Rain, rain, rain. Some love it, some hate it, but however you feel about muddy ground, learning to ride it well will boost your bike handling skills.
Getting your bike set up for slippery, muddy, wet conditions will give you a head start, and we spoke to Atherton Racing mechanic Joe Krejbich to get his top recommendations for making your mountain bike ready for the wet.
As Rachel Atherton's mechanic, Krejbich helps to ensure that the World Champion and World Cup champion's bike has the optimum setup for all the terrain and conditions she faces throughout the year; from dry and dusty to sloppy and wet.
While most of us are guilty of just getting on our bikes and going, riders and mechanics at World Cup-level will often tune suspension and tyre pressure between each run, let alone each course. We might not go that far for our weekend rides, but setting your bike up to suit the conditions will give you better traction and handling in the mud, and it's not difficult to do.
1. Give your bike a pre-ride check
Before you do anything else take a few minutes to ensure that your bike is in good nick, safe, and ready to ride. The last thing you want to be doing on a mucky wet trail is fiddling with bolts or risking losing something essential in a muddy puddle miles from the end of your ride.
Krejbich suggests a simple, quick bike check. "Check the axles are tight, check the bolts, ensure the spokes aren't loose, and that the wheels are true."
2. Drop your tyre pressure
"The first thing you’ve got to look at is tyre pressure", states Krejbich. "Generally, people drop two or three PSI. A lower tyre pressure allows it to get more grip. Yes, you sacrifice quite a bit of rolling speed, but if the ground is boggy and wet anyway then grip is what you want."
If you're carrying a pump with you, you can adjust your tyre pressure to work out what pressure works best for the conditions you're riding while out on the trail. Likewise, if you're racing take time during practice runs to adjust the pressure to give you the optimum payoff between rolling resistance and traction.
3. Consider a mud tyre
Most bikes come specc'd with decent tyres these days, and there are plenty of decent all-round tyres that provide good traction in mildly muddy conditions without having to go for a full-on mud tyre. For days when it's wet but not raining hard, these will often do, though see point 2 on dropping your tyre pressure.
However, if it's a full-on mud fest and the trail more closely resembles chocolate mousse or slurry, then a mud tyre will help you get traction and minimise those skids, slides and crashes. Our buyer's guide to mountain bike tyres will point you in the right direction of what to ride and when.
You'll also want to practice your mud handling skills, so have a read of our winter skills technique guide to mastering mud, and get practicing!
4. Adjust your suspension
So many riders are guilty of setting their suspension up once and leaving it, or only checking it a couple of times a year. But there are many factors that will affect how well your suspension performs, including how much weight you are carrying, the conditions, and even the temperature.
Krejbich says that "most people check it every few months; Rachel will recheck it every run. You’d be surprised at how much difference temperature can make." So first things first, double check you've got the right pressure to start with — and our guide on how to set up your suspension will give you a hand here — then tweak it to suit the conditions.
"If you run the front end too soft and you hit a boggy hole, your front wheel will dive and you'll go over the bars," comments Krejbich, and he recommends firming up the front suspension a little to compensate. "That'll stop the forks from diving," he explains.
The shock can also be adjusted to make riding slick and steep sections more manageable. "You may want to go softer on the back as that helps with traction. It also helps with steeper sections as the bike will sit in the suspension a bit more and you won't be pitched too far over the front."
Double check that they’ve got the right pressure to start off with, and on forks and shocks that allow it, dial in the compression tuning for that as well. If you run the front end too soft, and you hit a boggy hole, you front end will dive and you’ll go over the bars. Firm that up a bit and it’ll stop the forks from diving and your fork will hit that hole and ride straight over it. You may want to go a bit softer on the back, to help with traction. This also helps with steeper bits as the bike will sit in the suspension a bit more and you wont be pitched too far over the front.
5. Add mudguards
We're popping this one on the list for two reasons. Firstly, riding with a face-full of mud isn't going to help your bike handling; it's hard to steer if your goggles are covered in crud and you can't see the trail. Yes, tear-offs can help but why not minimise the flying mud in the first place? Secondly, if you're planning on riding for any length of time, you'll help reduce the amount of gloopy, gritty stuff that makes its way down the back of your jacket and shorts.
There are so many options to choose from nowadays, no matter what tyre width or suspension set up you have, and a huge range or prices — so really there's no excuse... unless you actually like grit in your eyes?
Pro set-up vs. regular rider
Inevitably, if you're riding at the highest level there will be a few additional changes that are made to adapt the bike for the rigours of riding difficult competition tracks, especially when ridden as hard and fast as Atherton. "The speed that Rachel [Atherton] rides at requires that her suspension set up is a lot firmer, so she doesn't go through the travel," explains Krejbich.
Tyre choice is another important point of difference. For the Red Bull Foxhunt, where the ground is tussocky grass with hidden rocks, plus slick muddy singletrack, Krejbich and Atherton opted for a more aggressive tyre, but not quite a mud tyre. The important thing to look at with tyre choice for Atherton, says Krejbich, was the tyre sidewalls. "If you put a nice lightweight cross-country tyre on [this track], and she hits a rock, she could rip the whole sidewall." Yes, there is a weight penalty, but as with all things it's a compromise that's made to suit the conditions.
Last but not least — don't forget to clean your bike!
Riding in mud can be great, but the damage it can do to your pride and joy ain't funny. Grit gets into the moving parts and grinds them away, so cleaning your bike regularly, and especially after muddy rides, is crucial.
Happily, it doesn't have to take you very long. Just follow our 7 steps to a clean, sparkly bike in no time at all.