The Dirty Dozen: The basics of off road riding

In Motorcycle Riding Techniques by Julian2 Comments

If you are anything like us, you learned how to ride a bike quite a while ago.  Perched on a little dirt bike in a field, your dad sat on the back and showed you how to let out the clutch while feeding in the throttle before progressing into how to change gear. And with that knowledge imparted, our motorcycling career was set and for most of us, we’ve taken no other instruction since those halcyon days with Dad.


But maybe it’s possible to tweak those skills to make us into better riders, so that we when we venture off-road we ride like the enduro god we secretly know we are. Refocusing on the basics and just maybe we won’t end up knackered, falling off and beat-up within the first hour …

KTM 6 Day

So here’s our twelve tips that set out the baseline and will, if used together, improve your riding every time you throw your leg over your scoot. For newbies, it will give you an idea of what you should be doing, for seasoned veterans, it might just remind you!

1. Customise your Cockpit

So when your bike left the factory, it was set up specifically for you, right? No, of course it wasn’t – the manufacturers make machines that come as close as they can to catering for all riders from Blackpool to Brisbane and everything else in-between. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

So rather than just expect those stock bars, stock grips and stock levers to be the best possible bend, it’s worth experimenting to see if that’s actually correct.

Bar set up

Just in terms of the bars alone, companies like Renthal make a myriad of different models with variations in sweep, rise, height, width, clamp area and control length.  Then there’s FatBars, Twinwalls, 7/8” bars and different bar mounts to consider.

All these dimensions will make a difference, so it’s pretty likely that there’s a bar and set up that will suit you and your bike better than stock.

Renthal bar dimensions

Moving on from that, there are different levers to consider – unbreakable versions, adjustable spans, stepped designs – do your research and they are al there.

The final parts of the puzzle are the grips – as the major point of contact with the bike, having comfortable grips that suit your riding style will make a difference.

It’s a false assumption to think that OEM versions are the only ones that will work for your bike!

Husqvarna bars

2. Adjust your suspension

OK so we’ve done a whole blog on this, which you can read right here. But to summarise, your bike is set for an average rider of average weight and ability – you are not that guy, so it follows that your suspension is not set for you.

At the very least you should look to set up the sag on the rear spring to fit your weight when fully kitted up, and if you can’t make the figures work, chances are you are outside the target weight for the standard spring. Don’t think it’ll be OK and leave it – get the correct spring fitted and you bike will handle better.

Rear spring

The same goes for the front – check the sag and change the springs if they are not right – are we clear?

As for the damping, both compression and rebound, again it’s not a question of leave alone. Find your manual and look at the suggested options for your style of riding, then set your clickers. If your bike still has issues, have a look at our quick guide in the blog to see how to fine tune the system.

Setting up your suspension is the single most effective performance upgrade you can make.

Drifting Africa Twin

3. Be prepared to change

Having pimped your cockpit and set up the suspension, this does not mean that this can be left alone for every single ride you go on.  Depending on the terrain and the mix of off-road to blacktop, you may need to tweak those controls to get the best from them and maintain the best control.

If you are going to be on the tarmac for miles, then a relatively flat lever set up will be the most comfortable set up, but if there’s going to be 75% off-road, then angling the levers down will make far more sense when you are stood up.

Muddy Tenere

You might even consider doing the same with your bars, rolling them back in the clamps for seated riding and rolling them forward for the off-road stuff to take you weight forward and your head over the headstock. Generally, having the bars in the same line as the forks works best for off-road

Keep a T Bar easily accessible in your day bag and make those adjustments – trust us it works!

4. Stand up and be counted

Stand up

A bit like setting the springers, spending more time standing rather than on the seat will be the single most effective way to improve your riding once the going gets tough.  Take a look at the top riders in any off-road discipline from Toby Price in the Dakar to Graham Jarvis in Extreme enduro, and it’s clear than you can do quite astounding things on motorcycle once you get stood up!

 It’s all about the physics – standing transfers the centre of gravity from the saddle down to a point directly between the wheels, and this is what you want for maximum control and manoeuvrability.


Morocco KTM

But even if that wasn’t the case, getting on the pegs isolates you from the bangs and jolts the bike is receiving as you travel across the terrain. The suspension is free to soak up the punishment, and you own body absorbs the hits through moving your knees, hips, shoulders and elbows – infinitely preferable to feeling every single bump travelling up through your spine.

Off road riding often involves long hours on the bike, and although it might sound more tiring to stand, it’s actually easier when you isolate yourself from the bike’s movements.

Try it – you might just like it!

5. Knees for grip, not hands

So hopefully now we’ve convinced you to get out of the saddle, you are going to need to hang on to the bars until your knuckles turn white? No, no diddly no.

When you are on the pegs you should aim to grip the bikes with your legs, pushing in towards the centre of the bike to keep the bike in check and using the big thigh and calf muscles rather than the little ones in your fingers.

Dakar Husqvarna

Your hands should be relatively relaxed, and ideally gripping with the outer two fingers and thumb most of the time which will enable you to use two fingers to slip the clutch if needed and work the front brake. If you always ride gripping with your entire hand, the transition to the levers will make you feel out of control and panicky.

Practice loosening up your hands on the smoother stuff so that it becomes more natural on the technical stuff.

Stand on the pegs

Loosening up your hands will also reduce the possibility of getting arm pump while you ride, so that’s another reason to give it a try. It’s a win-win situation.


so you can just have fun!

We run the best motorcycle adventures across Asia – from traversing the winding mountain roads on a Royal Enfield in the Himalayas to bashing through the jungle on a dirt bike in  Vietnam. It’s what we do, and we do it very well.

6. Stand on your balls

Now this sounds like a bad plan but we are talking feet here. If you are riding long distances or just short trails, moving your foot so that the ball of your foot is the contact with the footpegs rather than your instep is a good plan. Just by making this small movement allows your ankle to become another shock absorber, joining the knees and hips to smooth out the terrain.


Another advantage is that it will allow you to experiment with steering the bike with your feet. Push down on the right hand peg and see what happens – who knew? Foot steering is used in all disciplines from motocross to road racing, so it’s sensible that off-road riders give it a go.

Believe us, it’s life-changing stuff.

7. Bend it like Beckham

With all the focus on the lower body, we don’t want you to overlook your torso and the importance of maintaining the right posture.

Ideally you want to be riding with your arms slightly bent, never locked out and straight as this is is a short-cut to a broken collarbone every time.  A bent arm will allow you to move with the bike rather than fight against it.

KTM Freeride

In terms of your posture, you should be bent slightly forward on the rough stuff to position your head over the clamps of your bars. Once things smooth out you might want to straighten up a bit to avoid becoming the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

8. Look where you are going

Jonny Walker

This might sound obvious, but for newbies and experienced riders alike, the temptation to look in the wrong place is ever present. New riders will tend to over concentrate on the track directly in front of them, worrying about every slight variation in terrain, rather than raising their heads and taking in the broader picture of the 100 yards of trail ahead of them.  They will also lock onto obstacles in an effort to avoid them, but the opposite tends to be true.

This is all about target fixation. You need to look where you want to go, rather than where you don’t.

Getting fixated on the six foot drop alongside you will tend to mean you fall down it, whereas looking past the drop to the trail ahead and where you want to be will be far more successful.

KTM 1290

And it’s the same with riding in ruts or sand, focussing six foot in front of you is unlikely to be anything like as successful as looking well ahead. If you overthink the possibility of getting it wrong and hitting the deck, don’t be surprised if that’s exactly what happens. Head up and twist that throttle!

9. Brake, corner then accelerate

You motorcycle has pretty fine brakes at both the back and the front, but they are at their most effective when you are travelling in a straight line and your wheels have maximum grip on the ground. Yes, they will still work it you use them in the turns but basic physics dictate that the possibility of the font tucking under or braking away is vastly higher, as is the chance that the rear will lock up and slide out.

Drifting the bends

And don’t forget that using the brakes changes the geometry of your bike, so if you are in the turns with the brakes on, your steering angle is steeper and hence that tuck under is even more likely. The rear brake makes the back squat, which again alters the steering angle – it’s all complicated stuff that can be avoided if you do the majority of your braking before the turny bits.

While we are on the subject of brakes, if you newbie who normally rides on the road then the mantra of 80% front and 20% back will have been drummed into you. But once you head for the dirt, this is a ratio that is rarely going to be correct. While there is not the space to cover every possible scenario and to which brake to use, you are going to need to develop a whole set of braking techniques to keep yourself and the bike upright. Go 80% front on a GS going down a steep forest trail and it won’t take you long to know it was a bad choice.

10. Keep it smooth

If you watch the best riders in the world, they tend to ride in a smooth consistent and flowing style. There’s no violent stopping and starting if they can avoid it, they just keep their momentum wherever they can and work hard to make sure they focus on making forward progress with the least drama and effort possible.

Graham Jarvis

So if you are the kind of guy that uses his throttle like a two-position toggle switch, spending your time either thrashing the valves or slamming on the brakes to avoid impending disaster, this is not a sustainable riding style for off-road riding. It might be fun for a while, but approaching a day’s off-road riding like it’s a 15 minute moto will have you knackered and with arms like Popeye within a short period of times.

Stefan Everts

If you have any doubt that smooth can be effective, study some videos of Stefan Everts.

Everts is the only man to win ten world motocross championships, so he’s a pretty good example to follow. His stood up smooth style has never been matched and neither has his championship record. Enough said?

11. Ride within your ability

If there are two things that bring about a large proportion of off-road disasters, they are male pride and peer pressure. It seems that a lot of the time the male brain is hard-wired towards bravado rather than wisdom, and this can end up very badly. It’s why complete off-road novices will but themselves a WRF450 and then end up breaking bones very quickly, rather than learning the ropes on a 250 and then upgrading if and when required.

Epic fail

So lets be clear :-

a) If you are starting out, you don’t necessarily need a very big and powerful bike.

b) If you join a club and the guys you are riding with have been on the trails for years, chances they will be better riders than you and you will not necessarily be able to do everything they can.

c) If you ignore a and b, you are likely to hurt yourself.

d) Hurting yourself will not impress the other riders.

e) The more you ride, the better you will get and the less you will hurt yourself.

12. Think positive

Just as the suspension is one of the most important parts of the bike, your brain is arguably the most important part of the rider.  You can be as fit as you want and perched aboard the best possible off-road machine, but if your brain isn’t convinced then it all falls apart.

Positive Mental attitude is important in all aspects of life and will help you to be a ‘glass half full’ rather than a ‘glass half empty’ kind of person.  And that’s certainly true when it comes to tackling the more difficult aspects of off-road riding. If you come up to a set of rock steps and are consumed by a sense of dread at your impending failure, then that’s more likely to happen.

Watch and learn

As a new rider – watch a few of the more experienced guys to try to identify a line that works and then, without overthinking,  give it a go. This might sound like it contradicts point 11, but we all have to learn. Clearly don’t attempt anything that you are genuinely concerned about – there’s usually somebody who will get your bike through the tricky stuff.

 Off-road riding is not rocket science,  it’s only a question of learning, and we tend to learn a lot when things don’t go plan!  Start with the idea that you can, and if it appears that was over ambitious, then go to plan B.

Be positive

So that’s our guide to the basic off-road skills. Each is only a small step, but put together they will improve your bike skills regardless of whether you are an old hand or a complete novice.

What are you waiting for – get out on that bike!

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Acknowledgements: KTM Images, Husqvarna Images, Future7 more...


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