Andy Barlow from Dirt School explains how to handle wet roots and slipper trails, from bike set up to body position and technique.
When the rains come and the trails are slick with mud and strewn with wet roots, it’s worth spending some time zoning in on your wet weather technique. Slippery trails are part and parcel with riding through the winter months, but with a little practice and advice, you’ll not only get the hang of them but also see improvements in your overall riding technique. And with wet conditions, it’s about progress, not perfect.
We’re going to look at how to recognise and link the grippy bits of a trail together, how paying attention to your body position and having a solid speed hop will allow you to create pressure on the ground giving you control, and what to do when your riding doesn’t quite go according to plan.
You need to feel comfortable on your bike in order to feel confident. One thing that a lot of riders overlook is the contact points of their set up. Bar width and height, level position, foot position on your pedals, and dropper post travel will all make a real difference to how comfortable you feel when you ride. Get these dialled in and you’ll be in a much better place to stay in control on the trails.
Bar set up
Width: How wide your bars are is completely up to you. A taller rider might prefer a wider bar width, and a shorter rider a thinner width, but it’s sometimes down to where you ride. If you prefer open spaces or bike parks you can generally run wider bars because you won’t be hitting things. If you prefer to ride in forests then maybe a narrower width will allow you to squeeze through tight gaps in the trees with confidence.
As a general rule, we’ve found bigger, more gravity-oriented bikes work better with wider bars because you’re going faster, so you need more leverage.
Height: This will depend on how steep you like to go. Generally a lower bar height is good for climbing because your front end will be raised as you climb. However, as soon as you point down the hill that low front end will want to pull you forwards. Raising your bars will mean you feel way more comfortable on steeper trails but will most likely sit you upright on climbs.
Braking finger: Ideally you want one finger on each of the brake levers. This means that your remaining fingers and thumbs can hold onto the bars giving you a solid grip. Get into the habit of riding with your brakes covered like this and you’ll always be ready to brake if you need to.
Lever angle: Again, this is down to personal preference and what you prefer to ride. A general rule of thumb is that when you are standing in your riding position that your levers are directly in line with your arms, but generally if you like riding steep trails you can angle them flatter so you can still reach them as you move backwards over larger features.
Dropper post travel
If you’re looking to optimise your saddle height when sitting down to pedal then speak to a local bike fitter. They can often help you find more power, and a level of comfort that you never thought possible. In terms of your technical riding though, select a dropper post that allows for your leg length. Shorter riders will find that the amount a dropper moves is dictated by how much post they need above the seat clamp when extended, and taller riders will appreciate a larger drop so that they can get the saddle all the way down out of the way and use those big legs for maximum range of movement over their bike.
Whether you are clipped in or on flats, you’ll benefit by having your feet further forward on the pedal. This ‘midsole’ position means that you put less stress on your calves when you stand up or pedal, and once you get used to it will allow you to secure your position into your bike by dropping your heels and letting your toes hook round the front of the pedal. One bad habit from being clipped in is that you tend to ride perched up on your toes. Keep those heels down and you’ll have a lower centre of gravity that feels more stable in the turns.
Perfect your speed hop to make the most of available traction
The secret to riding steeper, more slippery, and technical terrain is to start closer to your bike and drive your weight against the parts of the trail that you can trust. This range of motion has to stay within a framework though, and the easiest way to make this movement automatic is to look at your speed hop technique. Getting it dialled here will mean you can trust it when you need it on the trail.
Once low, try and use your legs to drive your weight through your suspension and against the trail below. This powerful push will propel you away from the trail and mean you can float in the air with your legs straight.
Remember that when you push with your legs that you’re trying to keep your arms bent. Your range of motion here should never go all the way through to straight arms in the air. If your arms end up straight this will compromise you on the landing and most likely buckle you for a split second before you regain composure. Keep them bent and you will be able to land and immediately feel secure.
Focus on the grip points
When you first look at a technical trail all you see is all the obstacles. Exposure, wet roots, tree stumps, loose rocks. There is a lot to think about.
What you should be doing though is looking for all the grippy bits. All you need to focus on is staying low and using all that room to drive your weight into the grip, same as you do when you push away from the ground in a speed hop. Creating weight against the trail where you can trust it will mean that you can link all the predictable bits together and simplify a difficult section into three deliberately positive connections instead of twenty negative ones.
How to tackle wet roots
We get asked “How do I stop slipping on roots?” all the time. The honest answer is that you can’t. Roots are slippy and there is always going to be movement.
What you can do, however, is get low on your bike and try to generate weight against the trail either side of the root. Using this heavy/light/heavy technique will mean that you take control before the slide, come off that weight over the root minimising the slip, then go heavy again afterwards, taking that control back by being heavy where you can trust the grip again.
Look for the grip points over roots and pretty soon you’ll not even notice the roots as all you will see is grip.
Rethink how you see the trail
Try asking a couple of your riding buddies about a technical section on a trail and listen to how they describe it.
A person who is struggling to ride it with confidence will say something like “that horrible off camber rooty section where you lose all your speed and have to dab”, and a more confident rider will say “The grip point that takes you onto the high line, and sets you up for the next turn”.
They are describing the exact same bit of trail but thinking about it completely differently. The next time you get to your nightmare section, stop and have a look around. Linking all the grip points together by deliberately driving your bodyweight against the trail might actually change how you describe it to your pals in the future.
Develop a contingency plan for lines
Riding a trail doesn’t always go to plan. The more you practise high lines, grip points and riding with patience, the more time you’ll have to spot where you should be going, but every now and then you will get caught out and end up too tight for a turn.
Don’t panic or let it interrupt your flow. Look where you want to go and try to compose yourself immediately. The last thing you need is to be thinking that you “just can’t ride today”. Instead, reset by going right back to basics. What is your body position? Where are you braking? Are you looking for the grip? Hopefully you can immediately get back into the steady flow that you had before your mistake.
Keep low and use your knees
Keeping your upper body neutral and using your knees for balance will make a big difference on trails where you don’t know where you are going.
Instead of going upright when you feel like you are losing control, why not get into the habit of getting low and using your knees. This will allow you to stay on narrow parts of the trail and mean that you still feel composed and confident for the next turn or feature.
Pacing for technical trails
When you are riding something technical you have to be more patient. Flapping around frantically will just lead to more mistakes.
Instead, focus on staying low on your bike, looking for the grip, and trying to find a rhythm that feels like you have time to react. If you can link all the grippy parts of a trail together then you will start to feel more confident as it goes on.
Remember that speed comes from confidence, and that confidence comes from control.