Top 10 Off Road Riding Tips – Improve your skills in the dirt
If you are new to off road riding, it can be a daunting experience even for the most experienced road rider. Riding away from the tarmac requires a whole new skill set that doesn’t come naturally, and that can be a big shock when you go out for the first time, especially if the rest of the riders in your group are dyed-in-the-wool off-roaders. So in an effort to help you adjust your riding and help you conquer the terrain, here’s our Top 10 Off Road Riding Tips.
Follow them and your dirt riding will improve – guaranteed!
#1 RELAX AND stay LOOSE
One of the most common things that new riders do when trying to ride an off road bike is to tense up. Compared to smooth and tarred roads, off road surfaces are much more varied, inevitably causing the bike to move around far more. To the committed road rider, this feels all kinds of wrong and the first response, unfortunately also one of the worst things to do, is to try and keep the bike from moving around by holding on to the bike as tightly as possible.
When riding off road, the bike is bound to move about and you need to develop the confidence to let it do that and allow the suspension to cope with the terrain, rather than trying to fight it. Try to stay loose and relaxed, especially in the upper body while using your legs to grip the bike instead of relying on your hands. You will ride better and will most likely be able to ride for longer before getting tired!
#2 TAKE A STAND
Again we are into completely unknown territory for riders coming from a road background, as there are rarely circumstances that standing on the foot pegs will be necessary. But this is one of the most important off road riding tips of all!
Standing on the pegs can require an initial leap of faith as it may feel that it gives you less control rather than more. But believe us, standing up will, in many situations, make things substantially easier. It’s all a question of physics – standing on the footpegs transfers the centre of gravity from the saddle to a point between the wheel spindles, far closer to the ground making you and the bike more stable. It will also allow the suspension to take the hits rather than your spine and as a bonus, your higher position will allow you to see further ahead.
On larger adventure bikes, standing requires a seemingly far greater commitment and it might take longer to build your confidence to do, but the principle is the same as with a small bike. And on bikes as big as the BMW R1250 GSA it’s quite incredible to experience how well they handle when stood up on the pegs off road!
#3 BENT NOT STRAIGHT
Now we’re not making any lifestyle suggestions here, it’s more about how you hold your body and limbs. Having already mentioned the need to keep loose and relaxed, this flows into your general positioning and attitude on the bike.
If you keep your arms locked out and straight, you will loose the ability to properly control and move with the bike and will end up transfering all the jolts and bumps directly into your body – not good. Bend your arms a little and allow them to act as a few more inches of suspension travel while keeping your torso relatively still as the bike moves, and by raising your elbows you’ll give yourself better leverage and control in the turns. You should also move your bum back and bend a little at the hip to take your chest closer to the bars, making it easier to turn.
For your legs, keep them bent a little while on the bike and crucially when stood up on the pegs. If you lock out your legs in a straight position, you will transfer every impact directly into your spine. But if you keep your knees slightly bent, this will allow both your hips and your knees to cushion out impacts and give you much more comfortable ride.
You can further increase this effect by transferring you weight to the balls of your feet rather than on the centre of your foot which will allow your ankle to flex in your boots too, further reducing the effects of the terrain on the rest of your body.
#4 POSITION PRECISION
If you have lived your life on a road bike, then you may not have moved around the saddle too much. OK so from time to time the sports bike owners may have slid over to the side and try to get a knee down, but with variable road surfaces that sort of thing is best kept for the race track. So that means you tend to sit on the bike in one place and stay there.
But this is not going to work off road. To get the best out of your off-road riding, you are going to move around the bike like a nomad, transferring the weight to the right place for the terrain you are riding. This can mean sliding forward on the climbs to allow the bike to buck around and find grip, while standing and getting your weight as far back as possible on the descents to keep front from tucking under.
This advice counts for the corners too. Move your weight to the top of the seat on corners to help the tyres dig in and find grip, and stick your leg out to help you corner as the weight moves to the inside of the bike. It sounds like a lot to remember, but watch the other guys – they will all be doing this as they ride, so try doing the same and feel the difference.
#5 HEADS UP
Finally we have something that transfers directly from road riding and it’s something that should be in your mind every time you sling your leg over a motorcycle. And that is simply keeping your head up and focussing way ahead.
Riding off road will require you to keep your eyes focussed well ahead of where you are to select lines and spot obstacles and hazards well in advance. Now of course you need to do this on the road where the threats tend to come from other vehicles and road users, but at least the road surface is relatively consistent and your braking more predictable. Away from the blacktop, what you are riding on will vary on will vary enormously, as will the gradient so you need to look and plan ahead, rather than getting fixated on what’s directly in front of you.
If you are stood on the pegs, lean forward so your helmet is almost directly over the bar clamps, focus at least 20m ahead if possible and constantly plan your route to find the smoothest and easiest path through the terrain.
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#6 POINT BRAKE
So when you are riding off road you are going to need to rethink your braking. For road riding, hopefully you should be relying on your front brake far more than the rear – that’s why you’ve probably got a couple big discs and twin-pot calipers at the font and a smaller disc and tiny single-pot caliper at the rear. You might have to vary things a bit in the rain, but in general the front is the one that you can’t manage without.
Away from the tarmac, your braking needs to be far more nuanced and reactive to the conditions and will rely far more on the rear brake than you may have ever before, for both braking and bike positioning. The front will still be in the mix, but with slippery surfaces beneath you, grabbing a handful of front brake can lead to a very swift disaster.
We can’t give any definitive rules on how to use you brakes as it’s so dependent on the bike, the terrain and the grip, but be prepared to start a lifetime of learning!
#7 SMOOTH MOVES
As you’re reading this blog, let’s assume that you’ve not taken up off-road riding because you are planning to be the next MXGP champion. Racing off road is entirely different to recreational trail or adventure riding which means they should be approached a little differently.
Firstly, you don’t have to be in a desperate rush to get everywhere. If you are using legal lanes and byways then there’s a very good chance that you are going to be sharing them at times with everything from dog walkers to horse riders and 4 x 4 drivers. So rather than riding everything as fast as you can, constantly slamming into corners, locking up the back wheel before pinning the throttle on the way out, try to smooth out your riding as much as you can. Look to maintain a constant and achievable pace throughout the day, rather than exhausting yourself in the first hour. Whether you are crossing deep water in Yorkshire or blasting dirt roads in South Africa – keep it smooooth!
Recreational off road riding is a marathon not a sprint, and you can always spot a former motocross rider on the trails – he’s usually the one that’s knackered by lunchtime! Keeping it smooth is easier on the bike and on yourself, and if you are planning to eventually take on longer trip like our adventure tours, you’ll be glad you did!
#8 KNOW YOUR LIMITS
If you want to enjoy off-road riding, you need to be realistic about your abilities and experience and if you’ve just started, then you may be pretty low on both! But don’t worry – we’ve all been there and if you’ve teamed up with a decent set of riding buddies, they will have been there too. So ask for help if you need it, ask for advice if you want it and be prepared to learn.
But what will make you as welcome as a thorn inside your Alpinestars is if you ride beyond your limits and get yourself into problems that screw up the whole day for everyone. If you can’t get up a tricky climb, then rather than smashing up yourself and your bike, ask someone else to help or do it for you. They won’t mind – they really won’t, in fact it will probably make them feel pretty good and your bike will be at the top of the climb in one piece rather than at the bottom in several. Double win then!
#9 TRUST THE BIKE
Unless you happen to be Graham Jarvis or Chris Birch, there’s a strong chance that the bike you have bought to go off road with, is far better than you at just about everything. In the right hands, even the oldest and most tired motorcycle will take on the toughest of landscapes and emerge the other side.
So, armed with that knowledge you and your bike can take on far more challenging terrain than you might think possible. Yes, you will still need to use a smattering of the right technique and be careful not to take things too far, but nonetheless it’s good to challenge yourself a bit – you’ll be amazed by what your bike is capable of. Those rock steps – no problem. That steep downhill – sorted. The deep water crossing – you are already on the other side!
Trust the bike, think positive and the jobs a good ‘un!
#10 GET INVOLVED AND ENJOY YOURSELF
Getting into off road riding has the potential to transform your life in a wholly positive way. For the Ride Expeditions team, riding bikes both on an off road has taken us all over the world and given us amazing experiences that we wouldn’t have been able to imagine. From thrashing through the jungles of Cambodia to riding the winding dirt roads through breathtaking rock formations in the Cederberg, weaving through the coffee plantations of Colombia or crossing the highest passes in the world in the Himalayas, it’s all possible.
So you need to take the first plunge. Find yourself the nearest local club – in the UK it’s likely to be the TRF – go along to the meetings and get yourself in the life of the club. Don’t expect spoon feeding though – you’ll only get out as much as you put in, but make the effort and the world becomes your playground, and your riding buddies will become mates for life.
And then you can all come on one of our fantastic trail riding adventures!
What are you waiting for?
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