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Andy Explains MTB Tire Pressure

“What tire pressure should I run?” I get that question all the time.

If you personally, have ever asked me that question, instead of a quick and concise response, you probably received a long pause, combined with a puzzled and quizzical look. You may have then said to yourself, I asked this guy about tire pressure, not, “What is the meaning of life?”

If only tire pressure were that easy…

But, just like the answer to, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ the answer to, ‘what tire pressure should I run?’ really comes down to a few simple things… but it’s the way that these things mix together, work against each other, cancel each other out, and so-on-and-so-forth that makes it all very interesting, and thus, a real tough question to answer.

What I’ll try to do here, is explain the main factors (I can’t, of course, hit EVERY factor in the space of this article) that become relevant in the search for proper tire pressure and set you on you’re way to figuring out what is best for you. But, just like “the meaning of life”, the final answer most likely comes down to the priorities of the individual…

First, how do we measure tire pressure? “Should I measure my tire pressure with a gauge or by feel?”

Again, kind of asking the wrong question… The answer to this question is … YES!

Use both. Why? Because most small and inexpensive tire gauges (like the kind you and your buddy will most likely carry with you in your Camelback or gear-bag) are not very accurate when measured against one other (one may read 10 psi and another 13 psi on the same tire). However, they are usually pretty consistent with themselves (until the batteries start to go dead). So as long as you use the same gauge, you should have a pretty consistent reading. So why use your hand? Because you’re never going to accidently leave your hand on the tailgate of your friend’s truck or back at the hotel room (hope not, at least…). And, (when) the batteries in the gauge do start to go dead, you’ll know that even though the gauge is reading 38 psi, the tire is really right around 19. Also, when you use a new tire (same or different brand) your hand – gauging by feel – gives you a better idea of how hard you will actually need to hit an obstacle before that obstacle bottoms out on the rim of the wheel (flatting your tire, damaging your rim, or both) then a semi-arbitrary number on a tire gauge. Now, use the gauge to see what pressure your “feel” relates to and you can get more precise and consistent on what pressures you can run with your new tire. Like anything else, this takes a little time and experience, but two gauges are better then one… especially if you can never lose one of them.

Next, all tires are different brand to brand, size to size, different materials, construction, new to old… While 30 psi may be way to much pressure for a 135 lb downhill racer on a 2-ply Downhill tire, 30 psi may be half of what a 220 lb “not so smooth” fella on a super-lite Cross Country race-tire will need. There are a lot of variables in tire construction. There are also a lot of different uses and intentions. For instance, some of my students are endurance racers. Most endurance races are held on courses that are not very technically challenging and have a fairly smooth surface. A fast rolling, low profile, super light tire with a pretty high pressure (for minimal rolling resistance) would be a great choice for the intention of going fast for long periods of time on this type of terrain. If the same rider goes out to Bootleg Canyon (all jagged rock) for a fun weekend with their buddies, I would suggest a tire on the opposite end of the tire-spectrum: a large volume tire with big lugs and with great durability. This tire, when run at low pressures, would give the rider more traction (in this terrain and situation, traction is more important then the low rolling resistance in the endurance race) and give the rider a smoother and faster ride because of its ability to absorb bumps (more on this later). With the first tire, the rider may run something like 42 psi, the second … 27? Big difference…

So now we understand how to check our tire pressure. We understand that there are many different types of tires for many different types of riding. And we understand that a thick, heavy, large volume tire will need less air pressure to support a load then a thin, light, low volume tire supporting the same load (think monster truck vs. Corvette).

So let’s move a little further into the advantages and disadvantages of both low and high tire pressure.

I tell my students that, generally speaking, the lowest tire pressure that you can run without getting a flat will give you the most traction, the most bump compliance, and, thus, the most control (remember the generally speaking part). With low tire pressures, tires spread out on the terrain under load and create a larger contact patch – more traction. Also, the tire will absorb bumps – acting like suspension – and help the rider maintain a smoother momentum path over inconsistencies in the trail (and retain contact with the ground). The disadvantages of low tire pressures (especially if speed is one of your goals) are that on smooth sections of trail (where you don’t need great traction or bump compliance) the tires will have a lot of rolling resistance, and, of course, you stand a greater chance of getting flats by either “rolling” your tire off of the rim, or by bottoming the tire out on the rim on an obstacle, or both (very seldom do you hit an obstacle in perpendicular manner – usually its at an angle – so even riding in a straight line this commonly occurs, especially with tubeless tires run at extremely low pressures.). And, sorry, but tubeless tires aren’t a cure-all for this dilemma. In fact, I see just as many flats these days as I did in the days before tubeless because riders still push the limits of what they can run pressure-wise (as they should). Except these days, they (especially aggressive riders) often destroy their rim in the process and have to walk home. I do like tubeless tire set-ups, but they do have their limits.

The advantages of high tire pressures are low rolling resistance on smooth surfaces and very little chance of getting flats. The disadvantages: less traction because the tire doesn’t spread out on the surface of the trail (smaller contact patch), and once the surface of the trail is not smooth and has inconsistencies such as rocks, roots, off-cambers, etc (like all the fun parts of the trail) the tire – instead of absorbing these obstacles like it will with lower pressures – will now deflect off of the obstacles. Now, instead of maintaining contact with the trail and acting like suspension, helping the mass of the rider and the bike to move along the trail with a smooth momentum path, the tire will bounce and slide off of every obstacle offering a very rough and unpredictable ride.

In fact, regarding the last factor that I just described, a certain tire company did a study that proved that low tire pressures will actually roll faster on on-trail conditions, dispelling the myth that the higher pressures will always roll faster.

So always run low tire pressures, right? Better control and they actually roll faster…

Well, not necessarily. What all of the above doesn’t take into account is rider input. This is where you have to evaluate what type of rider you and what your intentions are on the bike, and factor those into the tire-pressure-equation.

For instance, I can take two 150lb sacks of potatoes, set them on identical bikes, and roll them down identical smooth surfaces (pavement, dirt road, smooth trail, whatever), one with 25 psi in the tires and the other with 50 psi in the tires. The one with the higher pressure will roll faster and further. If I do the same on a rough trail surface, the one with 25 psi will now roll faster and further. But now if I take a 150 lb sack of potatoes and a 150 lb skilled rider – same scenario and both with 25 psi in their tires – and roll the sack down the trail, but the rider is able to miss every bump. … the rider gets there first. Now same thing with the SAME rider, the rider misses every bump so he/she is essentially riding on a smooth surface, once with 25 psi and again with 50 psi. The 50psi run wins it.

Of course, these are hypothetical situations. No rider can miss every bump, and no rider rides exactly like a sack of potatoes. And to take this further with the above scenario, what if the rider is very skilled and instead of not only missing bumps/obstacles, he/she starts to use techniques to actually generate speed and momentum from these “obstacles” by employing techniques such as “bump jumping” and “pumping” (both are advanced levels of riding derived from very basic riding techniques). These techniques often involve fairly harsh contact with terrain features in order to generate momentum – so where my sack of tater’s riding style worked well with 25 psi, now I’m getting flats and destroying equipment because I’m pushing the bike harder.

(And, there’s nothing wrong with riding like a “sack of potatoes”, especially for a beginner rider, as long as you’re an in-balance and relaxed sack of potatoes practicing great line choice and proper vision on the trail. In fact, most riders would benefit greatly by doing this!)

So what tire pressure should you run? Put it this way: I, myself, have two “go to” tire set-ups, and I change them depending on my location, trail conditions, temperature, etc. I often change my tire pressure during the ride (I will drop pressure, I almost never add tire pressure, but there are some great hand pumps out there that do allow you to do this practically and quickly – most hand pumps don’t – and without wasting a CO2). I run enough pressure so that I can attack the trail with out getting flats. Also, the weak spot in my riding isn’t my technical ability; it’s my legs and my lungs. So, I’ll give up a little bit of control and traction (and make up for it with technique and by finding the smooth spots on the trail) and benefit from higher pressures and less rolling resistance. If you’re a rider whose fitness is your strength and technical ability is your weakness, you may want to go in the other direction.

Most beginner riders run too much tire pressure and could benefit by dropping it substantially. As riders advance, they usually will need to up the pressure a bit (adjusting equipment to be ridden harder) and learn how to ride their bike correctly. Not by coincidence, a very similar thing happens with actual suspension, especially in downhilling and motocross (which, in many ways, is quite similar to downhilling).

How do you find out what works for you? Hopefully this info helps out, but go ride a section of trail with 20 psi in your tires. Now go back and ride the same section of trail with 50 psi in your tires. Now ride with the pressure right in the middle. How did each different run feel? Take notes on all of this, especially as you’re learning. Evaluate what type of rider you are and what terrain you plan on riding.

Armed with the above knowledge, again, hopefully your pointed in the right direction. Oh, and learn how to fix flats before you go too crazy with this…

Next article: The Meaning of Life…

Gene’s article on tire pressure http://betterride.net/blog/2010/another-thing-you-can-buy-and-instantly-have-more-bike-control/

Angie Really Stepped Up Her Mountain Biking Skills!

Angie, a BetterRide student has been tearing it up since taking her camp in Philly last year. Read what she thought of the camp and watch her videos! It was a great camp with riders ranging from a 14 year old kid to World Champion Sue Haywood all leaning the same Core Skills of mountain biking!

philly camp Angie practicing steeper dh switchback

http://bikingnazi.blogspot.com/2011/09/how-to-be-better-rider.html

I Hate Getting Emails Like These From Mountain Bike Riders!

I Hate Getting Emails (and Phone Calls) Like These From Mountain Bikers!

So many injuries!  Three students who signed up for camps and one who wants a camp next year all injured themselves last month! One woman broke her right wrist and her left shoulder and some ribs, another thought he had broken some ribs (luckily they are only bruised but still super painful), one broke is femur and the last got 17 stitches in his leg!

I hate getting emails like these (especially the photo, ouch!):

Hi Gene.
My wife may have not been too clear, considering her condition, when you both talked ….
She’s making good progress, but since her right wrist and left shoulder were broken (along with several ribs), limiting their use and making certain tasks very difficult at this time …..
Thank you,

Steve

2 and a half weeks ago I did this to my leg practicing bunny hops in my backyard.  I came unclipped and my egg beaters became shin mutilators.  Haven’t been on the bike since.  I lost some confidence.  Try to explain this injury to the boss.  Hopefully you can view the picture just so you can say dude if nothing else.

Dan's Leg after the bad bunny hop!

 

Wow, that looks really painful (and expensive)! As he said it also cost him a lot of confidence. Now, not every injury could be prevented with better skill but this one could of been! If you are yanking up on your cleats to do a “bunny hop” you are really putting yourself in danger. I have never seen this bad a cut from poor bunny hop technique, it is usually an endo leading to a head, arm, wrist or leg injury (such a fracture, not a deep canyon opening up!). Simply learning how to ride in balance, in a neutral position, how to do a coaster wheelie and rear wheel lift (again without relying on your clips (which leads to being off balance and/or injuries like this)) would of eliminated this injury and saved Dan from: 1. Spending a lot of money 2. Feeling lot of pain 3. Missing a week or six of riding 4. Loosing a lot of confidence.

Mountain biking does not have to involve injury! Before my injury in July I had not been injured mountain biking in six years! Please take it from me, a 45 year old guy who rides six days a week and races pro downhill learn the correct techniques, drill them until they become second nature and every mountain bike ride will be more fun, faster and safer!


Overcoming Mistakes While Mountain Biking

When it comes to riding mountain bikes, perfection is not an option. Whether you are a top professional racer or a green-newbie, you will make mistakes out there on the track or trail every time you ride. How you recover from these mistakes – primarily mentally – will be vital to your performance, and perhaps more importantly, to your level of enjoyment while finishing the remainder of the ride.

Our goal, after we make a mistake, should be – as quickly and efficiently as possible mentally deal with the mistake, and then forget about it, and get back into our flow, or “zone”, as its been called, with clear and correct mental focus and proper physical technique.

On a training ride, maybe this means getting off the bike, figuring out what went wrong, and going back and working on cleaning the obstacle. But, in a race, or on a hard ride with our buddies, or five hours into that two-hour ride (because you got lost, whatever) when its now dark, you’re cold and exhausted, and you still have forty-five minutes left to go… now getting off the bike and re-working the obstacle or deep contemplation over what went wrong isn’t an option. Making a mental note for later contemplation, sure, but at this point your goal needs to be putting all your energy into moving forward – efficiently and correctly – and NOT dwelling on the mistake, compounding it into further energy (or speed) zapping errors.

Even the top racers in the world make mistakes. Whether you are a downhill racer or not, the following applies to you:
There has never been a World Championship winning race run that has been perfect (the annual World Championship is one race – one final race run that counts for all the marbles). Every World Champion has stated that they made a few small mistakes in their winning run. So, in the most prestigious and probably financially rewarding three minutes (or so) of the particular athlete’s racing life, the most intense pressure-cooker in mountain biking this person screwed up! A few times! And then overcame those mistakes to beat the best in the world on that day, with that run.

On the other hand, I know a few racers out there, once they make a mistake its game over! They get flustered, frustrated, angry. They then over-ride the bike and the track, dwelling on the mistake, forcing them into further mistakes. Maybe they give up altogether! I’ve seen it happen! I also know racers (and so do you, if you’ve been around racing) that are consistently near the top of the field, week in and week out, always right up there in the overall points … these athletes are making those same little mistakes, but obviously doing a much better job at dealing with them.

Of course, its not just racers that we’re talking abut here. We’ve all probably seen riders (maybe one of our buddies or even ourselves) make a mistake, drop an f-bomb, immediately make another mistake … a few more f-bombs (at a higher volume), and then two immediate mistakes later, they’re having a melt-down on the side of trail like a three-year-old in the grocery store.
… Improper technique AND straight up embarrassing!

On the other side of this, we’ve all had rides that started out crappy and ended up being awesome, with us finishing up the ride with some of the best riding we’ve ever done! What’s the difference and how do we not let mistakes affect us negatively further into the ride?

First, I’m very careful (sometimes hesitant) about dealing with the mental aspects of riding when it comes to other riders before I get to know them. Spotting bad technique and giving advice on how to correct it is usually fairly easy and nearly black and white. But because we all come from different places, with different motivations, different successes and failures, etc, the mental aspect and what motivates each individual rider can be a touchy subject. (I have seen riders get so angry, that they did literally will themselves over obstacles that were giving them problems. It worked in that case, but as I’ll explain, that’s probably not the best mental technique for most of us.)

In order to most effectively negotiate tricky terrain on your bike, you first need to be in balance. If you are in balance on your bike, you can now also be loose and nimble on the bike, allowing you to make the many tiny and instantaneous adjustments that are necessary in order to efficiently maintain control and maintain further balance. Also, when you are balanced and neutral on the bike, you are able to both react and be proactive to obstacles on the trail and/or movements of the bike. If you get off balance it becomes nearly impossible to remain loose and nimble on the bike. You become rigid and tense. This, of course, makes it nearly impossible to sense and create subtle movements and adjustments. We become ballistic in our movements, off balance, and it becomes even more difficult to regain balance, making us even more rigid and tense, putting us even more off balance … this is what is known as the “downward spiral of crappiness”, and we’ve all been there!
When we get angry, frustrated, or scared on the trail, we also become rigid and tense. The above is often what happens to us, but now its compounded by our improper mental state. So how do we deal with this? Everyone is different, but you have to find a way to keep an even keel!

There are tons of techniques, sports psychologies, you name it out there that may be able to help you with this problem. Two simple methods we use in BetterRide instruction are as follows:

One, is the “Circus Song” (that kinda goofy little ditty that accompanies clowns and monkeys and bearded ladies at the circus). This is often seen as somewhat humorous to our students (we have them ride down the trail while LOUDLY humming the “Circus Song”). We have students do this at a point in our camps when most students have experienced some frustration and mental fatigue. Doing this effectively takes your big brain – which is now causing you problems by complicating the situation with your emotions – out of the equation of riding. (How upset and frustrated can you be while humming the circus song and picturing monkeys and clowns riding bicycles under the big-top?!?!).

A second technique is to develop a “Mantra”. When I ride, when things start getting a little gnarly – especially in race situations – I have a three-word mantra that I run through my brain of “Look, Feet, Breathe … Look, Feet, Breathe …” (or something of that nature). While the circus song (or riding with ipods or whatever) actually takes your mind off of riding, a mantra gives your mind something positive and necessary to focus on, instead of running off in all kinds of undesirable directions (in this case, anger and frustration and the effects that come with these). The word “look” keys my vision (the most important part of riding a MTB and impossible to cover in the space of this article), the word “feet” reminds me to keep my weight on my feet and to stay low and neutral on the bike (this is the cornerstone of proper body position – which is integral to riding the bike correctly and effectively). And the word breathe … well, that’s obvious.

The mantra keeps me focused on the important elements of riding the bike, and it makes it impossible for my mind to wander or to take off in bad directions – its impossible to focus on the negatives if I’m focusing on the positives! I can make a mistake or two and leave them right where they occurred on the trail, instead of mentally dragging them along with me!

However, anger and frustration WILL creep into your riding. The only way out is to DO THINGS RIGHT – maintain proper form and technique, maintain mental clarity and focus. But, like lots of other things, we know what we SHOULD do but, often its difficult to do these things – especially under the stresses we encounter out on the trail. And sometimes this does require us to be (or become) mentally tough. How do we become mentally tough? Every rider is different, but read the article by Gene, titled “Are You Tough? (part 1 http://betterride.net/?p=476 and 2 http://betterride.net/?p=470)” for more techniques that will help you in these situations.

Another thing we can do to help us recover mentally from mistakes on the trail is “hope for the best, but plan for the worst”. What do I mean by this? Let’s think about those World Champions that I mentioned earlier in this article. Did they expect to have completely flawless race runs? Of course not. Therefore, when they did make a mistake, it wasn’t a huge surprise and it didn’t throw their game plan out the window. Likewise, recreational riders need to expect to make mistakes. Expect to feel frustrated and angry, but then what you do after this (or with this) is what really counts!

Finally, once you are familiar with some of these techniques, use mental imagery to help incorporate them into your riding. Imagine yourself riding along, having the best day of your life, then you make a mistake, then another… allow yourself to feel the negative emotions as if you were really out on the trail, then imagine yourself engaging in these mental techniques and regaining your focus and flow.

Just like all physical techniques, we need to practice this (these) until they become automatic. Like most of the physical techniques of riding the bike, these aren’t complicated, yet they can still be quite difficult to pull off out on the trail. Use that mental imagery to work these into your program. Fortunately, (Ha Ha) no matter who you are, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to use them out on the trail!