Is off road motorcycle riding hard to master?
Gripping the handlebars with all my might, I rolled unsteadily forward in soft gravel. The rear wheel of my borrowed Honda Africa Twin 750 fishtailed all over, the front felt bumpy and unstable, and I was stressed beyond my limits.
This was my first time off the road on a big bike, and I just couldn’t keep up with my team mates. They seemed to fly effortlessly over bumps, stones, and gravel, paying no attention to their misbehaving – so I thought – bikes and enjoying the day. Me, I was terrified. All this off road motorcycle riding business just seemed utterly impossible. Whenever I dared to ride faster, the bike moved under me, and trying to steady it I’d get the handlebars into a vice grip and tense up. It was exhausting and miserable; I didn’t fall off, but had way to many close calls for my liking. “Speed up over obstacles”, – one of my team mates advised. “Go faster, it’ll be easier”, – another said. Speed up? Go faster? I could barely stay upright at 30 miles an hour!
Talent for Off Road Motorcycle Riding
I just have no talent, I concluded, once the ride was over. I’m not a natural at this; hell, I’m probably extra-lacking in coordination or sheer physical capability for off road riding. I could manage a small 150cc on sand, but a big bike?
I didn’t give up that easily: taking my rusty, leaky old Yamaha XJ900 out on to small tracks and back roads in the woods, I’d secretly try to practice my off road skills. Little did I know that this was probably one of the worst bikes imaginable to try and learn off road motorcycle riding on my own. The XJ was meant for city streets and highways, not graded dirt tracks. I didn’t fare well: the bike still moved under me, even more than the borrowed Africa Twin, and I couldn’t control it on turns on gravel. After a couple of spectacular dismounts, a torn riding jacket and a broken throttle cable, I finally packed it in. Clearly, this just wasn’t for me.
Two years and another bike – a Suzuki DR650 – later, I decided to give it another go.
This time around, I was on a proper dual sport bike, had a wonderfully understanding and patient partner, and best of all, some training. A weekend session of off road basics has transformed my riding completely. Fast forward another year, and I’m now tackling steep rocky mountain passes, water crossings, sandy tracks and single trails with joy and confidence.
So what has changed? I didn’t suddenly and miraculously develop a natural talent, my upper body strength isn’t much greater, and I didn’t just wing it. Off road motorcycle riding is a lot easier to learn when you understand a few basics. Needless to say, if you’re thinking of learning to ride off road, please, please find a good, qualified, professional coach to help you along. We highly recommend Pat Jacques, aka the ADV Woman, who is based in Colorado but travels all over the country, and Dusty Wessels of West38Moto who is responsible for my transformation from a clumsy, terrified beginner into a more skilled and confident rider. But if your geography or your budget doesn’t allow professional lessons right now and you’re dying to give it a go, here is what worked for me:
Understanding How It Works
When you’re riding your motorcycle on tarmac, your tires have a great grip with the road surface, allowing you to roll smoothly. On dirt however, this grip isn’t as strong because the surface is somewhat loose – it will be better on graded dirt and much worse on soft sand. This is why your bike moves under you when you’re riding off road. But guess what: it’s OK! Your tire grip isn’t as strong as on tarmac, but what you have on your side riding off road is momentum and balance.
Momentum is the force that keeps your motorcycle upright. As long as you’re moving, you won’t fall off! This doesn’t mean that you should “grip it an rip it”, not at all. But you do need to keep moving, instead of slowing down to almost a stopping point and trying to keep your bike upright by sheer force. It’s impossible: even if you’re a body building champion of the world, you just can’t fight gravity.
Balance is something that will help you the most when you’re getting into off road motorcycle riding. As long as you have the balance, the rest will be easy!
Standing Up On the Pegs
So how do you achieve the correct momentum and balance, riding off road? Again, your best bet is to attend a training session with a professional coach. But if you’re on your own, here’s what you can try:
- Stand up on the pegs. Standing moves your main contact point with the bike from your butt to your feet. This allows the bike to move freely under you and your feet allow much more refined input into steering. Standing up allows the motorcycle to move independently of you and allows you to use your body mass to leverage the motorcycle and for control. Just like riding a horse, standing allows tiny changes in weight and pressure to affect changes and control the motorcycle.
- When you’re sitting down, you have your steering, brakes, and gears for control. Standing up, you have more tools: your weight, your body position, your balance and one more way to steer – your knees. Keeping your knees together at the tank, or the narrowest part of the seat where it meets the tank allows you to push the motorcycle right or left using just your body weight and balance, without turning the handlebars.
- Make sure you’re relaxed. Tension and stress are your worst enemies when riding motorcycles off road. As soon as you tense up, mistakes are bound to happen. As mentioned before, your bike will move under you – and instead of fighting it, you need to let it move, get used to it, and just go with it. Stand up on the pegs and ride holding the handlebars as if you were holding two baby birds in your hands.Feel the bike’s movement, accept it, and only correct the momentum and the direction as needed. Your rear wheel might move a little more, especially if you’re on fine gravel or sand. It’s OK! Don’t panic. Whenever you feel you’re tensing up or stressing, take a very deep breath. As you exhale, you’re probably already over the scary obstacle!
- Look up! You’ll go where you look, so stop staring at your front tire or that scary ditch you don’t want to end up in. Looking up straight ahead helps you plan your line, balance better, and point your motorcycle to where you want to go.
Getting To Know Your Motorcycle
How well do you know your bike? I don’t mean the mechanics, although it’s always great to have the skills to work on your motorcycle. For now, though, just try and get to know your bike a little better:
- What is your bike’s moving point? That is, where is that magic spot in the clutch between stalling and moving forward? Just sit on your bike and play with the clutch. Feel it, feel how your bike responds. Clutch control is a great tool riding off road!
- Where is your stopping point? What’s your stopping distance? How sensitive are your brakes? Ride slowly in first gear and test your brakes out. Now, do the same on a level graded dirt road (just make sure it’s empty and safe!). Try to reach 4-5 miles per hour, then hit your rear brakes. Do the same with your front brakes. Then, use both brakes. Do you now trust your bike and yourself a little more?
- How good is your balance? Ride in first gear, standing up on the pegs. Stand up straight, in a relaxed, comfortable position. How do you feel? If you can’t stand up comfortably, consider adjusting your foot pegs, handlebars, and/or seat. We’re all different, and you may need to set up your bike so it suits you better. Once you find a comfortable position, try lifting your foot off one peg, even if by half an inch. Now lift the other foot off. How do you feel? If you can balance well, next task is to try shifting gears while standing up.
Try these basic few things and see how you feel now. Is off road motorcycle riding a little less scary?
No matter what you do, always be gentle with yourself and don’t beat yourself up if something still isn’t working! Everyone is different, and we all learn at a different pace. This is completely normal, so ride, experiment and train as much as you need for as long as you need. Off road motorcycle riding is all about joy, fun, and discovery!
*Please note that while I am a passionate adventure rider, I’m NOT an off-road riding coach: I’m simply sharing a few tips that helped me. Please always consult with a professional off road riding coach!
Words: EGLE GERULAITYTE
Images: RTW PAUL