How Winter Riding Can Improve MTB Skills, Part 2

I started this post in March 2015. I’m still having fun riding in winter and trying out MTB skills, so here’s some more you can try in the snow! In Manitoba there’s lots of it, so you just have to embrace it. I even tried building up a bermed corner out of snow in my back yard but it didn’t really work out. I might try again this winter.

Cornering

There are lots of MTB tips about cornering on the youtube channels I listed and practicing in winter will probably help your summer riding. I intend to use my new MTB cornering skills in cyclocross this fall as well. Cornering is all about finding the correct balance over the wheels and leaning the bike so that the tires drive into the dirt. Balancing front to rear is the key to not sliding out and falling. Practicing in winter helps you find the limits of traction without worrying about hurting yourself when you fall. First, you’re wearing way more clothing, so there’s lots of padding. Second, you’re going way slower in winter, so falling isn’t nearly as fast.

Practice going down an alley or little-used street and cornering from one side of the road to the other and back. Or sit in an intersection and do loops around and around until one tire starts skidding. Shift your weight around to feel which tire loses traction first so that you know where your weight has to be when they have equal traction.

Practice keeping your outside pedal down and turning your hips towards where you want to go. Drive your outside foot down to plant your tires into the ground (snow) as you turn and don’t forget the #1 rule: look where you want to go.

I tried building up a banked corner in my backyard, but it ended up being too rough. The bike kept digging in and driving the trail further down, so I was never able to practice banked corners. Maybe with more packing and shovel work it could have worked, but I gave up and rode to the park instead. Yep, that foot-and-a-half of snow is about what we get in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in a winter, that’s why it’s so fun!

Bermed corner in winter didn't work out as planned.

Bermed corner in winter didn’t work out as planned.

Hills

Winter provides ample opportunity to practice both ascending and descending hills, and even gives you a chance to try out some dips and jumps with a soft landing. I wish I had some pictures of the hills I managed to climb in the snow on my bike, but I was too busy riding to take any. Plus, I found the size and steepness of a hill doesn’t get conveyed well in a photo.

Going Up

Simply put, winter conditions are probably the toughest to ride in, so going uphill in winter will likely be one of the tougher exercises for MTB practice. Loose snow, icy ruts, and footprints simulate some of the summer’s toughest uphill terrain: sand, loose rocks, and slippery roots. If you can master the uphill winter climb, you’ll probably rock anything summer can throw at you.

Keep your weight over the back tire, don’t stand up, keep your power through as much of the pedal stroke as you can, and don’t mash the pedals. Smooth, controlled pedal strokes in a low gear will keep you spinning up those tough hills.

When I say “weight over the back tire”, I mean sit on the front end of your seat and keep your butt planted. It may be a bit uncomfortable but this drives your weight down through your rear tire to keep traction where you need it. Once you stand up, your weight shifts forward towards the front tire and your back wheel spins out; then you’re done. Raise your seat a bit for hills for more help.

Don’t mash the pedals, that is, shoving hard with your leg only when the pedal is coming down the of the stroke. Instead, try to keep a smooth pressure on the pedal for more of the crank stroke. To do this, you put your heel down at the top of the stroke and push forward. During the middle of the stroke (2 to 4 O’clock) keep your foot flat, like you’re used to. At the bottom of the pedal stroke (4 to 7 O’clock), tip your toes down and drag your foot backward, as if you’re trying to scrape your toes on the ground below.

If you have clipless pedals, you can provide power through the upward portions of the pedal stroke too. Since I ride with winter boots, I switch my clipless pedals back to platform pedals for winter. Keeping a smooth pedal stroke and spinning up the hill will work much better than mashing the pedals, causing the rear tire to slip. Doing this in winter forces you to concentrate that much more to keep from spinning out.

Ride an easy gear so that you can spin up the hill and not resort to standing on your pedals.

Going Down

Any hill can be used to practice proper positioning and balance and winter is no different. Except if you want to try jumps: then winter is great! You can bail into the snowbank if you get scared, and the snow slows you down after you land, so it’s not so scary. I went up and down a toboggan hill (ride up it, don’t walk it!!) many times to practice the feeling of dips and jumps. I also went down steep river banks onto the ice trail and went down some stairs in a slow, controlled manner. I’m already feeling like I can handle steeper hills and jumps when summer comes, but will keep on practicing until the snow starts to melt.

Setup Tips

Tire Pressure

Whether you have studded bike tires or not, if you’re not commuting and just out for some fun, you’ll want the widest contact patch possible for the snow and ice. My suggestion is to go as low as you can with your tire pressure. Test it out in the back alley and make sure you’re not going to get any pinch flats. Snow and even ice is softer than pavement and snow trails are probably going to be a bit more forgiving than dirt trails, so your rim is not going to be hitting bottom too much. If it does, it probably won’t get damaged, but do add a few more psi so that the rim doesn’t bottom out.

Also, I’ve learned that any suspension you had in summer is pretty-well non-existent in freezing weather. The fork oil gets so viscous that after a little while outside, the suspension fork is rigid as steel. Your tires are basically all the suspension you have at this point. Keep them as soft as possible.

Seat Height

In winter, there’s lots of extra opportunity to slide out, so you’ll be putting your foot down and maybe even both feet way more than in the summer. Lower your seat a little more than you would have it in summer and that will allow you to put your feet down better when you lose it.

Enjoy Yourself!

See my previous post on winter MTB skills here: https://kurtbredeson.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/how-winter-riding-can-improve-mtb-skills-part-1/

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About Kurt (Lightning) Bredeson

I am a married man, a follower of Jesus, a Mechanical Engineer, and a lover of cars, cycling and music. Things haven't always been easy; things haven't always been hard. I'm just trying my best in this life to enjoy what's been given to me by God and make the most of it.
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