Damp. Cold. Muddy. These three words send many a mountain biker into hibernation (or worse, onto the trainer), but not the Scots. For them, it's part of the fun.
This winter, my boyfriend and I decided to leave sunny New Mexico and spend a month in Scotland. Riding mountain bikes. In January. On purpose.
Stay with me here–the riding in Scotland's Tweed Valley is world class and the Scots take full advantage, riding year-round despite (there is no way to put this nicely) some pretty shitty weather. The main goal of the trip was to learn how to ride on slippery roots without falling over every three feet, but before doing that, I would need to learn how to survive the wet, sunless, and generally inhospitable Scottish winter.
So I started asking everyone I met, how do you do it? How do you get out every day, regardless of whatever hellish precipitation is leaking from the sky–rain, ice, sleet, and any combination thereof–and still enjoy the ride? What is the secret?
You can learn a lot about a culture by what's sold in the supermarkets–in Italy, you can buy five-gallon buckets of olive oil; in Scotland, waterproof socks.
First, I queried my good friend Craig–Craig and his family hosted us on our first trip to Scotland, back in October 2015. Craig has been riding in the Tweed Valley for years, and he certainly is not deterred by “a little rain.” We learned a thing or two from Craig and his family on that first trip–like, if you’re going to be a mountain biker in Scotland, you better have a washing machine with a 30-minute quick wash cycle, as you will be using it after every ride. Bonus points if said machine is in the garage and can be accessed without tramping mud through the entire house.
Craig also rocks a mean fender setup (pictured at top of article) which he highly recommends but admits incurs a lot of flack from his riding buddies. His startlingly clean (by Scottish standards) post-ride bum is a tribute to the effectiveness of such a setup. Another of Craig's pro tips is to bring a spare pair of gloves on every ride because as soon as you fall in the mud (and you WILL fall in the mud), your hands will be too wet, slimy, and cold to hang onto the handlebars.
Craig's final tip? Waterproof socks. Perhaps not surprisingly, I heard this advice from everyone I talked to. There's nothing quite like cold, soggy feet to make you loathe what should be a fun day in the woods. Craig wears SealSkinz but hinted that you can sometimes find cheap generic versions at local supermarkets. It turns out you can learn a lot about a culture by what's sold in the supermarkets–in Italy, for example, you can buy five-gallon buckets of olive oil; in Scotland, waterproof socks.
"Sometimes you have to remember that your skin is waterproof and you just need to drink some concrete every now and then."
I also posed my questions to Enduro World Series (EWS) racer and Tweed Valley local, Katy Winton. Given that she's prepping for her second EWS season with the Trek Factory Racing Team, I figured if anyone knew how to ride and train at an elite level through the brutal Scottish winter, it would be Katy. Her first recommendation was simple: just wear waterproof everything, from “trousers” to overshoes. This may sound obvious, but how many of you American mountain bikers own waterproof baggies? That’s what I thought.
On top of that, Katy hammered home the importance of good layering. Regulating your body temperature in crappy weather is extra tricky when you’re adding intervals and hard training to the mix, so having the right base- and mid-layers for the temperature is important. The key is to avoid sweating so much during your efforts so that you’re soaked through (and chilled) for the rest of your ride.
Of course, as Katy was happy to point out, no matter how well kitted out you are, if you’re riding in Scotland in January, you’re still going to be cold and wet with some frequency. “Sometimes you have to remember that your skin is waterproof,” she said, “and you just need to drink some concrete every now and then.”
My final victim in this quest for crappy weather riding domination was an unsuspecting Edinburgh-native named Michael, who I accosted at the trailhead after a ride. He was busy washing his bike with a portable pressure washer in preparation to load it back into his small hatchback for the drive home.
Having never seen anyone bring a bike-wash with them to the trailhead, I couldn’t resist pestering Michael with some questions. He probably thought I was crazy, but was too polite to say so, and was willing to tell me about his setup. The Mobi V-17 is a portable pressure washer designed specifically for bike-washing (although the company's website cheerily states you can use it on your dog, provided you change the pressure to a lower setting), and is powered via the 12-volt car charger. It’s a lifesaver for riders like Michael who drive normal, everyday cars but still want to ride all winter. NEMO also makes an effective—albeit, lower-tech—option that relies on a foot pump for pressure.
Michael’s top advice to anyone looking to spend a winter riding in the Scottish mud: “Wash your bike while it’s wet. Don’t let it dry.”
Obvious, perhaps, but I can attest to the temptation to sneak in a hot shower and a cup of tea before attending to my bike. And man, Michael is right–it’s so much easier to wash your bike when it’s wet.
After all, cold, wet riding in Scotland is simply called mountain biking.
Everyone I talked to was universally humored by my questions about wet weather survival. Asking a group of Scots how to ride in the rain is the cultural equivalent of showing up on a group ride in New Mexico and asking “how do you deal with all the dust?” After all, cold, wet riding in Scotland is simply called mountain biking. Even in the summer, it’s wet, muddy, and decidedly not hot. Locals still talk about “the one summer it was so dry I didn’t have to wash my bike for two whole weeks,” the way we talk about 100-year floods or epic blizzards in the western U.S.
The Scots don't really have superior wet weather gear. They aren't tougher than us (okay, fine, maybe a little). Sure, they have some tips and tricks for riding in the wet, and they definitely understand the value of a pair of waterproof socks, but the only real Scottish secret is a willingness to embrace bad weather as part of life. Scots accept the rain and the bike washing and the cold feet because, as Craig pointed out when I first started pestering him, “If we didn’t ride in the wet, we’d not ride at all. That’s the secret.”
So perhaps the real secret to riding in damp winter weather has a lot less to do with fancy gear and a lot more to do with just getting out the front door with a smile on your face.