Bike Safety and Safe Riding on Dirt
We are fortunate to have experts offer advice on various aspects of riding and driving across all surfaces. With the kind permission of Hein Jonker from the Motorcycle Safety Institute, we would like to share Safety tips on Dirt Bike Safety Tips for Street Riders.
If you already know how to ride a motorcycle but want to head off-road on a dirt bike or dual-purpose machine, here are ten tips to keep in mind when you’re moving from asphalt to dirt.
But hitting the dirt can also involve dropping tyre pressure, in order to help the rubber, become more flexible with the terrain. It’s also a good idea to ditch saddlebags or accessories that could weigh you down or shake loose due to vibrations.
Finally, you should also consider tucking or removing turn signals, windscreens, and mirrors, as they will easily get damaged if and when you take a spill.
Dirt may be soft, but off-road accidents can still cause serious injuries; after all, the human body is a fragile thing.
As with road riding, choosing the proper safety gear from helmet to boots is a key part of protecting yourself.
Off-roading gear differs quite a bit from road gear, as boots are taller and have more reinforcement in areas like the shins. Protective padding for knees, shoulders, chest (aka, roost deflector), and elbows (not seen here) tend to be covered by jerseys and light pants. Gloves are usually lighter and more flexible, in order to cope with the wide range of movement associated with off-road riding, and dirt or motocross helmets incorporate a sunshade and an open area for goggles. Believe me, one ride on a dusty trail will make you appreciate goggles that keep the dirt out of your eyes.
It’s important to avoid stiffening up when you ride on the road, but the art of loosening up takes on an entirely different dimension when you’re off-road. Due to unpredictable changes in terrain surfaces, increased suspension travel and lack of traction, your body will either cope with a dirt bike’s jostling, heaving and shifting… or simply put, it will make it much more likely that you will go down.
Be sure to check yourself before heading out on a dirt ride; shake out your body and make sure you’re as limber as possible and ready to roll with the punches. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to lose the flow and that vital connection with your bike.
A bike’s centre of gravity usually resides around its engine, and when a rider sits on the saddle that centre gets raised.
Everyone knows that a higher centre of gravity makes a bike top heavy and harder to manoeuvre. And though it sounds counterintuitive, standing on the footpegs actually drops the centre of gravity dramatically, since all your weight is now resting on the pegs. It’s no wonder that roughly three-quarters of off-roading involves standing on the pegs; moving a bike around tight spaces becomes a lot easier when you’re off the seat.
A few tips for standing up on a bike:
Stand on the balls of your feet, not the heels; the shifter and brake pedal are a bit out of reach that way, but it’s much easier to get a feel for the bike’s physics.
Lightly hug the tank with your thighs; it will give you a better sense of lean angle, and help you keep the bike in control.
Use your knees as shock absorbers; that will ensure you don’t get thrown off the bike.
Ride with your elbows out; that will provide flexibility when the road gets bumpy.
Fear No Obstacles
Street riders have a natural impulse to avoid obstacles, and for good reason: most street bikes don’t have enough suspension travel to absorb serious shocks. On the other hand, dirt bikes are equipped to climb over logs, through mud, and across all manner of ridges, ripples and ruts.
It takes a while to get over the idea that you CAN cross that obstacle, but once you do, the feeling is liberating. Just be sure to cross the object in your path at a 90-degree angle; that way, your tyre won’t get caught. Also, dirt bikes are able to lift their front wheel much easier than street bikes, which is easily accomplished by rolling on the throttle and tugging up at the handlebars. And on that note, remember to use momentum to your advantage– hesitate, and you can easily get bogged down and miss your opportunity.
Think Backwards: Braking
One thing you’ll have to re-learn in the dirt is the act of braking on a motorcycle. Stopping on a paved surface primarily involves using the front brake; about 70% of lever effort tends to go towards the front since weight transfers there when a bike starts to slow down.
However, the dirt presents an entirely different traction paradigm: since it’s easy to “wash out” or “tuck” the front wheel due to tyre slippage, you’ve got to think backwards and apply most of your effort towards the rear brake. Sliding the rear, as seen above, is a perfectly natural way to scrub off speed when you’re off-road.
Practice repeated slides to get a sense of what it feels like, so you’re not caught unawares when you find yourself in a situation that demands panic braking… and stay off those fronts unless you know it won’t wash out.
Think Backwards: Turning
Road riders are trained to lean into the turn, and race fans know that hanging off the bike on the inside of a turn lowers the motorcycle’s centre of gravity. But things are done the opposite way in the dirt.
For starters, counter-steering can get you in a heap of trouble since it allows more room for tyre slippage, and ultimately the possibility of wiping out. Instead of leaning into a turn, rest your weight on the outside peg, as seen here, and shift your body away from the inside of the turn so it puts maximum downforce on the tyres. It takes some getting used to, but once you experience how much more secure the bike feels with this method of turning, it will come naturally.
Bonus Turning Tip: Throw a Leg Out
Once you’ve wrapped your head around turning in the dirt, another component to the process will add a layer of security: throwing a leg out.
First, let’s clarify that this isn’t a recommended tactic for heavier bikes– in fact, most adventure tourers and dual-purpose motorcycles are weighty enough to snap bones if they come down on your leg. Many dirt bikes, however, are light enough not to pose a danger to an outstretched boot; stick it out, and you’ll have a little bit of insurance, being able to keep the bike up if it falls over.
Enjoy the Slip and Slide
When we ride on the road, we program ourselves to make sure we’ve got an ultimate grip with asphalt, and the sensation of tyre slip can be extremely disconcerting when it sneaks upon us. On the dirt, however, sliding is a way of life. The bike’s path is a fluid line that shifts and alters depending on many variables, and experienced dirt riders can trigger serious drifts and yaw angles without thinking twice.
De-programming yourself away from the fear of sliding can be a challenging process, but the only way to become accustomed to the sensation of slipping in the dirt is by doing it and making peace with the fact that traction loss is part of the fun. Master this one, and you’ll tackle one of the biggest challenges in off-road riding.
Oh, And One More thing: You will Fall!!
Thanks to an abundance of concrete, curbs, cars and all manner of hard-surfaced menaces, crashing on public roads can be a nasty event. Dirt, on the other hand, doesn’t hurt nearly as much. Though wearing safety gear is just as important off-road as it is on-road, the risks associated with crashing are far fewer in the dirt. Put simply, just like traction loss and riding over obstacles, falling off is an accepted part of dirt bike riding, and it’s one of those inevitabilities you simply have to anticipate.
So, gear up, get out to a motocross park or trail, and have fun; you’ll find that it’s not only a blast to ride off-road, the techniques you develop there will also improve your street skills.
A word of appreciation to Hein Jonker from the Motorcycle Safety Institute.