Don’t Fear The Gravel Frontier

By Jerry Smith

Discovering new roads is one of the reasons we ride. But discovering a new road turns suddenly to dirt, gravel, or sand is one of the reasons a lot of streetbike riders make a hasty U-turn and go back the way they came. That's a shame because you don't need a dual-sport or an adventure-tourer to navigate unpaved roads—just the right skill set. Gary LaPlante runs MotoVentures (, an off-road riding school where the curriculum includes a course called Dirt First. LaPlante says all riders can benefit from lessons learned in the dirt. Here's his advice for street riders who panic when the pavement stops.

First of all, read the terrain. "If it goes from pavement to gravel, there's obviously less traction, so you have to change the way you're riding. The main thing is slow down. When you're going slow on a gravel road or in a dirt situation, you don't have to look much farther than 10 or 20 feet in front of you. The faster you go and the more predictable the road is, the farther ahead you need to look. You have to be really careful about leaning—you have only a few degrees that you can lean before the tires start to slip. If you're making a turn at slow speed, shift your hip toward the outside of the turn to counterbalance the bike."

Next, pick the right line. "This is the same thing you do on a streetbike when you look for wet painted lines or gas spills and avoid them. Look for traction zones, such as where the gravel has been swept off or packed down to reveal the hard-dirt road surface. There's usually one part of the road that's better than the rest."

The third step is execution, or as LaPlante says, "using whatever techniques you need to get through there. When it comes to a loose surface, if it's really soft and loose you want to keep your weight back to keep the front wheel from digging in. Standing on the pegs isn't usually necessary, but a big adventure bike—or just about any bike—handles soft surfaces better when you get the butt off the seat. Instead of having the weight on your butt, it's down lower on the footpegs. It effectively lowers the center of gravity significantly."

What about gravel or sand that's extremely deep or loose? "The best advice I can give is to go through it with the right amount of speed. Maintain a bit of speed and get your weight back so you don't have too much weight on the front tire. Otherwise it could wash out or dig in."

Stir these recommendations in with one that sounds simple but can be hard to achieve: relax. All great dirt riders look loose at the helm, and there's a reason for that. A stiff body amplifies the inevitable jostling of the bike and turns it right back into control input, exactly the opposite of what you want.

Quick Facts

During the 11-day Iron Butt Rally, entrants ride the arduous Haul Road (still primarily gravel) to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and up the tortuous mountain road to the Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Sierras (unpaved beyond the visitor's center). Some ride BMW GSs, others FJR1300s or Gold Wings, but almost all start and finish the IBR on street tires.

PHOTOS: Matt Milanowski & Ari Henning

By Jerry Smith
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