There are days when the trails are perfectly moist and tacky and it seems you can do no wrong. Your tires are hooking up like Velcro in the corners and it seems like you couldn’t break your tires loose if you wanted to. For us in southern California and in many other parts of the world, those days are few and far between.
We spend much of our time trying to perfect our riding when traction is less than ideal. The upside is that perfecting your riding technique when traction isn’t in its finest hour means that when the trails are perfect, you feel that much better on the trail. If you can ride dry, hard-pack trails with loose dirt on top as well as sandy and shale-laden trails with the best, tacky and loamy trails will flow like second nature.
Let your suspension do what it’s supposed to: No matter how hard bike makers try to make setting up suspension sag an easy experience, there are always going to be riders who “ballpark” it and hit the trail. Setting up suspension can be a daunting task if you’re unfamiliar the process, but rather than guessing and hoping for the best, you owe it to yourself to get some help from your local bike shop. What does suspension sag have to do with traction? A whole lot. Suspension sag greatly affects your bike’s small bump compliance which not only reacts over small bumps riding along the trail, but also when you hit stutter bumps while corner. Proper suspension setup will also help keep your rear wheel hooked up the trail as it follows the contours and rough edges of the trail rather than deflecting off of it. Read the trail surface: Much of the skill associated with low-traction riding comes from experience. Learning to recognizing different conditions and then anticipate what your bike will do becomes less of an educated guess and more a sure thing the more you analyze what your riding on and what your bike has done in the past. This will not only help you make decisions about your position on the bike, but about your choices in bike equipment as well.
Look down the trail: Along with learning to read the trail surface, look far enough ahead to make smooth and swooping lines through low-traction sections. This is especially important in sandy sections of trail where erratic and last minute movements can cause your tires to spin or your front tire to wash out. Looking down the trail to plan your way through a soft section or corner will help you carry more momentum and reduce the risk of losing traction and stalling out.
Choose the proper tires: There’s a good chance that the tires that came on your bike aren’t the ideal tires for you and your trails. Bike makers are forces to pick a good middle-of-the-road tire to suit a wide variety of conditions since their bikes are being sold all over the country and world. However, once you have that bike on your home trail, it’s time to find the ideal rubber for your conditions. Don’t simply rely on what a tire company says in their marketing lingo. Instead, ask around. Any good bike shop should know the best tire options for the surrounding trails and if they aren’t much help, see what other riders are using at the trailhead.
Find the ideal tire pressure and ditch the tubes: Unfortunately, there is no magic tire pressure that is correct for all tires, trails and riders. Even with the rider and trail as constants, switching to a new set of tires may require a different pressure. That takes some experimentation to get it perfect, be sure to take some time to get it right—it’s worth the time. Both too much and too little air pressure cause problems of their own. Too much and the tire’s contact patch won’t properly bite the trail and the tire will deflect off of terrain. Too little air pressure can make the tire feel unstable and unpredictable through loose terrain as the tire deforms too much.
Move your weight properly when cornering: Of all the places to lose traction, corners may be both the most common and most unfortunate. The key is keeping your weight over the tires’ contact patch. In order to maintain traction, you need to have pressure over the part of the bike making contact. As you corner, weight the outside pedal as you move your body toward that side of the bike. Leaning to the inside pedal in low traction situation will almost always result in low siding the bike. Similarly, washing out the front tire is most often a result of not enough weight on the front tire that causes it to slide rather than grip. While it may seem counter-intuitive to lean into a tire that seems unstable, often the reason it feels unstable is from a lack of weighting.
Brake before, not during corners: When your tires are locked up on the trail, you lose most of the control of the bike. A tire is much more effective through a corner as it continues to spin and grip the trail. While you will often see pro riders appearing to skid, most of the time, this is induced from hard cornering alone rather than hammering the brakes to initiate a skid. Try to get the majority of your braking done before the corner and roll through the corner off the brakes. This will not only have you gripping the trail better, but riding faster as well.
Keep weight over the rear wheel: As with cornering, keeping weight over the bike properly is essential to keeping the rear tire tracking up slippery climbs. This becomes a bit of a balancing act as the trail steepens and the front end begins to feel lighter. The remedy is bending further forward at the hips to remain seated with some weight on the rear tire while moving your chest and head toward the front wheel to keep it tracking.
Choose a higher gear: Along with a proper position on climbs, gearing up to just one harder than you would normally climb a piece of trail in can make a world of difference. In easier gears, you are more likely to spin the rear tire because you can accelerate harder. Once your tire spins, your momentum is gone and those are tough moments to recover from. Try using a slower cadence and harder gear and really concentrate on applying smooth and consistent pressure to the pedals to maintain momentum.
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