Adventure Motorcycle Riding Techniques
The adventure motorcycling bug deeply infected me in the summer of 2011. Before then, my life consisted of spirited sport bike riding, long-distance sport touring, and as many track days as possible.
One day I wanted to go for a hike, which required some riding along fire roads. I was on my 1998 Honda VFR800F—which will always be with me—and I encountered a new sense of freedom. Soon I was riding more fire roads than roads. Time for an ADV bike.
Budgets were tight, so I had to go the cheapest route. I found a 2002 Suzuki V-Strom DL1000 that had been babied. It was big and bulky and, though a great street bike, it was tough as hell to ride on the technical off-road stuff.
I later discovered that the Strom is the perfect training platform. I also still own that bike, which has something like 80k miles on it. Of course, now it’s loaded with Touratech suspension/protection, and always shod with Continental TKC 80 tires.
As I did with road bikes, I became obsessed with learning techniques for off-road riding on these huge beasts. I picked up some Rawhyde video material, and then completed some schooling at the debut Touratech Rally. There, I met some of the coolest people, and they quickly became lifelong friends. Plus, I got to ride with serious talent out there, which helped me scale my riding ability.
All this led to me leading the advanced ADV groups at rallies, and helping train others ride an ADV bike so they can get the most of it. More control, more fun—that’s my ADV motto.
I practice as much as possible. Sometimes, I just ride around in a wooded area and stand on one peg, kicking trees with my free leg. Or, I’ll try to maneuver through the tightest section possible off-path while riding as slow as possible, relying on the clutch’s “friction zone” to get me through. My V-Strom eats clutches, and the bike spends much time stuck in trees or on the ground, but it can’t stop the fun.
Modern ADV bikes are unbelievable off-road, especially the KTM 1190 Adventure R and BMW R 1200 GS Adventure. As for my V-Strom, well it’s nicknamed El Mule for obvious reasons. But, I love the challenge, and I haven’t been stranded yet.
There are a few basic principles that every big-bike ADV rider should learn before going off-road and pushing the bike to its true limits. Following are 10 techniques that will not only help you ride with more authority off-road, but also help you ride safer, smoother, and, what I love most, faster.
1. Proper Gear…Especially Grippy Boots
Proper gear is essential for any type of ride. If you’re not 100 percent comfortable, you will lose focus. That’s when the stupid things happen. While testing a pair of riding pants a few years back, the knee protection caused serious discomfort while standing. It annoyed me so much that I lost focus at nearly 90 mph, and washed out the front in a loose dirt section.
Make sure the gear is comfortable both standing and sitting. The rest is up to your taste, and the seasons, in regards to ventilation and waterproofness, Make sure you have all the protective elements intact; trees don’t get out of the way.
A note on boots; the grippier the better, especially if conditions are wet from either rain or morning/evening fog. I still have a few bumps on my shins from slipping off pegs due to wearing road-style boots that don’t provide grip. Don’t make the same mistake.
2. Learn to Stand
Truly tackling the dirt—especially on the bigger ADV machines—requires standing on the footpegs. The major benefit is it transfers your weight from being attached to the motorcycle at the set, to the feet. This allows for easier movement of the bike when cornering, or shifting weight frontwards or backwards to attack the specific terrain—sand, uphill, downhill, etc.
The other major benefit is field of vision; standing gives you a much better perspective of what’s ahead. This allows you to plan sooner, which equates to not only enhanced safety, but also increased speeds.
When standing, keep your legs slightly bent so they act as an extension of your suspension. Place the balls of your feet on the pegs; that’s where your balance is. Keep your legs and arms loose, so they can assist the suspension. When I feel my grip tightening on the bars, I yell to myself “Let the suspension work, dummy.” Those words haunted me when I first began ADV riding.
When you need to give your upper body a break during intense off-road sections, squeeze the gas tank with your knees. This is also a great time to complete some controlled breathing exercises for increased energy. My strategy is breathe in two seconds, hold in six, let out four. Do this a few times and your energy levels restore themselves extremely quick.
Standing may feel awkward at first. However, like anything, a bit of practice will have it feeling as normal as sitting in a short amount of time.
3. Adjust Controls Accordingly
For comfort, proper bike setup is everything. The key is to properly optimize controls for comfort while sitting or standing. I cater to comfort while standing since that’s when I’m doing my most challenging riding. I position the clutch and brake levers slightly downward for optimized feel at the controls when standing.
4. Two Fingers On Clutch
Leaving just two fingers to operate the clutch gives you more control on steering inputs, and allows you to use the “friction zone” of the clutch more—something I’ve learned from my street/race track riding, but is even more important off-road–especially while standing. This means slipping the clutch to either garner or rob power. Utilizing the friction zone is a great tactic for things like riding over logs or rocks.
5. Body Position
Body position is something every rider should practice for any type of motorcycle, whether piloting a cruiser, sportbike or dual sport. When standing, leaning your weight forward when ascending steep inclines will allow the bike to remain planted, and help with traction. When going downhill, leaning rearward helps keep the weight on the bike balanced.
For turns, you always want more weight up front to keep the front tire planted. If you’re sitting down, get as close forward as possible; if standing, lean a bit forward. This weights the front and keep the back loose for sliding out of a corner under throttle.
At speed, don’t twist your body in anyway; this changes for low-speed turns discussed below.
6. Turning Tech
Turning off-road is something that should be learned at the slowest pace possible. Only then can you understand how tight you can turn your bike when using the right technique. The hardest thing for me to learn was not leaning into the corner, when either standing or sitting.
As road riders, we want to lean our bodies into the corner to keep the bike more upright, which increases tire contact/traction. In the dirt, the tire design works better by leaning the bike into corners, while you remain standing or sitting upright. This allows the knobby or big tread tires to dig into the dirt and provide more traction.
Start learning with slow turns. Remember to always weight the outside peg, and keep your shoulders square to the bars. Began left-hand circles at a slow pace. While standing, keep your body upright, and shoulders square to the bars.
Keep your shoulders square, even if you have your bars locked in the tightest turning position. Do this by turning your upper body in the direction you are going. Some people only twist their upper bodies. Others, including me, like to move the entire body, including the feet slightly, or whatever is allowed due to space constraints, in that direction.
Continuing with this left turn, keep all your weight on your right leg. While practicing, I’ll also take my left foot completely off the peg, making sure all the weight is on the outside. Keep practicing and eventually you’ll be able to lock the bars and complete the tightest turns your bike possibly allows. Oh, and when learning, plan on dropping your bike a few times; don’t worry, this is normal.
Practice slow turning in both directions for the rest of your riding career—especially at the beginning of a season. The slower the better; you’ll improve your balance over time.
As for fast corners, get all braking completed before turning the bike; trail braking (keeping pressure on at start of turn) is great on the street, but will wipe you out in the dirt. Keep the weight a bit forward for added front-tire traction, and initiate turn-in with the bike, not the body (stay upright!).
Based on speed, this is where things can get fun. Initiate turn, point, and get on the throttle to slide the rear tire and finish the turn. Another advanced technique is locking the rear tire to help the bike initiate the turn with a slide—extreme fun.
7. Stop with Front; Steer with Rear Brake (Pick Rocks)
There’s still much confusion out there concerning braking off-road. I discussed this with Baja 1000 winner and Dakar podium finisher Jimmy Lewis at the Touratech Rally East this past August. You still need the front brake to stop.
According to Jimmy, the front brake is for stopping, and the rear is for steering. Rely on the front brakes for slowing/stopping, and use the rear to steer the bike, such as skidding the rear to point the bike into whatever direction is needed.
Even in the dirt, think of the braking bias as 80 percent front/20 percent rear. Learn the threshold of locking up the front tire, and you’ll be able to brake harder than you’ve ever imagined.
I am a huge fan of “picking through rocks” during technical rocky downhill sections–the sharper the stones, the more fun. This stand-up technique allows your rear tire to follow the front. While having your weight far back, you find your correct path with the front tire. When on top of rocks, “pick” through them by locking or almost locking the rear tire. This allows it to slide off rocks and get in line with the front. Try this—it changed my comfort levels tremendously.
8. Look Where You Want to Go
Look where you want to go. Always try to look as far ahead as possible on tighter trails, allowing your peripheral vision to take care of the obstacles. The faster you go, the further you look. Of course, in extremely slow and technical sections, your focus will be pretty close.
Just as on the street, target fixation causes many accidents off-road. It’s even tougher off-road because there are so many distractions saturated in such small areas. Hundreds of trees, rocks, bushes, and animals can easily grab your attention, causing you to head right into them.
I spent quite a bit of time training myself to not target fixate while off-road. The scenery is sometimes so beautiful it becomes an internal duel—do I ride fast, or slow to enjoy the scenery?
9. Keep Front Light for Sand, Mud and Waterways
When riding in sand or heavy mud, place your weight towards the back (with knees bent) and keep the throttle on aggressively. This provides a lighter front end, and creates an almost snowmobile effect of riding.
When crossing waterways such as tiny streams or deep creeks, keep the front as light as possible; dangerous rocks and tree limbs can be under the surface. The lighter the front, the easier chance you’ll have to make it to the other side. Follow the tracks of other riders who have made it through a waterway already.
10. Learn to Wheelie at Various Speeds
Wheelies don’t only look super cool—they also come in handy when off-road, especially when piloting a larger ADV bike. Learn how to power wheelie, and also wheelie by slipping the clutch.
The latter is needed for stumps, logs, rocks, or whatever else is in your way. Learning how to bring the front up even a few inches will have a tremendous impact on smooth riding and less crashing. You don’t want a 12 o’clock wheelstand, unless you’re doing it for fun.
New to the world of big Adv, but maybe a bit apprehensive of the off road? If so, you’re missing out on another outlet of Moto freedom.
But don’t worry; conquering the dirt just takes some time, and begins with learning the above 10 techniques. This should be followed by practice, practice, practice. The more competent you are, the more fun you’ll have. Remember, more control, more fun. Get out there and enjoy the true ability of these bigger ADV bikes.