Winter is here. Maybe I’m in denial and I won’t really believe it is here until I can’t ride any more. More and more when I’m hitting the trail during my Thursday morning hammer fest it’s dark when I leave my house at seven a.m. and yesterday when I tried to go for a late afternoon ride I was only able to make it about a quarter of a mile up the trail before it was so dark that I was riding by braille.
Granted, the late afternoon ride was supposed to have been slated as an earlier ride but family obligations prevented me hitting the trail earlier and since I wasn’t planning on a night ride no one had a lighting system with them. But I’m still in denial.
When winter is in full force it can also be a season of opportunities. First and possibly the first most pressing issue bicycle maintenance. Dirt is a hostile environment for any machine to work in. Fine particulate matter gets everywhere. It’s downright amazing where that stuff can get into. It can get into hubs, shocks, pivot points on full suspension bikes, inside of seatposts, in your frame, you name it it will work its way into there. It’s dang well natures own grinding compound.
Putting your bike away after a summer’s worth of riding without addressing maintenance issues is akin to riding a horse and putting it away wet. You may be able to do it for a while but inevitably problems are going to arise. What better time than now to address them before you forget them? Shop lead times are a lot shorter in the winter just before the holiday shopping seasons. Fix it and forget it.
It’s a good bet that if you’ve ridden all summer you’ve probably worn out your chain and brake pads and it’s a good idea to have your shocks and pivot systems (if you have a full suspension bike that is) checked out rather than waiting like every one else will until spring. When spring rolls around again there’s a crush of customers wanting to get their bikes fixed and shop lead times are increased so delays will surely follow. Save yourself some grief and treat your two-wheeled friend right.
If you must ride when it’s rainy and wet outside consider a few options. One option is to buy yourself a cyclocross bike. Riding a ‘cross will help up your riding skills in a way that no other bike can. Most ‘cross bikes don’t have shocks and have a relatively narrow tire as compared to a mountain bike plus there’s the added changes with dropped handle bars and rim brakes.
With the more narrow tire it forces you to focus on your primary skills such as looking further down the trail and pick the cleanest line possible because otherwise you’ll flat your tires and ruin your rims in no time.
The narrow tires will also slip a lot so not only will you have to relearn how to balance your weight while climbing but as the tires slip and slide on downhill sections you’ll have to train yourself not to panic and just ride things out until the tires regain their traction. Also, since most of these class of bikes lack shocks you’ll have to rely on what cyclist used for nearly a century before the era of modern shock absorbers, your arms and legs. When you do switch back to your regular bike in the spring you’ll be amazed how much better your skills will be.
A side benefit may be is that since ‘cross bikes have a lot narrower tire your impact on the trail will also be a lot less.
Next, ride a single speed. If you have an older hardtail kicking around you haven’t used in a couple of years that may be a good candidate for a make over. Over the years it’s become a lot easier to buy off the shelf conversion kits or complete bikes but either way the cost is pretty low.
Newer drive trains on bikes are pretty fragile pieces of equipment. The internals of most trigger based shifting systems are a watch works collection of gears and springs, which quickly become fouled up with the introduction of mud.
Take a look at a shifter from the early eighties. Yeah, it’s little more than a lever with a spool and a mounting system but those silly things will still be working until the sun blows up.
Also, the older five to seven speed chains were considerably more robust than the newer nine and ten speed chains that are finding their way onto modern mountain bikes also. An average single speed chain is more like a chainsaw’s chain than it is like a road bikes chain so it is less susceptible the forces a rider will exert on their bike during a climb and is more immune to the ravages of a winter coating of mud.
Like riding a ‘cross bike a single speed will force you to concentrate on the fundamentals of riding. You’ll have to learn how to use momentum and inertia to carry you up rises, around corners; things you take for granted when you have a geared bike.
Also, few things will get you in shape better than riding a single speed on a regular basis. Granted, your probably going to hate the first couple of rides until you get your gearing worked out. Also, riding a single speed is a commitment because it requires you to ride at least once a week in order to keep your fitness up. That said, however, they are great winter bikes because there’s a lot less to go wrong with them.
It’s a little hard to recommend spending a lot of money on a new ride when so many people’s jobs are precarious at best but the sad fact of the matter is that bike shops operate on a pretty narrow margin and for the most part these folks are the backbone of the industry. When independent bike shops disappear the only thing that will be left will either be mail order discounters or large chain stores.
What then separates one shop from another? Most shops get their small parts from the same distributors so that’s not it. It’s the personal relationship you build with either the owners or the wrenches who keep your rides working. Large chain stores tend to view their employees as fungible and hence give little incentive to invest in developing long-term employees let alone long-term customers.
Mail order (oops, I mean Internet) companies are great for what they do, parts at a discount, but scream and yell at the monitor as much as you want its still not going to be able to bleed your brakes, fix your shock, install new bushings on your swing arm, true a wheel or adjust your indexing.
But if you are in stable position buy local, get things fixed locally, overhaul that once loved hardtail and give it a single speed make over or treat yourself to a new ‘cross bike. It will make you healthier and happier and secure the position of the people who keep you riding and smiling. Just do it before things get crazy.