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DirtTRI Top Tips: Preparing Your Mountain Bike for Mud Racing

XTERRA Pro Will Ross Shares a Pic of the Maui Course on Friday. -Photo courtesy of Will Ross.

The XTERRA World Championships start in a matter of hours, and this year it looks like its gonna get messy. Maui has had intermittent rain for most of the past week leaving the trails a rather sloppy mud bog.

Most of the XTERRA World Champs course absorbs water pretty quickly, but there will most definitely be segments in the more forested parts of the course which will be muddy for days to come.

While it may be a bit late for competitors in Maui, we at DirtTRI thought we’d share our top tips for racing in the mud and muck. Perhaps some early risers at Worlds can take advantage of our advice.

Mountain Bike Racing In Mud

There are two obvious factors to consider when it comes to racing mountain bikes in the mud: the bike, and the rider.

The Rider

Regarding the rider, the best thing to do is have experience racing in mud. However, if you live in a drier climate or are new to mud riding there are a couple of tricks to consider:

  1. Relax
    The bike is going to move differently in mud. You’re going to be sliding around and the bike will need to move under you. You’re braking points will change and you might overshoot some corners. Your shifting won’t work as well, and you’ll feel slow and heavy compared to your normal pace. There’s nothing you can do about all this and all your competitors are facing the same challenges. So…RELAX. Don’t fight the bike, allow it to float a bit and find traction. Be ready for little mistakes like overshooting a corner or having to run sections you could normally clear with ease. Don’t get frustrated and have fun getting dirty.
  2. Spin
    A major key to riding well in mud is maintaining momentum. The mud and slick nature of the trail will rob you of speed and momentum. Just as in dry conditions it is more efficient to stay on the bike and pedaling rather than dismounting and running sections. The best way to maintain momentum is to shift down a gear or two from where you might normally ride a section. The lower gear will mean lower speed but will allow you keep the pedals turning and keep riding through sections that may sap your speed and momentum. If you’re in too big a gear you will hit the sections that will bog you down and either not have the strength to keep pushing or have too much leverage and overpower the grip and spin out. Choosing the proper gear to ride in mud is key.
  3. Anticipate
    Similar to our first tip to relax is also to anticipate what is coming up. Be ready for the bike to slide downhill while crossing and off camber section of trail and either ride a bit higher on the section, or find the area with best traction, which might not be what is the best line in dry conditions. Also, be prepared for your braking to lag and for the tires to slide under braking. This means you will need to brake earlier into corners or steep descents. On the other hand build speed early into steep climbs where you may loose traction and be ready to jump of the bike and start running. Don’t wait till you spin out and tip over before you dismount. Maintaining momentum is key. Finally, read the trail look at where people are going and having success and where they are going and failing but simply following each other. Often more traffic will pack out a section of trail, but it can also make it more slippery and you will benefit by not following the herd. Pay attention to the riders ahead of you and make the best decision for YOU when you get to a tricky section of trail.

The Bike

Setting up your bike properly for a muddy race can mean the difference between your best race ever and a frustrating slog you want to immediately forget. This is free speed and all it takes is a little attention to detail.

Mountain Bike Mud Tires
Maxxis Medusa and Specialized Storm Control Mud Tires.

Choosing Tires

When preparing to race in mud the first thing most people will think to address is tires. “Give me the gnarliest, most knobby, big ‘ole fat tire you got”. However, there is a bit of a paradox here. Rather than choosing a wider, high volume tire you will actually want to go with a narrow tire with high knobs.

The two tires pictured are great options, the Maxxis Medusa and Specialized Storm Control are very similar tires and both very good.

Mud tires will be narrower, 1.7-2.1 inches, and will generally have a much softer compound rubber which gives better traction, particularly on wet roots and rocks. The higher knobs serve to not only probe deep into the mud and soil looking for traction but also create greater surface area to “paddle” through the really sloppy stuff. The higher knobs should also be spaced farther apart than a normal multi-condition tire in order to shed the sticky mud and keep the knobs open and able to do their job.

While a high volume “Fat Tire” will float over a surface and works great on snow and sand, mud is a different story. The tire needs to probe through the surface slop and find the hard pack traction. You don’t want the tire to float you want it to cut. Also in mud a fatter tire will be very slow and have a lot of mechanical drag and much less frame clearance. A narrow mud tire allows for less rolling resistance and less mud collection between the tire and frame which can lead to 5+ lbs of earth accumulating on your bike.

ITU Cross Triathlon
Emma Gerrard at the 2014 ITU Cross Tri World Champs

Dialing In Your Pressures

Proper psi in both the tires and suspension can be extremely significant to your bike’s performance in muddy conditions.

Tire pressures will actually need to be a few PSI higher in a mud tire than normal. Mud Tires are lower volume but a much softer traction compound and quite often a softer casing as well. This means they can deform easier, which is good when it comes to rolling over soft, slippery surfaces. However, you have to keep in mind that you will be riding over a lot of stuff you might normally go around. Rocks and roots you might normally avoid will be lurking under the surface of the mud or the best traction line takes you over the rougher sections. Either way you will want to have a bit higher 2-5 PSI more for flat prevention and to keep the knobs from collapsing laterally on obstacles.

Suspension pressure in your fork and shock can help with the above situation as well. Setting up your suspension a bit softer than normal will allow the bikes frame to absorb the unseen obstacles and mute the riding errors we all make in the mud. A softer set up will be a bit more forgiving and therefore more efficient overall which will lead to faster riding on the whole.

We would recommend dropping 10 psi out of the shock and fork, or setting your sag to 35% rather than the normal 30%.

Dumonde Tech original chain lube. A great option in the muck.
Dumonde Tech original chain lube. A great option in the muck.

Preparing The Drivetrain

Nothing is worse than having to drop out of a race for mechanical reasons. At mud to the mix and your drivetrain is pushed to its limits. The main goal of preparing your drivetrain to race in the mud is to limit friction. The best way to do this is to keep the mud, grime, sand, and grit out of your drivetrain.

For racing in mud we recommend Dumonde Tech Original Lube. This stuff was originally designed for motocross riders. It is much more gooey than what we would ever ride in dry conditions (which by the way is Squirt Lube), but in mud you want that high viscosity oiliness. This stuff doesn’t come off, and will keep your wheels turning. You will have more mechanical drag in the drivetrain but its better to have some drag than to have complete seizure or to snap a chain.

Aside from chain lube if at all possible we would recommend a 1X drivetrain. Be it SRAM, Shimano, FSA, you name it. Simply put, the fewer derailleurs the better in the mud. If you don’t have to shift the chain isn’t put under tension and thus stays cleaner, and in one piece.

What About Pedals

Pedals are a personal preference and riders will use what they like the most. Thus, we would not recommend changing pedals prior to a mud race just to gain a bit of perceived mud performance. In fact most of the major manufacture’s pedals perform pretty well in the mud any way.

Instead, we would recommend putting some chain lube on your cleats and pedals as well. It will wear off eventually, but it will help for a while.

There are all kinds of stories of racers coating their cleats in Teflon, dipping them in wax, coating them with Vaseline, and on and on. The fact is once your get off the bike and take 5 steps any of those applications are quickly erased. The best thing you can do is not get off the bike. But, as that isn’t always an option putting lube on the pedal and not the cleat is best.

Chamois Buttr Embrocation
Chamois Buttr Embrocation

Getting YOU Ready For The Mud

First, as we said earlier, get your mind ready. You’re gonna get dirty, you’re gonna go slower, and you’re gonna have some different challenges. So, relax, enjoy it, have fun!

But what else can you do?

Keep warm. Usually if its raining or worse its colder than normal and you will want to stay warm. However, wearing more clothing will just mean more stuff to get wet, dirty, and most importantly, heavy. Your best option is embrocation. What the hell is that you say?

Embrocation, or Embro, is simply a liquid or cream applied to the skin in order to retain heat. It can be as simple as Pam Cooking Spray, or Olive Oil, and as complicated as the various high end recipes and brands the European Cyclocross racers swear by.

Essentially you want something that will keep the heat in, and some of the mud off all while not washing off in the mud and water on course.

Be careful with this stuff though. It can be quite warm and doesn’t always come off easily. However, in a muddy race it can be absolutely essential and be a real race maker. 

There ya go. Racing well in the mud is just that easy… thin tires, low pressures, and lube up everything on the bike and yourself.

Honestly, most of the above doesn’t cost much or take much effort but can same you many minutes, sometime hours, and can prevent the always unwanted DNF.

Good luck, and remember. Have get dirty and have fun!





Jimmy Archer

Founder and Editor at Jimmy has been a professional athlete for over 18 years as a runner, cyclist, mountain biker, cross country skier, and primarily, triathlete. Jimmy has a degree in exercise science from the University of Colorado and is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling certified coach. Jimmy became a freelance writer in 2000 while competing and covering the ITU Winter Triathlon World Championship. Since that time Jimmy has been head editor at two magazines, been published in numerous publications within the endurance sport, recreation, and travel segments. Currently Jimmy is competing professionally in off-road multisport. In his spare time Jimmy passionately follows Formula 1, Moto GP, and is an avid cook.

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