WHAT IS TRACTION?
Well, I’d say that it is in the most underrated concept in off road riding. Understanding it sounds like one particular skill that could be trained, however, it requires some other abilities and experience, which is why traction control is so difficult to master. How rider feels and uses traction in off road directly affects to how successful, fun and safe his ride is. No matter what kind of section is under the wheels – uphill, downhill, sidelong or rocky creek, what surface – slippery muddy, sandy or rocky – feeling the grip and controlling it is crucial.
I think that is why it’s overlooked and rarely in-depth clarified – it requires lots of trainings to understand, being able to explain and choose or create appropriate exercises.
Compared to nearly absolute traction on road, grip off road changes as often as every second which makes it so different and perceived as more difficult.
What factors affect traction the most?
1. POSITION ON THE BIKE
2. PROPER WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION ALONG THE BIKE
3. FEELING FOR REAR WHEEL
4. CLUTCH CONTROL (POWER DELIVERY)
5. CHOOSING PROPER SPEED AND KEEPING THE MOMENTUM
6. TERRAIN READING
We’re not talking about tire choice and pressure, suspension condition or settings, I hope that these comply with terrains. We’re discussing on what skills should be improved to take full advantage out of bike.
- Proper position doesn’t mean one static position during whole particular section, it means moving (balancing) according to terrain and bike’s movements – syncing with bike every moment.
- Different sections require different weigh distribution along the bike – between front and back and from one side to another.
- Rear wheel spinning in off road is a normal state unless it spins too much and causes traction loss. But if you ride long and steep uphill, rear wheel spinning is inevitable all way up – it’s just a matter of keeping the balance between spinning and necessary momentum.
- Power delivery is controlled by clutch more precise than just by the throttle. Good feeling for friction in the clutch is essential in off road – it allows lowest possible speed with sufficient revs in order not to spin the wheel and loose traction; sometimes clutch feathering is necessary to get back revs higher on steep and long uphill due to decreasing momentum
- It’s not possible to get to the top of the steep and long hill riding it slowly – balance between forces pushing you up and forces holding you back depends exclusively on speed and momentum.
Different surfaces have different grip. Grass in the shadowed side of the hill has totally different grip compared to one on the sunny side. Uphill covered with crumbly stones few centimeters deep requires excessive wheel spinning, while riding zig-zag on muddy side is almost impossible. Choosing the surface laying just few meters aside may considerably change riding particular section and save lot of energy.
Let’s just imagine and analyze few situations.
Situation 1: You’re riding single trail across semi steep sidelong and for some reason you had to stop. Surface is something between gravel and earth. What’d you do to start from that spot?
Solution: you’ll have to sit on the back as far as possible, pushing the outer foot peg while slightly dragging in handlebar; then start releasing the clutch gently keeping revs sufficient but as low as possible.
Analysis: by sitting on the back, you’re loading rear wheel – increasing traction; by pushing the outer foot peg you’re increasing force directed “into the hill”; slightly dragging in handlebar increases both previous effects; being gentle while releasing clutch minimizes chances for rear wheel to spin and slide off trail and hillside
Situation 2: Muddy uphill, long enough to make you work. Few trees make trail go a bit curvy.
Solution & Analysis:
- Speed up. When reach incline, find the appropriate position – usually it’s standing or “half-standing” position with all weight on foot pegs
- body closer to front; upper body slightly laid back
- while riding between trees work with clutch to get back revs higher since it’s going to drop due to steering – course changing – momentum loss
- move upper body slightly back
- when speed is recovered, move upper body slight forward again
- repeat if needed
- due to naturally distributed weight (rider + bike) to the rear end on the uphill, in order to compensate that and not being flipped back, we put more weight forward by moving body to the front
- maneuvering between trees on the run requires steering and moving on the bike but will cause momentum loss; slippery surface won’t allow immediate speed recovery by simple opening the throttle – it’ll cause wheel spinning due to partly lost traction and momentum – that’s why we have to recover back revs and speed by feathering the clutch
- in order to recover traction, in addition to clutch control (previous item), upper body has to be laid slightly back – this distribute more weight to the back/rear wheel, hence more traction
- the steeper or/and more slippery uphill is, more time these techniques have to be repeated until the top
Sounds complicated? Yes, it is. As mentioned above, controlling traction requires few other skills applied simultaneously. We all went through that and filtered out all unnecessary stuff leaving only hard core essence.
But benefit is great and the fun as well!
BIKE'S ABILITIES UNDISCOVERED
More you ride, more you realize difference between bike’s capabilities installed and capabilities we actually use. One of the most significant reason to slow down the training progress is that rider knows very little about bikes in action. There are sayings “Fear has many eyes” or “Terror magnifies objects”. Especially last one perfectly describes situation with newcomers. Going off road with a lack of skills and insufficient knowledge about bike’s abilities makes riders feel uncomfortable, being constantly in a state of trouble suspense.
Most often lack of experience causes wrong situation analysis but not necessarily in a bad way. It means that inexperienced riders usually underestimate bike’s capabilities and rather avoid or walk next to the bike in certain sections. Which is, in my opinion, clever decision.
But what if greater part of the track entirely consists of those “problems”? What adventure can we talk about then?
Introducing bike’s power and ability to rider goes gradually and follows skills improvement. There are two ways to advance this. One is to ride more, making very small steps, raising the bar by millimeters. The other one requires the rider to overcome his fears and makes bigger step forward, and do the things exceeding his current knowledge.