GOING FAST AROUND A HARD-PACK TRACK REQUIRES A COMBINATION OF SPECIFIC TECHNIQUE AND BIKE SETUP. HERE ARE FIVE TIPS TO HELP YOU GET A HANDLE ON A HARD SURFACE
WORDS BY SHANE BOOTH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT BERNARD
The first thing people think of when you mention control use is throttle control — and it’s definitely a major factor — but it also includes your clutch, front and rear brake control. When traction is at a minimum as it is on a hard-pack surface, especially in turns, the rider’s control inputs need to be smooth and progressive to avoid unsettling the bike and causing the front or rear wheel to break traction. That means smooth brake application, getting the majority of speed washed off while the bike is straight and upright and easing off the brakes as the bike begins to tip into the turn. Locking the rear wheel is easy on this surface, so be gentle on the rear brake; if the wheel locks the bike will easily slide sideways. You’re aiming for one smooth application of the throttle out of turns, delivering increasing power as the bike straightens up on the exit.
When the surface is hard and slick, tyre selection is critical to achieving the maximum amount of traction available. On a hard surface the tyre is sitting on top of the dirt, unable to actually bite in as it can on a soft surface, so a specific hard-terrain tyre designed to deal with this scenario will make a huge difference. A hard-pack tyre will have knobs that offer a large surface contact area with a smaller distance between them. The knobs will usually have individual cutouts in them to offer additional edges for the tyre claw, whatever traction is possible. The profile will generally be slightly rounder to help in flat turns when the bike is using the side knobs of the tyre. The rubber compound may be softer, too; this helps grip levels but does lessen the life of the tyre — the price you pay for traction. Full hard-pack tyres work well when the track has no loose dirt at all. If there’s a slight amount of powder on top, as you can see in this photo, hard-intermediate tyres may be a better option.
The geometry of your bike is critical on harder surfaces because you’re steering the bike through turns more than usual. Refer to your owner’s manual to make sure the rider sag is set correctly on the rear shock. Too much and the front end will rake out, making it hard to steer through turns; too little and the front end will steepen up, giving it a tendency to tuck and be unstable. Generally, a slightly softer rear shock setting will help the bike drive out of turns better, but too soft and it will affect the way the bike turns. If you ride on hard-pack surfaces regularly, I’d recommend talking to a suspension tuner and getting your bike set up more specifically for those conditions.
There are two general ways to attack corners on a hard-pack track and it really depends on the type of turn. For flat turns you should try to keep a smooth arc through the turn and look for any edges that have formed up that you may be able to use like a very shallow rut. Avoid having to make a sudden, sharp change of direction that could require more traction than is available and result in a front-end tuck. It’s all about getting the bike to settle and then keeping it settled through and out of the turn. If there is a berm on the outside of a hard-pack turn, sometimes driving the bike in hard and straight, turning off the wall of dirt and then driving out of the corner straight can work. What this does is allow for more aggressive braking and acceleration because the bike is kept upright longer. It will not be quicker every time but it’s a technique that works well in the right situation, especially if the outside of the corner isn’t too much distance to travel.
Keeping your body in the right position on hard-pack will make a huge difference to the amount of traction you have. For flat turns, shift your weight to the outside, keep your head forward over the handlebars and weight the outside footpeg. Remember that the only real way to help front-end traction in turns on a hard surface is by adding weight to the front wheel, so make sure you sit at the front of the seat, keep your leg forward and head over the handle bars. Don’t stress too much about the level of rear-wheel traction because you can control that with the throttle.
Not all bikes have this luxury but if you’re on a machine that has tuneable electronic fuel injection, experiment with some different settings and work on coming up with a smoother power delivery. Quite often on a slick surface, the slower the bike feels, the faster you get around the track. Aggressive power delivery usually just results in wheel spin, which isn’t fast and can result in mistakes. Mellow your bike out and then run it against a stopwatch — you’ll probably be surprised by the results.