Words by Steve Thomas
The wet and wild weather of winter is creeping ever closer. Those precious daylight hours shorten faster than burning candles, and that seasonal winter gloom descends upon us like a predictable and unavoidable fog. This can all combine to seriously impact and limit our off-road riding potential.
Those epic and technically inviting mountain bike trails of the summer months slowly turn to greasy quagmires around much of the country, and every ride out inevitably means numerous twig stops for de-mucking.
Be it a 45-minute slither in the local woods or an all-day open moorland ride, we all know the dirty burden of bike cleaning and laundry that follows most winter mountain bike rides and the toll it takes on our moving parts.
On those all too rare and hoped for crispy and clean days when the trails are lightly frosted, and the air is served with a refreshing chill to it all is good; in fact, it can be great. It’s just that they don’t come around anywhere near as often as we’d like, but hey, that’s winter in the UK.
There are still some epic adventures to be had out there during the winter, and of course, you can also always make the dawn drive to a trail centre and hope for better and more rideable conditions and pressure washer blast to finish off with. Unfortunately, for many of us, that’s a lot to cram into an unpredictable few hours of weekend daylight.
The goodness of winter gravel
This is a time when and where even the most ardent of mountain bikers should take a closer look at the outwardly tamer world of gravel riding. Gravel is simply perfect for a winter day’s ride or even for a night’s thrash without the crash and mud burden.
Almost all of us can find gravel trails, smooth bridleways or un-surfaced bike paths close to home. There’s a good chance that, as a mountain biker, you’ve perhaps not even considered riding these in the past, or at least not in a serious way.
Pull out a local OS map or even head into one of the navigation apps, and you’ll see that much of the country is blessed with trails and short sectors of gravel and dirt roads.
These can be linked together into sharply short or all-day rides. These are generally motorised traffic-free rides and mostly all but mudless too, or at least not to any seriously clogging degree.
You may well turn off to the very notion of this and have chilling visions of cycle paths and bollards all laced with pram pushers and poodles. There may be an element of this to handle if you live in a built-up area, although as soon as you get away from the urbanisation, you’ll find that things really don’t have to be that way for long. People rarely go further than a few walking minutes away from their cars or homes.
The skinny thrills of winter
For many, there can be an indefinable line between gravel riding and mountain biking. You can make gravel riding as sedate or extreme as you want to make sure you get that double shot of adrenaline with a good measure of natural trail solitude to suit your taste.
The great thing about gravel riding is that you can usually find decent rides straight from home, and you can often avoid or minimise the drudgery and risks of winter roads rides. This all maxes out your potential off-road ride times and minimises the faffing around of driving to trails (which you can, of course, still do for a great gravel ride).
Gravel riding is pretty much what you make of it. If you want to push the rubber envelope, you can always take on the less extreme mountain bike trails. With gravel riding, there is an extra and near-guaranteed adrenaline factor embedded due to the simple fact that you’re riding rigid bikes with skinny tyres on these trails.
Riding a gravel bike along mildly technical routes is something that can make even those trails that you normally skim across and perhaps once considered tame or lame come alive.
More ride time
2021 frost mud tyre tracks gravel mountain bike tyre tracks.jpg, by Jessica Strange
Distance and continuance is also a great benefit to riding gravel in winter. You can often ride for hours without any real interruption during winter and without the burden of constant de-clogging and the potential shivering trailside maintenance that goes with that.
If you ride with others, you will also find that there’s a lot less hanging around and waiting on technical sections and for muddy mechanicals. You can ride together and enjoy the social side more flowingly, which really adds up on grim weather days.
From a fitness point, this is also great, as you can really stack up those base miles without having to hit the dreaded hard stuff, and if you do this on occasion, you’ll get through it a lot faster and easier.
Fun without the sun
The fun factor and technical challenges of piloting skinny tyres and dropped bars on technical sections are also not to be underestimated. This will go a long way towards sharpening your trail skills and awareness of the terrain when you hit the trails on a mountain bike next.
If you don’t have or don’t want to invest in a dedicated gravel bike, you could always lock out your suspension and put on some skinnier tyres.
This will speed your rig up some, although the chances are that you will find yourself eventually looking for that something extra (or rather, less) that a gravel bike gives you on the faster moving and drier trails out there. A gravel bike will probably be an investment that you will not regret, and you may well get hooked.
Even if you’re a red run addict, don’t dismiss the thrills and benefits of riding gravel during the winter. Give it a blast if you haven’t already, and you’ll soon see why so many top riders (in all disciplines) hit the gravel these days, and not just in the winter months either.
If you're looking for gravel routes, check out this collection from Komoot.