Guide to winter off-road cycling

Top tip: ride through puddles rather than around them to preserve the trail. Photo Robby Spanring

Guide to winter off-road cycling

If there is one thing we can be certain of living in the UK, it’s that our winter will bring short, cold and wet days. Mountain bike guide Max Darkins explains how to get the most out of your riding when the weather turns

Please note this article was written prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and therefore certain elements such as group riding and travel may be against recommended advice in your area. If unsure, check Cycling UK’s coronavirus Q&A for the latest guidance

If you want to keep riding through the winter, you need to prepare yourself, and that starts with your mentality. If you can see the (spring) light at the end of the (wet, winter) tunnel, and ride through it to get there you will be able to start your spring season off on a roll.

The first battle is the one of motivation, as your riding mojo can easily slip into hibernation during the long winter months, so here are a few tips to help overcome that sofa inertia.

  • Adjust your expectations – aim to have fun and improve your skills, rather than go on big rides and improve fitness; unless you are a pro-rider, winter doesn’t need to become a total suffer-fest
  • Arrange to ride with friends – it’s harder to give up when you’re accountable to someone else
  • Have something to aim for – enter a late spring event to provide some focus and motivation
  • Have your bike and equipment organised and weather ready; use mudguards, metallic (sintered) brake pads and mud tyres. Have waterproof socks, shoes and trousers, clear glasses, warm gloves, a changing towel and bike wash and so on to make life easier and more comfortable
  • Plan a nice café stop in along the ride, or a pub at the end and reward yourself for getting out
  • Choose a good place to ride that isn’t so affected by the winter filth – read on for more on this…

A cyclist on a mountain bike cycling a winter trail
Choose a good place to ride that isn’t so affected by the winter filth. Photo Becky Noakes (Infinite Exposures)

When it all gets too much like hard work, you could try heading somewhere warmer like Lanzarote or Mallorca (possible to do by train and ferry), where your spirits will be lifted by the warmer, drier weather with some great riding. Having a trip like this planned also provides something to look forward, too, and even ‘train’ for.

If you’re not a fan of using a turbo trainer then spinning classes or the new digital offerings such as Zwift can remove the tedium of starring at a garage wall.

Your riding mojo can easily slip into hibernation during the long winter months

Max Darkins, Rough Ride Guide

Sometimes a short ‘break’ from cycling can re-kindle your enthusiasm, though, so try doing something different like swimming, yoga, or joining a local advocacy trail group, like Peak District MTB. These groups help maintain and improve the trails and access, and build relationships with the local community, while also getting you out and earning bike karma points.

Winter riding skills

Riding in slippery mud can be tiring and demoralising, but it’s great fitness training (think of it more as resistance training…) and most definitely skill enhancing!

The following tips are things you could try to help you ride more confidently in tricky conditions:

  • Be in the ‘ready’ position as much as possible, with body relaxed, arms bent and back parallel to the top tube, pedals level, heels dropped and weight central
  • Look ahead down the trail, at the line you want to take, rather than obstacles, looking for areas that offer traction, such as ruts, berms and dry firm ground

A cyclist on a mountain bike with a blurred background
The ‘ready’ position (on a warmer day) Photo Adrian Wills

  • Try to avoid turning the bars and keep movements smooth by turning your bike with your body instead. Your upper body should remain calm and centred on the bike, with enough space to move around in any direction to retain balance
  • If you need to get the bigger side knobbles of your tyres gripping the ground, lean the bike, not your body
  • Brake before turns and ‘feather’ your brakes, being careful not to use the front too firmly or lock out the wheel, and push yourself down into the bike and trail, to aid traction and braking power
  • Keep your momentum by looking up, plan your braking and pump the trail where you can
  • Go through puddles; not only does it stop the puddle getting wider, but it is usually firm underneath. However, you don’t know what lies beneath, so when entering a puddle, lift the front wheel, have cranks level, hover off the saddle, drop your heels and get your weight back in anticipation of what you can’t see underneath
  • When riding through deep mud, aim for existing tracks as these will be slightly compacted, and firmer to ride
  • Try to ride over roots straight on at 90 degrees, and if possible, lift the front wheel over (but keep your weight central, not back), keep limbs loose and shift your weight to where you have traction

Cyclist riding over exposed roots in a forest
Ride over roots straight on at 90 degrees, and if possible, lift the front wheel over. Photo Adrian Wills

  • Pedal in smooth powerful strokes, using a lower cadence and change down a couple of gears. Use a larger cog as you are less likely to slip on a larger cog and less likely to stall if slowed down
  • Use low tyre pressures as they provide more grip. However, with inner tubes, these can squirm around and give you pinch flats, so tubeless is highly recommended, especially as fixing a flat tyre in the mud is something you want to avoid.

Where to ride

Planning is crucial to enjoying rides during the winter months.

Chances are you’ll know where to avoid locally, but if you are planning a trip further afield then do a bit of research about different areas that may fare better than your own stomping ground when the weather takes a turn for the worse.


Two cyclists ride a mountain trail in winter
Winter riding doesn't always mean mud. Photo Becky Noakes (Infinite Exposures)

If you need to get some big miles in over the winter choose a relatively flat and fast route which is easy to navigate, so that you can keep a steady pace and stay warm.

Canal paths and trails that follow disused railway lines are good for this. Alternatively, try opting for short, hard, punchier rides with some stiff climbs that will keep you warm, and technical descents that will keep it fun.

Popular locations and horse-riding routes are best avoided in the winter; instead stay on higher ground which drains better. I also keep away from moorland and lowland, fields and some woodlands too.

Popular locations and horse-riding routes are best avoided in the winter

Max Darkins

Trees, being bare in the winter, don’t absorb water like they do in the summer, and trails will be more sheltered from the wind, so tend to stay wetter longer, and leave slippery wet roots lying in wait. Saying that, I enjoy the technical challenge woods often provide and the trees can also give you some shelter from the wind.

Another favourite of mine in the winter is an urban MTB ride. This involves connecting things like BMX and pump tracks, scrubland, woods and parks using little back-alleys, obscure paths and bridleways.

Being able just jump on your bike and roll out the door is so much easier to do, too, as it negates the bother of loading a bike into the car, or more to the point packing up filthy bike and kit afterwards.

It’s an interesting and useful way to way to explore your local area, too. I’ve also used my local urban bike ride route in the summer with my family and other families and the kids love it! You could even see if you could incorporate a ride through at a fast food drive-thru along the way!

Man-made trails

There are lots of great trail centres around the UK now, which are built to withstand heavy use and wet weather, and offer a range of useful facilities like a bike wash, café and toilets, making your ride much easier and more comfortable.

These are definitely worth a visit in the winter as you can be guaranteed a good ride when your local trails may or may not be trashed. See Rough Ride Guide for a comprehensive list.

Max Darkins runs Rough Ride Guide and helped devise the route for the Great North Trail

Remember

Once you are out there, you may well find conditions aren’t as bad as you feared, and you’ll probably feel all the better for having got out.

Having a rigid singlespeed mountain bike for winter duties is something to consider, as there is less to wear out or break and fewer moving parts to clean and service. Singlespeeds are also great to really hone your skills and fitness.

Where to ride in Britain

There are a number of locations around the UK that provide good riding in the winter, but with the added bonus of providing a sense of adventure and excitement – which is often needed at this time of year!;

North

The Lake District National Park is the ideal winter get-away, as it is full of rocks and not a lot of mud. It is also quieter and cheaper at this time of year, and when the sky is cool and clear it is a stunning place to be. The classic riding is mostly high, remote and technical, though, so if the weather isn’t good stay off the mountains and opt for lower routes, such as ones at the Whinlatter and Grizedale trail centre.

The Yorkshire Dales is also stony, so ideal for winter riding. The superb Dales Mountain Biking centre is located here, offering comfortable, affordable accommodation, and a range of facilities for cyclists, such as a great café, bike shop, bike wash and route advice. Also, in the southern Yorkshire Dales, from the town of Settle, is a good waterproof ‘Settle Loop’ route.

Midlands

Forget about the lower White Peak area, it suffers in the wet. Instead head to the northern Dark Peak, which is rockier, with (grippy) gritstone rocks.

Some of the moorland trails suffer in the wet, but The Roych/Jacob’s Ladder route is fine in wet weather, as are most of the trails around the Hope Valley, using rocky or ancient packhorse trails. Also, the PDMTB group have been busily repairing the trails around here, as well as getting new ones opened up.

The Long Mynd in Shropshire also makes a great destination, with good trails and an MTB pursuit centre with parking, toilets, showers, bike shop, café, pub and camping pods and lodges. Alternatively, Cannock Chase trail centre, just north of Birmingham, is good, but busy, or you could visit the indoor dirt jumps at the Manchester Bike Park.

South-east

It generally suffers pretty badly in the winter. Even the usually well-draining sandy trails of the Surrey Hills will suffer under all the visitors, and while the big chalky hills of the South Downs generally drain well, it is extremely slippery when wet and the Chiltern Hills clay gets claggy.

The best bet is to head to Swinley Forest (trail centre) in Bracknell, just west of London, when everything gets really bad. With mostly well-draining Green, Blue and Red trails, and a new Skills Park, plus a café and bike shop, it provides an oasis for riding.

South-west

This classic summer holiday destination can make a good winter mountain biking destination, too. Cornwall has a rather bitty network of ROWs, which may not all be easy to navigate, but many are hard, rocky-based tracks.

In Dartmoor you will need to avoid the moorland crossings, and most probably the stepping-stone river crossings too, but the steeper, rockier trails around North Bovey and Burrator reservoir should be good and offer technical riding. Alternatively, head to Okehampton where there are some easier cycle trails on the edge of the moors.

Further up are the Quantock Hills in Somerset which have steep, stony hills that drain well and provide some great singletrack, as does Exmoor, just further along the coast/A39 road – just stay off the moors!

South

The Salisbury Plains have a lot of long, wide, gravel tracks which provide some good, fast riding with easy navigation. The military has a heavy presence here, though, so parts can be closed for training at times, and don’t expect to stay dry as there can be big puddles together with the surface water tending to flick up.

Likewise, the New Forest offers wide, well surfaced flat trails. The riding isn’t technical, but with easy bike hire and plenty of cafés and pubs to visit, it makes a great destination for easier leisure rides.

Wales

Generally the easiest option is to head for one of the many trail centres here. The likes of Bike Park Wales, Coed-Y-Brenin, Llandegla or Afan all offer a range of excellent trails and facilities.

Scotland

There are plenty of well-draining trails in Scotland, but with the short days and remote setting, it is probably best for most winter visitors to enjoy the safety, facilities and excellent trail centres available all across the country, such as the 7 Stanes, Kirroughtree, Dalbeattie, Glentress and Glenlivet, to name a few.

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