How to Rail Loose or Sandy Mountain Bike Trails

Loose terrain is soft, amorphous, and a bear to ride. Climbing up will leave your legs and lungs burning, and descending is a sketchy proposition at best.
Jeremiah “Scratch” Stone demonstrating bike and body separation on a loose trail. Photo: Becky Jo Steele

Florida is one big beach, so sandy trails are the norm here, but loose riding terrain can be found all over the world. Loose terrain is soft, amorphous, and a bear to ride. Climbing up will leave your legs and lungs burning, and descending is a sketchy proposition at best.

Yet, for all the trials they bring riders, loose or sandy trails also provide benefits that aren’t readily apparent. Before you swear off riding a loose or sandy trail, take a minute to consider the benefits.

Loose and sandy trails are great training grounds for riders, and they riding them can benefit mountain bikers of all skills levels. First, they provide riders with the opportunity to increase their strength and conditioning. Just like runners who use packs loaded down with weights to increase resistance, riders can use loose trails to provide them with added resistance when pedaling or for an increase in confidence descending hardpack trails.

Second, loose or sandy trails are great for teaching the importance of bike-body separation. The trail itself, and the ruts left behind by other riders, are constantly moving your bike from one side to the other. Staying up and out of the saddle helps your bike to move around underneath you as you gently guide it along the trail. Learning body positioning in loose terrain can lead to more fun and confidence surfing down a dusty trail.

Lastly, for those who live near sandy trails like the ones found in Florida, or the deserts of the Western USA, when it rains, you can still ride sandy trails without damaging them. Unlike dirt and clay trails, which become soft and muddy when wet, sandy trails get compact and firm. Our local sandy trails are so much fun to ride after a hard rain because you can rail through the corners while your tires stay glued to the trail.

Riding through loose terrain like a Ninja

Photo: Richard Shoop

Loose trails have their own unique challenges. Jeremiah “Scratch” Stone, an MTB instructor and trail builder who works with Ninja Mountain Bike Performance, shared some tips with me for riding these kinds of trails.

According to Jeremiah, the key to riding a loose/sandy trail is maintaining momentum. “Loose sand creates a lot of resistance when you get into it, so you can come into it faster and anticipate the resistance by using a harder gear than normal and slow your cadence down.”

He says that momentum is especially important when climbing loose/sandy trails. “Many riders will dump all of their gears when they see the trail go up. This is ineffective and a waste of inertia. If it is a short climb, think about accelerating through it from approach to exit — this mental shift will change your riding.”

Instead, Jeremiah says riders need to think of the gear they need for the last third of the climb and shift to it. “There is no perfect gear, but there are several wrong ones in every climbing situation. If the gear is too easy, it doesn’t even engage until you’ve given up most of your momentum. From there, it can be disruptive and off balance. What you’ll really notice in loose terrain is that the back wheel will spin and lose traction easily. It may seem counterintuitive but using a gear or two harder can actually unlock a lot of climbs that riders struggle with. It smooths out the power delivery, creating the equivalent of traction control.”

Jeremiah also emphasizes the importance of body position when riding loose/sandy trails. “Loose terrain will punish you more for getting it wrong than any other surface. You need to be centered over the bottom bracket, and that will constantly vary with the pitch of the trail.” For climbing, it’s all about staying over the bottom bracket, which puts equal pressure through each wheel, keeping traction for the rear and making sure the front doesn’t try to walk around.”

Photo: Gerow

When descending loose/sandy trails, riders should be in the ready position (elbows and knees bent and open, eyes up), but “emphasize having the heels down so that you can maintain traction and balance on the pedals if the sand tries to bog you down. Then it’s all about finding the sweet spot over that bottom bracket where everything rides balanced and staying loose with your bike/ body separation.”   

Loose and/or sandy corners also require riders to have a different approach. Jeremiah advises riders to “come in with extra momentum, anticipate the resistance, and separate your bike and body. Being able to move freely will take away the startling effects of the terrain moving beneath you, and keep you balanced over the bottom bracket.”

For Jeremiah, bike set-up doesn’t change too much when it comes to riding loose/sandy trails. “I honestly don’t adjust much for sandy conditions. It’s more about preparing the body and mind for me. But there’s no denying that a wider, low-pressure tire is beneficial. If I get into a situation where I think less pressure will help, I can adjust that easily on the trail.” A set of sticky, soft compound tires doesn’t hurt either.

Finally, Jeremiah offered a few general tips for riding loose/sandy trails. “Pick up the pace and keep the front end a little light. If the sand comes in patches, give yourself extra speed before so you can blow through it without struggling more than necessary. With sand, if you aren’t accelerating, you’re stalling — it doesn’t coast. Have an extra cup of coffee and give it hell on the pedals, keeping those eyes up and looking for ways to piece the puzzle together. If it’s a long grind in loose sand, be gentle on your legs and use your gearing to help, or just walk it out. Slogging through and fighting it will fast track you to cramp city before you know it.”

Loose or sandy trails are challenging, but they can also be very rewarding. Sand is a very difficult substance to ride on, especially when it’s dry. Even wet sand presents challenges you won’t find anywhere else. It’s no wonder cyclocross races use sand pits like this one to test riders’ skills.

A rider who can successfully climb, descend, and corner on a loose trail has mastered one of the fundamental skills of mountain biking. If you have a sandy or loose trail nearby, incorporate it into your regular riding routine. Likely, you’ll notice an improvement in your riding abilities after a short period of time.

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