice, whereas a deep white or translucence indicates good grip, especially where the ice has some texture to it.
- Look for other indicators like sections that have frozen after melting the previous day, these usually smooth out and make it rather uncomfortable (as in scary).
- To hold a straight line, move your upper body from side to side to keep your bike tracking.
- Drop your heels and keep your weight back to maintain traction on your rear wheel, or to stop the front wheel diving when your descending.
- Look where you want to go - it helps keep you on track.
- Maintain your speed - keeping your speed up stops you sinking into softer surfaces and aids your balance. This might mean doing short sprints then little rests in between.
- Where you see a change in surface, or suspect some ice imminently, make sure that you brake beforehand rather than on the ice, if it helps your confidence then clip out. Most importantly, apply Newtons Law. Don't pedal, brake or steer; keep your weight evenly balanced, and crucially, relax. Then you'll come out the other side upright and ready to ride the rest of the day.
- Do everything gently. Big pedal strokes end up in wheelspin, harsh braking in slides. Use your whole pedal stroke to apply power smoothly, steer a little bit rather than setting up sharp corners.
So get out there and make the most of the conditions. With the snow generating a completely different look, feel and challenge to your local area, reduce the traffic demands on the already pressured roads and go from home. We promise, you'll never have enjoyed your local circuits as much!