As a rule I don’t normally ride much when there’s snow on the ground. The pitiful quantities that we usually get during the course of a typical West Yorkshire winter mean that our hills rapidly degrade into a freeze-thawed quagmire of slushy mud, interspersed with patches of lethal black ice lurking in the shadows: not really my idea of fun. This gives rise to that very rare circumstance in which I express a positive desire for rain, in this case purely for its marvellous ability to wash away the frozen horrors of the trails (not to mention the deadly drifts of slushy road-scrapings and ice left along the edges of the tarmac by the council gritters). This morning I made an exception to my rule, however; a fresh fall yesterday onto ice-free ground meant that a trip out towards the tops on the bike would most likely be a worthwhile novelty, without too much lethally slippery stuff.
Current thinking would dictate that for this sort of endeavour one requires, at a minimum, a proper fat bike with tyres of at least four inches width, some of those crazy-looking bike-pogies to fend off frostbite, and a big bushy beard. Having only the last of these items myself, but fancying a bit of a ride nonetheless, I decided to risk it. This is not to say that I think there’s anything wrong with a fat bike, nor that I’m opposed to adding this cycling equivalent of a monster-truck to my collection, not at all. They look like splendid fun and I’m sure that one day I’ll acquire one, and that it’ll be brilliant for excursions like today’s – but I simply haven’t got round to it, yet. With just a normally-shod 26″ bike at my disposal, therefore, I had no alternative but to make peace with my almost-certain death due to inadequate equipment, and set out towards the moors.
Down in the village there was no more than a centimetre or two of slush on the ground, but climbing up the valley the depth and quality of snow increased, turning into a good six inches of nice, squeaky powder after a couple of miles. The sun was out and I soon warmed up. Ice is always a worry on winter rides, but the cover was new enough that no slippery boilerplate had formed anywhere, and last night had not been quite cold enough to freeze the puddles properly. The skinny mud tyres on my bike hooked up surprisingly well and it was possible to ride steadily up much of the trail, albeit in the lowest gear available. The footprints of runners and walkers thinned out as I moved further from the village, and the solitary tyre tracks of a rider who had shot past me in the opposite direction at the bottom became easier to follow. My progress grew slower the higher I got, and I had to push the last section, the combination of deeper snow and a steeper gradient making it impossible to even get moving, let alone keep up enough speed to maintain traction. I was glad I’d come out in grippy trainers rather than my minimally-treaded bike shoes.
At the top of the hill the trail reaches one of the roads over the tops, and the final drag was completed with a small audience, a family out for a spot of sledging. The kids didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves much, most likely due to the biting wind. Getting to the summit had taken me more than twice as long as my previous best attempt, and I abandoned any idea of further exploration due to time limitations. I snapped a few photos and set off back, pedalling to keep up momentum through the deeper stuff on the edge of the track, and avoiding the uneven surface left by runners and walkers. Maintaining a sensible speed without the need to brake was possible in the deep snow on the wider sections of the path, but further down the narrower line meant I had to pull on the anchors, which I was pleased to discover actually worked, quite astonishing considering the fact that both callipers and rotors were hidden in a sort of huge, white, frozen cylinder. Whilst heading back down I encountered several more mountain bikers hauling themselves towards the top, leaving a more even line of packed snow to ride down than what I’d ridden through on the way up. Flakes of white were starting to fall from the clouds again, the sun had disappeared. I took things steadily, dodging increasing numbers of ramblers and dog-walkers, and managed to stay upright all the way back to the village for a welcome coffee and bacon sandwich. The bike was carrying a good couple of kilograms of extra weight in the form of ice and snow, but everything still worked perfectly underneath, and it had acquitted itself admirably through frankly daft conditions, well outside the traditional remit of a mountain bike, unfashionable skinny tyres and all. Fun though they undoubtedly are, I’m not going to be rushing out to buy that fat bike just yet.