Unless you’re a fatbike fanatic who goes beach adventuring, the prospect of ‘railing some sweet sand’ won’t be an appealing one. However, many areas in Australia have sandy soils and with summer on the way, learning how to survive a soft sandy boghole should be a priority. Sand mightn’t be fun but crashing because of it is even less fun!
As with most aspects of mountain biking, looking ahead is a key point. If anything this is more critical on the sand, as any last minute directional changes won’t be graceful. Scan ahead and shoot for any shallow or compacted sand. Damp sand is always a good option too and sometimes the very edge of the trail will be slightly firmer. Utilise vehicle tracks when you can, as they offer an already compacted base. Whatever route you select, make sure it’s a relatively straight one and avoid abrupt steering input wherever possible.
Some decent momentum will definitely help. If it’s only a short section, select a largish gear and get a good run-up before you hit the soft stuff. As erosion washes the trail surface downhill, you typically encounter deep sand at the bottom of a hill. A lucky coincidence in many ways, as you can use the preceding downhill to gain a run-up, although hitting deep sand at warp speed won’t be pretty if your technique is poor. Raw momentum won’t work if the entire trail is sandy, so a more conservative gear choice is required and you’ll be totally reliant on developing good technique.
Sit Back & Drive
So what is the best technique? Soft trails generally demand a more rearward weight bias. This keeps your front wheel light and on top of the sand—the last thing you want to do is bury your front wheel when you’re travelling at speed. If the sandy patch is on a descent, simply get your weight back, relax your arms and hold a straight line—gravity should do the rest.
Sand accumulates on the flat, so it’s likely that you’ll need to pedal to maintain momentum. Your gear selection is important; go too low and your back wheel will spin and bury itself. Too big a gear and you will run out of puff. Aim for a gear that you can ‘get on top of’ and put in some powerful pedal strokes. In addition to maintaining momentum, these power strokes will serve to unweight the front wheel and keep it riding on top of the sand. It’s a physically taxing approach but if you don’t maintain momentum, you’ll sink and be off the bike before you know it.
As you pedal, position your sit-bones towards the rear of the saddle and drive your weight rearwards. Keep your arms relaxed with a light touch on the bars. The combined effect will keep you moving and offer the best chance of success.
At first, hitting soft sand at pace can be unnerving but do your best to stay cool. Tensing up will be counterproductive; you’ll start gripping the bars rather than letting the front end stay light. As with any technique, practice is the key so start small and work your way up. Test yourself on short sections with moderate speed to get a feel for it.
One of the hardest things about riding sand is its unpredictability. Even if you keep the front end light and hold a straight line, a soft patch may suck you in and send you astray. Don’t fight it if this happens. Relax as much as possible and ride it out. With luck you’ll pull through with enough momentum to forge onwards.
Sustained sand riding is hard work, and a game of controlled power delivery and weight shifts. The aim is to get enough traction with your back wheel without bogging down while keeping your front wheel riding high on the sand. Much lower gears are required and it becomes pretty hard to steer once your momentum is low. At least any low speed crashes will end with a soft landing!
Negotiating deep sand is never going to be a particularly enjoyable part of mountain biking but in many areas it is a necessary evil. The right technique, some confidence and a relaxed approach will make sand less daunting and much safer.
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of holding a straight line, but what are you supposed to do if you’re faced with a sandy corner on the trail?
Turning on the sand requires quite a different approach. For hard corning on the dirt we’d usually suggest weighting the front end to drive the tyre into the trail and stop the front wheel washing out. Do this on soft sand and the front will dig in and pitch you over the bars.
Initiating a turn is best done from the rear of the bike. Don’t turn the bars radically, instead lean the bike and maintain a more centred or rearward weight bias. Lean the bike by extending your inside arm and poking your opposing elbow out. Ideally you want to push the back end out and minimise the turning forces on the front end—steer with your rear in other words.
Constant momentum is another key. Don’t brake heavily as the forward weight transfer will again bury the front wheel, leaving you with no momentum when exiting the turn. Aim to maintain a pace that can be sustained right through the corner—all the way from the entrance to the exit.
If the sand is just an isolated mid-corner patch, adjust your line so that you instigate the turn early, straight-line the sand and complete the turn as you exit.