This section deals with off road motorcycling
By off road we mean a public dust / gravel / sand / dirt road, path or track. Motocross (MX) riding is not dealt with in any detail on this web site.
To safely attempt these types of roads there are four areas to consider i.e. the motorbike itself, your skill level, your protective clothing and the condition of the road or trail.
The Off Road Motorcycle
Focusing on the motorbike for a moment, one typically needs a bike that offers torque at low revs (between 3000 and 6000 rpm), a gearbox that offers a longer first gear and a maximum speed of less than 180kph. Also high, firm suspension, reasonable off road tyres - (tires USA) and wide, upright handlebars. Typically these types of motorcycles are called enduro, trail or dual-sport with MX bikes being the most extreme examples. Generally tyres are run a bit softer than on the road. A good all round pressure is 1.1 bar (15psi) for the front with the rear being a bit harder (increase tyre pressure above 2 bar however when travelling over very rocky terrain in order to protect your rims and avoid punctures)
If you plan to ride more challenging trails your motorbike should have wheel rims with spokes and heavy duty tubes which are able to resist objects like thorns. Inner tubes should be replaced every 20 000km even if they have never sustained a puncture. This is because the area around the valve deteriorates and final tears causing a puncture that can be impossible to repair. Water that seeps in through the spokes also causes damage to both the rims, spokes and tube. Ideally your rims should dry out before you park your bike.
The vulnerable parts of your bike should be protected by engine protectors, crash bars, bash plates etc. front and back. This especially applies to the big, off road boxter BMW motorbikes where the tappet covers stick out the side and are especially vulnerable. Special equipment e.g. headlights, brake calipers, turn indicators, radiator, brake master cylinder etc. should also be protected.
If you are touring off road your luggage must be packed down low. Piling stuff on the seat behind you will cause your bike to become top heavy. You wont even notice the problem as you leave town on the tar. Later when you hit the bad stuff, it will be too late!
Injury can be avoided by having suitable protective clothing. Helmet, eye and hand protection are obvious but do not neglect the following
1) Boots that offer solid ankle support (sport shoes, sneakers, tennis shoes are a big NO NO)
Riding off road in Africa is usually very hot due to the low speeds and the strenuous exercise. This should be borne in mind when purchasing a jacket. For the same reason one wears a three quarters helmet with goggles when riding off road at speeds of less than 100kph..
My wife Carole and I found riding two-up, on sand roads with a heavy trail bike took a lot of courage in the beginning. Basically there are six simple off road riding skills but each one seems to go against what comes naturally when you are learning for the first time.
These six skills are explained below. Note these skills are appropriate to a novice off road rider.
A simple fact
Have you ever tried to throw a tennis ball right past someone's head? You look at them . . . you throw . . . and you hit them!! (Ouch!!) It is the same with tennis. You look at the top of the net . . . you serve . . . you hit the net!! (Damn!!)
Translate this to motorcycling. You look at the pothole . . . you go right through it! You look at the stone in the road . . .you go over it. The eyes are the gun sight of the brain and therefore there are a few important rules for the way we view the trail / track / sand road ahead of the motorcycle.
1) Keep your eyes up and look down the trail! Your natural reaction will be to look at the ground in front of the motorbike. Look as far ahead as the trail, speed and common sense allows. Your perception will naturally assimilate the rough terrain and lead the front wheel along a good line. Do not look down! Do not look at the rock in front of your wheel! Do not stare at the pothole in the road! Do not gaze into the pool of soft mud! Look where you want to go and the bike will naturally follow an invisible line towards where you are looking.
If you see a large rock or pothole do not allow your eyes to 'fixate' on it. Take it in and then allow you eyes to continue to move beyond or to the side of it. The bike will follow your eyes and avoid the obstacle automatically.
2) Keep a 'wide angle view' of the trail ahead - look at everything in general but nothing in particular. (This same technique is used by trackers in the African bush to spot game.) This not only helps avoid fixation but will allow you to spot stray animals, pedestrians and farm vehicles.
3) Keep an eye out for the tell-tale dust trails from approaching cars or farm vehicles.
4) Keep a look out in your rear view mirrors as local farmers are not afraid to drive fast.
This is difficult as the natural reaction is to travel too slowly. The track ahead will be covered in loose stones and sand. All you want to do is shut off the gas! Don't do it!! Slow down a little and then just before the loose stuff starts accelerating gently. If the bike twitches and moves around . . . gas it a little more! Once you are through the bad patch you can slow down a little if you want to.
The amount of stability a motorcycle has depends on its forward motion. More speed helps it punch through and over the bad surface. Generally as the bike travels faster and faster you will find that it becomes more balanced, stable and maneuverable. Going too slowly over rough terrain will cause the bike to move around more and perhaps cause you to panic. Within reason therefore go a bit faster than you are comfortable with. Here as some suggestions . . .
• 10 - 40 kph for a trail or path not suitable for ordinary cars
• 40 - 60 kph for a road in poor condition (narrow, with ruts, bends, potholes and loose stones)
• 60 - 80 kph for a typical dirt road (reasonably straight, offering a good line with reasonable traction)
• 80 - 100 kph for a good dirt road (straight, offering a good line with good traction. The verges should be clear of trees and bush because at this speed you do not want an animal to step out in front of you)
Because you need to keep the throttle open when travelling through the loose stuff do not approach bad patches too fast or in a gear that leaves you in the middle of the power band. Choose a lower gear at the bottom end of the power band so that you can accelerate gently!
You are travelling along a dirt road. Suddenly your eyes take in a bad patch covered in loose stones and sand! Your eyes grow big, your arms go stiff and your body recoils from the horrible sight!! Don't do it!! You cannot steer through it with stiff arms. Move forward to meet the foe eye to eye! Grip the tank with your knees, arms bend and fluid to make small steering movements as you power through.
The worst the road/track surface, the more important this becomes. Move your butt forward. Lean forward from the waist moving your head and shoulders closer to the front wheel than your butt. This does not mean resting/pushing down on the handlebars with your body weight - this makes manoeuvring impossible. Your arms must be bent, never locked - elbows out wide away from your sides. (see O'Neal racing pic below. Note foot down on the outside foot peg when doing a fast turn)
Weight forward, legs bent, elbows wide, foot down hard on the outside footpeg as you go through a turn.
Grip the tank firmly with your knees and push down onto the foot pegs with the balls of your feet. This makes you and the bike into a single unified unit where your body weight is as much part of the steering process as the front wheel. Your upper body should be relaxed and free to move about easily.
Should the surface of the road deteriorate even more, keep the gas open!!! A decelerating bike will flounder. Push down hard on your foot pegs. You will naturally find yourself standing up which is the correct thing to do. Do not use the handlebars to pull yourself up - their job is to steer, not pull!!
Your first ride on dirt roads is not the place to counter steer and lean your motorcycle into the corners! Instead keep the motorcycle upright, tyres 90° to the road surface. Yes, this will mean going slowly around the corners but speed can come later.
As you get more confident you will want to corner more quickly. The secret here is to get lots of downward pressure on the outside foot peg as you corner. This keeps the motorbike firmly on the road and prevents the centrifugal force of cornering from throwing the back wheel outwards. The easy way to do this is to stand with your weight on your outside foot. In this position you can even lean the bike into the corner
Very fast cornering off road using the accelerator to twist the bike around is an advanced skill and can come later (assuming you have a bike light enough to make this skill viable)
You should have little need for hard braking when riding your motorcycle off road if you follow these three pointers
• Approach corners and difficult patches with the old adage of "Slow in and fast out".
Your gearbox and rear brake should give you all the stopping power you need. Unlike riding on road, locking your rear wheel up on sand is not a problem. If you need the extra stopping power you can progressively pile on the front brake until it shows signs of locking up - then ease off a little.
On technical surfaces train yourself to use the front brake only. It is fast, powerful and decisive. On slick slippery surfaces use the back brake only.
If you ride a heavy dual sport bike e.g. BMW GS1100 / 1200 then pressure on the foot pegs becomes important. 'Stomping' on the foot pegs can provide a huge amount of leverage to get your bike to weave to and fro missing potholes and boulders in your path when riding a straight, narrow trail with a technical surface. Stomping on the pegs (imagine someone stomping in a vat of grapes) is an excellent way to lighten the bike and flick it from side to side, weaving between the obstacles. You stomp on the side you want to turn towards and lift the other leg by allowing your knee to bend.
Typical "Grape Stomping" terrain. Stand up, legs bent.
NOTE: You don't do this to turn a fast corner! You must stand on the outside footpeg as you enter the corner to keep the back wheel from breaking and sliding away as you gently gas it around the corner. (With a light MX bike you give it a lot of gas to MAKE it break away and thereby use the rear wheel power to assist you to turn the bike).
Foot on the outside foot peg. There is no guard rail here if the bike washes out from under you!
Once you have mastered the basics of off road riding your next challenge is to recognise the special dangers inherent in blind rises and/or corners. The rule here is to maintain a speed that is in relation to the amount of visible track ahead of you. What you cannot see, you cannot avoid - if you are going too fast when you do see it, you will be in trouble.
This critical skill is as relevant on road as it is off road. (see page Road Hazards for pics)
There are no secrets or easy answers for a rider wanting to move a heavily laden touring or trail bike through mud. This is a slow process often involving a lot of paddling with your feet as you move forward. If the mud is not too deep you can still stand up but this time move your weight backwards off the front wheel. This can prevent it from digging in. A gung-ho approach of blasting through a long patch of bad mud at speed seldom works for bigger bikes. Instead commit, look up look ahead, and aggressively keep the bike moving at a brisk walking speed.
Your bike may also overheat during a period of slow riding and higher than normal revs. Also check the radiator to ensure that it is not caked with mud. A motorcycle with a fender (mudguard) situated high up is more likely to suffer from this problem.
Handling very bad patches of road
By always looking ahead you can usually see a bad patch before you actually have to ride over it. This is your cue to slow down. That way you have room to gently accelerate through the bad section without starting to go too fast. If you find the bike moves around a bit, gas it a bit more! and the bike will steady up. (see diagram below points 1 to 5))
As the road surface becomes more radical, push down harder and harder onto the foot pegs until you may finally find yourself standing up, allowing the bike to bounce around freely beneath you as it moves over the uneven surface (knees gripping bike lightly, legs bent, upper body moving freely)
Dirt Road Surfaces
You want to ride your motorbike on the hard polished surface left by motor cars. This surface offers a lot of traction and is largely free from loose stones and sharp edges.
Be Wheel Rim Friendly
Motorbike wheel rims are by no means fragile but they can more easily sustain damage than other sub systems of the bike. Riding at full throttle over a hard pothole or rock is to risk a puncture, broken spokes, dented or buckled rim at worst. While spoked rims with an inner tube can cope with a moderate buckle, solid rims with tubeless tyres will not, as the seal between the rim and tyre will be broken.
Therefore the rider must always be wheel rim friendly. This includes monitoring your tyre pressure to ensure that you are not riding on tyres that allow rocks to collapse the tyre resulting in direct impact on the wheel rim. This also means moving your body further back as you hit a rock thereby taking weight off the front wheel on impact.
If you know that you will be touring on tracks with a lot of protruding rocks and potholes, increase your tyre pressure by as much as 25% (more for the rear wheel if riding two up or with a lot of luggage)
More Riding Tips
Allow the motorcycle to follow the channels and ruts in the road and do not fight the bike out of them.
Keep the bike below the power band with a somewhat aggressive attitude. This way the bike will not falter and you will have enough power at hand but without the danger of spinning the rear wheel.
Riding over bad transverse corrugations on a dirt road is no fun as it rattles and shakes both bike and rider around. The are two secrets here i.e. go faster, rather than slower as this tends to 'smooth' the ride over the tops of the corrugations. Secondly, change to a lower gear well below the power band (maximum torque). The lower revs will prevent the engine constantly 'snatching' at the power and as a result, also help smooth out the ride.
Check out the horizontal position of your hand levers (brake and clutch) relative to your handlebars - they should be lower. Adjust them if necessary. This keeps your wrists higher than your fingers on the hand grips. Should you have a spill, the force of your body moving forward will not be transferred to your wrists. It also means that when you stand up when riding over a bad section you will still be able to easily operate the controls.
All gravel roads have strips of loose sand and stones usually down the middle of the road. Treat this as you would any bad section. (see above) Cut across it with a firm, decisive action. Approach it with a steeper, rather than a flatter angle and combine with a dab of gas.
Keep the sole of your boot horizontal with the ground while on the footrests. You do not want the front of your boot to catch on a protruding object e.g. a root
Tracks covered in loose rocks bigger than tennis balls are difficult to traverse and should be left until you are more experienced although the riding skills needed are essentially the same.
Big, heavy dual purpose trail bikes.
Riding a big, heavy dual purpose trail bike over a bad surface with deep washes, ruts and channels is a skill. Don't do the "hero thing" and try to fly your bike over - this is for the MX crowd or for emergency situations. Instead, slow down to a walking speed and hung far back on the saddle. As the bike drops in, you allow your body to move forward - thus the momentum of your body moving forward assists the bike to keep moving forward as well.
A heavy, slow moving bike and rider has a lot of stored momentum energy and it takes a lot to stop them. i.e. once they are moving, they tend to keep moving. Use this momentum! On very bad technical surfaces ride slowly and accurately. Maintain perfect balance. Use the momentum in your body and motorcycle in conjunction with quick blimps on the gas, to move your bike in and out of the deep, bad stuff without causing damage to your bike and wheel rims.
When you're next at the fair ground ride the mechanical bull. You will notice that when the bull speeds up, you fall off !! Don't therefore cross a deep river like a raging bull i.e. a quickly moving bike bucks violently on a rocky river bed and you will fall off! Crossing a river is about balance and smoothness. Again, use the momentum of the bike (and your body, see above) to easily and smoothly move forward. If the bike bucks, blimp the gas smartly to keep the bike upright and moving.
Never plunge into a river without investigating the river bed first. Sight on a spot on the opposite bank and walk straight towards it. If it is good, return for your motorbike and ride it through along the identical route. If the river bed is a bit uneven and the river crossing challenging, remove your panniers, top box and other bags. A slowly moving motorcycle that is bucking around needs to be as light as possible.
Know where the air intake manifold is on your bike. (GS owners - your intake is lower than you think!) If the water is close to the height of the manifold, you must turn the engine off and push it through (or fit a snorkel to the manifold opening)
If your bike takes in water (or falls over during the crossing) it will stop, no problem, but do NOT try to restart it. The re-starting will cause damage to the starter-motor sub system running into thousands of rands. Push it out and get some help from an experienced off road rider.
If the river is not too deep but is flowing very strongly, don't stand up and try to ride your motorbike through. Stay seated and using your legs, paddle your bike across. Also get a friend to walk through with you.
Generally a river bed offers a hard surface (otherwise the river would become a swamp) so don't worry about thick mud at the bottom. You may however find some mud right next to the river banks so gently power through these two areas. River beds are also generally made up of stones with smooth edges. Therefore you can deflate your tyres by 50% for a wide and difficult crossing.
And finally . . . LOOK UP, body relaxed, arms easy, body balanced, legs bent. Gently power towards a spot on the opposite bank making a small bow wave with the front wheel. If the bow wave starts to wet your upper body then you are going too fast and you will fall off should the bike hit an awkward spot. Don't look into the dark murky depths unless you want to investigate it up-close and personal!
Crossing a shallow weir
Many small rivers have a concrete causeway or weir instead of a bridge. Beware! The surface can be as slippery as a well oiled piglet. The secret here is not to stress the little traction you have i.e. don't speed up, don't slow down, don't turn, don't move your weight about. Just keep the bike upright, straight and go through smooth and clean.
Short, very steep inclines
Being potentially hazardous, short very steep up hills deserve special mention. Before you commit yourself to going up make sure you have the correct combination of skill, bike, power, tyres and track surface for a successful ascent. Getting half way up with the bike stalling is very dangerous! You also need to know something about the terrain at the top. If you power up over the lip you will have little chance of stopping if there is a 20 meter drop on the other side (common when riding sand dunes and in old quarries)
Getting up a steep incline successfully depends on the preparation you make before you actually start. Thus the technique is broken into two separate phases and applies equally well to mud as to uphill sections
1) Preparation phase.
2) Maintenance phase.
If you find you have miscalculated and the terrain in front of you becomes too steep, aim your front tyre for a ledge, boulder or pothole and 'hook' your front type over / into it and anchor it there with the front brake. Lay the motorbike down on its side and slide it down to a safer area where it can be mounted again.
If you cannot get out of the situation and you see that you are going to stall on a section that is too steep for you it is time to part company. Jump! . . .sideways as far as you can and allow the motorcycle to fall down and away from you. A controlled fall is always better than an uncontrolled one.
Steep Declines, Loose Stones
Descending steep declines with a negative camber, loose stones and a turn to the left or right is very intimidating. Like a steep incline you must be totally committed and have faith in your machine to take you down. Your anxiety will be the bike's worst enemy.
1) Preparation phase.
2) Maintenance phase.
The bike will move briskly down the decline in a very controlled fashioned but now you find you are heading for a turn!!! Release the brake at the last moment, push down hard on the outside footpeg (you are still standing?) and with a decisive movement, dive the bike into the turn. Hey Presto! Despite your worst fears, the bike will decisively and solidly turn the corner as easy as can be!
The whole maneuver just takes commitment, confidence and belief that the bike can deliver. Remember, that a moderate amount of speed is your alley. Your bike becomes light and maneuverable without stressing the limited traction too much.
NOTE: The back brake, although a more logical choice has very little downward pressure on it unless you have a pillion passenger. It therefore locks up too easily and offers very little stopping power.
Cutting across an incline (traversing)
Going up and down inclines is normal, even for a road bike. Cutting across a steep incline is commonplace when riding off road. Most difficult of all is going up, turning around while still on the slope before come back down again - a skill tested in the GS Challenge every year.
Standing on the foot pegs helps to avoid the Bike A scenario and gets the bike balanced and vertical! Once the bike is vertical relative to gravity (Bike B) the motorbike is going to be inclined to loose traction and slip sideways downhill. This can be avoided by putting your weight on the downhill foot peg. This downward force assists the tyre to keep traction while traversing.
Riding in Loose Sand
Although disconcerting, riding in loose sand is not that difficult once you get the motorcycle moving. (It is also comforting to know that should you come off your landing will be somewhat softer!)
If you know you are about to ride through kilometres of deep desert or beach sand you will require a bit of preparation. First you will need to reduce your type pressure by as much as 75% (approx 0.5bar). Unfortunately this could mean that the rear tyre will slip on the wheel rim. Prevent this by drilling 4 holes through the side of the rim (from the same side as the spokes penetrate the rim). Two on one side and two on the other, each 90 degrees from the next. Then insert a short self tapping screw into each hole just enough to pinch into the bead of the tyre. This will keep the tyre in one place on the rim (alternatively their are commercial products that will achieve the same thing)
When riding do not hit the loose sand at speed. Slow down and as you move onto the loose sand gently tap into the power. Ride easy, loose, elbows away from your body and allow the bike to move around beneath you. If necessary gas it a little more if the bike moves around too much.
If the sand becomes really deep do not stop! It is very important to keep moving, even if you have to paddle with your feet or jump off the bike and run beside it for a short stretch.
If you do however become bogged down do not abuse your clutch by trying to power the bike out. Instead turn the engine off and lie the bike down on its side. Fill the holes left by the wheels with sand. Compact the sand with your feet below the bike and for a few meters in front. Pick up the bike, start it and get it moving before you jump aboard and continue on your way.
In the case of desert riding, know that falling off, while seldom serious is likely to be a common occurrence!
As usual, off-road bike school is always the place to learn all these skills. (see the page on Bike Schools)