Doing It in the Dirt : Riding Off-Road !

Many motorcyclists, myself included, started out riding off-road. We got our first dirtbikes when we were children and pretty much taught ourselves to ride.

Learning to ride off-road has some advantages. When you ride off-road, you remove the number-one hazard you’ll face on public highways and streets - other drivers. And the dirt is more forgiving than the pavement, should you fall down.

Which you will do more often off-road, simply because you’ll be riding over more rugged terrain than the relatively flat surfaces covering most roads. There are a lot more rocks, ruts, holes, and trees in a forest than on your average city street.

Quite a few road racers practice riding off-road during their off seasons. They claim that riding off-road hones their skills and makes them better racers. Off-road riding is a fun way for all of us to sharpen our riding skills, whether we race or not.

Riding off-road demands different skills from you as a rider. You need to develop your ability to read surface conditions to a much higher level than you would by just riding on the street, because you are going to encounter a much wider range of conditions. And because of the power and torque available from off-road bikes, combined with the low-traction surfaces you’ll encounter, you need to be even smoother with your throttle than on a streetbike. You’ll need to learn to use your throttle to help you clear obstacles, and in some situations, steer your motorcycle.

You’ll need to learn how to sit on a dirtbike, how to distribute your weight, and the proper posture needed to control the machine. In this article, I’m going to give you a brief description of the challenges you’ll encounter off-road and show you how to adapt to those challenges.

Form Is Function : Posture

Balance is extremely important to successful dirt riding, and to achieve good balance, you need to practice good posture. Because dirtbikes are so light, you use your body movement to steer them more than you do on a streetbike. In the dirt, you need to get physical with your motorcycle.

Your posture, combined with proper throttle control, will make the difference between successfully climbing a hill and crashing and burning. And the proper posture for going up a hill isn’t the same as the proper posture for going down. Generally, you want to keep your weight centered over the motorcycle. To accomplish this, you’ll use one technique when going uphill and another when going downhill.

Going Uphill

Climbing a hill on a motorcycle can be one of the most fun aspects of off-road riding, but it can also be one of the most dangerous. You need to use some common sense when deciding whether or not to climb a hill. You may not have the skill needed to climb some hills. Even if you do, your motorcycle might not be able to make it. Make certain that you know what is on the other side of a hill before you climb it. If you are riding up a hill that you can’t see over, slow down until you can see what’s on the other side.

The problem with slowing down to see what’s on the other side of a hill is that you need your momentum to carry you to the top. On a steep hill, if you lose momentum, you lose the battle. If you’re unfamiliar with the terrain you’re riding in, take some time to explore your surroundings, check out the hills (and what’s on the other side of those hills) before attempting to climb them.

When approaching a hill, keep both feet firmly on the pegs. Shift into low gear and accelerate before ascending the hill. If the hill isn’t too challenging, you can remain seated. Just shift your weight forward by sliding forward on the seat. If the hill is steep, stand up on the footpegs and lean as far forward as you can while still remaining in control of the bike. The more weight you can put over the front wheel, the less your chance of flipping over backward, which is exactly what you don’t want to do.

If the hill is too steep and your bike begins to stall, you’ll have to downshift if you can. Shift smoothly and quickly, being smooth on the throttle to avoid doing a wheelie and flipping over backward.

If you don’t have enough power to make it, but you’re still moving ahead and have enough space to turn around, you can turn around and ride back down. If you stop, or if you can’t continue and don’t have enough room to turn around, you have a problem. If you have good enough footing to maneuver the bike once you’ve stopped, apply the front brake and remain stopped until you are stable.

If you don’t have a solid footing, you’re going to fall down. Usually this will only hurt your pride, but if you’re on an extremely steep hill, you and your bike may fall back down the hill. If this happens, all you can do is try to get out of the way of the falling bike, then chastise yourself for being foolish enough to try a hill so far beyond your ability.

Getting stuck on the side of a steep hill with your bike is both dangerous and hard physical work. Wrestling a bike around while trying not to fall down a hill is usually enough to make most sane people think twice the next time they’re tempted to climb a hill that is too steep.

If you’ve managed to avoid falling, and you’re sitting there squeezing the front brake, wondering what to do next, you can use gravity to help get you turned around. Turn your wheel toward whichever direction is most clear behind you, then gently ease off the front brake - not enough to get yourself rolling, but just enough to slowly move to the side. Keep the bike leaning toward the top of the hill, since the upward side is the only side on which you’ll have a firm footing. Lean away from the top, and you’re going down the hill the hard way. When you’re sideways, ease ahead and turn down the hill, following the trail you took up.

If you’ve fallen, follow this same procedure, except remain off the bike, standing on the downside of the machine as you turn it around. Remember to use the hand brake as you maneuver the bike, or you could run yourself over.

Gravity can be your friend when going downhill, but it also makes wipeouts happen more quickly and more violently. When you fall down while climbing a hill, it seems to happen in slow motion, because your momentum is carrying you up, away from the ground. When your bike pitches you off while going downhill, it happens pretty quickly, since your momentum is already carrying you down, toward the ground.

Going Downhill

You might not think so, but descending a hill can be as challenging as climbing a hill. In fact, if you don’t know what you are doing, you can wipe out even more spectacularly going downhill.

Point the motorcycle directly at a hill before descending. The more straight on you are when going down, the less your chances of wiping out. Slide your butt back on the seat as far as you can, while still maintaining a firm grip on the handlebars, to transfer weight to the rear. Shift into low gear, and don’t give the engine any gas as you go down. Let the engine assist in your braking. Use the rear brake liberally, but be careful about locking up the tire. Be very cautious when using the front brake, especially in low-traction situations. When going downhill, your front end will want to dig into the ground. Using your front brake will increase this tendency and can send you flying over your handlebars.

Ledges and Embankments

As your hill-climbing skills improve, you may want to seek out more challenging terrain. Riding up and down sharp ledges and embankments can provide those challenges, but you really need to use your head here. There is a fine line between a ledge and a cliff, and if you purposely go plunging off a cliff, chances are you won’t get much sympathy while you recuperate in the intensive-care ward.

Use the same basic technique for climbing ledges and embankments that you use to climb other hills, only more of it. You’ll need to shift your weight farther forward, apply more throttle, and gain more momentum. Again, be aware of what is at the top of the embankment. If you successfully climb the embankment, you’re going to be going at a pretty good clip as you crest the top. As you get over the top, let off the throttle, and prepare to deal with what you find at the top. When going down a short, steep hill, you may need to give the bike a little gas as your front tire goes over the edge to keep the bike from getting hung up on the ledge. Otherwise, follow the normal downhill procedure.

Things That Go Bump in the Road

Even on the worst paved road you can find, you won’t encounter obstacles like stumps, logs, boulders, and roots. When riding off-road, these obstacles are part of the package, and you’ll need to know how to deal with them. If you hit such obstacles when you are unprepared, they can deflect your front tire, causing you to crash.

To avoid these obstacles, concentrate on the trail ahead of you, scanning for objects in your path. Adjust your speed for conditions. If you are riding through dense foliage, slow down until you can effectively determine what’s ahead of you.

Even if you avoid hitting an obstacle with your bike, if you don’t maintain a proper riding position, you can hit it with your toes or feet, especially on a narrow trail. To avoid this, ride with the balls of your feet on the footpegs so that your toes don’t hang below your motorcycle’s frame. This prevents you from catching your toes on obstacles, which more often than not will lead to a bunch of broken bones in your feet. And having to ride 20 or 30 miles to the nearest emergency room with a bunch of broken bones in your feet is no fun. You’ll have to trust me on that.

If you hit an obstacle that deflects your bike, resist the urge to stick your leg out. This will upset your center of gravity, making you more likely to go down, and it also creates the risk of knee injury. As bad as breaking a bunch of bones in your foot sounds, it’s actually a pleasant experience compared to a knee injury. Rather than sticking your foot out, keep your feet on the pegs and shift your weight around to correct your bike’s course.

Riding over an obstacle is a maneuver best left only to an experienced rider. It requires precise throttle control, along with the ability to bring the front wheel up in the air at will. This is known as doing a wheelie and normally is not acceptable motorcycling behavior. But when riding off-road, being able to do a wheelie can spare you many painful crashes.

If you have to ride over an obstacle, approach it as directly as possible, trying to hit it straight on (at a 90-degree angle). As your front wheel is about to strike the obstacle, apply some throttle to unload the front wheel and pull back on the handlebars, being careful not to give the bike too much gas so that you don’t flip over backward. You are now doing a wheelie, with your back tire rapidly approaching the obstacle. If the obstacle is reasonably small, close the throttle before the rear wheel hits it. This will bring your front end down, and you can drive over the obstacle with your back wheel.

If the obstacle is too large for your back wheel to go over without your bike getting hung up, you shouldn’t be attempting to go over it in the first place. If you’re in the middle of the attempt when you realize you’re in trouble, that observation won’t help you much. At the exact moment your rear tire catches the obstacle, apply a bit more throttle. This should launch you over the obstacle. To do this, you should be experienced at jumping and be able to land on your back wheel, which is, theoretically, what should happen. Either that, or you will fly into the brush. As I said, this is a procedure best left to an expert rider. Before attempting it, you should know your bike and your riding techniques so well that the entire procedure comes to you naturally.

Surface Conditions

The defining characteristic of a road - even a lousy, decomposing road - is a relatively level surface. The surfaces found off-road vary as much as the flora and fauna, but they can be broken down into three general categories :

- Sand

- Water and mud

- Rocks

The one thing these surfaces have in common is that they’re all low-traction situations. Learning to cope with low-traction riding can greatly improve your street-riding skills. When you lose traction on the street, your greatest danger comes when you suddenly regain traction, because this violently pitches your motorcycle in the opposite direction. You need to learn to ride a slide out using smooth throttle control rather than abruptly releasing the throttle when you slide, which will cause you to regain traction too quickly.

Learning to ride under the lowtraction conditions encountered off-road is the most important skill you can transfer to street riding. Learning how a motorcycle reacts in low-traction conditions and to control a motorcycle in such conditions can be invaluable information on the street. But remember one important difference : On pavement, when your bike regains traction after losing traction, it does so much more violently and quickly than it does when riding off-road.

Because the dirt is more forgiving (you won’t regain traction so abruptly when you release the throttle), you can practice sliding off-road without as much danger of high-siding (crashing) the bike. Sliding on the pavement will always require a more delicate use of the throttle, and your off-road skills won’t translate directly to the street, but at least you’ll know how to slide and control the bike in a slide. This knowledge can save your life in an emergency. While the three categories of off-road surfaces all have low traction in common, each will require a slightly different riding technique.

Sliding Through Sand

When riding in sand, the front end of your bike will feel as if it is moving through a thick fluid. You’ll never quite feel like your front end is planted, yet the snaky movements it makes won’t be as abrupt as in rocks, water, or mud. The key to riding in sand is to remain relaxed. Keep your feet on the pegs and your head up, your eyes focused ahead. Your bike will move around (undulate might be a better description), but this is normal.

Throughout this book, I’ve always told you to slow down when encountering a potentially dangerous situation, but that advice doesn’t apply to riding in sand. Here, you’ll want to speed up, going fast enough for your tires to rise to the top of the sand. When riding on sand, you want to recreate the condition of hydroplaning on water. There, you wanted to avoid hydroplaning. Here, it’s a good thing. If you slow down in the sand, your bike will plow in, which could cause your front wheel to jackknife or veer to one side.

When turning in sand, you have to be especially careful to keep your front end from jackknifing. You need to get as much weight as possible off the front tire. Shift your weight to the rear of the bike, and apply the throttle to unload some weight from the front end. When you master the technique, you’ll find you use your throttle to slide the rear end around to turn in sand more than you actually steer the bike. You can consider this an extreme form of countersteering.

A general tip to keep in mind when riding in sand is that you should accelerate sooner and brake later than you would when riding on surfaces that provide better traction. The drag created by pushing your wheels through sand means it takes your bike longer to accelerate and less time to slow down than when you’re riding on higher-traction surfaces.

If you encounter a low-water bridge on a paved road (a place where the road descends into a creek or river), follow the procedures outlined here, and be extra cautious. If the water is moving quickly, it may actually pull your wheels downstream. You must remain calm when this happens. Keep your weight centered, so neither the front nor the rear wheel washes out from under you, and proceed at a slow but steady pace, keeping your eyes focused on the road ahead, where it rises out of the water.

Wheeling in Water

Riding in water and mud will provide you with skills that translate directly to street riding, since you may encounter such conditions on-road as well as off-road Surfaces under water are especially slick. This applies to riding over low-water crossings on public roads as well as riding through streams and swamps. If there is
debris present, like fallen leaves or pine needles, the surfaces become even more slippery. Again, this is true of the water on a road as well as the water encountered while riding off-road. When riding through water, ride slowly, and be prepared for whatever your front tire may encounter, since you won’t be able to visually scan submerged surfaces. I’ve stressed the importance of using smooth throttle and brake control in all situations, but no other situation requires you to accelerate and brake more smoothly than riding
in water. When riding through water, you should :

- Beware of surface irregularities, like rocks and holes, that are hidden by the water.

- Learn to read different water surfaces. You can get some idea about how deep the water is by the way it moves. If you see shallow ripples, the water is probably being disturbed by the surface underneath, meaning that it is not too deep. If the water is slow-moving and calm, it is probably deeper.

- Maintain your momentum, and focus on the opposite bank or where the road emerges from the water at a low-water crossing.

- Keep speeds relatively low. In addition to minimizing the damage if you fall down, this keeps water from splashing up onto your engine. After riding through water, your brakes may be wet and ineffective. Dry them by applying light braking pressure while riding until they return to normal power.

If you have submerged your bike’s engine, you’ll want to change your oil as soon as possible. Water and mud go together, since where there’s water, there’s mud, and where there’s mud, there’s water, but riding in mud requires you to modify your technique a bit. The biggest difference is that when riding in mud, you’ll usually encounter ruts. When you do, stay relaxed and let your tires follow the ruts. Don’t fight the front wheel or try to turn out of a rut. It is a fight the rut will win. Again, I know this from first-hand experience. Look ahead to where you want to go rather than down at the rut.

If you’re riding through heavy mud and your bike begins to bog down, don’t open the throttle abruptly. Doing so will only cause your tire to dig down deeper, getting you even more stuck in the mud. You wouldn’t believe how heavy a 300-pound motorcycle can feel when it is stuck in the mud. Your best bet is to apply gas gradually, trying to keep your forward momentum.

Riding in Rocks

Riding in rocks differs from riding in mud or sand in many ways. The most important difference is that sand and mud are by nature very soft, while rocks tend to be very hard.

Like water, you’ll encounter surfaces composed of many small rocks on a streetbike. Often, you’ll find such surfaces on a long driveway or at a construction sight. I won’t kid you: Encountering such surfaces on a huge streetbike stinks.

The technique for riding on a surface composed of small rocks is similar to riding on sand : Maintain a steady speed, using smooth throttle and brake control. It differs in that you don’t need to go as fast. Your tires won’t plow in quite as deeply as in sand. You must still maintain a steady pace, but it just doesn’t have to be as quick a pace. Another difference between small rocks and sand is that the movements of your front end caused by the rocks will be jerkier and less fluid than the undulation caused by the sand. Again, your best way of dealing with this is to remain relaxed and ride at a moderate, steady pace. If you tense up and grip the handlebars too tightly, the frontend movements caused by the rocks will increase in intensity.