Dirt-Riding Tips for Street Motorcyclists

What do you do when the pavement ends?

motorcycle riding tips, dirt riding, gravel riding, motorcycle dirt riding
Don’t try this at home: Former flat-track and Grand Prix racer Anthony West demonstrates riding a streetbike on dirt, turned up to 10. Nicknamed “The Rain Man” because of his skill in the wet, West is a master of managing traction on loose and slippery terrain.Yamaha

According to a recent study by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, rolling your streetbike off the pavement and onto dirt or gravel roads increases the risk of a mishap by a factor of nine. As much as you may try to avoid anything but clean pavement, you are eventually going to have to deal with a gravel driveway, a dirt highway shoulder, or other loose surface. That's why it's smart to know some basic off-road riding techniques. These simple tips can make the inevitable encounter with dirt or gravel safer and maybe even enjoyable.

1. Slow Down
You're no dummy, so you know that it's smart to reduce speed when traction is reduced, as it is when you roll off road. There's a surprising amount of grip on hard-packed dirt roads, but even so you need to be gentle with your inputs. Keep in mind it's much easier for wet, sandy, or otherwise slippery patches to hide on dirt or gravel. Slowing down reduces the risk of sliding and allows more time to respond calmly without the need for last-second maneuvers that can put you on your head.

2. Brake Right
Applying the brakes off road requires a different technique than street riding and is best performed while completely upright. Instead of using predominantly front brake like you would on clean, dry pavement, you use a light amount of front brake in favor of more rear brake. Most front brake setups are quite powerful, making them hard to control on loose surfaces. The rear brake is typically less sensitive, and skidding the rear tire is a lot less risky than losing traction with the front.

3. Clutch It
Off-road riding usually involves a fair amount of slow-speed maneuvering, and trying to control your speed with the throttle alone will make your life more difficult. Instead, keep the throttle steady and slip the clutch to control your speed. You can also drag the rear brake to help fine-tune your velocity, though combining that with slipping the clutch takes a deft touch. Keep in mind you can review the Street Savvy article here for more tips on low-speed riding.

4. Eyes Up
Part of the challenge of riding on loose surfaces is that it's so inconsistent, so you've got to pick your line early to ensure you're on the firmest ground possible. Scan the road ahead and look for the safest route. Not only does keeping your eyes up help you select an appropriate line, but it also helps maintain balance. If you find yourself looking down at the surface just in front of the tire, you're likely carrying a little too much speed.

5. Stay Loose
This is easier said than done—especially if riding off road makes you nervous—but nothing good comes from excessive muscle tension. It inhibits balance and fluid maneuvering. Try to sit with your body slightly forward to allow your arms and torso to stay loose. Lightly clamp your legs against the tank to stabilize your body and allow your arms and upper torso to move freely. Depending on the surface, the bike may move around underneath you more than usual. Staying calm and getting used to the feeling will go a long way in building confidence and improving feel.

6. Counterweight
Leaning to the inside when cornering on clean pavement is a staple of good street-riding technique, but shifting your body to the inside in low-traction conditions increases lateral force that tries to wash the tires out from under you. Instead, position your butt on the outside edge of the seat while pressing down on the outside footpeg for better grip. This counterweighting body position is used when turning at slow speeds on pavement but is even more important when turning on loose surfaces.

7. Stand Up, Sit Down
If your motorcycle allows, get your keister off the saddle over very rough terrain so your legs can act as a second set of shock absorbers. Standing also allows you and your bike to move independently for more responsive maneuvering. In most situations it's sufficient to simply load the footpegs to unweight the seat. This technique usually gets trickier on cruisers or any bike that has forward-mounted footpegs. As much as it can be frustrating, slowing down on low-slung bikes will make bumps much more managable for the suspension.