Beat the Winter Blues
Michael Hanslip looks at some every-day training tips that will not only get you through winter—they will make you a better all-round rider!
It is all too easy to hang the bike up when the days grow shorter and colder. An extra hour’s sleep grows more attractive than the regular Thursday morning pre-work blast along your local trails. Those Saturday afternoon group rides that no one missed all summer are cancelled due to wet and muddy conditions. In what seems like no time, three months have passed and the bike hasn’t been outside of the garage. In turn, those jeans that fitted so well in February don’t quite button up in August. Running up four flights of stairs seems harder than it should. When spring finally comes those first rides on the bike are not much fun at all—most of your time is spent trying to get a good breath of air. All of this is a fairly normal reaction to the seasons. Whether you live in Hobart or Brisbane, winter brings shorter days, cooler weather and less inviting riding conditions. Putting on weight and getting out of shape during winter is not particularly healthy and it makes it really tough to improve your riding abilities as you start from the same low base each spring. It is much better to beat the doldrums, get on your bike and pedal away the winter! It doesn’t matter what your ultimate goal is. You might just want the fitness required to better enjoy social rides with your mates. Perhaps it is the speed required to not let down the corporate team in the annual 24-hour race. Maybe both speed and fitness are required if club racing is your passion.
No matter, getting out and spending time on the bike is the best and most fun way to keep technique sharp, fitness up, and clothes loose. As the coach of some pretty serious riders, including a professional mountain biker, it would be easy for me to prescribe a regimented training program to take readers through the winter. But after two weeks of that, most people would give up and reach spring no better off. The point of this article is to share some creative ideas on how to make the best use of winter for mountain biking fun.
Create a routine
Psychologically, if a person does a task regularly for around six weeks it becomes a habit. It is easiest to develop a regular riding habit in summer and then continue it into winter—being in a routine makes it easier to deal with the cold/dark/wet conditions. If starting in winter, persevere for two months and that habit will form. This applies to all aspects equally—indoor trainer sessions, morning group rides and so on. While on the way to developing that habit, it is worth establishing some other forms of motivation from the following points (like hooking up with a group or getting a coach) to assist during the hard times when giving up seems the only option.
Get a group
Misery and fun both love company, so if you are going out in the wee hours of the morning when it is still misty and dark, possibly cold and wet, commitment to a group will help to make the getting out of bed process easier (rather than the overuse of the snooze button). I would suggest that only once a week before work is sufficient for most people who have never tried this before—set some good habits this winter and maybe next year two days a week will seem reasonable. When starting out on a new thing, like early morning group riding in winter, not overdoing it is just as important as doing it at all. I have seen many people drag themselves out of bed in the cold and dark of a Canberra winter morning due to the sense of responsibility to the group. Once together the riding can be extremely enjoyable, despite the cold. Groups obviously can come from anywhere: work colleagues, cycle club members or racing team-mates to name just three. A bunch with varied abilities is quite useful—the slow will be challenged to pick up their pace while the fast will assist in order to speed up the whole group. This will work as long as the differences are not too great, in which case the fast guys will soon get bored of waiting.
Hire a coach
Think of it as the ‘boot camp on a bike’ approach. It is a variation on the group theme but having an official leader out there each week increases the responsibility for one to show up. If the coach shows up, then there is a bill to pay whether each rider is present or not. Having a coach to lead the ride also absolves any indecision over where the group will go, or what the group will do. The appropriate coach will also be able to assist in skills development, bike handling, posture and so on. Additionally, there is a ready source of training ideas for any member of the group who decides to get more serious with their riding.
Ride at night
Trails take on a whole different complexion in the dark. Easy singletrack can become challenging without the sun. Fire trails that are boring during the day can be quite entertaining in the dark. It can also educate. Many riders spend too much time worrying about every little rut and rock that they ride over but none of it is visible in the dark and it doesn’t matter—in other words the small stuff can be ignored without consequences most of the time. Learn this at night and ride smoother and faster during the day. Night riding is a particularly important skill for those who like the 24-hour style of racing because a good chunk of the race is in the dark. Practice night riding all winter to justify a fancy set of lights and then be the first to volunteer for a dark lap at the next 24 hour! It is important to get the lighting right for a really enjoyable off-road night ride. Top lighting systems now produce so much light that a single light can provide enough illumination to make the following recommendations irrelevant. For those who cannot afford a top system (from around $600 and up), pay attention to what sort of light is mounted where for maximum benefit. Spot beam lights are usually bright and focused with good distance vision down the trail. They are great when helmet mounted; no matter where your head is pointed, the light follows along. The trick is to look with the head and not the eyes—a skill many people pick up within the first ride.
The problem with only having a spot on the helmet is two-fold. First the light follows the head, not necessarily the bike’s direction. Not having a light pointing straight ahead all the time is potentially dangerous when it comes to on-road visibility (and not so important on the cross country trails). Secondly, the narrow spot that works well on the head provides no peripheral illumination. A relatively low power ‘flood’ beam on the bars covers both of these issues nicely. I have had some good night rides with a 6-watt halogen on my bars and a 10-watt halogen on my head. While more light is definitely a plus, less light than this minimum is probably a little bit too much like riding with one’s eyes closed—it’s dangerous!