Heavy mist is percolating across the UK’s Surrey Hills. It’s filling the valleys and hushing through the bare-limbed trees, as if a dragon vomited. Riding through the mist, I see flashes of bronze through the haze where the ferns have turned to burnt autumnal shades. It’s a spooky setting for a bike test, but it reminds me how the change of seasons can transform a landscape in inspiring ways, despite the cold leaching into my bones.
Like most people at this time of year, hours logged behind a desk have blunted my bike fitness, so I’m feeling a bit of trepidation at riding out with Canyon Bicycles’ super-fit riders. But the need to get warm, combined with the excitement of being one of the first in the UK to ride a brand new, freshly tuned carbon-fibre Canyon Neuron CF mountain bike to go shred on, is proving motivation enough to push out of the comfort zone.
Mountain biking is a perfect winter sport. Other activities are usually compromised by cold, wet, muddy conditions, but MTB thrives on them, especially in places like the Surrey Hills where the soil drains pretty rapidly. It’s the ideal antidote to being cooped up indoors, and MTB naturally delivers a kind of high intensity interval training, with intense, punchy climbs and adrenaline-pumping descents.
So, how did the new Canyon Neuron CF 9.0 SL handle itself on the fastest trails this part of the world has to offer?
1. Pick Your Weapon
As we roll off the road from Surrey’s Wotton House and onto the trail I’m reminded of a truth: ride in the winter and you’re going to make friends with mud. The Surrey Hills are relatively fast draining but they have their share of boggy bits, generally on the flatter sections, which mean my Neuron and I are soon splattered with black clods of dirt. Once I’ve embraced the conditions for what they are – messy, challenging, but also great fun – charging through muddy puddles soon puts a grin on my face.
But mud slows you down, so Enduro-style longer travel bikes (which are becoming increasingly popular) become unwieldy. A heavier, saggier bike quickly becomes sluggish when ploughing through squelch, so the fact that the 130mm-travel Neuron tips the scales at significantly less than 13kg, means I can enjoy a more nimble-footed ride.
‘Wet, slippery inclines covered in golden leaves make for a tougher challenge, engaging more of your brain – it’s mindful cycling’
2. Dig Into The Climbs
Something I really like about mountain biking in winter is that the climbs become harder. That sounds counter-intuitive, but a wet, slippery incline, covered in golden leaves (as some of the singletrack is today) makes for a tougher challenge, which engages more of your brain. It’s mindful cycling, if you like, and you’re so focussed on riding climbs well – by keeping your back wheel weighted for traction, picking a smooth line across greasy roots, and maintaining an efficient cadence – that you soon forget how hard your lungs are working.
As we climb up to the Ranmore Common my blood is moving nicely, driving the cold from my fingers. I’ve already had a workout and we’re just twenty minutes into the ride. The training effect of riding bikes in winter is boosted, yet another reason to get out of the gym. I can report that the Neuron CF climbs very well, aided by geometry slightly on the upright side, as well as its 29er wheelset. The bike feels like it’s egging you on to put more into it and my thighs are soon bathed in acid – thanks bike!
3. Ride Those Roots
Speaking of roots in the trail, there’s an art to riding these, especially when they’re covered in a slimy film of dirt, damp and green algae. I find myself negotiating these breaks in the trail by a picking my line, lifting the bike over larger roots, and trying to steer the front wheel slightly along their lines, to avoid going at right angles to them. There are even some off-camber sloped sections, which I tackle by leaning my bike into the slope slightly while keeping my body upright to put weight on the downslope pedal. The task is made easier by the Neuron’s balanced package of Fox 34 Performance forks and Fox Performance Float DPS LV rear suspension, which feels well matched to this kind of technical riding.
4. Get Ready For The Drop
We’re riding trails that shadow the North Downs Way. It’s the kind of winding, wooded singletrack that feels like even more of an exploration in the winter, and as the trail starts to tilt downwards, my speed opens up. We suddenly come to a drop onto a steep descent; a chute between stands of trees, its bottom carpeted with fallen leaves. The top is gnarled with dark roots and lumps of greened chalk pushing out of the dirt.
A quick tap on the brakes to check my speed and then I’m pointing the bike down. I’m hijacked off my preferred line by a particularly tangled root, but I’m wise to braking or attempting to steer away, on a steep descent, so I go with it and hammer down the rockiest, rootiest part of the slope. The Neuron’s cockpit does seem on the shorter side in this scenario, but despite that it tracks the steep drop well, and the suspension smoothly soaks up the sudden compression at the bottom, sending the bike flying down the trail in a furious blast of leaves. On that suspension, the Neuron's swingarm bearings are usefully sealed to enable winter riding without grit and mud grinding their surfaces away.
5. Dress For The Occasion
The old cliche is that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices. When it comes to mountain biking this holds true. I’ve ridden a MTBs in snow, across rainy beaches, and in a 35°C (95°F) heatwave. Once you get moving in the winter your body becomes surprisingly toasty, but today’s mist is fast condensing into soft, chilling rain, so I’m glad of my packable Endura MTR Shell jacket. It’s properly waterproof but is also rated to 6000 breathability, so I’m not suffering from being ‘boiled in the bag’ at all.
The other thing that’s really bad for morale is cold, wet feet, but my Endura Hummvee waterproof socks are keeping my toes cosy enough to charge through the deepest puddles with absolutely zero Fs given. Fittingly for a British brand, Endura seems to have nailed how to beat back, damp, dispiriting conditions.
6. Find Your Flow
After a coffee detour to Peaslake, we go back off road to the top of Holmbury Hill and get set to ride Yoghurt Pots, a Surrey Hills classic. This trail is a combination of fast, winding singletrack, massive, swooping bomb holes and wide, descending berms that really allow you to get fast and loose. Once again, the Neuron feels agile but with a marked smoothness to the ride, which allows me to feather my brakes and then ride the berms aggressively to keep my momentum up.
Once you experience flow on an MTB trail it becomes addictive, and the advantages of a relatively shorter travel frame are shining through here – I’m really enjoying the way picking a line and going for it is rewarded with amazing flow on the Neuron, which is still able to soak up those small irregularities in the trail. I’m having so much fun, while focussing so intently, that I only realise how hard my whole body is working when I stop for a breather at the end of the trail. Descending off road demands as much from the upper body as the legs for a whole-body workout. Chalk another one up for winter fitness-boosting MTB.
‘I miss the telltale signs of an incoming bomb hole until it’s too late and loose the front wheel’
7. Sending A Message
After emerging from Yoghurt Pots we ride to the final trail of the day, called Telegraph. The terrain opens out into a gently declining field of ferns, split by a narrow singletrack of sandy soil. Another advantage of a lightweight trail MTB, over an enduro one, soon becomes clear. To flow on this kind of trail you need to put some pedals strokes in, maintaining speed and attack. By shifting my body position around on the bike I keep things light, bunny hopping to clear small obstacles, and lifting the front wheel to maintain speed.
It feels fast, attacking and great fun. I’m so wrapped in getting the most out of the trail that I make a classic error, becoming too fixated on what’s immediately approaching my front wheel. I miss the telltale signs of an incoming large bomb hole until it’s too late and loose the front end, being unceremoniously tipped out of the saddle and into the dirt.
I’m not sure a different bike would have helped here – definitely a user error – although it does pay to run your tyre pressure 1-2psi lower in the winter to counter the more slippery conditions. I’m reminded why when reading your line, your eyes need to be constantly flicking between far and near portions of the trail, while trusting your body and bike to ride what’s underneath you.
Still, no real damage is done and I’m soon up riding again (a common feature of MTB tumbles). By the end of the ride I feel like I’ve been worked, in the best way, because the endorphins are flowing, and the adrenaline afterburn has left me excited about this season’s riding to come. It’s the most motivating winter training message you can send yourself…
WHAT NEXT? Learning how to ride banked berms will help you to maintain momentum and feel the flow on a mountain bike trail so watch this video to find out the correct technique...
RSNG rode the Canyon Neuron CF 9.0 SL, which retails at €3,699 and weighs 12.86kg (28.35lb). Find out more about the range at the Canyon website
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
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