Two riding seasons ago I sold off an old cruiser and flew across the country to ride home a new-to-me Triumph Tiger with dreams of becoming an off-road adventure god. I did not become a dirty deity.
Instead, I found myself frustrated with trying to maneuver a big machine on unfamiliar surfaces. I ditched the Tiger, bought another cruiser, and, this season, made good on my promise to start from the beginning and take a proper dirt bike class.
There are plenty of training options, and while I dreamed of a week-long trip out to Jim Hyde’s $1,400 RawHyde Adventures training camp in Colorado, that got complicated quick. So I aimed for a more practical offering, the $145, six-hour MSF DirtBike School course offered just a few hours ride away from my garage at Road America in Wisconsin. The class was a boatload of fun, partly due to our fantastic instructor and AHRMA racer, Kim Muhr, and partly due to the good fortune of sunny weather and a median student age in the mid-50s. No rain, and no pesky risk-adverse and overly flexible kids (the course is open to students as young as 12) made the course a blast.
In no particular order, here are some of the reasons why I recommend taking a similar class.
Ain’t nothing as fun as wringing out someone else’s bike
Our course fee included the use of a brand-new Yamaha XT250. If you have no other way of getting seat time on a smaller, dirt-oriented bike, this is reason enough to take the course. For a sport that is, theoretically, hell-bent on building new riders, it’s still quite difficult to get a proper riding session in (especially with expert guidance) on a new, rider-friendly bike if you’re a stranger to the community. These classes offer a great solution to that problem. Want to build new riders? Give everyone a few free hours on a properly maintained dirt bike.
Of the eight students in our class, all seasoned riders, none owned a bike this size, and almost all pondered if they should get one after the day was over. The XT250 has a 32-inch seat height and clocks in under 300 pounds. Compared to the Tiger, it felt more like riding a motorized mountain bike. I found it massively easier to stay loose and relaxed on a bike this size.
A lot of the great riding schools are in California or down south, but there's probably a DirtBike School offered somewhere near you. There are at least seven locations near where I live in Chicago, for example. With a $145 class price, a loaner bike, and a convenient location, there’s no excuse not to get some basic training.
Also, let’s take off our big boy pants for a minute and get honest: Dirt bike riding, and dirt bike riders, can be intimidating, even to experienced street riders. I did not grow up with dirt bikes. I do not own a truck. I wheelie only by mistake. The times I’ve pulled up to an off-road group ride or event only to be left 30 minutes behind the pack (or stuck in a corn field or a ditch) are numerous. That kind of humiliation is not for everyone. This course offers an alternative learning option to being thrown into the deep end. It makes riding off-road friendly and manageable.
You'll learn you suck and that's a step toward learning
Chew gum and walk? No prob. Stand up, shift, and feather the clutch? Not so much.
I had no idea how badly my handling skills deteriorated while standing up until someone else in class pointed it out. While weaving between cones standing at slow speeds, I consistently lost balance and, much to my embarrassment, stalled the bike. Luckily there was an instructor and a handful of classmates eager to point out that I sucked — and then give me some helpful tips. Pinching the tank with my knees, shifting my weight forward, and using two fingers on the clutch while standing helped me dial in my technique and gave me something I was eager to practice.
Which leads me to what is maybe the most important thing I learned during the course.
The course encourages you to ride more
Small-displacement bikes are so much fun! When something is fun, you want to do it more. When something is discouraging, like properly riding a big ADV bike off-road with no training, you head to Craigslist and pick up fishing.
Do things that are fun. If that’s riding a big bike off-road, I’m jealous — because that sure does look awesome. But for the rest of us, start small and have a blast.