How to Stay Cycling Sharp Through the Winter

While it may not seem like it now for many of you, spring is definitely out there, not that far off… waiting to smack you in the face. Ahh, the warmth, the sun, the flowers… and that day when the trails are finally dry, you saddle up, and realize within a quarter mile of the …

While it may not seem like it now for many of you, spring is definitely out there, not that far off… waiting to smack you in the face. Ahh, the warmth, the sun, the flowers… and that day when the trails are finally dry, you saddle up, and realize within a quarter mile of the trailhead, that you’ve allowed yourself to turn into a sedentary, beer-drinking, Cheeto-eating couch potato for the last five months.

You gasp for air, curse yourself under your heavily-labored breath, and start contemplating taking up something a little less strenuous, like a stirring round of Uno with the family after dinner. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s no shortage of ways to maintain a decent fitness base over the winter, keeping your cardio capability from plummeting into the realm of a pneumonia-ridden, two-pack-a-day asthmatic in a gas mask.

Map of snow coverage as of 1/4/2014 from Not much bare ground over most of the country, and it's going to get deeper before it gets better for riding


Snow, and even ice, on the trails doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no more riding to be had. There’s a reason the fat bike world is expanding so rapidly now. In addition to being just plain fun, fat bikes provide additional versatility, allowing them to be ridden on wintery surfaces. It’s no surprise the fat bike craze is strongest in areas with long off seasons and that the fat bike innovators generally come from northern climates. If you’ve got the budget and the inclination, there’s no better way to keep the riding legs fit over the winter; and no better way to remove any excuses for your failing to do so.

For guidance on purchasing a fat bike, check out maddslacker’s three-part “Fat Bike Buyer’s Guide”:

For more information on fat biking in general, check out delphinide’s “Fat Biking 101” article.
Winter is a good time for getting fat -- a fat bike, that is

If you don’t have the budget for such a winter steed, of if you simply don’t want to ride a fat bike, there’s a less drastic approach you can take with your very own bike. Most major bicycle tire manufacturers make studded bicycle tires in standard widths to fit your existing rig. It can be quite astonishing just how much additional traction these studs provide on trails you wouldn’t dare ride with standard rubber.

Any of these should fit on your regular ride and give you the confidence to hit the snowpack

If you’re not keen on swapping out tires multiple times each year, a simple bike trainer can turn your bike into an indoor gym. These trainers run from very basic to super-high-tech, and can cost anywhere from $50 to over $1,000. While these trainers are generally designed for road bikes, most can be used with mountain bikes. Since you’re not worrying about actual on-road or on–trail performance, you can throw any old garage sale clunker on one and work your legs as hard as you like.

One other nice aspect of these trainers is that they are highly portable, and you can put them anywhere you like, such as in front of your TV while you watch the game or get caught up on your DVR backlog. Of course, if you already have some sort of gym membership, this capability already exists for you without you having to invest any additional funds.

A few of the bike trainer options from Blackburn

Cross Train

If you can’t ride due to weather and/or trail conditions, there’s no shortage of winter activities that may not specifically work your cycling muscles, but they will at least help you maintain aerobic fitness while preventing too much atrophy in those heavy legs. Physiologists note that cross-country skiing is one of the best, if not the best, all around exercises, providing a strong cardio workout while involving muscle groups throughout the entire body. There’s no doubt a regular skiing regimen will keep you from falling into the aerobic abyss before you hit that first gravel grinder of the spring.

Cross country skiing provides a fantastic card workout and is a great way to enjoy the outdoors when your favorite trail isn't open for riding

Snowshoeing requires a slightly smaller investment and even less technical skill than cross country skiing. Even simpler is just hiking and/or trail running. Here, all you need is some reasonably-well-insulated footwear. Snow is just H2O, not sulfuric acid; it won’t kill you to travel through it, especially if you have appropriate attire. Winter hikes can be most tranquil, refreshing the spirit as well as the body. Even taking the kids sledding will give both your heart and quads a bit of stress as you pull the sled back up the hill after each run. When my kids were young, I would even leave them in the sled while I pulled it back up the hill, just to get a tougher workout (they didn’t seem to mind either).

If you have access to a gym, get out on the court, whether it be basketball, racquetball, or some other sport of your choosing. Any activity beats no activity. You just need to do it.

Focus on Technique as Well as Cardio

The old cliché that “(pick an activity) is like riding a bike; you never forget,” is certainly true. However, there’s a lot more to mountain biking than merely keeping the wheels on a vertical plane while traversing a smooth sidewalk. It can take some time to reestablish the muscle memory necessary to confidently conquer those obstacles you thought you had mastered the previous year.

When I took a mountain biking clinic with BetteRide, the instructor stressed the importance of doing skill-specific drills form time to time, even if you’re riding regularly… which, of course, I failed to do and my skills stagnated accordingly. Fast forward a couple years, and I had moved to North Central Montana, where there would be long periods of non-riding. Half of our basement was unfinished, about 20’ square, with the furnace at its center. I cleared all the storage boxes away and started riding laps around the furnace. This obviously wasn’t going to do me any good aerobically, but it taught me a lot about body position and low-speed maneuvering. I used this tiny circuit to begin learning how to nose-wheelie around a tight corner.

Miniskibum demonstrates the basement trackstand

While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to practice gap jumps or even wheelies in your basement, you need no more than a few square feet to practice a track stand. The track stand is highly underrated as a cycling drill. It develops body/bike awareness and a keen sense of balance, which will pay dividends on technical trails. It can even come in handy when riding technical trails for the first time, when you need a little extra time to survey the line before proceeding.

A close relative of the track stand is the “slow race,” which may be done alone, but is better with another “racer.” In a slow race, which should be no longer than a garage or a freshly-shoveled driveway, the goal is to get to the finish line last. This is done by pedaling as slowly as possible. Without the centrifugal force of the rolling wheel, this puts almost as much premium on balance as the track stand. Whoever can take the longest to cover about 25 – 40 feet is showing a level of balance that will pay dividends on the trail. Of course, if you’re racing against someone who can already track stand indefinitely, you have no chance of winning, so the rules must be adjusted—there is no actual stopping, just slow rolling. A dab is an automatic DQ.

(It should go without saying that you want to do these activities with flats, not clipped in!)

After that Montana winter, I found my early season skills were actually better than they were the previous autumn, and I was able to ride things on day one on my hardtail which were previously reserved for my full-suspension rig. Not being able to ride trails actually proved to be a boon to my technical development.

So this year, make sure you get a jump start on spring with a solid winter training regimen. The good news is that most of these activities are actually fun in and of themselves; the biking benefits are just a great bonus!

Your Turn: What else do you to to maintain your biking fitness and skills in the winter months?

On the other hand, maybe you just need to take a break from mountain biking over the winter. Check out mtbikerchick’s article “5 Reasons to Take a Break from Mountain Biking During the Winter.”