I admit, I have a love/hate attitude towards the Fall season. I love the Fall for the weather, warm days and cold nights. Typically here in Sunny Ellensburg, Fall is also the season that the wind takes a little vacation (usually). The hate part comes from the fact that Winter is just right around the corner.
One of the other things that Fall signifies (at least in our house) is that it's just about time to start thinking about switching from woods riding to desert riding. We are very fortunate where we live; we are not confined to riding only in the summer. But, as the weather starts cooling off and you start getting ready to ride a different type of terrain there are a few things that you should consider for yourself and your bike.
If you are new to desert riding, particularly in cold weather, there are some things you should know. First and foremost, dress for the occasion. Over the years I have ridden with quite a few different people that I met through social media riding groups (no not dating groups, even though it seems like it sometimes). And one of the most common mistakes I have seen when it comes to riding in cold weather is over-dressing. It's hard to gauge sometimes how much to wear, particularly when you get out of the truck and it's 30 degrees with a pretty good wind blowing. Many people will bundle up with a heavy jacket, sweat-shirts, heavy gloves, etc. The problem is that riding a dirt-bike, particularly in the desert, is an extremely physical activity. So what typically happens if you are wearing too much, is that in about 2 miles from the truck you are so hot that you are melting, can't breathe and your goggles are useless. So now you have to make a decision, do you tough it out? Carry your extra clothes all day? Or, go back to the truck? If you are with a group of people, none of those options are very good. So avoid it all together, think layers. I typically wear some sort of light-weight thermal base layer (NO COTTON!) my regular jersey, pants, chest protector, etc. Then, depending on how cold it is a light, pack-able wind breaker that I can fit in my pack if I don't want to wear it (which is most of the time). For gloves, if it is below freezing, I start with a little heavier pair (I like the Fox Polar Paws) and then once I am warmed up I switch back to my regular pair. I have found that I stay reasonably comfortable throughout the day. There a few more things about how to prepare yourself that I will address in another post, but now I want to write a little out what's really important, your bike.
Just like you, your bike is going to need some adjustments so it handles well and makes it through the day. The very first thing you should be checking before every ride is your tire pressure. Improper tire pressure can and will end your day early. Woods riding is typically much slower and more technical than desert riding, which means you can get away with running lower tire pressures to take advantage of the handling and traction. The problem with desert riding is it's usually fairly fast, with lots of whoops, etc. So the possibility of pinch flat is very high. So to avoid that particular problem you need to run a higher pressure. But, here is where it gets tricky; too much pressure and the bike won't handle very well, sort of like riding on marbles. If the pressure is too low; it's pinch flat time. I typically recommend being somewhere between 12 an 15 psi. If it's your first time out or you are running a soft tire you may want to start on the high end and adjust from there as you ride. It's also not a bad idea to carry a small tire pump in your pack in case you let too much air out. Unfortunately there is no "one-size-fits-all" tire pressure. There are many variables to consider; for example the weight of the rider, how much gear do you carry, what type of tires/tubes are you using, are you fast or slow, etc. Start high and work your way down until you find your sweet spot. Just remember going too low means you get to replace a tube and possibly a tire if you have to ride very far on a flat.
The other thing that you should be looking at is your suspension. When was the last time you had the oil changed in your forks and shock (yes that is real thing). Ideally it should be done once a year. Not only does the oil get fouled with debris from wear, but it also gets contaminated with water from condensation. Next on the list is your clickers, also known as the rebound and compression adjustment. Personally I typically run my forks and shock a little "softer" for the woods. But in the desert you need to stiffen things up a bit (no pills involved). Just like with tires, the speed and type of terrain requires some adjustment. Since there are some many different bikes, riders, etc. I can't give a meaningful number to set your clickers. I suggest is to carry a small screwdriver with you, so you can adjust throughout the day. I also recommend that you record your current settings somewhere (assuming you are happy with how the bike handles) so you have a baseline to go back to. You are looking for that happy place between riding a pogo stick (bouncing off every rock) and bottoming out your suspension in the whoops. Don't forget that if you adjust the forks you should also adjust the shock to match. A rough guide to help you is this; if you are bouncing all over the trail, soften your rebound. But if you are not getting enough bounce over the whoops (meaning you are working harder than the bike), stiffen the rebound. For compression; if you are feeling every rock and your teeth are getting loose, soften the compression a bit. However, if you are bottoming your front end then stiffen a little. Remember, when it comes to messing with your clickers a little bit goes a long way. One or two clicks per adjustment is plenty. In theory, when you are going through whoops the front and rear of the bike should be more or less bouncing the same. If the front end keeps coming up, or the seat keeps trying to spank your bottom that tells you that you need to adjust the rebound either front or rear.
Once you find that happy place for your tire pressure and suspension settings it's probably a good idea to record those somewhere. That way next year, you can just focus on enjoying the ride and maybe only have to make slight adjustments.
Last but not least are your fluids. It's a good idea to run some Sea Foam or other moisture removing product in your fuel to make sure you don't have any accumulated water in your fuel system. Also, if your brake fluid has been in there more than a couple of years you should replace it. It will also absorb water over time and potentially freeze. Check you coolant to make sure it is sufficiently mixed not freeze in cold weather. Finally, your oil. Hopefully you have been changing it regularly. You might also think about going with lighter viscosity. Check your manufacturer recommendations for your machine and temperature.
With a few preparations, you can be riding most, if not all winter instead of sitting in front of your computer watching boring helmet cam videos from the summer; or people that live in warmer climates doing monster jumps and making you feel old and slow (which is probably true, but it's alot more fun to being riding and pretend you are almost a semi-pro rider).