We are fortunate living where we do; mild winters and a lot of different riding destinations to choose from, which means riding is a round the year possibility. This benefit does come with a couple of drawbacks, firstly, and most prominently, it rains here… A lot! Recently, we’ve seen record rainfalls, and the heavy rain events have been frequent enough that adequate drainage has not occurred, leaving the ground totally saturated, the lack of snow also means that trails don’t get a rest period, so they are seeing heavier than normal traffic for this time of year because people aren’t able to ski, two events that can be problematic.
With modern trail building practices that follow the IMBA and Whistler trail standards, the trails are able to withstand bad weather and heavy traffic better than ever, but building to these standards is incredibly labour intensive, not always the most ideal solution for a particular area, in turn, this means that the trail will not necessarily be able to handle high traffic or wet weather, so it’s good to know how to identify trails that will handle the rain, and also to understand what trails are best left for drier days. It’s really difficult to tell someone not to do something, and the aim of this article is to educate so that you can make an informed decision on when and what to ride.
Before You Ride:
Think about what trails you are going to ride:
-Soil Type: Are they typically muddy?
-Trail Grade: How steep are they?
-Special Restrictions: Are there any special restrictions put on by the builder or trail group?
-Plan Your Ride: Do you have a backup plan in case conditions are worse than anticipated?
The type of soil on the trail bed contributes to how well the trail will drain. In it’s natural state, the forest floor is made up of sticks, pine needles, leaves and other organic debris that is in various stages of decomposition. This material is known as duff, and if you pick it up, it’s loose, doesn’t pack, can hold a lot of water like a sponge, and when worked will break down into a black, sloppy muck that takes a long time to dry out. It’s the trail surface that is typical for ‘loamers’, the primitive trails that when dry are the dirt equivalent to skiing on a powder day, but in the wet, they are greasy, fragile and waterlogged. If you finish a ride and are covered in mud, then that mud has come from the trail, and it’s not going to be replaced without intervention, it’s a good marker for erosion!
The gold soil that has become ubiquitous with modern trail building is the local mineral soil. It’s a mixture of fine gravel, sand, silt and a small amount of clay with minimal organic matter. It is technically called loam (which is often confused with duff as mentioned above). When it’s worked, it will compact down, and the clay and silt will bond everything together forming a hardened layer that can shed water and is very resistant to wear from foot and wheel traffic. Building trail with this is labour intensive, generally consisting of removing the duff, back filling with rock, and crowning with soil to form the trail surface.
Rock is fantastic, it doesn’t really wear (although it can get polished), it doesn’t change, it can handle any amount of weather, but it can also channel water onto the rock-trail boundary, and the end of rock sections will often be rutted because of braking and water erosion.
After a heavy rainfall, it takes time for the trails to dry out to a rideable level. With armoured mineral soil trails, they can sometimes be good through the rain event or up to two or three days after. Organic surfaced trails can take weeks to dry out properly depending on the slope of the hill, sunlight and other factors.
Water on a trail is generally bad, but it becomes an erosive force when it’s moving, and as it’s speed picks up, so does it’s potential for damage. A well built, well maintained trail will have out-slopes on the trail bed to sheet water off to the side without it picking up much momentum, as a backup, there will also be grade reversals, small speed bumps or changes in grade from downhill to uphill that force the water off the trail before it can turn into a creek.
Standing water is generally not an issue unless the ground is totally saturated, at which point it will soften and riding through will create channels that could either promote water flow/channeling, or more common, people will choose to ride around the puddle because they don’t want to get wet, which turns that lovely narrow single track into a wide swamp.
If a trail is very steep, the water will pick up momentum quickly, meaning that it’s more likely to channel and erode if the water isn’t managed properly. Not a problem if the trail is down to hardpan, but also, not the most desirable trail surface to ride on. Channeled water is also unpredictable, so the trail surface, when eroded, could be hazardous.
Sometimes, because of conditions, fresh work that needs to bed in and set, or a variety of other reasons, a trail may be temporarily closed. Check with the local builder or organisation to find out if there is any current issues before starting your ride. If you come across something like this mid-ride, please respect the closure, even if it does mean you don’t get the ride you like. Letting trails rest now means that they will be better in the future!
Plan Your Ride:
Before you start your ride, know where you are going, plan some contingencies in case conditions turn bad and your destination is now not suitable for the conditions. If it is wet, tread lightly, don’t ride full speed and skid everywhere, as conditions will be a bit more fragile as well as unpredictable.
Every day of riding this time of year is a bonus day, since we haven’t really had a traditional winter. If you treat every ride like this following the guide above, then you will be able to have a fantastic ride and save the trails for prime spring conditions!
If it’s really wet, consider going for a hike (although the same problems still exist), or contact your local organisation or builders to see if they need help, digging in the rain is really satisfying.
Steve Sheldon, TORCA Director of Trails