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.

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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.

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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
Braking Bad: The disc brake is an amazing thing. Right up until it isn’t

Braking Bad: The disc brake is an amazing thing. Right up until it isn’t

The joy of disc brakes

Disc brakes are just great. Right?

Disc brakes are fantastic. Apologies to any of my road-riding chums, but they are just streets ahead of all kinds of rim brakes, for a whole host of reasons. In fact, I can’t think of a single circumstance in which rim brakes are as good, let alone better. (Actually it does, apparently, take several seconds longer to change a disc wheel than a rim-brake one. This might be important if you are competing in a professional road race). They offer better modulation in the dry, they work at all in the wet, they are less likely to get fouled with mud, they almost never need me to spend hours realigning them, they don’t care if my wheel is slightly out of true and there are no cables to stretch or get gummed up.

They make mountain biking north of Watford Gap possible. I learned this the hard way away back in the early noughties when I lived in Glasgow. My disc brake equipped riding chums all stopped when they pulled on the levers while I had to wait for my brake pads to clean the rims enough to get a purchase. On one memorable occasion, this led to me heading off-piste and into a river. Oh what fun!

Until they (don’t) brake (sorry)

They are much more reliable than the alternatives right up until the point that they aren’t. Then they become a pain in the posterior.

I was heading home from a ride at the weekend when I heard the telltale sound of a brake pad that was past its best. There’s a particular “tink tink tink tink” noise it makes when something other than the pad contacts the rotor.

Which is why I have spent the morning sorting out my rear brake. It’s not a major faff to change pads: Pop the wheel off, take the old pads out, push the pistons back into the brake calliper and drop the new ones in. But there is always the chance that the brake will need to be bled as a result. And that is a major faff.

Modern discs use a hydraulic fluid instead of a cable. It has a lot of advantages: it’s reliable, it’s resilient and largely unbothered by anything you do to your bike short of splitting the hose. However, if air gets into the system they just stop working (ok, they feel really spongy first but that’s basically the same thing if you really need the bike to stop. Now!). So you need to purge the system of all those air bubbles.

All a bit Heath Robinson?

Oh, bleeding hell!

Bleeding (as that purging process is known) requires two syringes full of fluid connected to ports in the system so you can push out the bubbles. One at each end of the system. Which is fine for the front brake. The rear: not so much. There’s only so far my arms can reach and from just above the handlebars to just below the rear hub is too far.

Which is why Mel found herself standing on a chair, holding a syringe full of brake fluid attached to the lever whilst I knelt on the floor whilst I knelt on the floor with the other attached to the calliper. Fluid was duly passed back and forth, trying desperately to spill as little as possible.

Brake lever bleed

Brake lever bleed

There are several steps in the process. The final stage saw me, now standing on the chair, trying to flick the last few air bubbles out of the brake lever. Every so often I thought I’d got everything, only to have a massive bubble appear the next time I flicked it.

However, eventually it was cracked. I reassembled the bike, fitted the new pads and refitted the back wheel. This was the moment of truth: it’s hard to tell until you’ve put everything together whether the bleed has been a success. Fingers crossed. Spin the back wheel. Pull on the lever…and the wheel stops. Again: same result. Result!

Now to put everything back together again.

Now in front of an audience

The house over the road from us has been being rebuilt for the last year and a half. Over that time the builders have seen me do all sorts of strange things. They seemed to enjoy watching me do my half-hour of track stand practice every day on the drive. Today they were treated to me riding down the road and whamming on the anchors for no obvious reason, only to pedal on again and repeat the process. Then ride back up the road and do it all again. And again. And again. All this in the name of bedding in the new pads. This is the process by which you put a lot of heat into the pads to cure the surface. It’s supposed to help the pads brake better and last longer.

The truth of it is that it’s tedious and gives you arm pump. Which is no fun whatsoever.

However, the upshot is that, only a couple of hours after getting the bike out of the shed, it’s got a spanky newly set up back brake. And that’s worth it.

Rear brake bleed

Rear brake bleed

So, is it all worth it?


It might be a pain, but it’s not really that much more of a pain than doing a similar job on the road bike. And it’s totally worth it for brakes that I know are going to work when I pull on the levers.

Brakes that work are a big part of making sure my bike is ready to take people out.

Oh, and that “tink tink tink tink” noise? That’s why I carry a spare set of pads when I go out riding.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in kit, Thoughts, 2 comments
Getting the better of broken spokes

Getting the better of broken spokes

On the way home from my recce ride yesterday something awful happened.

I rode down a flight of steps. It’s a flight of steps I’ve ridden down loads of time before with no ill effects. Not this time. No, this time there was an awful noise from the back wheel. A nasty, nasty noise told me that something was amiss.

I stopped and looked at the offending wheel. It was pretty clear I’d sheared off a spoke at the nipple. No bother really. It’s irksome but nothing more than that, so I carried on riding. As I carried on I realised that the back wheel was all over the show.

I stopped and looked down. The sight that confronted me was downright upsetting. I hadn’t snapped a spoke, I’d snapped four. A quick bit of mental arithmetic told me I was missing one eighth of my total spoke count at the back. That’s a real loss of structural integrity.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a more nervous ride (with the possible exception of my old daily commute and the odd rocky descent in Scotland) as I expected my back wheel to fall apart at any moment. Fortunately, I made it home in one piece.

Riding home with broken spokes was just the start of my bother.

No, repairing it would be the real pain in the backside. As you’ll remember from a similar situation last week. I really love re-seating tubeless tyres.

So, with a handful of new nipples in hand I set about it this morning. It turns out that the original broken spoke count was wrong: I actually had five spokes sheared off. Oh well.

Having got through that, and chased a dropped nipple round the inside of the rim, everything went smoothly. In fact….[goes to check]…it’s still up.



Posted by BackPedalling Andy in kit, Rides, 0 comments
Wear and tearing my hair out.

Wear and tearing my hair out.

If you ride a mountain bike for long enough, there are two certainties:

  1. You will get muddy
  2. Parts of the bike will wear out

Mud is part and parcel of the fun. If I’m honest, it’s part of the attraction. Riding in the mud is a lot of fun and there’s something about coming home covered in mud that puts me in touch with the child in me.

QE Park mud covered

QE Park mud covered

I’m fine with mud (but don’t quote me on that in February)

Wear and tear is another matter entirely

Things wearing out means that the bike spends more time on a workstand and less time out on the trails.

Some mountain bikers are tinkerers and fettlers. Some people really enjoy “optimising” their bike with new bits and pieces. I’m not one of them: repairs are a necessary evil that cuts down my riding time. I’ve got better at fixing things because it means I can spend more time riding. Simple.

So the inevitability of things wearing out is something I could live without. The problem is that, seen over a long enough time frame, everything on the bike is consumable. Chains & brake pads: easy fix and not really a problem. Cables: fair enough. Rear cassettes: OK, I suppose. Even chainrings: eventually, and it’s not that much of a faff.

There is, however, one piece of breakage that really does my nut in. And that is spokes.

Why so bad?

In the old days, a broken spoke was an embuggerance but nothing more. You whip off the tyre, lift out the tube and stick a new one in. No biggie.

However, I run my wheels with the new-fangled tubeless setup. It means exactly what it says: there are no inner tubes. The tyre fits on the rim like a car tyre and is held tight with latex sealant. There are some really good reasons for tubeless: it virtually eliminates pinch-flats (where the rim hits the ground and pinches the inner tube), it virtually eliminates punctures too and you can run tyres at lower pressures for more grip. Everyone’s a winner.

The downside is that fitting them and setting them up can be a bit of a pain. There are a whole lot of potential leaky spots to be eliminated. That latex can go anywhere if you’re not careful.

So once they’re on and up I tend to leave them alone as much as possible. Changing them for winter ones in October and back again in about March is about all I can stand.

Which is why I hate snapped spokes.

That means taking the whole careful set up completely to pieces and beginning again from scratch.

Why tearing your hair out?

I went out for a ride on Monday. At one point I hit a lip slightly wrong. At another I put too much side load through the rear wheel. Result: one snapped spoke on each wheel.

That translates to taking both wheels apart before I can go out and ride again.

That’ll be fun.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments