The Best Time to Mountain Bike? In the Fall!!
Tips and gear to help you to get the most out of fall and early winter mountain biking
Living in Central Oregon and mountain biking throughout the Pacific Northwest, it's easy to see that the most popular time for mountain biking is in the summer. I get it. The sun is out, people are in an outdoorsy state of mind, vacations are planned, and sure, summer mountain biking can be a lot of fun. But do you know the first three things that come to mind when I think about mountain biking in the summer? Dust, sweat and mosquitos.
I love mountain biking in the summer, really, but the best time to mountain bike? It's the fall, and here's why. First and foremost, it's all about trail conditions. It's really the opposite of skiing and snowboarding- powder is bad; firm and packed is good. Particularly in Central Oregon, the trails in summer tend to dry out and turn to powder. This problem is compounded by the fact that more people are riding the trails in the summer than anytime else, blowing out corners and turning the most critical sections of the trail into dusty washboards. Conditions like that will force you to slow down, and no one wants that.
In contrast, by autumn the rains come in, and the masses go out. It's like waiting for that powder dump in the mountains. You let a good storm or two come through, and when the weather breaks, you hit the trail. There is nothing better than a slightly damp, dark brown trail surface. Your tires stick like glue and suddenly you think, hey,I'm pretty good at this mountain biking thing!
On a fall day, as you crank the pedals and fly down the trail, leaning in and out of corners like a champ, what do you feel? The rush of cool air. More importantly, when you are grinding out the next climb, muscles burning, that cool air fills your lungs and fans the heat off your sweat soaked brow. In summer the heat encases you. Its humid breath puffs in your face, whispering- hey, go easy; don't you want to slow down a bit? Maybe take a quick break?
So there you are, blasting down a killer fall ride, the trail is tacky and fast, and the air is invigorating. Now pause for a moment, and look around. The autumn leaves congregate in stunning yellows, golds and reds, and the light appears sharper, everything brought into focus. It's easy to feel a sense of gratitude for the day. In the summer, sunny days are dime a dozen, but now, the days are getting shorter. You can feel the edge of winter creeping in, and on this sunny fall day, where are you? Outside, on the trail, squeezing the most joy out of it as possible, like a boss. Yet something is missing... Oh yes- the flies and mosquitos. Someone recently posted a list of "reasons to love fall" in my Facebook feed, and one of them was: "the insects go back to hell where they came from."
When I think about mountain biking in the fall, four things come to mind: hero trail surface, cool temps, beautiful views, and some solitude. Don't go telling the world, but mountain biking in the fall is the business. However, there are some special considerations to ensure things go well out there. Let's take a look at tips and gear that will help you get the most out of mountain biking- fall style.
Layers are essential. In Central Oregon, temps can drop fast and freak storms can blow in. You don't want to get caught without some protection.
Step up your socks-not necessarily in thickness (you don't want comfort issues with your shoes) but in height. Non-cotton, moisture-wicking. Here's an example from Giro- Merino wool, but thin and comfortable.
No pants. They get caught up in things and restrict movement. And let's not forget you are going to be getting in a workout. You can include a thin ski base layer for your legs if it is really going to be cold, or you can bring it in your pack. Helly Hansen has some, well-priced for men and women.
Up top, I recommend starting with a short-sleeve layer (non-cotton), just in case you want to strip down easily, and then add a performance long-sleeve layer with half-zip, like this one from Adidas for women, or an option with some Merino wool from Nike for men.
In the fall, always carry a lightweight, waterproof and form-fitting shell in your pack in case it rains. Don't spend too much on it; it will get abused. Some examples:
Your shell is just for when it rains- so the key is to find a cheap, packable shell.
I always mountain bike with full-fingered gloves, but if you usually don't, now might be the time. It is also advisable to be able to swap out your sunglasses for clear glasses, as the light can get low fast. If you want some on the cheap, just get some hardware store safety goggles.
In the fall, it's all about less water/more food. Everything you put in that pack adds weight, including the water, and you are already stuffing in extra layers. If you don't use a camelback-type hydration pack, go now and get a hydration pack.
Using a pack like this gets the weight off the bike and gives you a place for the essentials, like a bike tool, flat repair kit, pump, spare tubes (if needed), map, extra bolts for your cleats (if you use cleats), food, and first aid. As you ride more in cooler temps, you will see how much water you have left over at the end of a ride and be able to adjust from there.
Packing extra food gives you the extra energy you need to do the work and stay warm. Make sure you have some substance. If you think you will eat one bar, bring two, and so on. Be careful what kind of bars you pack! Some are mostly sugar and oats, leaving you with an energy spike and crash. Paleo Eats bars are perfect, because they are real food! Each bar has 6-7 grams of protein, 6-7 grams of fiber and 20+ grams of clean carbs. You get solid energy, but it doesn't release all at once and leave you drained. The Himalayan pink sea salt helps replenish electrolytes lost from sweating, and the raisins, dates, sunflower and flax seeds have minerals like potassium and magnesium to speed recovery.
Whichever bar you choose, look for more than 5 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, more than 20 grams of carbs, and less sugar than carbs. In addition to bars, I bring energy gummies like Clif Shot Bloks for when I need a quick pick-me-up. I also like to have some trail mix and sometimes a little beef jerky. Obviously, the longer the ride, the more food to bring.
In fall and early winter conditions, I think that added safety is a consideration. Getting hurt, stuck or lost when some nasty weather rolls in makes things more critical. For one, I am careful to remember my phone, even on a group ride. A safety whistle like this one is a good to have for the same reason- it can be heard from a mile away.
If you think there is some possibility of getting way lost or caught in a snowstorm, consider one of those Mylar-foil emergency blankets-they cost a couple bucks, come in tiny packs that weigh nothing, and hey, you never know. Or you can spend 6-10 dollars on a sturdier one. Of course, bring your flat-repair goodies- now is also a good time to have a CO2 quick fill system. They are cheap and will get you back on the trail much faster.
If you think you will hit a bunch of mud on the trail, you can get mountain bike fenders (front). They are inexpensive, easy to put on and take off, and a huge improvement over having your back covered in mud. Trust me, if you hit a muddy patch with some speed, it can run all the way up your neck and inside your helmet. It does not feel nice. Dave's "mud shovel" out of Portland has large, lightweight fenders for front and rear. They are marketed for fat-tire bikes, but I like the extra coverage! And they are easy to take on and off.
Finally, I recommend doing a little extra research on your ride. There are usually trail alliance websites in any area- these are a useful resource. Trail alliances and groups maintain a lot of the local trails, and collect updates from riders who have been there recently, so you can get a current report on the conditions. In the Portland area, the Northwest Trail Alliance is a good one. For Central Oregon, COTA has up to date reports on their website. Pay attention to snow levels! In Central Oregon, a lot of fall riding is lower elevation due to snow. Even patches of snow can ruin a ride. Around here, I think Horse Butte is a great fall ride for any skill level. It's un-rideable dust in the summer, and right now it's a fun, 10-mile loop at low elevation with some nice views.
So, there you go. Put the leaf blower down, pull your bike back out of the garage and go burn off all that candy corn by experiencing the wonders of fall mountain biking.