Monday, November 28, 2011

Everything you ever wanted to know about night/winter mountain biking in the midwest.

With hunting season, winter and a severe lack of daylight upon us, your riding opportunities can seem pretty limited.  Before you decide to spend the rest of winter zoned out playing marathon sessions of Modern Warfare 3 and eating cookies with your lame, non-riding buddies, get yourself a light system and get into the action. It's night riding season Boyeeee!

There is no other type of riding that compares to the surreal experience you get from slicing through the trees and over creek crossings in the dark. Trails, once familiar, now pose unknown challenges around every corner.

Riding at night can seem a little intimidating to solo riders that haven't ventured into the forest after dark. Luckily for you Fred, there are plenty of fun group night rides in which to participate.

St. Charles CountySLAGGORC, SLAMB and The Bike Stop Cafe all coordinate group night rides all year long. Tuesday night rides at Lost Valley, Saturday night rides at Bangert Island are just a couple of the local weekly rides that keep the sickness going all winter long. Check with your local land managers for areas that are open to night activities.

Group night rides are challenging and require a little bit more preparation than your usual daytime romp in the park. Showing up prepared and being aware of a few things can help you have a stress free and kick ass night ride.

When you plan to attend any group ride, (day or night) you should make sure you have familiarized yourself with the trail you will be riding by reading the trail description. If no description is available on the event page, good information for St. Louis trails can be found at GORC Trails

But, I don't want to get cold! Whaa Whaa Whaa...There is an old saying that says there is no bad weather, just bad gear. If you have unlimited funding for your outdoor recreation addiction, this is true but, expensive cold-weather specific riding gear can quickly drain your bank account while you're busy decking yourself out in the latest, greatest Gortex, Windstopper and breathable membrane coated Geektek jumpsuit. 

I don't want to spend this entire page talking about gear but here's a  few suggestions for winter gear that won't break the bank. 

Upper Body: Light to medium weight jacket with a windbreak outer shell. Long sleeve jersey/ shirt with a tee shirt under that. Wicking material is great but, is not mandatory. You are going to be surprised at how quickly your body warms up while pedaling. Most people will over dress and then find themselves removing a layer at the first stop. Savvy riders will be a little chilly before the ride begins and then warm up when the pedals start churning up the body heat. If you look like the Michelin man when you walk out the door, chances are, you're over dressed!

Lower Body: Thin to medium base layer/long underwear/ tights then either riding shorts, jeans or wind breaking running/ track pants and ankle wrap to keep it out of the chain.

Face/ Ears/ Hands and Feet. This is where I would put my money as I've found these areas are the toughest to keep toasty, especially the TOES! A thin beanie under the helmet, ski mask or balaclava is essential to maintaining body heat and keeping the ears warm. Long wool/ wicking or ski socks. Make sure they aren't so thick that they impede blood flow to your digits! Good quality, medium weight gloves. Ski gloves can be okay, but thick winter gloves make tickling the shifters tricky. I like to carry an extra pair of light weight gloves in my pack as I've found that most gloves seem to get moist from sweat which eventually makes your hands cold. It's a nice mid-ride treat to be able to put on a pair of dry gloves.
Some people will put on their riding shoes when they arrive. Newb mistake ALERT! I suggest you wear your cycling shoes as you drive to the trailhead. BLAST the car's heater on your feet to get those shoes warm and toasty before you even arrive. I've tested this method and my left foot always gets cold before my right foot. Why you ask? Because my right foot is closer to the vent. Go figure.

This next tip maybe a little controversial, so use it at your own risk. I like to fill my hydration bladder with HOT water for winter riding. Nothing will warm your core better than a shot of hot water on a cold day. Disclaimer! Some experts say that using hot water with some plastics may release toxins from the plastics into your drinking water.

Be Prepared! Make sure your pre-ride maintenance has been done before ride time! IE, check tire pressure, lube chain, etc.  I try to do all this before I leave the garage. It is no fun fiddling with bike prep in the dark while your riding buddies are geared up and considering leaving your unprepared ass behind. Plus this frees up time to slam that pre- ride brewsky and make fun of the guy with the backwards, white styrofoam helmet.

In addition to my normal bike lighting system, I always carry a headband hiking light as a back up in case I have any problems with my primary system.  This also comes in very handy when you're gearing up before a ride. It's much easier to use the hiking lamp for putting on wheels and getting your gear out of the vehicle than a cumbersome helmet mounted light, cord and battery pack.

 After you're geared up, take a few moments to ride the bike around the parking lot checking the brakes, shifters, suspension and overall feel of the bike to make sure you haven't overlooked anything.  Nothing takes the fun out of a group ride quicker than having to stop the whole gang because some newb had to stop and tweak their widgets and let air out of their tires.

Staging your position before the group rolls out can also make a group ride flow better. Night rides tend to keep moving as opposed to making frequent stops.  Fast riders who know the trail should make sure they are the first ones into the woods.  If you don't plan on hammering near the front or you are unfamiliar with the trail, you should be riding out near the end of the pack.

If you find yourself with a rider right on your back wheel, it is common courtesy to ask that rider if he wants to pass. If he does,  look for the first spot wide enough to pull off and announce your intention before you do.

Riding at night requires special attention. Things can get chaotic in a hurry when you have a bunch of hammerheads buzzing each others tires with limited visibility. In daylight, you can usually see around the rider in front of you and plan ahead for turns and obstacles. At night, when you are right on somebody's butt and they crash, all you are going to see is the blur of their jersey as you tumble over them and onto that jagged rock garden that took them out in the first place. Maybe if your lucky, you'll take a pedal to the ribs in the process!

Blinded by the light...When you are following another rider try to avoid focusing your headlights directly on the lead riders back or helmet. This usually causes the lead rider to see his own shadow, making it hard for them to see using their own lights. Giving extra space and pointing your lights either down or slightly to the side makes it easier for you and them to see the trail. 

Whenever you are using head mounted lights avoid pointing your lights directly at at the face of other riders, especially when you encounter oncoming riders on the trail. As a courtesy, you should turn off all your lights at rest stops. This not only saves your batteries, It helps other riders eyes stay adjusted and it keeps you from being an annoying goober.

 Well, I could probably go on and on but this blog is cutting into my night riding time. Put down your X-box, find yourself a group night ride and GO GET YA SOME! 

The MTBWhisperer

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