After the glorious trail conditions of the summer, we welcome the wetter months with a chorus of grumbles as the dusty paths transform into a slippery mess. Despite the sometimes challenging conditions, winter riding is something that can be embraced, especially by those who are hellbent on riding as much as they can. But as the conditions change from dry to wet, it’s important that you prepare your mountain bike properly in order to squeeze out the best performance you can on those soggy descents.
The first thing any keen off-road cyclist should think about when moving into the winter months is mudguards. More often than not, these are fit-and-forget components, especially through the typically changeable British seasons. If you’ve not got one already, a mudguard will make the biggest difference to your winter riding life.
Mudguards come in all shapes and sizes in order to offer a different level of protection. Some are very small and light - arguably look better - and are designed to keep mud and spray out of a rider’s face. Others are larger, reaching further around the wheel with the aim of keeping the rider as dry and clean as possible. These are especially handy if you like to chest mount an action camera to film your rides as you can ensure the lens stays free of splashes.
Whether you want a more discreet mudguard or value all-out cleanliness is entirely up to your preferences and the trail conditions you usually encounter.
Nowadays, mudguards can either be fitted to your fork using zip ties and Velcro, or brands such as Mudhugger and RRP offer guards that bolt into your fork. The latter may sacrifice all-out stability, but they’re great for a clean look and they don’t rub your fork like zip ties can do.
Choose more aggressively treaded tyres and a softer compound
Your bike’s tyres are two of the most important components of your bike and their tread pattern massively influences how your bike interacts with the trail, and the grip it can eke out.
It goes without saying that when conditions get wet, the trails get softer and tyres with low-profile tread patterns will struggle. While fantastic in the dry, they don’t have the tread depth that’s required to dig deep into wet mud, and offer grip. This will make your bike feel as if it’s skating over mud, rather than gripping the trail.
When transitioning into the wetter months, consider choosing a tyre with a more aggressive tread pattern, or taller and wider spaced knobs. Taller knobs dig through the squishy wet dirt and find the firmer ground underneath, where the grip is. A widely spaced tread compound will allow the tyre to fling mud off of the tyre’s carcass when riding, stopping it from clogging and reducing the grip available. It’s also a great idea to pick a tyre with a squarer profile on the rim, as more pronounced shoulder knobs will pay back in loads of grip when tackling wet off-camber.
It’s wise to look towards softer rubber compounds too as the softer the rubber, the more chemical grip you’ll get. While all of this will increase the overall grip your bike can offer, it does come with a sacrifice of more rolling resistance, so your bike will be a little harder to pedal. Also, don’t go too crazy with the tread pattern as full-on mud tyres with super tall knobs can feel nervous over harder sections of the trail. To get a great idea of which tyres suit all riding styles best, check out our tyre reviews.
Lower tyre pressures
On the subject of tyres, in the wetter months, you can get away with dropping the psi of your tyres a notch or two. When grip is scarce, you’re not going to be riding as quickly and of course, the trail isn’t as hard as it is in the summer. With this in mind, you don’t have to worry quite as much about pinch flats.
In the winter, you can take full advantage of this and soften your tyres a little bit which will eke out even more grip from your tyre set-up by allowing them to conform to the trail even more. But as always, don’t go too soft or you’ll end up fixing flats on the trailsides.
Install light mounts
No one likes faff and getting your light mounts sorted on your handlebar and helmet before a ride, and leaving them in place semi-permanently will simply speed up your pre-ride prep. Not only will you be ready to ride faster, but getting the placement of your lights dialled on your first night ride will mean that you’ll never have to do it again, or at least until British Summer Time comes around again.
Consider flat pedals
This isn’t a case of 'flat pedals win medals' but as mentioned before, wet trails offer far less grip which poses an excellent case for flat pedals. Although in some areas it’s not considered the best technique to ride with flats, when grip is hard to come by, lifting a foot from the pedal, or dabbing mid-corner is imperative to keeping you upright. Being able to do this without having to clip out, and back in of a pedal is incredibly freeing and could be a make or break in tricky trail situations.
In the most horrific of mud and snow, even the best clipless pedals can also clog up which makes engaging with the pedal an absolute nightmare. So in the winter, choosing a pair of decent flat pedal shoes, and flat pedals can up your riding game to no end.
Swap your brake pads
When it’s dry, many choose to ride with organic brake pads in order to benefit from their stronger bite, and fast bed-in but when it’s wet, organic pads very quickly lose their power as they absorb moisture.
Even though organic (or resin) pads offer better braking in cooler conditions, it’s wise to move to sintered, or metallic pads as we move into winter as they’re much more resilient and won't wear nearly as quickly. They may require a bit of heat to work at their best, but even when cool, sintered pads do a better job of slowing you down than wet organic pads. It’s a relatively cheap change to make, too.
Check over your bearings
If you’re anything like the rest of us, you’ll have given your bike an absolute hammering throughout summer in which case, it’s great to take the shock out of your frame and check the smoothness of your pivot bearings. The same goes for your headset and wheels too. If there’s any play in any of these bearings, get them replaced as it’ll only worsen as water ingresses - and that can become an expensive thing to fix come summer.
If all is well, check again as we move into the dryer months.
Tweak your suspension
In the summer, you’ll be riding faster and hitting terrain harder and you’ll likely be running your rebound faster to cope with that. You might even have an extra bottomless token or volume spacer. Come winter, you might want to think about tweaking your suspension setup again.
As we ride into the winter, typically, we slow down as the slick trails dial back the confidence a bit. If you’ve got your suspension set up for summer speeds, it won’t be working at its absolute best in the winter, due to the slower speed.
With that in mind, consider slowing down the rebound a click or two at least which will further improve grip by keeping your wheels planted to the ground.
Refresh your grips
Like with your tyres, if your mountain bike grips are worn, they won’t be any good when they get wet. Going for a fresh set of grips will up your confidence by giving your hands more traction on the bars. Some grips even have special channels that move water away, all to boost grip and bar feel.
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