Many riders assume they understand the potential damage effect of riding in wet and muddy conditions but unless you have shaped and shovelled some dirt, you probably don’t. Winter is the wear season for bikes and trails, with both exposed to enhanced mechanical and material wear. For riders, the issue is shared responsibility and accountability.
When you decide to ride your 1x12 wireless shifting drivetrain on a muddy trail or a four-hour off-road outride, the associated chain, cassette and chainring wear is for your account. But when riders venture onto muddy trails and ride carelessly, the damage they can cause degrades a shared resource for everyone.
Sustainable singletrack and responsible use
All trail building disturbs the environment. No new singletrack trail is created without moving soil, shaping corners, or removing undergrowth. The accepted principle is that trail builders work sustainably, creating singletrack that drains well, doesn’t catastrophically erode and remains usable with minimal soil degradation and depletion over time.
Trail builders are the underappreciated mountain biking heroes and always construct trails with great skill and insight. Trail builders never cause the issue with singletrack erosion and proximity damage to wilderness areas, but careless riders do. Ultimately, you are behind the handlebars and in control of the lines you choose and how much braking you do when riding muddy singletrack.
Fowl weather reduces trail use in winter, with fewer riders and a lower riding frequency. But those riders who do venture onto singletrack in winter, when trails are muddy, need to ride with greater skill to avoid doing too much damage. This is especially true when riding in rainy conditions when soil is at its most vulnerable.
A singletrack trail seeping with moisture is the trail builder’s dream and nightmare. Soft soil is more manageable to recompact, shape, and move. But it is also more vulnerable to aggressive braking damage caused by mountain bikers being overzealous in sensitive riding conditions.
Brake lock-up and winter trail wear do correlate. The steeper a trail network is, the more risk there might be regarding switchback corner erosion.
Even in dry summer conditions, switchback corners risk accelerated wear because of poor rider technique. Instead of braking with control, well ahead of the switchback corner turn-in point, many riders wait until the last moment before grabbing a full lever-pull of the rear brake. The idea is to lock up the rear wheel, allowing a skid, which reduces the turning angle, which is poor riding technique and why you see so many awful braking bumps on the approach to switchback corners.
Does tyre size and shape make a difference?
Brake lock-up and a skidding tyre turn your mountain into a plough, but does a specific tyre type increase the damage?
2023 Merida One sixty fr front tyre.jpg, by Liam Mercer
Mountain biking has an immense diversity of tyre shapes, sizes and tread patterns. From narrower, lightweight cross-country tyres with a shallow skid depth to heavy, high-volume, mud-specific tyres, which look like they could go on a motocross bike. The logic is that a tyre with a more climbing grip can also do more damage when descending when it is locked up by an incorrect braking technique. But is this completely true?
The tyres designed for mud-specific riding are rarely fitted to most mountain bikes. Perhaps the best-known mud tyres are Maxxis’s Shorty, with extremely tall tread blocks, deep skid depth, and generous tread spacing. Like most mud-specific tyres, the Shorty is rarely used, mainly by UCI Mountain Bike World Cup downhill racers, in extreme conditions.
If mud tyres, with their extreme tread blocks, constitute such a small proportion of the rubber fitted to the fleet of mountain bikes which roll most winter miles, what is the damage profile of less aggressively treaded tyres? That’s a more relevant question because tyre casing size could be more influential than many riders imagine regarding winter riding trail damage.
Berria_Bravo_6_tyre.jpg, by Matthew Page
Imagine two mountain bike tyres of the same tread pattern but different casing sizes. One is a 29 x 2.1in and the other is a 29 x 2.4in. You would think a wider casing tyre is better at finding traction in muddy conditions, but that’s not always the case. A narrower tyre will ‘cut’ better through the surface layer of any muddy trail, engaging with the available grip below. Larger volume tyres tend to ‘float’ more in muddy conditions and do slightly less damage.
E-bikes and the risk of overpowering winter trails
Whenever trail wear and singletrack stewardship are discussed, the issue of e-bikes never escapes scrutiny. Being universally heavier than conventional mountain bikes and rolling the most aggressive tread pattern tyres, e-bikes have the potential for enhanced trail wear, especially in winter.
2023 Canyon TorqueON CF 9 riding climbing 2.jpg, by Liam Mercer
The most significant risk with e-bike accelerated trail wear, during winter, isn’t descending but climbing. With an e-bike capable of amplifying a rider’s pedalling input by three or fourfold, it can churn up steep climbing singletrack, creating damage grooves where analogue mountain bike riders couldn’t sustain a pedal stroke.
But imagining that all e-bikes must churn up all those steep bits on a muddy singletrack climb ignores the sophisticated sensor technology that many e-bikes have. Accelerometer and wheel speed sensor technology enables a cleverly configured e-bike to climb with minimal wheel slip. Any good trail or enduro e-bike has on-bike setting, which can dramatically vary the percentage of mid-drive motor assistance and how that pedal assistance syncs with your pedal stroke.
E-bike riders don’t need to be gifted with mountain bike DIY or mechatronics to make their bikes ‘winter-season’ friendly. Nearly all e-bikes are paired with a set-up and configuration app, which makes adjusting the power assistance settings and intensity of acceleration assistance as easy as navigating a Smartphone sub-menu and moving a setting slider to the left.
Considering their weight, aggressive tyres, and sheer pedalling power assistance, e-bikes have the potential to do the most damage to muddy trails in winter, but app-based configurators can make an e-bike ride very gently and efficiently when climbing in the muddiest conditions. It’s also worth noting that staying on the bike and riding can be less damaging than dismounting and walking a bike up muddy trails due to riders stepping on the trail edge, creating damage beyond the conventional mountain bike tyre erosion heatmap. In this regard, e-bikes are valuable because they allow you to remain in the saddle and pedal, instead of dismounting and pushing.
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