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Help me suck less at riding on dirt/gravel

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Help me suck less at riding on dirt/gravel

Old 12-15-16, 10:14 AM
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Help me suck less at riding on dirt/gravel

So I've been a road biker for 2 years now. Never owned a MTB. I wanted to start riding the great gravel/fire roads in my area.... so many picturesque and challenging gravel rides around here. (Santa Barbara, CA)

So I got a nice bike, the Niner RLT 9 with 40c wtb nano gravel tires. Running tubeless @ 40psi. My problem: I suck at riding on anything other than smooth tarmac. These fire roads and gravel roads are strewn with small rocks and stones and I basically feel like I'm going to lose control and crash every ten seconds. I have no traction, rocks make the bike skip around. The rear wheel spins out sometimes, cornering is.... unpleasant. I feel like I'm going to tip over whenever I hit a patch of loose dirt or rocks.

How can I get comfortable with riding off-road? Any bike handling tips? Thanks
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Old 12-15-16, 10:22 AM
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um, I think everything you mentioned is actually what attracts ppl to do it :-) and it sounds like you're doing just fine
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Old 12-15-16, 10:37 AM
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Originally Posted by rumrunn6
um, I think everything you mentioned is actually what attracts ppl to do it :-) and it sounds like you're doing just fine
Hmm, really? What attracted me was just the new roads and rides that the cx bike would allow me to do. Not fun to be on verge of losing control all the time.
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Old 12-15-16, 10:43 AM
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The secret to riding on sloppy surfaces is to trust the bike. Your problem is that you don't, and are trying to over control it. RELAX, let the bike float under you, and give it only enough steering input to keep it on course.
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Old 12-15-16, 10:45 AM
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Originally Posted by stevelewis
on verge of losing control all the time
yeah that's not fun. shud be some other riders who will chime in w advice. I've been messing around on unpaved rail trails the past cpl months with an old beater hybrid w 700x45 tires so it's been rough but tame. I just kinda go slow except when it's hard, flat & straight, then I try to go as fast as possible
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Old 12-15-16, 11:21 AM
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Drop the pressure a bit in your tires. I had a set of Nano Race's (still have one up front) and ran them closer to 30psi. They're tough tires, and you don't need to worry about tubes. The lower pressure will help a little bit with everything that you mentioned.

Loosen your grip, hover over your saddle and let the bike bounce around under you when things get wild.

Get comfortable in the drops on descents if you're not already.

Sometimes less braking is better. You do need to put a little faith in the bike and your line from time to time.

Keep riding and have fun. It'll get better.
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Old 12-15-16, 11:24 AM
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We don't have gravel roads out here is So CA. We have poorly maintain fire roads.
I would not ride a drop bar gravel bike, when you need to be riding a flat bar mountain bike.
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Old 12-15-16, 11:31 AM
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Originally Posted by stevelewis
So I've been a road biker for 2 years now. Never owned a MTB. I wanted to start riding the great gravel/fire roads in my area.... so many picturesque and challenging gravel rides around here. (Santa Barbara, CA)

So I got a nice bike, the Niner RLT 9 with 40c wtb nano gravel tires. Running tubeless @ 40psi. My problem: I suck at riding on anything other than smooth tarmac. These fire roads and gravel roads are strewn with small rocks and stones and I basically feel like I'm going to lose control and crash every ten seconds. I have no traction, rocks make the bike skip around. The rear wheel spins out sometimes, cornering is.... unpleasant. I feel like I'm going to tip over whenever I hit a patch of loose dirt or rocks.

How can I get comfortable with riding off-road? Any bike handling tips? Thanks

Like others have said, lower the tire pressure. When I fishtail more than I'm comfortable with, I'd say I slow down, but really what I'm doing is using a little less "force/power" when I peddle. For the most part, I guess I just got use to the wiggly feeling.
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Old 12-15-16, 12:38 PM
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Originally Posted by stevelewis

How can I get comfortable with riding off-road? Any bike handling tips? Thanks
A lot could be said here.

Bigger tires wouldn’t hurt. 130 mm would be great – much different than the 40mm you are using. That would need a different bike though! Really, it’s a huge difference though – consider renting a bike you can ride at 5-7psi.

It sounds like for the near term, you would be better on a fatter tired mountain bike with some suspension. When you get proficient, your body becomes the suspension – and your core doesn’t move much, in spite of what the bike is doing below you.

Trailangel may be right – you may not have the best bike for the roads you are riding.

But, having said that:

Most important thing, stay loose.
Bend your arms,
if you need to, get off the seat and bend your knees. Being loose and supple is the most important thing. Most people trying something new, tend to tense up, and that just makes everything worse.

You can try lowering your seat or anything to get your center of gravity low. That is why mountain bikers have latched onto the dropper posts recently.

Go slower of course. Loose gravel or sand is just going to be a PITA. For the spinning rear wheel – I mountain bike steep climbs a lot with a rear slick. Anything is possible. I keep a really smooth cadence (with “clipless” pedals). That is going to be harder to do if you are on bare platforms, but I’m sure there is room for improvements. When climbing, you want your weight back over the rear wheel (to the point where your front wheel almost wants to lift off and do a wheelie)

Cornering – hunker down and get a lot of bend in your elbows. Get lower than you think you need to be. Get into the drops. Here you want your weight on the front wheel (you typically have a 40:60 ballance, so move some weight onto the front wheel when cornering). You can go with lower PSI in the front too - try 30psi.
This is more advanced – but if you lean your bike to the outside of the turn, it will be more stable and you will have more traction (and less likely to suffer pedal strike). It feels a bit unnatural though.

Most important - stay loose - bend your joints.
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Old 12-15-16, 12:45 PM
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Really, the part that sucks is when cornering on a climb or descent and I can't avoid the rocks
So if I come to a section with loose rocks and dirt should I be spinning a high cadence?

I guess I just need to get used to the slip n slide nature of gravel riding.
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Old 12-15-16, 12:49 PM
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Get out of the saddle, keep your core stable, and let the bike move below you.

Smooth cadence is more important than high (or low) cadence.

Cornering in the loose stuff is just going to be a pain. Bigger tires and lower pressure can help up to a point.

When you get good, you’ll learn to just skip over the (fixed) rocks, but let’s do this one step at a time…
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Old 12-15-16, 12:54 PM
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Originally Posted by chas58
Get out of the saddle, keep your core stable, and let the bike move below you.

Smooth cadence is more important than high (or low) cadence.

Cornering in the loose stuff is just going to be a pain. Bigger tires and lower pressure can help up to a point.

When you get good, you’ll learn to just skip over the (fixed) rocks, but let’s do this one step at a time…
Thanks Chas!
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Old 12-15-16, 01:32 PM
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Lots of good advice, chas.

Originally Posted by chas58
if you lean your bike to the outside of the turn, it will be more stable and you will have more traction (and less likely to suffer pedal strike). It feels a bit unnatural though.
I've been experimenting with this. Less likely pedal strike, but watch out for toe overlap!
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Old 12-15-16, 01:41 PM
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Are you hoping/looking to/expecting to go as fast on gravel as pavement? If so, adjust that expectation.
I go slower overall on gravel. I turn slower. I climb slower(maybe not...im slow either way here). I descend slower.

I go plenty fast for me to have fun, but its overall slower on gravel. Maybe 1.5-2mph slower average speed or so?
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Old 12-15-16, 01:44 PM
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One thing to keep in mind is that loose gravel, sand, etc. will cap the maximum G's you can get in a turn. Technique can help, but nothing can override the physics of lower cornering traction. So, ride smart, get comfortable with letting the bike float, but plan on lower cornering speeds.

Those who are experienced riding off road know how to read a course, predict traction, and place themselves where conditions can work for them. For example, look for hard pack and avoid gullies, plan where you cross from one side to the other, and where they exist, use burms as banked tracks to help you around curves.

For those in the northern tier, winter can create a great opportunity to work on handling skills. Find a frozen pond, with ice thick enough to be safe, wear lots of well padded clothes and practice riding with near zero traction. This will teach you to sense when the bike is breaking loose and with practice your ability to recover will become instinctual.
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Old 12-15-16, 03:39 PM
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Do I have to take my studded tires off? ;-)

When my bikes without studs hit ice, they go down amazingly hard and fast. It really, really hurts. Unless I'm going 20mph, then I just have a graceful slide across the ice with my bike...

It's the slow falls that hurt the most.
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Old 12-15-16, 03:43 PM
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Originally Posted by chas58
Do I have to take my studded tires off? ;-)

When my bikes without studs hit ice, they go down amazingly hard and fast. It really, really hurts. Unless I'm going 20mph, then I just have a graceful slide across the ice with my bike...

It's the slow falls that hurt the most.
We used to play Bice hockey, except we'd kick a soccer ball, every winter. We'd start out falling a lot, but winter clothing padded us well and no one ever got hurt (injured). At first it seemed stupid or even impossible, but you can learn to keep the bike up, and it's not really that hard when it's cold enough.
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Old 12-15-16, 05:44 PM
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Dirt and gravel are two different things and some gravel is more than others. Many fire roads and gravel roads were never meant for anyone to be riding a bicycle on and not conducive to it. Like the grades and lengths and surface just aren't meant for you. They have bikes called gravel grinders so i guess it must be doable. I have some crushed stone trails and such i ride on occassion but I like hardpacked dirt a lot more.

I dont think low pressure or even fatter tires will really help on a very gravelly road. It's the rocks themselves that are slipping and messing up your traction. Same with sand i guess and wider tires help with that. There's one 2 mile descent I ride that's got a lot of loose rock. It's wide and straight enough I zoom down it but it does feel like I'm on ice and any minor screw up could be bad. There are also many fire roads in my area of NY that i simply won't ride on because they have steep hills up and down, don't go anywhere and are just very uncomfortable. Might be possible but there's other terrain I'd prefer to take my mtb on and by mtb I mean hybrid.
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Old 12-15-16, 06:05 PM
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I used to struggle with cornering as well. Watching videos of how to corner for both MTB and Cyclocross helped immensely. It may also help to slowly build up speed as you learn the limits of traction and what you can/can't do on gravel.




How much do you weigh? 40 psi is pretty high for 40c tires.

Also, I'll add that as someone who went from 40mm to 55mm tires I still had to focus on the the fundamentals to be comfortable and fast. Wider tires give you different capabilities and performance envelope but they aren't magic and will not compensate for poor fundamentals or technique.
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Old 12-15-16, 06:10 PM
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Originally Posted by TheLibrarian
I dont think low pressure or even fatter tires will really help on a very gravelly road. It's the rocks themselves that are slipping and messing up your traction.
Wider tires at lower PSI distribute the contact patch force over a larger area, over more rocks. Put less force on each rock, and they aren't inclined to move as much. And even if some of the rocks do get mightily jostled, the wider tire is contacting more things for support, adding redundancy and making the grip more consistent.
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Old 12-15-16, 06:57 PM
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This video has helped many convert from road riding.

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Old 12-15-16, 07:53 PM
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Originally Posted by stevelewis
....Never owned a MTB.....
When I first started MTBing - many many years ago - I was pretty lame at it. Took a solid year for me to actually enjoy downhills.

I think gravel bikes require even more finesse, with skinnier tires and all.

You may want to try an MTB on those roads, then move back to the gravel bike. What kind of bikes do others use for these gravel roads?
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Old 12-15-16, 08:48 PM
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Sounds like it might help to slow down, relax and ease into this new skill set. Experiment with lower pressure in your tires, but the biggest thing is to take your time to learn how the bike reacts to the gravel surface. As you gain experience and skill, you will become more comfortable and you'll be able to ride faster.
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Old 12-15-16, 11:45 PM
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Thanks for the wisdom and encouragement everyone! Just gotta be patient and put in the miles to get the hang of it.

To answer dgodave: I got the gravel bike because that's what most of the people around here ride those roads on. I actually considered a hardtail MTB but everyone advised that I just get the crossbike instead. Of course, they have years of experience riding gravel/dirt on cx bikes!
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Old 12-16-16, 06:01 AM
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I'm sort of in the opposite boat as you. I rode my road bike for several years, and wanted to try gravel, so I found a really loose gravel road with gravel ranging from 1/2 to 2+inch stones...and attacked it.

My first ride was on my road bike with 25 mm tires, and felt awful, nervous, no grip for turning or accelerating. Not really fun at all.

Then I went and got my old cruiser road hike with 35mm tires (35psi)...and it was way better, more fun, faster, better grip, still lots of sliding if I tried stopping too quick...but fun.

I would say first thing, go to a road like that and practice skidding your rear wheel on purpose. First going straight, then while turning. You will learn to be comfortable with a skid, but also you'll realize when it actually stops skidding and bites again. Knowing that feeling will give you confidence.
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