Cyclocross Tips: How to Ride in the Sand
By Coach Rhonda Morin and Coach Elaine Bothe
Sandy areas are a way to add difficulty to a dry, flat cyclocross course that otherwise might not be very technical. It’s usually the place where all the spectators and photographers collect because it’s a challenge and there are a lot of crashes. Many cyclocross racers don’t like sand. “Take out the sand!” the online forums complain. Don’t let a sandy section take you by surprise. Instead of dreading it, learn how to conquer the sand, even if you’re emptying it from your shoes days later. Approaching and riding through the sand with skill will add an effective arrow to your quiver of technical skills. And you’ll gain a powerful advantage over opponents who dread sandy sections.
What happens in the sand?
Sand changes your speed very quickly, as does mud, wood chips, deep pea gravel, soft grass or snow. But sand may be the trickiest of all of these, because you generally enter the section fast from grass or another hard surface. When you enter the sand unprepared, your front wheel slows down and catches, sometimes even stopping completely as if you hit a curb or wall. Your forward momentum, as well as the weight of you and your bike, acts like a pile driver burying your front wheel deep into the sand. You pivot on the front hub and over the front wheel and, depending on your acrobatic reflexes, may land face first in the sand.
Until you develop the appropriate skills, sand is hard to ride through. You may feel unstable because you abruptly lose speed, or your front wheel wanders left and right on its own. Eventually you cannot turn over the pedals at all and you may lose your balance.
Study before the race
Scout the sand’s location and how deep it is. Walk or jog through it first. Inspect the sides of the course as well as the middle. Are there more solid or less-deep areas? Are there ledges or holes that you can feel with your feet but not see? Are there sections with grass at the sides, gravel, fallen sticks or foliage growing through the sand? Those areas may be easier to ride than the pure sand.
Watch how other people attempt to ride or run through it. What seems to be faster, running or riding? Sometimes running is faster. You may start out slower than someone riding, but pass them after they lose their momentum or fall over.
Practice riding though sand, even though you may choose to run through it during the race. Try it both ways. If you can ride it consistently every time no matter the traffic, you can probably ride it in the race.
Study the lines through the sand where people are riding. Pick the shortest and straightest path. This will be your ideal line if there is no traffic in your way. Turn on solid ground and ride straight through the sand. You want to spend the least amount of time and effort in the sand as possible. Decide where to enter and exit the section. Choose a couple of alternate lines in case the ideal line is blocked.
Decide if this line is also the best place to run. Perhaps there is a bush next to the ideal riding line that will interfere with your bike if you’re shouldering it. If there is a thigh-high log across the sand, find the best spot to clamber over it.
1. Commit to successfully riding through the sand. If you’re unsure, you won’t make it. Decide 100 percent that you will do it. Committing to “trying” to ride or riding “into” the sand is not good enough. Commit to riding all the way through the sand.
2. Be in the gear you need to use all the way through the sand before you enter it. You will lose traction and momentum shifting gears in the sand. A high cadence to start will give you the ability to reach the exit.
3. Control your speed prior to entering the sand, while you are on a good surface. Lightly brake if you need to slow down, pedal harder if you need to speed up or increase your cadence. You will slow automatically once you’re in the sand. Intentionally using your brakes, particularly the front one, may cause your front wheel to turn to one side, making you lose your balance.
4. Stay loose, especially your arms and shoulders. Our bodies typically tense up when we are unsure of ourselves or feel unbalanced or nervous. Clamped jaws, stiff neck, tight shoulders and ramrod straight arms make it difficult to turn your head. Such tension wastes energy and turns you into an upside-down rigid pendulum that is easier to tip over. You will have more control over your direction if you are relaxed than if you have a stiff-armed death grip on your handle bars.
Before any scary or difficult section, try this exercise: inhale then exhale as you relax your upper body, starting with your forehead, jaw, neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers. Wiggle your fingers a bit to symbolize the tension leaving your body.
5. Keep your head up and stare hard past your exit point. It’s very tempting to look down at the sand, especially as you enter because it’s a sudden surface change and your front wheel will lose momentum. Do not look down at the sand, even for an instant. Instead, look straight ahead, with your eyes, head and shoulders. Scan the sand by using your peripheral vision—but down instead of to the side. You studied the sand pre-race, right? It hasn’t changed. You know the rule: you go where you look. It’s the same whether it’s sand or potholes in the road. Focus on a point, but just past where you want to exit a sand section and you have a greater chance of reaching it.
6. Move your weight back and stay seated or hover. Keep your booty toward the back of your saddle and your hands on top of your handlebars or brake hoods. This will keep your front wheel light, so it will float over the sand rather than dig into it. Staying seated or slightly hovering over your saddle keeps your weight balanced over the rear wheel and you’ll be able to pedal. Standing can throw too much power to the rear wheel, causing it to spin and throwing you and the bike off balance.
7. If you have to launch into the sand rather than simply ride into it, commit and keep your speed up. In the photo below Coach Rhonda Morin has her weight back off the saddle, head and shoulders up, eyes forward, knees wide and elbows bent. This keeps her front wheel in the air so she’ll land with both wheels at the same time rather than plow her front wheel into the sand first. Her bent elbows and knees will act as shock absorbers, like the suspension on a mountain bike. She committed to riding the sand before she launched.
Once you’ve landed, stay seated with your weight back. And pedal, fast.
If the sand is piled on top of the ground rather than in a pit, you may need to lift your front wheel as if you’re riding over a curb or small log. Approach by hovering your booty over your saddle, head and eyes forward, elbows and knees bent. Weight the front of your bike by leaning forward and bending your elbows more, pressing down on your handlebars and compressing the tire. Experiment with your hand position, it may be easier if you are in the drops depending on your arm position and the shape of your bars. Just before your front wheel touches the sand, pull up quickly with your arms—the motion is like a fast curl upward. You’re not trying to do a wheelie; rather, hoisting the front wheel a few inches to buy enough time to allow both your wheels to hit the sand at the same time. Shift your weight backward on your saddle and keep your arms loose. Your front wheel will then float over the sand as your rear wheel digs in for traction.
Now you’re in
8. Keep your hands light on the handle bars. Steer into the sand and be patient. You won’t be able to hold a straight line, so don’t fight it. Instead, let the sand steer you and keep pedaling. Make small and subtle corrections in direction. Don’t attempt a hard turn, as you’ll likely come to a dead stop.
9. Pedal, pedal, pedal. This is easier if the sand pit has a downhill slope to it, is shallow or has some semblance of traction like grass or sticks at the edges. Holding your balance is easier if you’re moving forward, so keep pedaling. Aim for a cadence of around 90-100, as this will better your chance of keeping your wheels turning. Too high of a cadence will make you lose your momentum, while too low of a cadence will bring you to a stop.
10. Stay balanced, concentrate on the exit and go with the flow. Relax and be comfortable with your bike moving around a lot. Your bike will not go in a perfectly straight line no matter how hard you try. It will skid, plow and fishtail like it does in the mud or snow. Keep your hands light on the handlebars, booty back, pedals spinning and focus on the exit point.
11. Knees and elbows wide and bent. This allows you to move with the bike and retain your all-important balance.
12. Dismount before you need to. If the sand is too deep or you’re riding an uphill slope, a dismount while moving will be faster and more graceful than waiting until you’ve stopped.
13. Change direction by looking where you want to go and shifting your weight back and side to side. This is a very slow speed turn with resistance. Steering hard with the handlebars will stop you in your tracks. Instead, hover over your saddle, lean the bike slightly by applying pressure to the inside handlebar as your weight moves to the outside. Once balanced, you can steer with your handlebars. Point your eyes, head and shoulders toward the exit. And keep pedaling. Don’t remove your inside foot from the pedal as this will stop your pedaling and throw off your balance. It’s best to keep your balance and momentum going with both feet on the pedals.
Running the sand
You may decide that it’s best to run the sandy section if it’s long, hilly or curved. If the entry is tricky such as over a ledge, log or corner, dismount on hard ground and hit the sand running. If the entry is level and straight, it may be faster to hit the sand riding at full speed and let the sand slow you instead of braking on solid ground. If you’re not sure of your skills, dismount before you need to.
14. Lean and look forward.Keep your eyes on the prize.Lean forward while running and keep your head up. Focus on where you want to go. Relax your jaw. When shouldering the bike, drive your free arm forward and back to help propel you forward. Exaggerated side-to-side movements and large steps waste energy.
15. Run slightly on your toes and in the existing footsteps of other people. Let others compact the sand for you. No need to redo others’ hard work.
16. Use small, fast steps. Pace yourself and breathe. Running with small steps is like pedaling with an efficient high cadence.
17.Consider fast walking. If the sand section is long, you may want to speed walk instead of run it. This will keep your heart rate from spiking and allow you to maintain steady, not ragged, breathing. As a result, you’ll exit the section with energy to remount, accelerate and gain a tactical advantage over the competition.
18. Train in sand. Sprints in the sand or plyometric workouts can help your cyclocross efforts in general, in addition to running through sand. If you’re not used to running at all or running in the sand, start with five- to 10-minute durations.
What about tire pressure?
Generally sandy sections are a small part of a course. You’ll be faster if you use a tire and air pressure that suits the rest of the course, rather than a tiny part of it. Sand is slow for everyone, regardless of their tire choice.
The more you ride and run in sand the better you’ll be. The first time is scary and slow. You may tip over. With practice, your balance and strength will improve and you’ll be able to handle other tricky conditions such as mud, snow and pea gravel. Commit to the sand and you will gain confidence and a valuable edge over your competition.
Elaine Bothe is a Wenzel coach and IMIC certified MTB instructor who helps people build confidence and skills riding over dirt, whether on a mountain bike or cyclocross. She races Cat 1 or Pro mountain bike and Cat 1 or age group cyclocross. She won an age-group national championship medal in 2011 MTB XC and the 2012 Cross Vegas Media Women’s category of the Wheelers and Dealers cyclocross race.
Rhonda Morin, EMT is a Wenzel coach who specializes in helping people excel at cyclocross and long-distance running. She’s a Cat 1 cyclocross rider and national bronze medalist in the Master’s women’s category who has more than 20 years of experience in competitive cycling and running.