With spring weather comes the feeling of awakening after a long, cold sleep. It promises growth and rejuvenation, both physical and emotional – a return to life. Mountain bike riders spend much of the winter longing for pleasant spring days when they can emerge from their lairs, throw their sluggish (and oftentimes pale and hairy) legs over their favourite steed and return to warm, sunlit trails. Nevertheless, as magically enchanting as springtime is, it usually also entails a certain amount of chaos and uncertainty. Extreme weather is not uncommon, as warm winds from the south interact with the entrenched cold polar air. The changeable conditions – which include everything from swelling rivers, thunderstorms, hail, strong winds and even last-ditch snowstorms – mean cyclists face a range of unique challenges this time of the year.
Bolt out of the blue
By the end of winter, you’re probably feeling like you’ve been holed up for far too long and you’re itching to break out. So, on that first glorious Saturday morning in spring, when you waken to azure skies and a warm breeze, you leap onto your bike and head out for a rad day of riding. Not long after, you see a few puffy, cotton-like white clouds drift across the blue sky. You think to yourself “What a beautiful sight!” and continue on your way, following trail after trail. When you stop to take a break and refuel, you notice that those formerly cute little clouds are now looking like large piles of whipped cream, their undersides showing the dark shades of impending rain.
“Hmm,” you muse. “Maybe a little shower?”
But after being stuck inside for weeks on end, you convince yourself they will amount to nothing. An hour later, you reach the best single track in the area and, almost simultaneously, hear the first crack of thunder.
“Okay,” you rationalize, “one thunderclap, no big deal, and it was pretty weak and far off.”
You settle into the flow of the trail and then – FLASH, CRACK, BOOM – a bright burst lights up the rocks and trail. It’s quickly followed by another clap, much louder and obviously closer than the one before. Racing against a thunderstorm is never fun, but it’s amazing how it can turn you into a downhill racer!
A shower a day
Just a few heavy showers can put a damper on a spring mountain bike ride. A ride might start out with terrific weather, but then suddenly turn wet and cold. Just a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I started out on a fine-looking afternoon, heading for some sweet single track trails about 45 minutes from our house. We cruised up the fire road and got to the trailhead as it began to sprinkle. Since it was barely raining, we pressed on, climbing to reach the peak. By then it was raining steadily and soon after began to pour. Nevertheless, we decided to take the single track anyway. What we didn’t take into consideration was that clay trails do not react well to rain. What a mess! They were sloppy, slippery and completely unrideable. We basically slid down the waterlogged trail on our bikes without a single bit of traction. Our tires were encased in a thick layer of the stickiest mud I have ever experienced, and to make matters worse, the trail leading out of the park was a giant sucking bog. We humbly walked out of the park that day with our muddy tires, hit the relatively clean streets and headed home.
Winter one more time
Late-season snowstorms are another weather quirk that can catch riders by off-guard. Many mountain bikers across the country have to deal with these surprise springtime flurries. I had my fair share when I lived in Colorado. There, the months of March, April, and May are peppered with summer-like days, but just as likely is a sharp, temporary return to winter temperatures. Spring has a habit of doing that, lulling us with the easy, laid-back promise of impending summer and then, as if out of nowhere, snapping back to wintery conditions. One day it’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and you’re riding with summer gear and running out of water. Then – bam! – two days later it’s 30 degrees with wind and snow, and you’re stuck inside again on the trainer. Many riders have found solace in taking up fat biking so they can continue to ride on the cold, snowy days. I, for one, am not a fan of riding in freezing weather, but for many riders this is a better alternative to staying indoors.
Here come those winds
Strong winds can be another wacky feature of springtime. For most people these mean a bad hair day, but to a cyclist very windy days in the saddle just plain suck. Given that I currently live in Los Angeles, I have to deal with a great deal of wind in the spring. As I write this very article, we are in the midst of an attack of hot Santa Ana winds, which hit with a vengeance, rocking the walls of the house. These gale-force winds blow from the inland deserts out toward the sea. They are warm and dry and feel much like a hot blow-dryer. When you’re riding with them, you certainly fly along, propelling yourself up steep grades or blasting down hills at record speeds. However, on your return trip you will pay the price for that ticket! The journey home into the wind is a difficult exercise physically, of course. But the effort also messes with your head, as you struggle to just stay upright on your bike, let alone make forward progress. You don’t seem to be travelling, no matter how hard you crank. Plus, there’s debris flying across the trail in all directions, you’re dodging tree branches, and clouds of dirt are swirling around you. It can be sketchy at times, to say the least. Having a riding partner or two can help: you can use drafting to conserve your energy and jokes to distract each other. And, man, are you gonna need them!
Mountain bikers in general are a rugged, tough-minded group of individuals, and we are more likely to take on the elements than non-cyclists. Having knowledge of your current weather conditions is always a plus, and there are many weather apps available that a mountain biker can put to good use. Downloading one to your phone may help you avoid some seasonal surprises.
Regardless, as true outdoors people, we typically do not let seasonal chaos interfere with our riding. Oftentimes we stay on the trails far too long, even when we know the weather is taking a turn for the worse. Our impatient eagerness reaches its height at the start of springtime. The world around is pulsating with new life, colour and vibrancy. THIS is springtime.