From sketch to artist
Learning where to look for grip will let you skim over sketchy bits, while the right body position will ensure you can recover control if the wheels begin to slide.
It’s getting to that time of year again when trails become slippery and treacherous. Even trail centre singletrack will have the odd sniper-root and glinting wet rock that can easily catch you out if you’re not ready for them. But, heading out on damper days with the right skills and a clear objective will allow you to you ride with control and confidence.
Braking bad habits
Most riders fall into the trap of riding the easy stuff fast, and then slamming on the brakes in the wrong place as a consequence. Go on, admit it! We do it too when we get lazy.
Where you brake on a trail will have a huge impact on how much grip you have, but if you’re yanking them on every time the trail gets rough or sketchy, then you’re going to struggle for grip the whole way down.
Instead, try braking where it’s smooth and letting go where it’s difficult. This will allow you to scrub off speed on the approach to an obstacle and roll right over the top of it with much better traction. You’re trying to let your tyres roll freely over the slippery features, but also loosen up your arms to absorb any bumps and knocks.
If you’re hard on the brakes then your muscles will be contracted and your upper body will be stiff, so you can’t absorb impacts and your bike will have limited traction.
Weight a minute
By staying nice and low on your bike, you’ll be in a much better position to push into the trails with your legs and allow your tyres to be heavy where they require lots of grip, and go light over the slippy features.
This way every time you are heavy on the ground, or deliberately pushing into it, you’ll have control, and every time you stay light you’ll float over the tricky stuff. Going heavy or light, depending on what’s happening underneath you, is an excellent way of linking all the smooth bits together.
Don’t stare at the obstacles on a trail; look for the grip instead. If your eyes are focusing on the dangers and slippery roots down a trail, your brain will be preoccupied with working out how to tackle them.
However, if you deliberately look for the spots where you’ll find control, then you’ll be riding from one positive feature to the next, and your whole outlook on how a trail rides and feels will change. Link the grippy parts together, and you won’t even notice the odd slip or slide in-between.
It’s the nature of wet terrain that the bike will always slide at some point. Consequently it’s crucial to give yourself room to correct the bike and counter a slide when it happens.
The secret here is to you leave room in your arms and legs to allow your bike to slide and not affect your body weight. If you’re too tight, hanging off the back of your bike, or riding too high, then you won’t have any room to move into when your bike suddenly slides off to the side.
Stay close to your handlebars and keep your legs bent and you’ll have a lot more wiggle room when your bike hits something that you didn’t see.
Neutral riding position
To let your bike follow the terrain and control any slides, it’s crucial to use your range of movement to its fullest. And that means sorting out your position on the bike. If you’re off the back, or standing tall on your bike, then none of this will be possible.
Let your standard, straight-legged, riding position come in a little closer to the bike by allowing your arms to bend a little more and bending your legs, so that your body is still low over the bike — NOT behind it. Keep your elbows bent and your heels dropped and you’ll be ready for anything.
The aim is to balance with your lower body, so that your head, shoulders and torso remain relatively stable and motionless. Your front end is where you’ll find all of your control. As soon as you’re off balance, or miles away from it, you won’t be able to access any of the stability that a good neutral riding position allows.
Try and keep your body position fairly central over the stem and bars with your elbows bent, and let all the unexpected movement happen from the waist down. This will mean you never feel rushed or on the edge because you’ll always be in a confident position when it matters.
Next time you go out on your bike, try to ride so that you feel like you have control, NOT that you’re going fast. If it feels fast, then the chances are that you’re pushing too hard, you’re close to crashing, and you’re riding reactively without really thinking about what you’re doing.
Instead try and give yourself a clear goal whilst out riding a trail. Focus on your body position, or looking at the grip points, or where you’re braking, and try and do each element the right way, rather than instinctively.
Practice makes perfect
Your homework for this is to find a technical trail that you know well. Switch off Strava, and instead of going for Personal Bests, try riding it smoother than you ever have.
Don’t worry about going fast, instead focus on one of the points above and really work on improving on it all the way down.
Sessioning the same trail three or four times in a ride is a much better way of improving your technique, rather than rushing the first time, then moving on to another trail.
The type of tyres that you run on your bike are as personal a choice as the colour of your frame. There are a few pieces of advice, however, that will help you choose the right tyre.
Your tread options are endless and will change depending on what you ride and how aggressive a rider your are. Here, however, we’ll look at some of the options that a lot of manufacturers are giving us these days and talk about why this will impact on how your bike performs.
This is basically how thick your tyre casing is. A thinner casing is lighter, will roll better and spin more easily, but will be more likely to puncture. A thicker casing will allow you to run a lower pressure, aiding your grip, and also help you avoid punctures, but will be heavier and take longer to accelerate and decelerate.
A lot of racers will choose different tyre sidewalls depending on the track, but for most of us it’s best to run a thinner sidewall up front and a thicker one on the rear, so that you can roll fast without getting too many flats. It’s a reliable compromise and one that you won’t have to change every weekend.
This comes down to a trade-off between tyre wear and grip. If you go for a harder wearing compound, your tyre will last longer and roll faster, but it will have less grip. If you choose a softer compound, then you’ll have good traction but you won’t roll as quickly and your tyres will wear out faster.
A good compromise here is to run a softer compound up front where you need the grip, and a harder compound on the rear where you’d normally expect most of the wear to occur.
If you’d prefer to have the best traction available at this time of year, then a soft compound front and rear will mean you hook up well, but don’t be surprised if you’re reaching in to your wallet a lot more often as your tyres wear out faster.
Again, this is a trade-off between grip and rolling speed. A higher pressure will roll faster and mean that your pedal strokes go a lot further on the trail but it will also mean that you struggle for grip when you finally go looking for it.
A lower pressure will give you much better traction but will always roll a lot slower between the corners and technical sections.
A tubeless set-up will play a big part in how hard you pump up your tyres, because it allows you to run a slightly lower pressure without the risk of getting pinch-flats.
Tubeless can be a faff to set up, but once fitted will be a lot more reliable and give you better grip at the same time (see our tubeless workshop step-by-step for more advice).
There’s an app for that!
Dirt School’s free coaching app lets you see the right and wrong techniques in slo-mo.
Words: Andy Barlow