Mountain Biking in Winter
Mountain biking in winter is not the same as other seasons. In some ways it’s better.
As the wheel of my 29er dipped into the squish of a small mud hole, the front fork smoothed out the impact of the divot, but the mud splattered me anyway, covering my clothes and my face, and leaving a smattering of spots on the yellow lenses of my winter eye wear. At that moment I remembered how much I missed this. Mountain biking in the winter woods.
If I were to divide the months of my cycling year I would see that the warmer months are devoted almost exclusively to road riding. If it’s over 50 degrees. I’ll hit the road. There will even be a few days when temperatures are between 40-50 that will find me out on the Blue Ridge Parkway, or other back roads here in southwest Virginia. I’m a bit of a mileage junky and sometimes I find it difficult to ride my mountain bike for two hours only to write down 12 miles. It’s sad. I know.
The other truth is that I can ride the road bike from my driveway and voila, I’m underway. To ride the 29er at Carvins Cove, I must load the bike on the car and drive half an hour in each direction. While the experience is worth it, often there just isn’t time for the drive and the ride.
Then there’s life’s other realities. In November and December the holidays encroach on my schedule. And for the last couple of years, I’ve been burned out after ten months of riding. Between the schedule, the cold and the burn out it’s easy to make excuses. So the bikes tend to stay in the garage.
New Year, New Energy
Then comes January. There are extra pounds to shed. Guilt is accumulating. The weather is too cold for the road bike and the associated windchill. It’s then that the call of the Cove is loudest. It’s then I most enjoy the mountain bike.
That’s how I found myself pleasantly speckled in mud and recalling what a joy it is to be in the grey, winter woods.
While there are no leaves on the trees nor wildflowers on the embankments, neither are there mosquitoes, ticks or spiderwebs strung across the trail.
Here in the monochromatic woods of January and February, one needs to work a bit harder to engage with nature. If you look, you might see a crow sized pileated woodpecker with its bobbing flight pattern and huge red crested head, or maybe the smaller downy woodpecker. In these shaded woods, a simple cardinal is a joy.
There are bears in the area. I saw one once and counted myself lucky. It was late fall then. I still look for them, but in January I’m assuming only a confused bear would be awake and moving.
The deer are as numerous as the bears are rare. Some have watched me pass as they stand just feet from the trail. They’ve figured out that people on bicycles mean them no harm. I wonder if they realize they are an attraction to those humans… If they could ever comprehend how much they improve my day, just by being there.
You don’t see it if you don’t ride
I often think of the the trail as a river. Except in rivers the current is the great animator. As you cast a fly upstream, the riffles, rapids and slow moving pools bring it back to you. A fish stays in place and the moving water brings it food. On the mountain bike, you must pedal to your discovery. The trail is stationary. If you want to experience what is has to offer, you must plunge in and seek out whatever secrets lie ahead.
Most often the next bend reveals only more trail. But occasionally there is a deer or a bird. Maybe there is a black snake stretched across the path. Each, in its own way, an experience. A memory made in a fleeting instant. Something to tell a buddy about over a beer. Something you wouldn’t have seen if you had stayed home.
I round a familiar bend and come to the rock garden that’s always been there. The big wheels and knobby tires negotiate it, and roll forward. I hop a log and pump up and over a short section of steep roots. Such obstacles push us, rob us of breath and push our heart rate. With luck there is a burst of adrenaline. Even on cold day there is sweat. In that particular moment, it’s not about the snakes or woodpeckers. The physical experience trumps nature. The birds and trees become the background of the painting into which I have have ridden. Only on a mountain bike can we experience the thrill of the athletic endeavor in this environment. Only on the bike do we have the thrill of speed, the joy of agility and the satisfaction from pushing our bodies through physical exertion in these surroundings. I find it a way to harvest — to enjoy — the fitness I’ve worked so hard to achieve and maintain.
In the winter woods one rides on with heavy gloves and layers of clothing holding off the cold. I feel just slightly removed from the contact with the saddle and handlebars compared to mountain biking in my lightweight summer kit. Yet, the bike makes its way along the singletrack. The hard pack gives way to mud for a while then returns to its previous firmness. My fitness is down a bit from summer and and my speed is a bit slower. I ride on, exalting in the physicality of the experience, and hoping to add to it with a bit of unexpected or at least unpredictable wildlife to break up the monotony of the browns and greys.
The animals will come or they won’t. But the trail leads ever on. A few extra rpm’s on the pedals or a short hill will ever spike my pulse. The roots and rocks provoke unrelenting focus. Minutes turn to miles. The stimulation is constant and who knows what’s around the next turn. Maybe I’ll be lucky. Maybe it will be another mud puddle.