Springtime is a difficult time of year for mountain bikers. It’s getting warm and we want to get out, and get our bikes onto the dirt, after being cooped up inside all winter. Please resist the temptation. There are a lot of things going on as the ground thaws that make our trails especially sensitive during this time.
First on that list is the thaw itself. The surface soil thaws first, and the still frozen subsurface creates a temporary hardpan that prevents moisture from infiltrating deep into the ground. Moisture will pool in depressions, and the trail will stay muddy for a long time. The heavy clay content in the soils across much of Indiana makes this take longer. The wintertime had a lot of freeze/thaw cycles that heaved formerly compressed soils, which allows them to retain more moisture, also.
The temperatures are another factor. It may feel warm to you, compared to a long winter of sub-freezing (and occasionally sub-zero) temperatures, but it’s still not quite warm enough for rapid evaporation after a rainfall event. Trails need more time after a storm to dry out. A storm that might leave the trails in good condition 24hrs later in the summertime, might still be muddy after a week’s wait in the springtime. You’ll have to be patient. Adding to this, the trees and forest floor vegetation haven’t entirely awakened from their winter dormancy yet. As they wake up from their winter slumber, they will slowly begin drawing more moisture from the soil, which speeds the drying process. When the trees begin leafing out, you will really begin to see the trails dry out more quickly.
A reminder: When nighttime temps still dip below freezing, you may still see the blue indicators in the trail guide. This does not mean that the trails ARE frozen and rideable. This means that the trails are rideable only when they are frozen. As the days lengthen, the amount of time they spend frozen will decrease, until the nighttime temps will not be low enough for long enough to actually freeze the soil anymore. If you arrive at a trailhead and find that the trails are indeed thawed or partially thawed, please consider alternate riding options.
Along those lines, what are your alternate options?
If you want something to ride close to home, this is the time of year for pavement riding. Some mountain bikers dig out their road bikes just for this time of year. That’s just fine if you don’t have one. Your mountain bike will do just fine on pavement. Some less knobby tires might be nice, but not necessary. Paved streets and greenway trails are great places to get a workout. The urban environment also offers plenty of opportunity to work on technical skills that may have become rusty during the winter. Pay a visit to Ray’s Indoor MTB Park! They’re open through the end of April.
If you absolutely must get into the woods, don’t fear, you have options here, too. There are plenty of gravel roads and paths throughout Indiana, but especially in southern Indiana, Brown County, and the Hoosier National Forest. Mountain bikes do great on the gravel roads in southern Indiana, and there are some truly brutal climbs down there. Combs Rd. is a perfect example, with an average grade of 12%. Here’s the Strava segment page for it.
The gravel climb up to Mt. Baldy is another popular one, at 8% average grade.
The hills of southern Indiana are full of examples like this. It’s a good time to get out there and explore, and build your fitness for those all-day epic rides in the summertime.
It’s also worth making a few additional notes.
FAT BIKES: While Fat Bikes make a shallower but wider tire track, they still cause trail damage in muddy conditions. Fat Bikes are also expected to avoid muddy trails.
Hikers and trail runners: Use of trails when muddy, even by foot traffic , creates trail damage. Please seek paved or gravel paths when the trails are muddy. This message from HMBA applies specifically to trails built and maintained by mountain bikers. It makes your user groups look bad when they damage trails primarily maintained by another user group. It is up to your groups how you wish to treat hiking only trails.
New trail construction (Brown County, SWW, O’Bannon, etc…) will not begin until regular maintenance is complete. More volunteers for trail maintenance and less trail users in bad conditions means that we will start building new trails sooner.
We have some great trails Indiana, thanks to the hard work of volunteers. Please show your support and appreciation for their efforts by respecting the trails in the next couple of months.