Trail tips for beginners – 10 quick ways to improve your off-road riding
TRAIL TIPS FOR BEGINNERS – 10 QUICK WAYS TO IMPROVE OFF-ROAD RIDING
If you are new to off-road riding, then you’ll be very quickly aware that riding away from the blacktop is completely different to riding on the dirt. So in an effort to assist, we’ve compiled a list of 10 quick ways improve your off road riding.
You don’t need to do all of them all the time, but some of them some of the time will certainly help.
#1 SITTING PRETTY
So if you come from a road riding background, you’ll probably be used to sitting back on the saddle with straight arms when riding.
If you copy this for an off-road bike, you going to put too much weight over the back wheel and not enough on the front leading to vague steering and a strong possibility of accidental wheelies. Not good.
Slide yourself forward so that you sit towards the front of the seat, so your bum is over the footpegs. This evenly distributes your weight and allows better control during cornering. You are hopefully not going to be sat down all the time, but when you are then try to keep the weight central to the bike.
#2 ELBOWS UP
OK so now we’re set in the right place what are you doing with those arms? If you keep them close in to your body, you’re not going to have much leverage and hence controlling the handlebars will be difficult.
But by simply raising your elbows out to the sides, the bike instantly becomes easier to control, and because your elbows are also now bent, then you will be to absorb movements in the steering and suspension far easier. Simple
#3 FINGER FUN
Now are body and arms are in the right position, what about your hands? Grip on to the bars as tight as possible and then brake and clutch with all four fingers? Erm no.
Ideally you want to grip the bike with your legs and knees, so that you grip on the bars can be quite loose. Many riders will cover the clutch and front brake with one finger at all times, and increase that to two fingers for heavy braking and full clutch movement. This allows you to keep hold of the bars with at least two fingers and thumb at all times, which is pretty useful on rough terrain.
With far more delicate control needed, then choose your gloves carefully – thick road gloves give little feel and make quick movements hard to make. Off-road gloves are thinner and have little to no padding, but mud tends to be softer than tarmac ..
#4 LEG OUT
When you are cornering on surfaces that are slippery or lack grip you are going to need to stick your leg out. First off, this will give the possibility of avoiding dropping the bike if it slips out by a quick push up. Be careful that you stick your leg out towards the front wheel and not straight out or towards the back of the bike or you are likely to hurt or damage the ligaments in your knee.
The added advantage of sticking out your leg is that it takes the weight to the inside which helps you turn, and as the weight of your foot and boot is alongside the front wheel, it pushes the front wheel into the dirt and hence increased front end grip.
And it looks cool too ….
#5 LEAN THE BIKE
OK after years of watching Rossi and Marquez hanging off the side of their bikes at every available opportunity, we’ve all adopted a bit of Moto GP riding into our daily road ride. Sticking your knee out, sliding to the side of the saddle in corners, leaning further than the bike – it’s all fun on the road.
But on the trails, that type of activity is going to work as well as a ten-year-old Chinese pit bike. For the most part you are going to lean the bike more than your body in the corners, so that you push the knobbles into the dirt on the turns. You can also slide your bum onto the top edge of the seat to help grip too. But no knee out – OK?
#6 STAND UP AND BE COUNTED
Ideally as you get better at riding off road the more you will stand up and the easier it will become.
Standing up transfers your weight to the footpegs, taking down the centre of gravity from the seat to a point directly between the wheel spindles and crucially, nice and low. This will make the bike far more stable in just about every situation.
Standing also isolates your body from the terrain as now the suspension absorbs the hits rather than every bump jarring up through your spine. The bike can move around while you stay relatively still in the centre of the bike.
You will also find that standing up allows you to see further ahead along the trail, thereby anticipating changes in surface and allowing you to avoid obstacles and plan a line through.
#7 RUTS, DAMN RUTS
If you are going to ride off road, then you will have to get used to riding ruts. Lots of vehicles driving or riding over soft ground will create ruts and you are going to have to follow them. Fact
So first off, try to pick the shallowest rut. If there’s a central one created by other bikes it’s often the easiest, but if it’s got deep, then the ruts either side may be easier, even if you need to put up with by being scraped the occasional branch.
Ideally standing up and looking ahead will be the best way to conquer the ruts, but if your new to off-road, this is a big ask. So if you are going to sit down, then having both your feet up and on the pegs will make you pretty unstable, and if you wobble, you’ll probably be on the ground pretty quickly.
To get round this problem, try riding with your left foot down and skimming the ground ready to avert disaster with a quick dab. We use the left foot because then we’ve still got control over the back brake, and we’re not going to be changing gear too much.
The same technique may assist on river crossings, but you might need to get both feet down if you are really uncertain – check out our full blog on tackling water here.
#8 BRAKE TIME
So whether you are a time-served rider or a relative newbie, you will hopefully have an idea how to use your brakes on the road. Rear brake at slow speeds, and once the speed increases it’s 80% front / 20% back in dry conditions, employing front brake before the back.
This transfers the weight towards the front, alters the geometry of the bike to push the front towards the ground and in turn this increases the contact patch of the tyre and thus increase braking efficiency. The rear brake looses efficiency as the back of the bike goes lighter, so the rear brake’s function is more about maintaining stability rather than braking.
In wet conditions the percentages may change to avoid overweighting the front and triggering a slide, but the principle is the same.
Away from the road this all changes and the way you use the brakes will vary enormously according to the terrain, the surface of the trail and crucially, the gradient. If you are heaving down a steep hill, then a handful of front brake on soft front forks will have a potentially disastrous end result, as will using the same technique as you are going fast into a loose gravel corner.
In general however, aim to do as much of your braking while you are travelling in a straight line using both brakes at a ratio of roughly 60% / 40% front to rear. Off-road brakes are usually pretty efficient as the speeds are not as high and the bike is relatively light, so don’t be heavy handed and learn what your bike and different surfaces needs.
Don’t try to go too fast if the terrain is dangerous – this is not racing and racing with a 100m drop-off to one side will end in tears …
#9 WEIGHT TRANSFER
On the road, moving your weight to the front or rear of the bike simply isn’t a thing – there’s no need. But on the dirt this is a skill you are going to need to develop, particularly for hills.
Going downhill, you are going to need to move to the back of the seat, and ideally stand if it’s not too scary or steep. This takes the weight away from the front wheel and allows you to brace your arms against the bars.
Going uphill we are going to need to move forward towards the front of the seat and lean in towards the bars, to keep the weight on the front wheel and reduce the chance of the front wheel lifting up under power. The back of the bike may move around a bit but that’s fine, as long as the front is pointing the right way!
When you are riding hills across the camber, try to keep your weight pushing on the outer foot peg as this helps the side knobbles of the tyre find grip. If you weight the inner peg – the one towards the slope, you increase the possibilities of the wheels breaking traction and slithering away from you.
Oh and while we are on the subject of cambers, if you have a bike with a kickstart, try to cross the hill going left to right so that if you stall, you can start the bike without falling down the slope …
#10 LOOK AHEAD, PLAN AHEAD
OK so we’ll finish with one that is exactly the same as road riding. Looking ahead is a crucial part of riding a motorcycle and allows you to assess potential risks, anticipate problems and make plans to minimise the effects they have on you.
If you need to do this while on a billard table-smooth ribbon of tarmac, then the need to do this on the trail cannot be stressed enough. You need to be scanning the trail ahead of you constantly to spot obstacles and identify the best or easiest line over or around them. If you focus 5m in front of you then by the time you see that sharp-edged rock step or polished tree root, there will be no time to do anything about it.
Keep you head up – focus where you want the bike to go and try to envisage success not failure!
So that’s all for the moment – each one of these will help and if you put them together then your off-road riding will definitely improve every time you head out on the trails. For more advanced tips, check out our blog of the Basics of Off-road riding here
Who knows – you might want to join one of our trail riding tours!