fat biking is a great winter cycling activity
Fat Bike,  Lifestyle,  Training,  Travel

5 Winter Cycling Activities to Help Keep the Pedals Turning All Year Long

Every year, without fail, winter visits us all. For those of us at higher latitudes, the days get shorter and the temperatures drop—sometimes dramatically. If this sounds like where you live, and you are a mountain biker like me, you may have a strong urge to hibernate and not show your face again until spring. For many, winter is a time to rest and recharge and cycling activities take a back seat to other warmer (mainly indoor) endeavors. Author John Geddes sums up how many people feel as summer comes to a close and we think about putting our bikes away and begin to recharge for the next riding season.

“I pray this winter be gentle and kind—a season of rest from the wheel of the mind.”

John Geddes

But while winter may well turn into a rest from the “wheel of the mind” for many of us, it doesn’t have to be a time for rest from the wheel of the bike. In fact, keeping the pedals turning in some form or another all winter long will almost certainly help you get the most out of your riding time when summer finally rolls back around. Here are five ideas to improve both your mountain bike fitness and your skills during those long, dark, cold winter months:

    1. Give fat biking a try this winter
    2. Catch some air at an indoor bike park
    3. Recharge on a riding vacation
    4. Log some time on an indoor trainer
    5. Spin your way to summer fitness

Each one is unique with its own set of advantages. Let’s take a closer look. 

Give fat biking a try this winter

In my humble opinion, fat biking is one of the best winter cycling activities out there. It gives you the best of two worlds: improvement in both skills and fitness. It’s one of the most fun things you can do outside during the winter months. Once you get on a fat bike and start rolling through the snow, even a crash here and there won’t be able to wipe the grin off your face.

winter fat biking helps build fitness and skill for the summer mountain bike season
Fat biking is a great way to build fitness and fine-tune your skills for the summer mountain bike season. (Luke Marshall/RideSphere)

It’s great exercise

From a fitness perspective, fat biking is great exercise. My own, dangerously non-scientific, research has shown fat biking to be 20-30% more demanding than regular mountain biking. This is due to a couple of pretty obvious factors. First, the tires are bigger, which will add rolling resistance. Some fat bikes also have studded tires and studs add weight. 

If you’re wondering whether or not studded fat bike tires are right for you, check out our article, “Who Needs Studded Fat Bike Tires Anyway?!”

Second, the terrain will also try to bog you down. By terrain I mean snow. Depending on conditions, the snow can be either soft (new snow) or packed (hasn’t snowed in awhile). Either way, it’s more than likely that it will be slower rolling on snow than on hard-packed singletrack.

It’s not a stretch to say then that fat biking is a great workout. And in the spring, when you roll onto that hard-packed singletrack atop nice light tires, everything will seem easier.

Fat biking is skill-testing fun!

Now that we’ve covered the boring fitness aspect of fat biking, let’s get to the fun. And when it comes to fat biking in the winter, fun goes hand-in-hand with developing your skills; skills that will be transferable to mountain biking during the summer. I believe fat biking helps with riding skills because it’s like mountain biking, but everything is a little more extreme. It’s like riding in the summer on very slippery trails. The soft snow forces you to keep your guard up and stay balanced. On climbs the rear tire can spin a lot more easily on snow, forcing you to distribute your weight carefully. If you can climb steep pitches on a fat bike, those same steeps will feel much easier come summertime. 

Don’t just take my word for it. Give fat biking a try this winter; you won’t regret it!

Catch some air at an indoor bike park 

If gravity riding is more your style, spending your winter days at an indoor bike park might just be for you. And best of all, being indoors means it doesn’t matter how bad the weather is outside. Also, when you can’t ride outside because the weather is too nasty, indoor bike parks can serve as a gathering place for the local mountain bike community to come together, to meet up with friends and exchange knowledge. And like fat biking, this is a place where you can work on both skills and fitness.

Defy gravity

If you spend most of your summer riding trying to get as much air time as possible, I can’t think of a better place to hone your skills than an indoor bike park. Don’t worry if you’re not a professional, many parks (the larger ones at least) will be built to provide riders with all they need to progress and improve. From pump tracks, to beginner, intermediate and advanced jump lines, to foam pits, there is always something to learn and practice. Having said that, not all indoor bike parks will be created equal and they are not in every community. If you don’t live in a larger centre with an indoor bike park, travel may be required. It also wouldn’t hurt to call ahead or check the park’s website to make sure they have what you’re looking for before you pay for a pass.

B-Line Bike Park is a great example of a full-service indoor bike park in Calgary, Alberta, where I live.

Get fit to the core

Even if your local indoor bike park is small, there is still the opportunity to gain some fitness. Cardio will likely take a back seat to strength training, but your upper body, lower body and core should get a great workout. Best of all, you probably won’t even notice the work because you’ll be having so much fun getting stronger. And this means that when summer finally rolls around, you’ll be more than ready to get outside and defy gravity!

Recharge on a riding vacation

I find that there’s no better way to break up the cold winter months than by packing up my bike and heading out on a winter riding vacation. It’s one winter cycling activity that will actually get you away from winter altogether (at least the cold, snowy kind of winter). And while a week or two of riding somewhere warm isn’t likely to drastically improve your fitness or skills, it can provide some much needed mental relief and keep you motivated through what’s left of the cold winter days…

Winter cycling vacations can help keep you sane over the course of a long, cold winter
Taking off on a riding vacation always lift my spirits during a long, cold, dark winter. (Luke Marshall/RideSphere)

Remind yourself what it’s like to feel dirt under your tires

Winter can be a dark, depressing time with few options for cycling activities. If your winter season is short, this effect can be minor, but it can be quite intense and more widespread in places where the season is long and drawn out. Where I live, winter is relatively long and although there are a lot of winter activities nearby, such as skiing and fat biking, the short, cold days still begin to take their toll. If I can get away to do some mountain biking in the middle of winter, my motivation skyrockets. Hearing the dirt crunching under my tires and feeling the sun on my back lifts my spirits like nothing else. Even a short trip of a week or so is enough to help me reset and set my sights firmly on spring riding!

Luckily, North America is home to numerous mountain bike destinations where you can escape the cold and ride on dirt. Need some ideas for where to ride and the best times to visit different riding locations? Check out our article, “5 Winter Mountain Bike Destinations in the USA: The Best Times to Visit!”

Ride that motivation into spring!

A winter mountain biking getaway can be a great motivator as you set your sights on spring. It always gets me excited about the upcoming riding season. As a result, I find I’m much more willing to put time into fitness training for the upcoming season. And not only that, having a riding vacation to look forward to can also motivate me to start fitness training even earlier in the season to get ready for the trip.

Log some time on an indoor trainer

Riding the indoor trainer is probably one of the most dreaded, but also most beneficial,  winter cycling activities described in this article. The thought of sweating away in a hot room while staring at the wall can turn a lot of people off. But it is one of the best ways to ensure you hit the ground running (or in this case, riding) in the spring. And it doesn’t have to be boring!

Riding the indoor trainer is a great way to maintain fitness over the winter
Not everyone loves the indoor trainer but I find it to be one of the best ways to keep up my fitness so I can hit the ground running (riding) when spring finally arrives. (Luke Marshall/RideSphere)

Put in the work, reap the rewards

I find that riding the indoor trainer is one of the best ways to prepare for spring riding. Sure, you can wait until spring and then try to ride yourself into shape, but by the time that happens, the season will probably be half over. Wouldn’t it be great to jump on your mountain bike at the start of the season and be ready to tackle any trail right out of the gate? Trainer riding can help with that. By putting in the work over the winter, you’ll be able to out-climb your friends come springtime and probably all summer long!

It doesn’t have to be boring

Not that long ago, trainer riding really did mean staring at the wall. If you had a training plan, it would be written down or printed out on a piece of paper and you would keep it nearby so you could follow along with the intervals, if there were any. You would manually shift gears and try your best to stay focused enough to get through the workout. 

A lot has changed since those days. Smart trainers have made following training plans much easier and more intuitive, and app or computer-based programs have brought structured training to the masses. Here are a couple of subscription-based training programs that make designing and following a training plan easy and fun:

TrainerRoad – TrainerRoad will walk you through all the steps to create a yearly training plan. Each plan consists of pre-designed workouts designed by their in-house coaches. If you have a smart trainer, it will adjust the resistance for you based on the demands of the workout. TrainerRoad also has a great blog and podcast that can help you out if you are new to indoor training. Full disclosure: I use TrainerRoad for my indoor training.

Zwift – Zwift has some things in common with TrainerRoad. For example, it has pre-designed workouts that you can follow as part of a training season. But Zwift sets itself apart by being more interactive and entertaining. With Zwift, you follow yourself on a television or computer screen as you ride—kind of like a video game. You can also ride with others in group rides or races. I have very limited experience with Zwift, but I know a number of people who use it.

Spin your way to summer fitness

If riding alone isn’t for you, but you want to keep some fitness up over the winter, try a spin class! They get you out of the house on those cold, dark winter days and you don’t even have to buy any equipment to get started. Spin classes have the social aspect going for them as well. None of the other winter cycling activities on this list can compare in that department. And if you think spin classes aren’t a good way to do structured training, think again.

The energy of the group

Some people gain energy from being in groups (extroverts), while others feel drained (introverts). If you’re one of those people who get excited in a group and feed off the energy of others, a spin class might be right up your alley. Personally, I like to be able to focus and think while I’m on the trainer, so spin classes aren’t for me. But the motivating power of group exercise can be very beneficial to those with the right mindset. And on top of that, being accountable by having a set schedule of classes to attend can help keep your fitness goals on track.

Group structured training?

Coach Chad from TrainerRoad (mentioned earlier) says, “I believe training without structure isn’t training at all, it’s bike riding.” If you agree and want more structure than a traditional spin class can offer, don’t lose hope.

When I first started structured training, I did it in the form of a spin class. It wasn’t what you think of when you think of a traditional spin class. Each participant brought their own bike, and we were also provided with a stationary trainer. We all did our power output testing (FTP test) at regular intervals and our trainer/coach would provide workouts that fit a periodized training plan. These types of classes aren’t as common as traditional spin classes, but they are worth looking into if you want structured training with a social aspect to it.

Take action this winter and make next summer one to remember!

All of these winter cycling activities are great on their own. Most will help you improve your fitness and/or skills as you wait out the cold winter months, but you don’t have to pick just one. I would suggest that if you have the time and motivation, mixing some of these activities would be your best bet. 

My chosen winter cycling activities are fat biking and riding the indoor trainer, with the odd vacation thrown in! This works well for me because when summer arrives I enjoy long, endurance-type rides as well as a bit of stage racing. But, if you’re more interested in the gravity side of things, visiting an indoor bike park is probably better suited to improving skills than fat biking. Mix that with some spin classes to keep up your cardio and you’ll be all set for the season. You don’t even have to limit yourself there. If your circumstances allow, there’s nothing to say you can’t participate in all of these activities to get you through the winter. After all, variety is the spice of life!

Without winter there is no spring

Many of us, at least at times, wish we could ride our mountain bikes all winter long. But taking a break over the winter makes getting back on your mountain bike in the spring that much more exhilarating. Sometimes, taking a break from something helps rekindle the love we had for it in the first place. As the saying goes, a change is as good as a rest. And these winter cycling activities provide just enough of a change to make getting back on your bike each spring something you can look forward to.

To finish off, I’ll leave you with a quote by poet Anne Bradstreet. It sums up why I feel winter is just as important as summer when it comes to mountain biking.

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”

Anne Bradstreet

Have fun and put in some work this winter. If you can keep those pedals turning one way or another, spring will be here before you know it and you’ll be stronger than ever.

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