Keep it Clean: the joys of winter riding

Keep it Clean: the joys of winter riding

Winter can be a difficult season for the mountain biker: it seems like the climate and the earth itself are conspiring against you. And yet, there is much fun to be had.

The dreaded winter Venn diagram

There is a legendary Venn diagram which shows the amount of time spent thinking about riding vs the amount of time spent actually riding (the point being that most bikers, of all stripes, spend far more time thinking about riding than actually riding). There is another, less well known, diagram for winter mountain biking. It shows time spent doing “bike stuff” and how little of that time is spent actually riding. There is a feeling, at this time of year, that I spend far more time cleaning my bike after a ride than I actually do riding. I spend almost as long oiling, freeing and generally fettling the bike to keep it in working order as I do with my feet on the pedals.

When I do get out and ride, trails that I love in summer verge on un-rideable. There is a particular kind of mud that inhabits the chalkland of Hampshire and Sussex. Friends from “up north” always laugh at our poor excuse for winter (of which more in a moment) and our insistence on winter tyres. At least one of them has come thoroughly unstuck, literally, when they’ve experienced it first-hand. It is a strange thing that has the ability to hold a wheel fast that is trying to move forward, and yet provide less sideways grip than a soapy eel. Thus, you spend a huge amount of effort trying to move forward and an equal amount trying not to move sideways.

It can be a dispiriting experience. It can make one question why it is that you do this stupid thing. Every week. Throughout winter.

[siteorigin_widget class=”SiteOrigin_Widget_Image_Widget”][/siteorigin_widget]

In the bleak mid winter

And then you get to the actual weather. That poor excuse for a winter.

Here’s your choice: you can wrap up warm to stop your hands and feet getting cold, ensuring that you boil in the bag as you exercise. Alternatively, you can account for the warming up and put up with the fact you cannot feel your breaks for the first hour of the ride.

See, it’s cold enough that you need to account for it but not so cold that going out like the Michelin man is viable. The last few minutes before leaving the house are an existential crisis of wardrobe decisions. There’s a reason I own an array of gloves; shoes; different thickness shorts and tights; base layers and jerseys.

And then you need to remember to make sure that your lights are charged because, the chances are, you’re going to be riding in the dark.

So why do I bother in winter?

I’ve spoken before about the wonders of riding in the dark. I love that it changes how things look, how fast I think I’m going and what things I might encounter along the way. Only last week we met a badger on our normal evening ride on a trail we ride most weeks. That just doesn’t happen during the daytime. And as for the magic of rising along to the sound of owls hooting, it doesn’t get much better than that. I could wax lyrical but I already have.

I also have a confession: I actually enjoy all the sliding about of winter riding. It feels silly, a bit slapstick, a little “It’s a Knockout”. I know I’m not going to be challenging for personal bests on any part of the ride so I enjoy the journey. How fast can I take the corner without sliding out? Let’s find out. There are fewer more rawly kinaesthetic joys than the feeling of tyres sliding in the mud and then finding something to grip on just before you lose them. This is enhanced by the fact that, should the worst happen, you’re going slowly and the ground is soft. I have been known to lie on the floor in fits of hysterics after sliding out. Try it, it’s fun.

It’s certainly a lot more fun that being out on wet tarmac. That’s commuting, not enjoyment.

There’s also a perverse and contrary streak in me that takes people’s opinion that it’s too awful to ride as a challenge.

[siteorigin_widget class=”SiteOrigin_Widget_Image_Widget”][/siteorigin_widget]

It’s not a race. Except when it is

Riding is an aerobic activity. Being fit means I can go faster. I may have been vocal about how much I hate exercise, but I’m equally keen that I’m not going to get dropped by all my mates when the weather gets better.

So, I make sure I get out in the winter which means I’m fit enough when the sun comes out. No one admits to winter training, but we all do it. I’m not going to be left behind.

And then there’s the secret winter weapon

I do have a secret weapon that I use to make winter riding better. A decade or more of riding locally has given me an encyclopaedic knowledge of the trails. It has also given me a good nose for the ones that fare better in the winter. I know which ones are like riding through a mangrove swamp, which ones are like riding across an ice rink, which ones are likely to have fallen trees on them and which are exposed to winter winds. Crucially, also know which ones are oddly dry and grippy, which ones seem not to get churned up and which ones are hard-packed enough to shrug off the worst of the weather.

While no ride can be completely mud-free, I can stitch together routes that have the minimum of unpleasantness. That’s a challenge in itself, and one I enjoy.

Those are the trails I piece together for the earlier rides of the year, for riders discovering off-road riding because they are the most enjoyable (without needing my contrary streak).

Keeping it clean

I still detest cleaning my bike. And my shoes. And my bag. And all the other bits of tedium that accompany coming home from a muddy ride.

Which is why I try to run rides that keep the unpleasantness to a minimum.

See you on one soon?

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
I hate exercise, I really do

I hate exercise, I really do

I’m going to let you into a secret: I don’t actually enjoy exercise. It bores me and I find it really difficult to motivate myself.

I know that swimming will help loosen up my shoulders, I know that it will mobilise my back, and yet I find it really easy to find reasons not to go. I never have enough time, or there are more important things I could be doing. The honest answer at the root of this reluctance is that I don’t want to go, I get bored of going back and forth very quickly.

I’m the same with running: I did the Great South Run in 2008 with a colleague. He’s taken up running and does marathons. I put my running shoes away in the cupboard, never to be seen again. I was persuaded to do a 10K run in the autumn, my preparation consisted entirely of finding those shoes again and nothing else. I enjoyed it because of the people I was running with and the reason I did it. At the end Mel asked me: “so, will you take up running?” I said “no” and took the shoes off again.

[siteorigin_widget class=”SiteOrigin_Widget_Image_Widget”][/siteorigin_widget]
I’ve just run to catch the train, that was plenty for me. I don’t like running.

“but Andy,” I hear you ask “how can you not like exercise and yet ride a bike for a living? I mean, look at you in the main image of this post: you’re having fun doing exercise.”

Good question.

[siteorigin_widget class=”SiteOrigin_Widget_Image_Widget”][/siteorigin_widget]

The answer is simple really: I ride my bike because I enjoy it. I am fit enough that I can enjoy the rides I want to do, I put in miles so I can enjoy myself when I ride. The motivation has nothing to do with exercise or fitness, it’s about enjoyment. It’s the same reason I haven’t been a member of a gym for over a decade. It has no appeal.

I have no idea what my VO2 max or lactate threshold are. I have very little interest in knowing my training zones are. I’m baffled when I see people out on their bikes suffering their way around a ride. Where’s the fun in that?

I’ll admit that I enjoy being physically active. I’m very much a kinaesthetic learner. I enjoy the physical sensation of the movement on the bike. I love the feeling of motion I get when I ride fast downhill. I thrill at the feeling of the wind on my face (except, possibly, in the depths of winter when I’m less enamoured of it). I’ll admit I even enjoy the challenge of a steep climb and feeling out of breath at the top. It’s all fun.

[siteorigin_widget class=”SiteOrigin_Widget_Image_Widget”][/siteorigin_widget]

The sights and sounds of the countryside are a pretty special reward for getting out too. The scenery, the fauna and flora are all worth the effort.

That’s what gets me out to the shed to grab the bike in the morning.

So, when I say I understand your reticence to start exercise, it’s the truth. When you say you find it difficult to convince yourself to get out and do some exercise, I get it, I really do.

I’ve been told that people are very bad at doing things that are good for us. We are much better at doing things we enjoy. Which is why backpedalling isn’t about getting fit. It’s about getting outside and enjoying yourself. It’s about seeing some special things and going some special places.

That’s why I run the Rusty Rides (warning: last year’s link at the moment) in January and February: because they are fun. So Why not join us next week and see how being active can be enjoyed rather than endured?

The fitness will take care of itself.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Uncategorised, 0 comments
“I’m not fit enough to ride with you”

“I’m not fit enough to ride with you”

I’ve had a couple of odd conversations this week. I paraphrase, but they went something like this:

“I’m not fit enough to go one of your rides.”

“yes you are, why do you think you’re not?”

“Because you’re really fit, you’ll get bored.”

“The point of the rides is that they’re about you.”

“But I’m still not fit enough.”


From here they became slightly circular.

However, they really made me think.

Both conversations were with women who were thinking about taking part in one of my Get into Mountain Biking rides, but were being put off by perceptions of how fit I am. I was confused to say the least: these rides are designed for people who have never (or almost never) ridden a mountain bike before, so how could you not be fit enough?

So let me state, for the record:

You are fit enough to take part because the Get Into Mountain Biking rides are a fun introduction based on the fitness and ability of those taking part.

Or, to put it another way:

The ride is based on your fitness so you must be fit enough because you only need to keep up with yourself.

The length will be determined by your fitness and the difficulty by your ability. I’m offering these rides because I want people to share my love of riding mountain bikes. I’ve designed them so that they’re fun whatever speed we’re going at. They’re about meeting people and having a great time on two wheels. I’m going to enjoy myself because I get to ride my bike, which I love.

Notice how fitness, speed, difficulty didn’t come into that statement? That’s because they’re irrelevant. I want you to have fun because, if you don’t then I’m not doing my job properly. If you hate it, then you’ll never come back. If you love it, you will. It’s in my interests for you to enjoy yourself as well as meaning there are more people riding bikes, so I promise that I will look after you.

However, I can see where both people were coming from: they’d seen pictures of me with my bike and I look fit. I’m a professional mountain bike leader, being fit and healthy is a matter of professional pride and discipline. The Mountain Bike Leader qualification is pretty exacting and the standard is pretty high, so I need a certain amount of fitness to meet those standards. Also, it is a matter of professional standards to be fit enough to lead every ride I offer without running out of gas, and some of them are quite long. I am in fairly good shape because I need to be. I have also reached an age where this doesn’t happen by accident, it’s the result of fairly hard work.

I can see how, to someone contemplating going for their first ride, that looks pretty intimidating. Believe it or not, I know how you feel. When I turned up for my leader training the chap leading the course looked fit as a butcher’s dog and I thought to myself “Am I in good enough shape for this? Am I going to be able to keep up?”. When I started riding mountain bikes I was much less fit than I am now and struggled to keep up with the (admittedly quite fast) group I joined, but they looked after me.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy riding fast. I enjoy going out with my friends pushing each other to go as fast as we can, coming home knackered. I enjoy going to new places and pitting myself against terrain I’m not sure I can ride. I enjoy getting to the top of a hill before my friends or getting the bottom sharing stories of how fast we went. It’s a lot of fun. In my own time, with my friends.

But it’s not the only reason I ride.

And it’s definitely not the reason I’m doing these rides.

Every day I go out on my bike is a good day.

It’s a very good day if I can share that with other people.

It’s an even better day if they can share it with me.


That’s why I’m doing this. That’s why everyone is fit enough to go on a ride with me. Come on a Get into Mountain Biking Ride to find out.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in beginning, Thoughts, 0 comments