Riding off-road is an incredible amount of fun. No cops, no speed limits and, if you fall down, there’s no pavement to hit. But, it’s also completely different than riding on the street. Whether you’re a total n00b or consider yourself an expert, these 11 tips for riding off-road will help make you faster and safer.
1. Adjust Your Clutch Lever For Two-Finger Operation
One of the things we worked on at the Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Riding School was throttle control and how important clutch operation is to its mastery. Part of that is adjusting the lever so you operate it both while standing (where your arm is angled more steeply) and using only your middle and index fingers. That allows you to operate the clutch without altering your grip on the bars, which makes your responses faster and smoother. It also facilitates a finer level of control than simply employing it as a blunt on/off switch. All that’s especially important at low speeds and while tackling challenging obstacles.
2. In Sand/Silt/Deep Stuff, Speed Up And Lean Back
On the road, you learn to slow down for safety. On big, heavy bikes, around bigger, heavier cars, that’s just the best approach. Off-road, on a light bike? You’re actually far more stable when you apply some speed. The gyroscopic force of the wheels will keep you upright, momentum will carry you over or through tough terrain like deep sand. Moving your weight backwards has the combined effect of a) adding traction to the rear wheel, where the power is being applied and b) taking weight off the front, allowing it to deflect and ride over the stuff that it’s hitting.
3. If You Think You Might Need Something, Take It With You
By virtue of going off-road, you’re leaving stuff like the nice AAA man and cell phone service behind. You’re also gaining new hazards like rocks and trees that, if you hit them, can damage your motorcycle. So, you need to be prepared with the tools, parts and knowledge to perform common repairs like fixing a flat tire. You’ll always use more gas than you planned on, too, so packing a little extra is never a bad idea. All that seems obvious, but it’s remarkable how many times you encounter someone stopped on the trail without a tube or in need of a gallon of gas.
4. To Turn, Push The Bike Down
This will be counterintuitive if you’re coming from street riding. Off-road, lean angle is your friend; to turn you want to push the bike down as far as possible, while keeping your body upright, on top of it. This makes full use of the knobs on dirt tires and allows you to easily control the slides that make off-road riding so much fun.
5. Stay Off The Front Brake In Turns
Riding where there’s little traction (off-road) is totally different from riding where there is a ton of grip (the street). Don’t try to trail brake, it’ll simply wash out the front. A dirt bike’s front brake can be used hard in a straight line, so slow down before the corner, push it down, then power out. Or, use the terrain to your advantage, employing berms or similar to catch your speed and redirect you.
6. Look Where You Want To Go, Not Where You Don’t
This applies to street riding too. Consciously turn your head and focus on where you want the bike to be, not on the cow/cliff/boulder you don’t want to hit. Your body will follow your head and the bike will follow that. Practice this to the point where it doesn’t take deliberate effort.
7. Stand Up
If you started riding off-road, this may seem overly simple, but most street riders are surprised to learn that standing up actually lowers their center of gravity; the body’s weight is directed through the pegs instead of the seat. Pinch the tank with your lower legs and knees and keep your legs bent; they make great shock absorbers.
8. Weight The Inside Peg
Want to take a right turn? Push down on the inside (right) peg, while shifting your weight to the outside to aid traction and to keep your weight evenly distributed over the center mass of the bike. You actually steer a dirt bike this way, not by using the bars. Works equally well in lefthand corners, where you weight the left peg.
9. In Corners, Sit As Far Forward As Possible
Completely the opposite from tackling jumps, obstacles or deep sand, in corners you’re going to want to get as much of your bodyweight as possible over the front wheel. More weight equals more traction equals more corner speed. Shifting your weight off the rear also makes it easier to initiate a slide.
10. Lead The Person Behind You
When riding in a group, it’s your responsibility both to warn the person behind you of obstacles and to make sure they don’t get lost or separated from the group. If everyone follows this rule, then everyone gets warned about that water buffalo, or thousand-foot drop in plenty of time and no one’s going to arrive at a junction with no clue which way to turn. Even if you’re the second-to-last guy and you have to slow down to let the slowpoke (Wes) catch up, this rule should mean the guy in front of you also slows and the guy in front of him too; it keeps the whole group together.
11. Signal Your Group Number
Come up on someone riding the opposite way on a trail? It’s incredibly important to let them know how many bikes are coming up behind you, so they know when it’s safe to get back on the throttle. Hold your left hand up and raise the number of fingers of the number of guys behind you. The final rider in your group should hold up a closed fist to signal “all clear.” This way, there’s no head-on collisions at speed.
And When You Put It All Together
This is not a complete list, but its a good place to start. Share your own tips, or stories about the usefulness of ours, in the comments section below.
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