When The Pavement Ends

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

If you do enough motorcycle touring in North America, sooner or later you'll end up where the tarmac turns to dirt. Though it may be just a break in the highway for construction, or a side road leading to your campsite, you'll need to modify your riding technique to stay upright, especially when surface conditions change - as they almost certainly will. In fact that's about the only predictable characteristic of off-road riding: it's unpredictable.

Those of you who learned to ride on dirt bikes will probably feel reasonably comfortable when you run out of road. But I cut my riding teeth in the city, swapping paint with transport trucks. I'd rather be lane splitting in downtown London during rush hour than riding a couple of miles of country gravel. And if you feel the same way about dirt as I do, I'd recommend two things: a little theory and a lot of practice.

Slipping and sliding
Stating the obvious, the first thing you notice on a loose surface is reduced traction. If you accelerate and steer and brake the way you would on tarmac, the bike will eventually slide out from under you. But that's not to say you don't have any control. Giving the bike the correct inputs will keep you upright. You'll also notice that the steering seems heavier, a result of an increased contact patch as the front tire sinks into the surface. Again, you just need to work with the changed situation instead of against it.

On pavement, we're used to controlling a motorcycle's direction by counter steering. This will still work to a limited extent on loose surfaces, but it's much less precise and risks a front wheel washout. It's better to keep the bike upright, point the front wheel where you want to go, and steer with the throttle.

Say what? It seems bizarre, but on loose surfaces, it matters much less what the rear wheel is doing than the front. The rear wheel may drift out slightly as you accelerate through a turn, but that just helps point you in the right direction. Again, it's just a matter of getting used to the loose feeling.

Stand up!
Perhaps the single most useful technique you can learn for off-road riding is standing on the pegs. This has the effect of lowering the overall center of gravity of bike and rider. If you're sitting on the seat, your weight is applied right there, raising the bike's center of gravity. But when you're standing, your weight goes through the pegs, applying your mass to the bottom of the frame, pushing the c. of g. down. This not only makes the bike more stable on the loose, but also allows you to apply steering inputs by shifting your weight on the pegs. Planning a long off-road stint? Then spend some time in the gym on leg-strengthening exercises - standing up is tough on the quads after a couple of hours!

Speed and gearing
Finding the right speed is much more important for off-road riding. At first, you'll want to crawl along, but as you push yourself to go faster, you'll find the bike responds better and feels way less squirrelly. Of course, going too fast is also a problem, because braking and changing direction needs much more anticipation than on pavement. You'll notice that experienced off-roaders will ride much faster than you want to at first, but with confidence you'll find faster is better. But make sure you can see far enough ahead to stop.

Being in the right gear is also important. Choosing a gear that's too low makes throttle control more difficult, especially on rough surfaces. I usually ride a gear higher than I would on tarmac for the same speed. Remember, though, that you'll still need to be in the powerband so you have acceleration when you need it. Going downhill, drop a gear or two and use the engine to slow you down. It's much easier than trying to accurately control the rear brake. An advantage that older airhead BMW GS bikes have is that their engines will plod along all day in a relatively high gear, yet they have excellent "stonk" at low revs to pull you out of sand or mud.

Obviously, reduced traction means braking distances are significantly increased. And you'll need to beware of a front wheel washout, so use the front brake with a minimum of force, relying more on the back brake. If the rear wheel locks up, it's much easier to control direction than in the same situation at the front. Be especially wary when going downhill, preferably staying off the front brake completely.

Few things are more disconcerting than riding a motorcycle in deep sand for the first time. The front wheel will plow left and right, seemingly impervious to your attempts to steer, threatening to throw you off - and sometimes doing so, too. When you hit a short patch of sand, open the throttle and accelerate through it. This reduces weight on the front wheel, which will tend to "float" through the sand rather than getting bogged down in it. Heading into a longer stretch of sand, speed up and slide back on the seat: going faster will also help the front wheel to float, and the increased gyroscopic effect of the wheels will improve your stability.

When you're about to ford a stream, park your bike and take a good look at the water. If it's rippling, there's a good chance it's fairly shallow. If it's not, and you can't see the bottom, walk through first to see how deep it is. Below carburetor height and you're probably okay. Most off-road or dual-purpose bikes will survive a drenching unless water gets in the air intake. And don't stall the engine or you may suck water into the exhaust. Go slowly in first gear, slipping the clutch and keeping the revs high. Though daunting the first time, streams are usually easy to cross unless the water is both deep and moving quickly.

OK - now you're ready to practice!