Finding grip in wet conditions.

I haven’t been able to ride for 4 days so was glad to get out today. I almost didn’t. My wife informed me that she needed to waste 2 hours of my time in the afternoon and when we arrived back home we had a short rain shower. This made me change my plan to do a longer trail ride up Great Hill and instead I resolved to stay local, riding 5 laps of the man made trails at Healey Nab. It’s remained wet most days but with an unseasonably strong wind the open ground has dried quickly. I knew that the trails would still have a lot of puddles and muddy patches, which would offer a variety in levels of grip.

Riding a completely wet trail is much like riding a dry one. A dry trail will offer plenty of grip around the whole of a corner whilst a totally wet corner will give much less grip but be fairly consistent in the level of grip as you progress around the corner. Today was going to be different. Some patches of ground would offer grip whilst other parts would give very little. This kind of condition needs a different approach to make fast progress.

The start of the downhills at Healey Nab. Arrows indicate where the red and black graded trails first split.

I rode towards the hill on completely dry tarmac and went to the north end, fearing that the west side, with it’s open field to climb, would be too wet. Climbing to the trail head there were plenty of puddles, some mud patches but mainly it was just damp. Damp, hardpacked ground would give good grip whilst mud is bound to be slippery. Puddles can be very unpredictable since you can’t see what’s under water. Only one short stretch of mud on the climb was impassable and when I reached the top I set off down the back loop. The corners were quite well drained so fairly consistent in grip but the main downhills had far more in the way of mud patches. I rode 5 descents in total, using 3 different routes and climbed by 3 routes, also. I even managed to keep going on the hardest climb of all. 25 years ago it took me many attempts before I conquered this but I think 2 thing have helped me beat it on most of my recent tries. Undoubtedly better tyres and rear suspension have kept the rear wheel gripping where it might previously have spun. I also make sure I keep the pedals spinning with some aggression, especially on the hardest little rocky step, rather than trying to finess it around the obstacles. These 2 factors seem to combine to make it seem much easier than it was.

So how did I ride the downhill corners with such a mixture of grippy and slippery? The thing to do is to study the trail a few bike lengths in front of you and decide where the grippy parts will be. You need to do your turning, putting the pressure on the tyres to grip, on the grippy parts then you can just ride over the slippery, muddy parts, not relying on them to give you the grip to turn. I regularly read Mountain Bike Rider magazine (MBR) and they’re always talking about “pushing” in corners. It confuses me a little because they seem to imply that you can push your weight down onto the trail all around a corner. This is surely impossible but what I was doing today was pushing the bike down onto the trail on the obvious grip points which I’d looked out for. I do this by riding with my arms bent, elbows out and my knees flexed. At a grip point I can extend my arms and legs a little, pushing through the bike and forcing the tyres onto the surface. This increases my grip and allows me to turn tighter and harder on those crucial grip points. On slippery points I can then do the opposite and drop my body back down to it’s original position because I’m not relying on the grip at these times. You need to coordinate your pushing with harder turning, to make it work. It’s a similar process to the way I use my arms and legs as additional suspension on the lumpy, bumpy trails at Healey Nab. It takes practice but in time becomes instinctive.

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