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Common Tread

Dirt bikes! A field trip by an offroad freshman

May 26, 2016

“I have no problem doodling around. I can take ya on some of the easier scenic stuff, then drop ya into an easy singletrack to prepare.“

So read a message from Pete, who some of you may remember from our Roost Cycles feature from way back when. Pete and I both identify primarily as beardy chopper/antique H-D people. I’ve ridden about a million miles of dirt roads and gravel trails over the years, but never anything serious enough to require a dedicated offroad bike. Pete? Well, he’s increased his dirt bike collection recently to four, I think, and has been riding enough dirt lately that he’s dropped 40 pounds. (This should have served as a warning that I was about to get my ass kicked. It did not.)

I had 16 years of street motorcycle experience under my belt before I decided to go ride offroad one day a few weeks back. Pete (and plenty of our readers) have lots more trail time than I do, but there are plenty of folks like me who want to go get dirty, but need a bit of guidance. I am struck by a thought once conveyed to me: The man who has just mastered a skill is often the most qualified to teach it because his stumbles are still fresh in his mind. Mastery is not mine yet, but I did take some notes so those considering venturing offroad can succeed where I failed. Here’s what I learned on my first day of haul roads, ATV trails, and singletrack.

Pete eats lunch
Not only did I fail to bring enough water, but I also mistakenly thought I could get by on three granola bars. Fortunately Pete (and his better half) knew better. Pete had enough sandwiches to open his own Subway location, which was good for me. All we needed was a tablecloth for that dirt bike stand. Photo by Lemmy.

Pack an ocean’s worth of water

However much water you think you need, it’s not enough. The weather was temperate the day we rode. At 60 degrees, it was nice and cool, but it didn’t matter. I recalled John telling me about this when I interviewed him about this from his Merzouga rally bike interview, but I internalized it better when my mouth felt like it was carpeted for a few hours. I brought 100 ounces of water with me in a CamelBak, and blew through it before lunch. Fortunately, Pete had more than enough and reloaded me. I had 32 ounces before we went out, 175 on the trail, and 20 at lunch. (The beers I had afterwards are not included in this count!) That’s almost two gallons. If you’re going deep in the woods, a hydration pack seems to be mandatory equipment.

You’re going to be out of breath

I think John mentioned this, too. A CRF450R starts to feel more like a GL1800 after picking it up for the umpteenth time. And kicking a tall, four-stroke dirt bike takes more energy than you might guess. It’s a great irony that inexperienced riders stall more, fall more, and thus kick more.

Leg tattoo
For being a tightwad and not scoring a set of offroad boots, I got a souvenir: a stamped-in tattoo of a factory CRF footpeg. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

PPE counts

Look, I’m not Safety Sam. On the street, depending on several factors, you might catch me fully geared up, but I'm just as likely to be sporting a T-shirt, eye-pro, and an optimistic attitude. On the dirt, skimping on gear is not even an option. On the street, I might go down. On the trail? The only variables were how many times I was coming off the bike, and what I was hitting on the way off. Tree limbs, rocks, your own lack of ability, and loose surfaces will all combine to make you the victim of gravity. I went out without a bunch of items I needed. Not having boots was a poor idea. So was my 15-year-old helmet.

Your choice of bike matters, too

I took ZLA’s house Honda CRF450R out to play. First off, that thing is a rocket. It’s the dirt equivalent to a literbike. It’s also a motocross bike, set up for a very light rider. Wide bars, a fairly potent motor, a distinct lack of crash protection, too-tall gearing, and suspension that’s set up for huge jumps did not do me any favors in twisty singletrack. On the street, I have been able to “get by” on a lot of inappropriate motorcycles. The “run what you brung” strategy works way worse in the dirt.

It’s dangerous out there

You can hear things coming to some degree or another, but it’s entirely possible that you may come across another vehicle coming at you head-on. If you’re balls to the wall, you better have a clear line of sight. This is especially important if you’re playing in an area open to non-singletrack vehicles (ATV/UTV). Two dirt bikes might have plenty of room on an ATV trail to pass by, but avoiding a wider vehicle may be impossible.

You don’t have a gas gauge

This wasn’t too hard for me to remember, because most of my choppers don’t have such frippery, but don’t forget that these bikes have tiny tanks and no gauges. Open that fuel cap every now and then.

Go fast
That's some damn good advice. I was reminded of Mouse McCoy. Any of my successes came from being brave and hammering the gas. Photo by Lemmy.

Ignore the brakes

Maybe use the rear one every now and then. I learned I primarily needed to stay on the throttle to get the rear wheel sliding so I could move the bike around. Cutting power via clutch fanning was way more effective than trying to use the brakes. Nothing is worse than panting trailside after another failure, breathlessly recalling your own damn article.

I have lots more to learn and I plan to remedy that this summer. I was amazed at how little of my street riding ability transferred to the dirt and rocks, but could easily see how skills learned there could work on the tarmac. I would imagine dirt rookies would be appalled at the weight of our street machines and amazed at how much grip a streetbike has on the macadam.

Ultimately, Pete wore me out. He was as fresh as a daisy after six hours, but I was sucking wind and ready to tap out. We stopped and split a pizza and had a few beers afterward. When I got home, I was whupped. I’d say I slept well, but I think my sleep could be more accurately described as a restless coma. All my muscles hurt the next day, even my ass. But I’m already looking for some more gear and a little trail bike.