Choosing Your Adventure Where to ride when conditions aren't great...

By Al Gilmour, Head of Mountain Biking......

We all have our favourite trails, our favourite areas to ride, but here’s a question for you: do you ride them no matter what condition they are in? So let me ask, why do you choose to still ride them, or how do you decide where to go instead?

As I’m writing this, up here in the Highlands we have a magical winter wonderland outside. There is snow everywhere and with pretty good trail conditions, there is some great riding to be had. However, if the weather were to warm up, the snow will melt and the resulting slush changes everything. Trails get wet and greasy; nothing dries out in winter and if we then get frosts overnight, everything freezes into a sheet of ice. Game over.

All is not lost though! If I want to ride, I just have to be a bit more creative – maybe go back to trails I haven’t been to for years, or finally explore areas that I have been meaning to get to for a while. This winter, so far, I’ve managed to get out to the coast a few times, at Christmas we went to the Southern side of the Cairngorms, and excitingly I’ve even found some fantastic new local trails! Granted, some of this riding has been more about journeying on the bike rather than a technical test, but it most importantly it has meant I’m out on the bike.

As always from late Autumn through to Spring the weather certainly makes me think about what I ride and whether it’s appropriate. Can I justify riding my local trails and watching them get progressively wetter, muddier and more trashed? I’ve never been a big fan of riding trashed trails. They don’t ride well and are often more of a survival fest rather than the flow and fun that I’m looking for.

Hunting out trail surfaces that can handle the weather is the trick. The obvious choice is to head off to a trail centre. They are built to be ridden all year and should handle the wetter months of the year better. It also means that usually, I can find out if the trails are icy and un-rideable through the centre’s website, or via a forum or bike shop link.

If I’m looking for wilder trails then I start with the type of terrain; taking the angle out of the trail is a great starting point. Water damage is a huge problem once the trail gets steeper - Winter is unkind to these trails. On the flip side, if the landscape is completely flat there’s a good chance it could be boggy. Keeping to a lower altitude has helped, leaving the tops for longer days and drier months. Heading east has generally meant less rain and drier trails, whilst going to the coast has often meant warmer temperatures and less ice. Journeying on Land Rover tracks generally gives a better trail surface and better sustainability. My adventures still happen, I just change the environment.

I also find myself changing my riding style. Although I aim to ride light at any time of the year, when the trails are soft it refocuses me to ride with a light touch, I slow down a bit, brake with more anticipation and avoid dragging my wheels. This all really helps to save the trail surface. There’s no looking cool like the youth out in the Alps here!

One thing for certain though, I will definitely be navigating if I’m out exploring new trails. With the advent of GPS and smartphones, my navigation is a bit less traditional these days; I have a variety of apps on my phone that really help. A word of caution though! From conversations with others and from personal experience, its worth remembering that because a trail is shown on the app or map it doesn’t mean it is a good idea to ride it! Or that it even exists! I’ve found the best formula for putting great rides together is to mix a little bit of everything together – OS maps, Google Earth, local info, guidebooks – there is a wealth of information out there these days. With things changing and developing so quickly, undoubtedly there will be many new options available that I haven’t discovered yet.

However, what’s a new trail to me could be an old favourite to you. It’s important to remember that whilst you might be avoiding riding a trail for all of the reasons mentioned above, then I come along and ride it in order to avoid trashing mine. It’s worth remembering this when out riding; always try to consider others and protect the trail you’re on.

Once out there on the trails, using the mapping software on our phones to know where we are is a good start! I tend to use ‘Viewranger’ most often; the wee blue dot on the map is always reassuring! Especially when I see it sitting exactly where I think I am. If that’s not the case, then at least I can start to make a plan for where next. Often apps like ‘Viewranger’ are free to download, then you pay for the maps you need. I find myself completely obsessed with recording my rides. If I’m in the mood to, I’ll then upload them to the likes of ‘Strava’ when the connectivity lets me! It’s taken a bit of practice for ‘Viewranger’ to become a useful tool for me, but it is worth it. At times, I’ve used the search function in the app to find inspiration for new routes in new areas. As always though, check conditions before riding. Just like the phone I also find myself using my GPS cycle computer with mapping at times to tell me how far I’ve gone or to decide where next. I also take a photo of any trail map notice boards at trail heads and refer to these whilst on my ride. It’s amazing how much information is out there now. However, I’ve learnt the hard way how draining all of this is on my phone battery, so now I always take a small battery pack and cable for my phone. They are invaluable.

There’s no denying that there is a whole world of information at our finger tips now, but I never miss the chance to head to the local bike shop if there is one. They are a great place to get current info on trail conditions and where to avoid, and maybe get a coffee, buy a souvenir of your adventure – or to replace the gloves I forgot to pack!

I have certainly reminded myself already that I don’t need to pack my bike away this winter. I can still get out there and enjoy the trails whatever the local weather.

As an aside:

Over the years I have become more conscious of the fact that, as a group, we need to be better at sharing conditions with each other, so that our amazing trails stay amazing. There are apps out there like Trailforks where we can log current trail info; a great idea if well used. I’m not really a Facebook person but there must be mileage here too.

With the great explosion in the number of riders out there and places to ride, everywhere is under pressure to varying degrees. Can it continue? Is it sustainable?

The simple answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. It can and should continue, but we have to take ownership of it and ride responsibly. If we can vary our trails and spread the load, then we will keep this amazing resource in the best condition possible.

It’s up to us as riders to look after our future here.

If we choose well, we will have a blast. We’ll get to ride a great variety of trails and enjoy all that our country has to offer.

I can’t wait for more winter……

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