Riding Across Sand

Sand is common in coastal areas, but you can still find it on plenty of inland trails. In dry weather you may also encounter deep dust, especially on eroded and well-used trails. The technique for riding on both of these surfaces is very similar.

Sand and dust is loose and it can move, so you are quite likely to lose grip and your tires may slide. Long sandy sections can be very difficult to ride unless you have perfect technique, but thankfully on most mountain bike trails sand and dust is usually confined in small sections.

The biggest key to riding in sand is to not sink and lose all your speed. So, as you approach what looks like deep sand, look for a furrow left by a previous rider, a furrow that runs nice and straight to the other side. Do your best to ride in the middle of the furrow and don’t turn your front wheel even a smidgen and always pedal through.

There is a simple reason for this. Sand is a lot like water. The greater the surface area exposed to the sand, the more buoyant you are. When you ride through sand, you will sink until the sand is all around your tires, supporting your tire from below and around the sides (the sides of your tires push sand to the left and right, and there is a buoyant force there also), until you are buoyant with respect to the sand. Obviously, if you ride on narrow tires, you are going to sink a lot farther. So, if you ride through a furrow accurately, your tires will already be supported on the bottom and around the sides with very little sinking. Less sinking means less speed loss.

If no furrow is available, you get to be the one making it. The best advise here is to keep your front wheel light. Lean back a little and keep your front wheel gliding over the sand. If your front wheel sinks in too much, your stopped. And as always pedal through. This only works when you hit sand with a decent amount of speed. If you have to go through sand at a very low speed, you’ll need to be standing up. Hit the sand with a gear that you might use for a hard climb and churn your legs for all you are worth until you get out. There is no way to get traction in sand and your back tire will probably end up shooting a rooster-tail of sand with each pedal stroke.

About that front wheel being straight. If you are riding in a furrow and turn your wheel just a little bit, your front tire will bite into the side of the furrow. Because it’s sand you have no real traction. Sand will begin to pile up in front of your tire until your front wheel turns the rest of the way in that direction. You could end up over the handlebars or at least lose a lot of speed.

This also applies when you are riding across un-furrowed sand. If you turn your wheel, the low traction will cause the tire to slide sideways and pile up sand, and the inevitable result is you will begin with a sluggish turn that becomes a hard turn and you’ll come to a fast halt. Possibly go over the handlebars.

Keep up your speed. Keep your front tire pointed straight ahead. Ride in a furrow if you can.

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