Mountain biking offers you the ability to gain some serious mileage into backcountry areas where you should be ready to handle problems on the trail. During winter rides, there is a higher cost to pay for mechanical and clothing issues. It might not be ideal, but ending up walking your bike on a spring or summer day is still not an entirely bad way to spend a day in the woods. If you’re dealing with a cold and wet environment, you especially want to make sure you are prepared.
It's a smart idea to carry a stash of repair items in your pack. At least one tube (this goes for tubeless riders as well), a tube repair kit, an assortment of common bike bolts, a couple quick links for your chain, zip ties, a multi tool of your approval, and a means of inflating a tire should have you ready for most challenges you or your group might face. Two more items I like to carry are a short length of chain and a shift cable. I have rarely needed these items on the trail, but my friends and I were ecstatic when I had them (especially the toilet paper ;). These items pack down nicely and are hardly a hindrance to riding. I keep most of my repair items in a ziplock bag in my pack to make them easy to find. I carry this assortment of repair items all year long. The total weight of these items in the photo shown is 1.75 pounds. This is hardly noticeable in a pack and can turn you into a hero when you or someone else is in need.
The first step to having a great winter season on your bike is to get your bike running smooth. If you handle your own maintenance, spend extra attention to your shifting. This doesn’t mean you should install all new cables and housing, but you should make sure housing ends are nice and trim and get a little lube within the housing so the cable can move unrestricted. I have had the best luck with Prolink lube for both cables and my chain. Getting your shifting nice and silky will pay off when you are wearing bulkier gloves. Extended time in cold temperatures can not only restrict your body’s movement, but your cables’ movement as well. So, make sure that you or your trusty bike mechanic has your bike well-tuned.
When it comes to dressing for the day, the use of layers will help you keep warm the best. My favorite combination for upper body includes a basic lightweight base layer and a medium weight Ibex wool jersey. Those two items alone can do a lot for you in temperatures ranging down to about 30 degrees. Under 30 degrees or in areas with a higher humidity level a nice mid-weight jacket will be enough to keep you comfortable in the neighborhood of 20 degrees. Look for pieces that keep the bulk down and are tailored for cycling. Most cycling jackets will have a high degree of wind blocking ability and do well at water resistance. The layers for the lower body can be kept to minimum. A good pair of riding pants will have nice block wind and water and keep in warmth better than tights.
For hands and feet, the trick is wearing enough to keep you warm without getting bulky. Peoples’ bodies react different ways in the cold, so go with that heavier glove if needed. Keeping it to a mid-weight winter glove will give you better breathability and keep hands from sweating over the course of the ride. Another option is pogies. Pogies are insulated mitts that attach to your handlebar. You can wear a normal bike glove and slip your hands into them. Any time you can create some space and not have a tight fit, you can hold in warmth better. You also have the same dexterity with your fingers for braking and shifting as you would in summer rides because you can wear a lighter weight glove inside the pogies. This is one option to consider if you spend a lot of chilly days on the saddle.
If you have the money to spend on a nice pair of winter cycling shoes, then congratulations. All you need to do is pick your favorite socks and off you go. For those who need to adapt their shoes to work year-round, there are booties that can cover your shoes, giving you weather protection and insulation. I have had great experiences with products from Endura and my feet have been happy through the cold season while wearing booties. Another option is switching over to flat pedals for the winter and riding in an insulated boot. This is one way to keep costs down and insure warmth while out on cold days.
We are all different when it comes to how we handle cold weather, especially when it comes to hands and feet. Find the option that keeps you most comfortable and try not to worry too much about being the most efficient rider through the winter. The most important thing is that you are out there on your bike. Winter riding is not the time to go for personal records. It is a time to maintain your fitness on the bike and a great way to build you resilience to the elements. You will definitely notice the lack of crowds around trailheads. In fact, you might be the only one there. Relish in this fact and feel proud of yourself. It will probably even help you stay warmer.