Conquering Your Dirt Demons

by Mitch Trujillo, PCI #244/EMSCI #248T
Boulder (CO) Police Department
IPMBA Education Director

It’s becoming more of a short ride to the trail.  Yes, in many places, unpaved paths are becoming more common and accessible.  There’s a philosophy spreading – that trails and features can be constructed (even in metropolitan areas) to encourage easy access and trail use.

But who to monitor the users in this ever growing network of dirt pathways?  We know.  Bikes continue to be the best tool to serve (access) these areas and the standard is the mountain bike, with its wide, stable, upright geometry, and fat tires.  The industry is constantly developing this tool, and it’s becoming more important to understand its potential and your role.

Whether you’re an expert or novice, these tips could save your assets in the dirt.  Read on.

The Down & Dirty

Before you go out to patrol, know your weapon and its capabilities.  Is your bike up to the job?  A bike from a reputable bike manufacturer that fits the rider and is properly tuned is only part of the equation.  The bike needs to be built to withstand the rigors and demands of the terrain.  From the ground up.

Let’s start with the skinny, and I’m not talking about tire width.  In fact, air pressure, tire volume and tread can make all the difference.  Are your tires properly inflated?  If you’ve been riding in the urban environment, you may have to let out some air.  Most mountain tires used off-road perform best inflated to less than 40psi.  Check the markings on the sides of the tires and inflate to 5psi less than the listed max.  Do your tires have enough volume?  If you’re riding less than a 2.0” tire, you risk breaking loose.  The tires need to conform to terra firma, so the tire cleats can provide traction.  If you’re using semi-slicks on loose surfaces, slow way down and pick your lines wisely.

What about the wheels?  Generally, a properly built mid- to upper-level wheelset will perform and last longer.  Opt for a higher spoke count; if you’re a bigger rider, or if you’re carrying a lot of equipment, go for straight gauge 36 count stainless spokes to disperse some of the load.  A wider rim will accommodate and spread the larger volume tires.  Go tubeless if your department can afford it.  Less rubber means lower tire pressure means better control.  Use large diameter wheels if it’s your thing, but make sure the bike is designed around them and the bike works for you.  Finally, ensure the wheels (including hubs) are cared for by a qualified mechanic.  Your wheels will roll better when they are built well and cared for.

Sag, preload, compression – your suspension is important.  When was the last time your fork was overhauled?  Are the sag and settings right for you?  Most public safety cyclists don’t use full suspension, but if you do, you’ll have better control over the big stuff.  If your bike lacks suspension travel or is mid-level or less, you’ll need to slow down in the rough.  Check the air pressure routinely, in both rear shock and/or forks.  Learn how to work on and adjust your suspension, or find a trusted mechanic. 

Brake performance is crucial.  Duh.  If your brake pads need replacing, do it.  Now.  Disc brakes provide better stopping power in extreme conditions, but properly maintained and adjusted sidepull calipers (“V-brakes”) can do the job.  Either way, lube or replace your cables, and check your brake pads for excessive wear.  You never know when you’ll need to stop on a dime.

A last bit of advice; lower your saddle height for technical downhills.  A dropper seatpost is expensive, but well worth the investment.  Either option allows you to assume that attack position, which allows you to drop your center low.  This is more stable and efficient, particularly on downhills.

We could cover the other bits and pieces of a mountain bike and how they could yield better performance off-road, but there are vast sources for that.  If any of the terms above sound foreign, go online, talk to a mechanic, study Zinn and the Art of Bike Maintenance, attend an IPMBA Maintenance Officer Course (April 27-May 1, 2013, in Baton Rouge), practice.  Remember, your bike is a tool for a complex job, but it’s also a weapon against the dirt demons.  Pick and set up your weapon carefully.

Hope this is helpful.  Ride safe, rest, repeat.

Mitch is an IPMBA Instructor Trainer, serves as Education Director on your IPMBA Board, and has a penchant for singlespeeds.  

(c) 2012 IPMBA.  This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of IPMBA News. 

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