Knowledge Level: Intermediate
The British Cycling Training Plans gives you the option to get out on your mountain bike but why should riding off-road be part of your training?
Why should I?
Escape winter roads: Icy, wet and dark winter conditions can make roads unpleasant and dangerous places to be. Getting off the road keeps you away from cars meaning you can concentrate 100% on your riding without having to worry about a lorry skidding out of control into you or the salt on the road corroding your bike as you ride. It’s also a lot more fun than toiling away on the turbo.
Boost top end strength and power: Off-road cycling gives a much more interval style workout than road cycling. This gives you a great top end hit and sudden steep climbs or slogs through mud are an alternative to gym sessions for building cycling specific strength and power.
Total body workout: Off-road cycling provides a far more total body workout than road cycling. You’ll be using your upper body to soak up lumps and bumps, lift your front wheel over trail obstacles and to gain extra power on steep climbs. Having to constantly shift your weight and centre of gravity to maintain traction and balance will challenge your trunk muscles in a way you’ll never experience on the road.
Pedaling efficiency: Riding off-road punishes choppy and heavy footed pedal mashing. Try to muscle up a loose or slippery climb and you’ll soon spin out, be off your bike and walking. To maintain traction you have to develop an even, circular and smooth pedaling style. You can then transfer this pedaling technique to your road cycling where it’ll result in far smoother, more economical and faster riding.
Bike handling: Hours spent road riding can result in a very static riding style and poor bike handling skills. Off-road cycling forces you to constantly change your riding position, learn cornering and braking skills and to become an all-round better bike rider. This translates into a faster all round riding, especially on more technical roads and a greater ability to deal with unexpected hazards such as falling riders or potholes.
Fun: It’s too easy when you’re heading out for another epic training ride on winter roads to take your cycling far too seriously and forget that it’s supposed to be fun. Embrace getting filthy, sliding around on mud and snow and probably taking the odd tumble. Get some decent lights and experience the grin educing thrill of night-time off-road riding. Even tame trails that you’ve ridden many times take on a whole new character in the dark.
Exploration: A mountain bike or cross bike lets you explore all of those back roads and green lanes that you’ve never dared to venture down on your road bike. Spend some time with a map this winter, plot some routes with some likely looking tracks and you might unearth some hidden quiet gems that you’ll be able to include in your summer road rides.
Are there any downsides?
Maintaining constant intensity: Although the stop and start interval nature of off-road biking can be a beneficial training stimulus, being able to maintain a constant intensity when riding is essential for sportive success. Some mountain biking is great for the reasons listed above but you also need to ensure you’re putting in the road miles and turbo workouts too. The consistency of intensity you’re able to maintain on the road is one of the main reasons why cross country racers spend the majority of their training time on the tarmac.
Recovery: Off-road biking is extremely hard on your body. The combination of sudden spikes of high power, constant shocks and vibrations and the higher total body demands mean that hard mountain biking will take more out of your body and require more recovery than an equivalent time spent riding on the road. This is another reason why cross country racers do the bulk of their miles on the road. Use these techniques to maximise your recovery and, especially if mountain biking is a relatively new addition to your training regime, keep a close eye out for signs of overtraining.
Risk of injury: Off-road cycling does carry a higher risk of injury than road cycling but, as crashes tend to be at slower speeds and don’t involve traffic, it’s usually just a case of a few cuts and bruises. Always try to ride within your own technical ability and fitness and, if you have any doubt about your ability to ride a section of trail, walk it first. When descending, stay relaxed and never ride so fast that you feel as though you’re out of control.
Cost: If you don’t already own a mountain bike, the expense of buying one might put you off. However you can get a decent lightweight hard-tail (front suspension only) mountain bike for £700-£800. You’ll get a far higher spec and lighter hard-tail for your money compared to a full suspension bike and it’ll require less maintenance and will encourage the development of superior bike handling skills. A cyclocross bike is another option for a truly versatile winter workhorse, allowing you to explore small lanes and, if you need a competitive hit, take part in one the most fun and accessible forms of cycle sport. Most of your road cycling gear will cross over but you’ll need MTB specific shoes with recessed cleats for unavoidable “hike n bike” sections of trail. Off road cycling, especially in the winter, is hard on bikes and components so diligent maintenance and cleaning is a necessity. Opt for cheaper drivetrain components and, if you want a super easy and cheaper to maintain option that’s also guaranteed to improve your cycling strength, consider a single-speed.
In England and Wales, you have the right to ride on the following public rights of way:
Byways Open to All Traffic
Some rights of way have special agreements in place. An example is Snowdon, on which certain routes up the moutain are open to cyclists only at specfic times of day and of the year. If you have any doubts about your planned route, check with a local contact such as a cycle shop.
You may also ride on the following:
‘Routes with other public access’ – the Ordnance Survey term for ‘white roads’ or ‘green lanes’
Forestry Commission stone tracks
Some unsurfaced Forestry Commission tracks
Forestry Commission mountain bike trails
Cyclepaths and cycletracks
Some Canal Towpaths
There are a number of bodies who are lobbying for increased access rights for mountain bikers in England and Wales as the current rights of way distinction between bridleways and footpaths was made long before mountain biking even existed. The exact intricacies of the law are complex and vague but, right now, you should assume that you don’t have the right to ride on footpaths and shouldn’t do so.
In Scotland, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave you some of the best access rights in the world. You have the right to be on most land and inland water for recreation, education and going from place to place, providing you act responsibly.
Mountain biking does open up the possibility of riding and exploring some truly stunning and genuinely wild areas.
There are also now a multitude of trail centres offering purpose built and way-marked trails along with cafés, bike washers and even showers.
As well as requiring great fitness, maintaining balance, traction and momentum on the trail takes considerable skill and technique. Even if you’re a strong road cyclist, just trying to muscle through simply won’t work. Spend some time learning key off-road techniques and you’ll ride faster and more efficiently. There's plenty of instructional written and video content for mountain biking and cyclocross technique on the website.
Off-road cycling lends itself to higher end and interval style training so, if you’re wanting to add some structure to your rides, try including these workouts.
Tabata training is named after Dr Izumi Tabata who was the primary researcher looking into the impact of high intensity training on aerobic/anaerobic performance at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo. Once you’re well warmed through, find a hill that’d typically take you about 5 minutes to climb. It needs to be steep and technical enough to provide a challenge but you’ll also need to be able to back right off on it but still maintain forward progress. Sprint all-out for 20 seconds uphill. At the end of the effort, drop several gears, or even a chainring, and recover for 10 seconds. At the end of the 10 seconds, shift back up and sprint again. Repeat this process for 7-8 reps.
If you’ve got any dull fire-road or road climbs on your ride, get more out of them by riding them as Threshold Under/Over intervals. This a great way to develop our ability to ride for periods above your threshold heart rate and then recover by dropping just below it. You’ll have tested for your threshold heart rate as part of the British Cycling Training Plans. Alternate riding for one minute at 90% of your threshold heart rate with one minute of riding at 110% of it. Ride in this way for up to 10 minutes before taking at least 5 minutes recovery riding at an easier intensity. You can repeat this 10 minute effort up to four times within a ride.
If you’ve got limited trails or are short of time, this extremely demanding session is ideal for developing high power Neuromuscular ability. Devise a short lap that takes approximately 4-5 minutes to ride but that includes a steep hill which is at the very limit of your ability and takes 45-60 seconds to climb. After warming up with 10-20 minutes of steady paced riding but including some short, 6-10 seconds, high cadence but low gear effort, ride 6-8 laps of your loop. Give the hill maximum effort on each lap but ride the rest at easy pace. Cool down with at least 10 minutes of easy riding.
No article on off-road riding on the winter would be complete without a mention of cyclocross racing. Cyclocross is one of the most accessible forms of cycle sport with many races offering on the line entry and allowing you to take part on a mountain bike. With races only typically lasting 40-60 minutes, around a short lap course and held in parkland locations, it’s a convenient and fun way to get a competitive fix, build bike handling skills and get a great workout that doesn’t take up a huge chunk of your weekend. If you’ve got reasonable fitness from summer sportives and own a mountain bike, we strongly recommend pencilling in a few races this winter but, be warned, it’s highly addictive. There’s loads of great cyclocross technique and kit content on the site.