Mountain Bike Sand Riding Skills
Getting started: Before you attempt relentless sand stretches deflate your tires to around 25 lbs, lower if you have wide tires. Best to start on a hardpacked section, but if you can't find anything hard: To start in deep sand stand on your pedals and mash the bike down into the sand, sort of like you are on a pogo stick shoving the rear wheel in for grip in time to a rock ballad. "I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic jesus." In deep sand you must be able to do the "Moab Track Stand," clipped in and upright, but stationary. Now, jump up and down and as you come down on each bounce put power to the rear wheel so that as it digs in deeper, harder, dense, below-the-surface hardpack to move forward. Once you get rolling smooth out your pedal stroke to an even spin. Maintain speed and float. It is a very strenuous thing to do, so sometimes it may be best to just get off and walk to conserve energy. But, most of the time, speeding over the sand saves a shitload of work.
Weighting the bike: To pedal through sand you must remove weight from the front of the bike, stay light on the handlebars, and steer with your hips and shoulders. Steering with the front wheel is an advanced sand skill and is only recommended after you learn the weight shift deal. To expedite the weight shift, slide back on the saddle a few inches, feel the back edge of your saddle between your thighs, almost lock your elbows, and loosen your grip on the bars a bit. Now, GO FAST. Search for ruts made by other bikers and put your wheel in the deepest, straightest one. Don't steer out of it. Let the bike follow the rut and adjust with hips and shoulders to maintain your line.
Maintaining momentum: Lower your saddle about an inch. Really. If you think it is low already, lower it an inch. If you can easily adjust it back in the rails, that would be good, too. If you have a long saddle, you probably know what I'm talking about. Speed is your best friend, any way you can get it. If you can get a running start on something packed you can float over the first few feet and may be able to go straight enough to maintain momentum comfortably in the saddle. That magic moment on sand requires determination and pain to achieve and determination and pain to maintain. It's where the fast float happens. You feel an acceleration. There is a point of maximum efficiency. You will know when it happens because your heart rate will stablilize. Maintain that feeling and you are doing sand right. On level ground always concentrate on maintaining forward momentum enough to keep the wheels floating. Never give up. And before you give up, go faster. Don't steer with the handlebars. The faster you go, the less weight you want up front, so get back a bit, feel the float. Keep the steady pumping round pedal strokes coming, but stay back in the saddle. If the saddle is low and your weight is back, your legs should be extended comfortably. Use round strokes while you are hauling. Balance, balance, balance. A long wheelbase is awesome when you are going fast over sand. If your wheelbase is short, stay back. You can use the bars to correct being thrown off line, but countersteer with your shoulders, hips, ass and legs. Not too much. No, more. Pull up on the bars a tad, slide back on the saddle, which I hope is set low (some people ride with the thing up their ass and think that a normal handling position feels like a chair). Steering and countersteering work to get you out of technical sand transitions in slow soft stuff and undulating wash bottoms. Putting weight on the back of the saddle not only gives you a powerful pedaling posture, it keeps the float going and allows you to put the power of your ass into the dirt. If the saddle is too high, you are going to dig in the front wheel with great ease. If you are sitting over the rear axle, you are going to feel like the king of sand. Rock your body weight violently, throwing your weight into the rear axle to gain early momentum to 7 or 8 miles an hour. Rock your weight ever so slightly to accelerate above 10 miles an hour. Try not to rock at all when you want to accelerate above 15 or 20. When you are going fast, there is a pocket. It is not over the rear wheel. It is in the middle of the bike. It happens at around 17 miles an hour. Throw your weight back to counter rear brake forces to stop, but don't stop. If you loose momentum, get far back so that the front wheel does not dig in as you adjust your line just SLIGHTLY and try to regain mo. Bring weight forward just enough to steer and counter with your body. Do not let that front wheel dig. As you turn the wheel, counter with your hips and legs and use the power in your legs to turn with acceleration. Keep weight back. Stay loose. Sit down. The only time you are going to want to be out of the saddle is when your navel is behind it. Balance your weight over the power spot and work it hard. If you find a place to go faster, do it.
Going up in sand is a real chore requiring that you attack this kind of section with a ton of momentum, but going down is like skiing in powder and can be a load of fun. Keep your weight back, arms extended, and fly like Superman. Extreme sand on extreme dowhnill slopes requires that you get way way behind the saddle and cantilever the front of the bike over the sand by pulling back on the bars with arms outstretched. This feels like you are grasping a handrail and leaning back.
Equipment: Tires are your most important edge in sand, but bikes with long top tubes, slack angles, long travel forks and slightly longer chainstays have an advantage. Riser bars and short stems help by shifting weight off the front end. As for those tires, it depends on the depth of the sand as to whether or not a narrow tire will work at all. If the sand is shallow, the narrow tire is an advantage. It will cut through to the hardpack below, but in deep, deep sand wide front tires with big knobs like a downhill specific tire can float over the sand. We prefer WTB Motoraptor 2.4 tires for riding just about everything except mud. In sand (and on rock) these tires rule. Wider, bigger, gnarlier is the mantra, along with a chant of "Sand Sucks" or "Sand Happens" as you chug through to the rewards at the other side of the dune. Believe it or not a full suspension bike will be an advantage also. It will smooth out the power to the ground as you chug. It will be a bit more of a chore to get rolling, but once you gain speed it will rip by the hardtails. 29 inch wheels are a huge advantage in sand though the longer spokes flex too much for slickrock riding. A 29 inch wheel allows you to run narrower tires and still be able to chug through the soft stuff.
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