WINTER RIDING TIPS FROM THE PROS

So it’s January and it’s dark, cold and wet. Don’t let that stop you riding… this is exactly when enduro gets interesting! A day in the company of David Knight and Paul Edmondson riding what nowadays gets called extreme, but what they simply call enduro. It’s time to man-up and get out there, there’s dirt biking fun to be had even in winter!

‘If you don’t enjoy riding in the winter, you’re pretty bolloxed living in the UK, aren’t you!’

David Knight is never shy in saying just how it is, in the most direct manner imaginable. But it’s rare that you’ll actually find yourself disagreeing with him. He may be a three-time world champion and twice GNCC champion, but when he says his best ride in 2013 was at a snowy club twinshock trial, on his Honda RTL250 (1985 Eddy Lejeune replica, in Rothmans colours), you know the man’s a hardcore dirt bike enthusiast. He’s not interested in spewing politically-correct platitudes. It’s the real deal or no deal with David. And for Knighter, winter riding is the real deal.

‘I always find myself riding much harder stuff in winter. Pushing the bike around helps you get warmed up better and you’re having a lot more fun. I’ll go up in the woods this time of year for three-four hours and I’ll not get bored.’

Knighter has a strong ally in Paul Edmondson. Fast Eddy has three world championships to his name too (some say four - he has a European title as well, from the days before the WORLD champs started), and through his Fast Eddy Xtreme events he’s making sure the tough (winter) enduro stays alive.

‘Enduro shouldn’t just be like a ride down the M6’ he says, ‘It should be challenging. And for a lot of riders it’s that challenge that makes enduro so enjoyable.’

We’ve come to Tong Hall near Bradford in Yorkshire, the venue for the annual Fast Eddy Xtreme event that’ll take place on January 12. Paul’s checking out the feasibility of some of tougher sections for this year, and Knighter’s getting in some much needed extreme practice time in preparation for the upcoming SuperEnduro. TBM is here to see how these two greats go about winter riding and to try and pick up some tips for enduro in tougher conditions.

Wrap-Up

First rule of cold-weather riding: wrap up warm. It seems pretty obvious, but so often it gets overlooked. Both Knighter and Eddy independently called it out as their first consideration. You can always take layers off if you’re hot, but getting too cold is downright dangerous.

‘Get your thermals on, that’s the first job,’ says Knighter. ‘There’s nothing worse than being freezing cold, even when you do hard riding it’s tough to get warmed up. So make sure you’re warm. You’re better off boiling hot than freezing.’

‘Yep, you want to have proper sports underwear’ agrees Eddy, ‘the thin [skins type] thermals, preferably with a roll neck, then a riding shirt over that and a body warmer. They’re the hot tip for winter riding [bodywarmers], keep your arms free but your body warm.

‘Some people prefer trials boots this time of year especially for slower, more technical riding, but I stick with motocross ones for the ankle support. With helmets for me it’s still a full-face every time. With goggles I avoid any fancy lenses or tear-offs or roll-offs. Just go with a new clear lens and keep a bit of tissue to hand and keep on wiping them. Tissue rather than rag as it soaks up any water and doesn’t scratch the lens. I’ll typically take a bum bag or water pack with a spare set of gloves, some tissues and rags for anything else that needs cleaning.

‘And don’t forget hydration’ adds Eddy, ‘it’s easy to dehydrate on a cold day. You’ll be working hard, will still sweat and need to keep drinking as you go.’

Winterise your Bike

Winter riding stresses your bike more than you might imagine. Soil turns to mud once saturated and that mud can really plaster a bike, packing on weight and giving moving parts a real pasting of grit. So it pays to think ahead.

‘Just little things, like spraying silicon all over the engine and under the mudguards can pay dividends’, says Eddy. ‘It stops the mud sticking so the bike stays lighter and when it comes to cleaning afterwards the dirt falls away that much easier.

‘Then there’s the stuff like extra protection because you’re likely to drop the bike more often. At rocky places like Tong, sump guards are an absolute must, and items like disc guards really pay off. Think about radiator guards and adding a fan on a four-stroke as they soon get hot when stuck. Hand guards are essential: I prefer simple hand guards to the wraparound type as they’ll keep your hands free if you go over the handlebars, and they’re lighter [less effect on the steering].’

‘This time of year other things start making real sense, like the plastic chain blocks because they flex slightly where with the metal ones if you bend them, they stay bent. It’s in winter rides where you really test kit like this.

‘Talking of chains… I run them a bit slacker, especially at muddy events as the mud will pack between the chain and sprocket - effectively tightening the chain. When it comes to suspension, I like to run the bike a bit lower in extreme going, so we push the forks through the clamps a little bit, put a little more sag in the shock, speed up the rebound a little bit so it’s a bit more lively. That way if you do get stuck in a rut the suspension is working a bit faster. And stock suspension for this kind of riding is fine, you don’t need race suspension, but if you do have race stuff think about softening it off.

‘This time of year I revert to a stock pipe and silencer as well. Aftermarket stuff is good for racing but for riding over the winter and messing around with your mates, a good bit of advice is to put the stock system on. It works wonders - it’ll soften the power off and it’s generally stronger so will take the hits better.

‘As ever, wire-on your grips. So many times, especially in the wet you see them falling off or twisting round. You can use harder grips this time of year as well, with harder ends because you’re going to be leaning the bike up against rocks, and dropping it, so you’ll need harder-wearing kit.

‘When it comes to tyres for this kind of stuff - I recommend you use a good enduro tyre because they work really well on rocks, logs, everything. And new ones too. This is not the time of year to be running knackered, rounded-off knobblies. We run mousses but for the average rider, with heavy duty tubes you could probably go down to 8-10psi while for normal tubes never go below 12-13psi.

‘And finally, if you’re running a two-stroke it normally pays to jet them a bit richer in winter, so they’re not as aggressive, a little bit torquier, and less likely to cold-sieze.’

The Craft

Nothing tests your riding skills quite like winter riding. It’s when grip is at a premium that you really find out who walks the walk. Having multi-world champs and ex-trials riders Knighter and Fast Eddy as company for a day, was a good opportunity to check out how to do it right…

Riding the Ruts

Ruts really take a hold in wet weather. They can dominate a course and dominate your mind. As Eddy explained, the best plan is to simplify your approach to them. There are two key approaches - either standing or sitting.

‘Standing up you’re controlling the bike either with your knees or body positioning. Sitting down, carrying your feet in front of you, you’re using them as skis to keep you upright. With both techniques it’s about maintaining momentum.

‘Sitting down is still the most practical way of riding ruts for the average rider, but you’ll even see top riders tackling deep ruts like this. In fact it’s very rare you’ll see them going through ruts stood up unless they’re on a check. If it’s a special test or race they’ll be sat down as that’s the fastest, and the safest, way. When it gets wild it’s not going to bite you because you’re lower to the ground and you’ve got your legs there for support.

‘When standing up the trick is make sure you’re looking well ahead. You maintain balance better that way. When stood up, if you feel you’re going to fall off to the right, if you turn to the right it’ll keep you up. You can use the front wheel as a lever against the side of the rut to keep you balanced.

‘Ultimately the decision on standing or sitting comes down to this - standing up takes less energy but is generally slower. So for a long shallow rut stood up is a lot easier and works, but for a real deep one, then sit down.’

Cambers

‘With cambers there’s a lot of technique in terms of body positioning,’ says Eddy. ‘But ultimately the more you can attack it [before the camber], carrying some good speed, the more likely you will make it to the far side. You’ve got to look and see how long the camber is and commit to it. Decide whether you need second or third gear and give it plenty.’

That’s plenty BEFORE you hit the camber. Once on it, as so often in dirt biking, you’ll want a steady throttle, just to maintain your momentum.

‘With any camber, aim as high as you can to allow for slippage. You’ll probably end up low anyway. Important thing is to give yourself a bloody good run at it. Lean the bike INTO the camber, pushing your body AWAY from the slope [to counterweight the bike], and put all your weight on the OUTSIDE footpeg. This digs the tyre into the camber and helps it find grip. But mostly you want to be committed to carrying some good speed across it.’

Hills

Hills terrify some riders in winter. Because hills do take your skill set and stretch it to the max. Especially when wet. And anytime you get it wrong, the consequences seem just that bit messier. Nobody enjoys looping out a bike on the way up; nor rocketing down a slope with no way of slowing down. Here’s Eddy’s technique…

‘The most important thing with any hill is the approach: you’ve got to look ahead. A lot of riders just ride into stuff then realise it’s steeper than they thought, or else someone’s stuck on their line. So my biggest advice on hills is to look before you leap. Have a good look, pick a rut or a line, then commit to it. And by committing to it you should know you’ve applied enough power to get up it.

‘A lot of hills you can’t just accelerate into because of trees or a ditch in the way. It’s the same with a sand dune - if you go flat out into a dune you’ll just go over the bars. So you’ve got to get to the bottom of it then use power and technique to build the momentum to get over it. That means once you’re lined up - picking say second gear - then it’s throttle and clutch together to get it started. Don’t underestimate how aggressively you need to power-on to get the momentum you need.

‘Chances are you’ll encounter tree roots across your line as you climb. With roots, the key is again to have enough momentum that you can lighten yourself as you go over them. As you get to them unweight the pegs and lift your body up off the seat so as to skim over them. Then, as soon as you’re across the roots, sit down putting weight on the rear of the bike and get driving again.

‘If you’ve not applied enough commitment and you get stuck on a root, then you need to transfer your weight to the back of the bike and using throttle and clutch give it two or three attempts to pop over. If that doesn’t work stop and try and push it or lift it over, otherwise all you’re doing is digging a bigger hole. Don’t sit there for two minutes, revving and clutching, overheating the bike. Just back it down, get off and use the throttle and the clutch and give it a good shove to get across them and then as soon as you can sit back on the bike to get the drive again.

‘With a really big hill you are trying to accelerate really hard off the bottom, it’s more like a motocross start, you can’t be trying to lug it in second and third, that ain’t happening. I’m talking seriously firing it in second and revving the bike out. Get the rear wheel spinning, and when it’s spinning there’s no mud on it, so then it’s driving. You’ll have enough power and momentum to get yourself half way up, then you’ll know how much throttle to roll off to ease it over the top half.

‘Don’t be lazy. Be active as a rider. Sit down and drive hard at the bottom, then as you come up the hill, come out of the seat to take that little bit of weight out of the seat to give you extra lift over any obstacles. If you hit an obstacle sat down it’s going to kick out on you. But by lifting your weight up, you’re relieving that pressure on the back wheel.

‘If you sense you’re not going to make it, try and turn across the slope and lie it into the hill. Don’t keep going past the point of no return where it’ll crash or loop out. Once it starts to really lose momentum turn across and lay it completely into the hill and then if it’s not too slick you’ve got the possibility of dragging the front around, to ride down and have another go.’

Talking of coming down. Just how, Eddy?

‘It’s about lining yourself up and committing at the top. Slow yourself right down, then when you are looking over the edge and with those tree roots and rocks looking so scary just lay off the brakes, let it almost coast down, using first or second gear for the engine braking, but laying off the brakes, instead using them at the bottom. You’re more likely to fall off by trying to slow it down than by letting it roll. There’s quite a bit of confidence to it, so practice with small stuff first and keep building it up.

‘The descents over the rocks at Tong need the same basic technique. Being so slippery there’s no way you want to be braking on them. You’ve got to let the bike do its own thing then gather it up once you’re on the dirt at the bottom.’

The fallen tree or rock step

Given the choice we’d all ride around these. But course-setters often won’t give you the choice so it’s best to know the technique. Besides once you’ve got it nailed you’ll be surprised at just how big a tree or rock you can quite comfortably get over. Here’s Eddy again…

‘It’s the same technique for a log or a big step. It’s a slow speed manoeuver so it’s first gear, a nice straight approach, stood up on the bike, and then using the throttle and the clutch together to lift the front up, aim the front wheel to land against the rock slab (or log) and let the wheel bounce back towards you. Then apply another surge of power and clutch to accelerate as the back wheel reaches the obstacle to give it the oomph to get over it.

‘If you just wheelie straight into it, you’re just going to hit your sump on it and that’ll stop you dead. That’s the major problem most riders have. It’s vital to clout your front wheel onto it so it’ll kick your wheel back up, and by doing that you’re getting the front wheel high enough that the sump won’t catch… and over she goes. Just ease the throttle as you go over, don’t chop it dead nor rev it too hard. Just give it enough gas to ease it over and ride away smoothly.’

Commitment

It seems to us to come down to this. Riding in winter is all about commitment. You need it just to deal with the cold in the garage; to dig that bike out and load it up. You need it to look at a cold, wet and dark forest and consider it a fun place to go. And you need it physically and mentally in your riding.

‘That’s one last point, you need to be active all the time. In winter riding you can’t just sit in the middle of the bike and plod along,’ says Eddy. ‘You have to feel where the wheels are in the dirt; feel for when it’s right to accelerate quite hard; and know when to be just touching the throttle. It’s a real fine art, not just positioning on the bike, but throttle and clutch control.’

Knighter was showing commitment. All day he rode for our camera and getting him to stop even for a few words was nigh on impossible. He stopped only to swap between his two bikes (there’s commitment there alone - double the clean-up). Light eventually stopped play - well that and the IoM ferry service.

‘I love winter riding’ he confessed when he finally got off the bike. ‘I have to have something to go at. Just to win a race is not enough. I want something out of it at the end. The satisfaction that I rode a track that was hard. You want to be able to look back and say “that was tough.” You don’t want to finish a race knowing your grandmother could have got around that track. There isn’t any satisfaction from racing an easy track. I get greater satisfaction from racing a tough track than I do from racing against my opponents. Winter riding adds to the challenge… and frankly, gives greater rewards.’ 

Copyright © 2017 Rust Sports Ltd. All rights reserved.

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