It’s that time of year when the buzz around the mountain bike community is about traction. Words like “hero dirt” and rumors of rain seem to dominate our conversations and there’s a scramble in the shops and garages to shed the fast rolling rubber for taller knobs.
Our connection to the dirt is what makes mountain biking unique in the world of two wheels, and traction lies at the core. It is the difference between flowy bliss-filled rides or scraped elbows and bruised egos. It is one of the four environmental factors that dictate the speed at which you ride every trail, and in my estimation, the single most important. Today we’re going to focus on how you can master your traction with better technique, tire choice, and bike setup.
You have the opportunity to increase your traction at any moment by increasing the pressure between your tires and the trail. You’ll increase this pressure by loading the bike – that is accomplished by dropping your hips to load the rear while dropping your chest towards your bars to load the front. This creates a momentary increase in your grip, so timing is key. Think about when you want maximum grip – when braking before entering a corner, at the apex of a flat corner, or maybe upon landing a jump.
The converse of this is often neglected by riders though…what do you do when there is no way to gain traction – say when you are transiting a section of roots that run diagonal to the trail? This is the zone in which you want to un-weight the bike so you can float over this section. Think back to when you were developing your level lift, you weighted the bike to compress your suspension and then you lifted the handlebar while performing a wedged claw to get both wheels off the ground. We are essentially doing the same level lift to float through sections of poor traction. And voila, you’ve just transited that sketchy bit of trail that was an ice skating rink moments before.
Now on to many of the gearheads number one question, how do I setup my bike to gain more traction? Let’s start by looking at tires, the only piece of gear that actually touches the dirt (we hope!) We live in the golden age of traction due to the development of tubeless tires. Tire manufacturers have developed stiffer sidewalls for our tires that allow us to run lower pressures which in turn increases the size of the tire patch contacting the dirt. They have also created stickier tire compounds, if you buy hard compound tires because they are cheaper and last longer you may want to invest the extra bucks for a stickier compound this time of year because your traction will improve and the tires will last longer on the softer trail. Wider rims give our tires a wider base so they are less squirmy (you can see this demonstrated by grasping your tire and rolling it laterally, if it moves side to side this is squirm). Your tire’s profile will often dictate your comfort and ride style – I’m all about leaning the bike so I like a round profile front tire so my traction is consistent as I increase the angulation when I roll the tire over on its side through a corner. I run square profiles on the rear so my traction increases as I increase the angulation- until it breaks loose (a fun thing when anticipated, a scary proposition when not!)
Much of suspension setup is personal and tends to reflect a rider’s style. Those who like to stick on the ground and maintain traction longer tend to run more sag and slightly slower rebound. I reside in the other camp, I’m seeking small hits on the side of the trail and choose to elevate over the rooty and technical sections so I run less sag and faster rebound. More sag requires harder compression and a little more anticipation to get the bike unweighted through those sections. But you do you, I don’t suggest radically changing everything about your riding at once. If you are seeking changes to your suspension setup I recommend noting your starting pressures and your changes, I always run a piece of tape on my top tube with a record of my rebound and pressure settings so I have immediate access to why the bike may feel different.
I hope you found this quick peek into the various factors that affect our traction on the trail – technique, tires, and bike setup. We’re happy to take a deeper dive into any of these factors via email or better yet, with a live coaching session, please feel free to contact me directly at dave@therideguides or book a private session here!