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How to Ride Through Mud and Sand Like a Pro

If you ever do a mountain bike or cyclo-cross race, you’re going to encounter mud. Or sand. Or both.

And you’re going to love it!

Why? For one, it makes you feel like a kid again! But it’s also because, after you read this article, you’ll use these nasty sections to pass people who get stuck! (Not everyone knows that training for mud is a key to success in mountain bike racing!)

On top of that, have you ever walked or run through the mud? That’s even worse! Your shoes will likely provide less traction than your tires. Plus, the mud gunks up your cleats, making it hard to get clipped back into your pedals, costing you even more time.

So, right now, I’m going to teach you how to ride through mud and sand!

So, let’s talk about mud…

Not All Mud Is Created Equal

To succeed in the mud, you need to know your enemy. There are different types of mud that you may encounter.

Thin, soupy mud

As in, mud puddles!

This is the most common type of mud. You’ll find this on just about every mountain bike trail. Some trails have it year-round, and any dirt trail is going to have some of this mud if it rains.

It’s slick, slippery, and messy, but it’s fairly easy to slice through.

Thick, peanut butter mud

This is another common type of mud. It’s thick like peanut butter.

This stuff will bog you down quick. And it will wear you out trying to pedal through it for long distances.

Plus, it sticks to your tires and coats your entire bike (including the drivetrain.)

Clay

Taking the peanut butter mud to another level, you might encounter clay. This is heavier, thicker, and stickier than your typical mud.

Common to the Southeast USA, in states such as Georgia and North Carolina.

Each type of mud requires a slightly different technique.

Sand: Like Mud, But Dry.

You can flee to the Southwest to escape the mud. But while Arizona and Utah might have plenty of mud-free trails, you’re going to encounter an equally formidable foe – sand.

Sand is also prevalent in virtually every cyclo-cross race, so it’s unavoidable.

I wouldn’t say there are different types of sand, but you will encounter hardpacked sand (basically hardpacked dirt) and deep, loose sand, which is going to require a technique similar to riding mud.

Tire Selection Tips

Choosing a good mud tire is going to make your experience slightly more pleasant.

Tire Design

A typical XC racing tire will have small, closely-spaced knobs (for faster speed on smooth, dry trails.) Unfortunately, these tires will get packed with mud real quick, rendering the tread useless!

Most mud tires are completely different! They are fairly wide and have big knobs with lots of open space. The big knobs are more likely to dig in far enough to provide traction, and the open space allows mud to fly off the tire.

Tubeless

If you’re not running tubeless tires, get with the program! Grab a Stan’s NoTubes kit and make the conversion.

Narrow vs Wide Tires

There are two schools of thought for choosing the width of your mud tires.

The most widely known strategy is to choose a wide tire (something like 2.25″) so that you “float” across the top of the mud. The other strategy is to choose a narrow tire (something like a 1.75″) which will slice through the mud and dig down to solid ground that provides good traction.

“Floating” vs “Digging In”

Two very different approaches to mud. Which one is right? Both are!

The floating method is best used in the thicker mud, and the digging in method is best for thin mud.

See, in thin mud, there’s a good chance your tires will sink to the bottom and find traction. A narrow tire will dig in faster than a wider tire.

In thick mud, though, digging in will just bog you down and you’ll get stuck. So, you want to stay on top of the mud as much as possible. A wide tire at low pressure is going to take longer to sink in, which helps you “float” across.

Popular Mud Tires

Everyone has their own opinion, but here are some tires to consider.

Schwalbe Hans Dampf: A tough, grippy, all-around trail tire ideal for Enduros and Super D racing.

Schwalbe Rocket Ron: An ultralight, super fast XC racing tire that provides surprisingly good grip in wet conditions.

Maxxis Medusa: A lightweight, mud-shedding tire designed for wet and muddy XC races. Highly recommended!

Geax Gato Mud: A lightweight, narrow (1.7″) tire with a tall, open tread design. Great for deep, soupy mud.

Geax Datura Light: A lighter version of one of Geax’s all mountain tires, great for all sorts of wet, loose, and muddy conditions.

How to Ride Through The Mud!

Here’s what you need to do to successfully ride through mud:

Pick a good line.

Before you enter the mud, figure out where you want to ride. Typically you’re looking for the most consistent terrain, free of rocks, roots, and ruts. (One type of obstacle is enough!) Also, it’s going to be easiest to ride in a straight line.

In soupy mud, the center line is often best. Though the water will be deepest here, the bottom is probably flat, and that’s what’s important. Going off to the side to avoid the deep water could put you on an off-camber, slippery slope that’s going to be tough to ride.

Look where you want to go.

Keep your vision out ahead, constantly scanning for the best line. If you need to maneuver, you want to know in advance.

Build up (or reduce) speed beforehand.

Ideally, you’ll enter the mud at the fastest speed which you can control. As with rock gardens, use your momentum to carry you through.

Just remember that thick mud is going to slow you down quickly, so be prepared for the abrupt change in speed. You need to keep your weight back so you don’t end up flying over the bars!

If you think you’re going too fast, make sure you brake before entering the mud. As with cornering, brake first, then stay off the brakes.

Stay centered.

Stay centered over the bike. Don’t lean to either side or you could upset your balance. Just a slight movement could cause your tires to slide out.

Stay loose.

Stay loose and let the bike go where it needs to.

Use a smooth pedal stroke.

You want to use a smooth pedal stroke – it will help you keep traction as long as possible. A choppy pedal stroke will cause your rear tire to slip, which could mean it’s time to get off and walk. Not fun!

Staying seated will make it easier to pedal smoothly, and it will put most of your weight on the rear wheel, giving you more traction where you need it most.

Keep your cadence around 80rpm. That’s high enough to keep constant force on the pedals, and still low enough that you can bump up the cadence for a quick boost of speed if necessary.

(As with technical hill climbs, get in the right gear beforehand.)

Adapt.

As you ride through the mud, you need to constantly adapt and react with subtle changes in body position. “Staying centered” on the bike takes active effort!

Countersteer.

If your wheels start sliding, countersteer with the handlebar to control the skid.

Practice.

The best way to get better at riding through mud is to practice riding through mud.* You need to get used to the subtle changes in body position that keep you upright, and you should practice what to do when facing rear wheel skids and front wheel slides.

It might start out a lot like crashing practice, but stick with it! 😉

What’s Different in Sand?

Sand is a lot like mud. You sink in and it slows you down. And it sucks when it gets in your teeth.

You’re going to use essentially the same techniques as you do in mud. Stay loose, ride smoothly, no sudden movements, etc.

The only real difference comes from the situation. For example, cyclo-cross racing.

During a CX race, you won’t encounter sand on a technical trail. You’ll be cruising at high speed on pavement or grass, then you’ll be thrust into the deep sand of a beach volleyball court!

You really have to work on your entrance skills; specifically, keeping your weight back over the rear wheel. You’ll have to treat it a lot like a steep downhill.

You’re also guaranteed to have to make multiple sharp turns in this deep sand. This is tough! You have to combine proper cornering technique with great balance to stay upright. (At least the sand isn’t as slick as mud!)

The mountain biker in me hates to say this, but the racer in me has to point it out – in races, running the corners can be the fastest method. Especially if you’re surrounded by other racers struggling through the sand.

Either way, if you’re going to dismount and run, do it before you get bogged down and fall over!

If you want to see which techniques work best, just go to a cyclo-cross race for the day. In the morning, watch the “C” or the Cat 5 race. You’ll see a lot of techniques that don’t work, and you can learn from others’ mistakes. In the afternoon, watch the Pro race, and you’ll see what works!

And as always, practice, practice, practice!**

 

*While practice is important, so is the environment. Follow IMBA’s minimum impact riding guidelines. Stay off singletrack trails when they’re muddy – you’ll ruin them. There are other places to practice mud riding, like a motocross track or private farm (with permission, of course.)

**As for sand, you can train in that all you want! Unless it’s a beach volleyball court that was just groomed for a game, it shouldn’t be a problem.

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1 Comment
  1. Hello!
    I’m a big fan of your blog!
    It’s very helpful to me.
    Among the many posts you have published, I love this article. I’ve shared your awesome post to my friends.
    Thanks.

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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Coach Levi is my favorite child and favorite cycling coach. I'd choose him over Christoper McCarmikael even. Did I mention that Levi can coach you to a healthier lifestyle where you look and feel your best?
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