Winter MTB Riding in Philly: Mud, Freeze Thaw Cycles & Cat-Ass Conditions

What happens when we ride in the mud?

Winter in the Philadelphia can be a frustrating time to be a mountain biker. With conditions ranging from howling winds and 0º Fahrenheit to overcast and rainy in the 30’s in january, cabin fever is real. When the weather clears and temperatures, rise, it’s really tempting to get out for a ride, even if the trails are a little sloppy; a little mud doesn’t hurt, right?

This time of year, up until early spring, we frequently have conditions that are known as freeze/thaw cycles. Dirt, in its normal state, is pretty stable, but as it freezes, draws up the surrounding moisture and becomes a frozen, crystalline mixture of soil and ice. In this state, it’s perfectly fine to ride and it’s as hard and durable as cement. However, as it thaws, a couple of things happen: as the frozen ground contacts warmer air, frozen water in the top inch or two of soil melts, but being trapped in the ground, can’t run off, nor can it percolate through the frozen strata beneath it. With frost line penetrating as deep as 36 inches in the Mid Atlantic, in the week to ten days of an initial thaw, the soil can remain in a muddy, gelatinous state and trails that normally dry out in warmer weather, can remain muddy for weeks, as the temperatures cycle between freezing and thawing.

As a result, riding when the trails are muddy can do a lot of damage. First of all, mud is highly abrasive and wet, sloppy mud has a way of finding its way into your chains, bearings, derailleurs, shocks and cassettes and will wreck your bike in short order. Furthermore, mountain bike will leave a rut in a wet soft trail and contrary to popular belief, these ruts don’t just smooth themselves out. Eventually, a rut will dry, effectively cementing itself into the trail. This, in turn, not only makes the trail tread bumpy and unpleasant to ride or walk, but the next time it rains, turns the trail into a gutter for water, causing erosion, creating more damage on the trail and threatening the watershed on which our communities depend for clean drinking water. Over the course of a season, a tire rut can change to a wash and a wash, into a gully, creating problems for trail users and trail workers alike. We’ve seen a number of people try to justify riding on wet trails by saying “I ride around the wet spots.” This creates its own set of problems, turning 18” wide stretches of singletrack into 3’-8’ wide (or wider) roads through the forest.

The Trail Gnomes Will Take Care Of It…

Trail Wizards repairing the PSK Trail at Philly Pumptrack, in West Fairmount park

Another oft used justification is “Somebody else will take care of it.” This is true, somebody will have to take care of it. Philadelphia trails are independently maintained by volunteer groups, including the Friends of the Wissahickon, Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance, Friends of the Creshehim Trail and Philly Pumptrack. Most of the trail work is done by volunteers, with an enormous backlog of work to do during the warmer months. At the Wissahickon trails, for instance, there are only about 14 out of over 50 miles of trail have been brought up their current Sustainable Trails Initiative standards. “There’s a good 30 miles of trail to be reworked,” according to FoW Crew Leader, David Dannenberg, “not including essential maintenance on trails already rebuilt or necessary closures of user generated trails.” In addition, are also a number of proposals for mountain bike optimized trails under consideration, but these remain on hold until existing trails are repaired; damage caused by mountain bikes has a real potential to be used against the mtb community in weighing those proposals. Certain members of the public already view mountain bikers as selfish and unfairly blame mountain biking for most trail damage. Feeding into this prejudice by actually and apparently causing trail damage, hurts the reputation of the entire mountain biking community.

What’s A Hard Up Mountain Biker To Do?

Since there aren’t any official closures listed at our area trailheads, it can be hard to to tell whether it’s good to ride, but we recommend the following rule of thumb: Leave no trace: If your tires are leaving a mark on the trail tread, it’s a pretty good sign that it’s too wet to ride. Similarly, if mud is sticking to your tires, down tube, seat or chain stays, then conditions are not ideal and you should’t be on the trails. Better yet, check social media before you head out for your ride. Our local trail systems are active on Facebook and Instagram and regularly post updates on trail conditions. Follow them here:

Friends of the WIssahickon
FOW Logo

Philly Pumptrack

Friends of the Cresheim Trail

Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance

 

If you must ride…

We get it, it sucks to be cooped up all winter and trainers can be their own awful torture, especially when presented with a unseasonably warm, mid-winter heat wave. Thankfully, all is not lost; there are options to get a ride in, even if it’s muddy out.

Ride the roads: This is the least palatable option for many, as the winter roads are often coated with salt, slush and sand, but roads and paved paths are always a suitable choice when the trails are less than ideal In addition to streets, the Schuykill River Trail is maintained for commuters through much, if not most of Philadelphia and a good portion of the trail from the Manayunk Towpath up to the Betzwood/Valley Forge area is bathed in sunlight and thaws  quickly, even if it’s not maintained by the counties; so that is a safe, reliable option.

Ride gravel: For such an urban, cosmopolitan metropolis, the Philadelphia area has a surprising amount of gravel options for riders.

  • Forbidden Drive is a popular route, with the 7 miles of crushed gravel making for a 14 mile out and back route, starting at the Wissahickon Transportation Center, heading up stream to the Cedars House and back.
  • Boxer’s Trail is another popular route, with 3.8 miles of crushed rock path undulating through East Fairmount Park, with scenic overlooks of the Schuylill River, Kelly Drive and several historic mansions from Philadelphia’s past.
  • Over in West Fairmount Park, the Belmont Plateau also has several miles of gravel that’s suitable for grinding, including the infamously punishing Parachute Hill.
    To the north of the Plateau, the Cynwyd Heritage trail features a gravel path that runs parallel to the majority of its 2 mile long trail, with a connector to Belmont slated to be built in the coming years.
  • To the South of West Fairmount Park lies the Cobbs Creek Parkway, with 3.7 miles of mixed surface trail.
  • At the southernmost tip of the city lies the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, a 1000-acre, urban nature preserve, with 10 miles of trails, many of which are accessible by bicycle.
  • Finally, in the northeast of the city, is Pennypack Park, with 14.4 miles of paved and mixed surface trails stretching from Montgomery County to the Delaware River, in the city’s Holmesburg neighborhood. Word has it that a number of intrepid pioneering adventurers have put together an Urban Gravel Century within the city that’s nearly 100 miles long and close to 70% gravel, but that rumor has yet to be confirmed.

Ride rocks or sand: This last option unfortunately requires a car, but there are several trails within a short drive from Philadelphia that offer great riding, even when it’s wet.

Neversink Mountain

Mt. Neversink, in Reading, PA
  • Located about 90 minutes to the Northwest of the city in Reading, PA, Mt Neversink is one of the best options for riding during the freeze thaw cycles in Southeast PA.
  • Approximately9 miles of trail, including options to link it up with the Exeter and Thun rail trails.
  • “During the freeze/thaw we usually recommend users ride Neversink instead of the other trail systems, until they dry out well,” says Berks Area Mountain Biking’s John Pacharis. “Mount Penn does dry out fairly quickly, but there are certain sensitive spots on the mountain that get pretty messy. Neversink can be ridden in just about any conditions,“ adds Pacharis. “Almost all the trails there, are old gravity railroad beds and have about 20 feet of crushed rock underneath them.”

Allaire

  • Across the Delaware, a little more than an hour east of the city, at the Northern tip of the Pinelands in Howell, New Jersey, Allaire State Park boasts over 11 miles of well-drained, sandy trails and surprisingly undulating elevation in the terrain, with climbs and descents between 100-300 feet available.
  • Maintained by the Allaire Trail Users Group, most of the trails are beginner friendly, with a couple sections netting blue or black ratings for intermediate and advanced riders.

Batsto

An hour southeast of Philly, lies Wharton State Forest and the Trails at Batsto Lake, in the heart of the Pine Barrens.

  • Made up of sandy, acidic, nutrient-poor soil (hence the name Pine Barrens), “this sandy base soil (also referred to as Sugar Sand) resists the type of erosion dirt trails typically experience when wet,” states JORBA and Cherry Hill Trail Crew’s Jay Jones. “The Pine Barren trails actually become more firm when wet. As such, trail use is not an adverse concern when wet conditions exist.”
  • The Wharton stacked loop trail system offers you a variety of options to choose from, with somewhere between 25-60 miles of sandy singletrack and doubletrack trails available.
  • Batsto is a prime option for city dwellers due to its excellent drainage and the fact that it’s like nothing else nearby. The trails are mostly flat, with ascents no more than 30’ high, while the tight, twisty routing through the pines makes maintaining speed a challenge.
  • It’s an XC-optimized, point and shoot trail system that’s great for racking up winter base miles, as opposed to honing technical skill.
  • A number of riders have been known to start their rides from the city, racking up century-plus mileage in the process; it’s possible to get there via multi-modal transport via the NJ Transit Atlantic City Rail Line to Hammonton, although most opt to drive there.

Black Run Preserve

Black Run Preserve in Evesham, NJ

Lastly and closest to the city at the southwestern edge of the Pinelands, are the nearly 10 miles of trails of Black Run Preserve.

  • Situated on 1300 acres of sandy pine forests and swampland in Evesham Township, NJ, the BRP trails are considered beginning to intermediate, with mostly flat terrain.
  • At 19 miles from Philly, Black Run the closest wet-weather riding locale for dwellers within the 215 area code.

Whether you choose self-flagellation on your rollers with Zwift, embrace the suffering of the road, opt for adventure in the gravel or answer the call of the pines, there are plenty of options for riding; just don’t ride wet trails in the city. Better yet, sign up for the MTBPHL mailing list and join the trail wizards for workdays held through out the year and help make our city’s trails better!

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