A Beginner’s Guide To Riding A Motorcycle Off-road

I spent this past weekend at the Great Trail Adventure (GTA) event at Pune helping the organizers while meeting old friends and making new ones. This was a two day adventure motorcycle training event aimed at beginners. A large number of 40+ participants had never taken their motorcycle off-road in a serious way and it felt nice to help them understand what was going on and encourage them to push further. Now that the event is over I find myself in the mood of giving some gyaan about how to start riding a motorcycle off-road. From my interactions with people at the event, it appears that I have been successfully able to fool everyone into believing that I’m some kind of a professional off-road rider who has been riding in the dirt since I was 5 years old.

I’m going to break this into three steps in a very specific order with one leading into another.

 

Step 1: Training

Training is the first building block of the foundation you need to be able to ride a motorcycle off-road successfully and enjoy it. The enjoyment part is important as that’s the whole point of riding off-road. To have fun. Events like GTA are designed with this in mind. All of my training was from watching YouTube videos and then practicing stuff in a field or directly on a trail. I do think a proper training course would have got me there a little faster.

But, and this is a big but, training is just one part of the puzzle. The other part is practice, the importance of which many people fail to appreciate. I will explain with an example. One of the exercises at the GTA training event was riding your motorcycle clockwise slowly around a cone while looking at it all the time. You had to stand up on the foot pegs while gripping the handlebar with both hands, lean the motorcycle towards the center of the circle and dig your left knee into the tank. While this was done on a level surface in a large empty space, a real world scenario of where you will need to put this into practice is something like this. Imagine a right hair pin bend on a steep incline where the track has rocks and loose gravel. Instead of a cone there is a 200 foot drop to certain death and an excellent chance for a total loss insurance claim for your motorcycle for your next of kin. When you get to that point in the trail you are going to freak out. At that point you are not going to remember the cone in the training session and what you are supposed to do with your body and the motorcycle. You will panic and do something stupid like twist the throttle, squeeze in the clutch or jam the brakes, or maybe all at once. The motorcycle will fall and if its a heavy adventure motorcycle you will wait for someone to come and help you pick it up because there is no level surface like what you saw in all those “how to pick up your motorcycle” YouTube videos.

The way you solve this problem is by practicing these exercises regularly so that they become part of your muscle memory. When you get to that scary point on the trail, you will freak out. And that is perfectly all right. Fear isn’t something that training can fix. But instead of doing something stupid, your brain will involuntarily tell the rest of the body what to do. If you have practiced these exercises long enough, your body will do the right thing even when your mind is freaking out. You will find that you have safely and correctly negotiated the scary hair pin bend without even knowing how it happened, as if you were riding pillion.

 

Step 2: Technique

Training courses and videos do a good job showing you the correct techniques of overcoming obstacles off-road. However, there often is more than one “correct” technique for doing the same thing. So it is very important to find the technique that is correct for you. Let’s take the very basic technique of standing on the foot pegs. I don’t do it, except in a couple of cases, which I’ll talk about later.

Everybody tells you to stand on the foot pegs when riding off road. They also tell you to sit down when you can because standing up all the time can be exhausting. When I started riding my motorcycle off-road, that’s exactly what I did. As they said, it was much easier to sway the motorcycle under me while standing on the foot pegs than if I was sitting on the seat. But it was just too damn exhausting. In fact, standing on the pegs wasn’t as exhausting as the act of getting up and sitting down again and again. Our trail rides usually last the entire day and by the end of the day, I quite simply didn’t have any energy left to think straight and do anything right. I felt miserable and was thoroughly confused. This was supposed to be fun. While I was getting the sense of achievement of doing something challenging, I wasn’t really enjoying the act of actually doing it.

I took a step back and started analyzing what I was doing. I began sitting on the motorcycle while riding off-road and found myself conserving a lot of energy. This came at the cost of flexibility since I had to negotiate the motorcycle around and over obstacles while sitting on it instead of standing up. But I slowly started to devise my own “correct” techniques to do this. Things started looking up for me and I started enjoying my trail rides. I no longer felt exhausted and could carry on riding even when my other friends were totally wiped out. I’m probably the least physically fit person among my trailing riding buddies. But I figured out that doing the “correct” thing wasn’t correct for me.

I purposely picked this extreme example of standing up versus sitting down because I hope it will drive my point in. There are just two occasions where I stand on the foot pegs when riding. When the track is so gnarly that it would hurt my back if I sat down or when I’m going flat out on a straight section. Other than that, if you see me standing on the foot pegs, it most probably means someone is taking my picture and I want to look cool. 🙂

You will find that each trainer has his own set of “correct” techniques. They believe their techniques are correct because they work for them. They may not work for you. So my advice is while doing a course or watching videos, do exactly what the trainer says. Then when practicing in a field or riding on a trail you be the judge of whether the technique is correct for you or not.

 

Step 3: Confidence

When I started riding trails with my friends, I made it a point never to be the last one. My fear was that I would fall or get stuck and then nobody would be there to help me. This constant fear came in the way of me actually enjoying the trail ride. I realized that I was low on confidence. I decided to fix my confidence problem by taking my motorcycle off road alone on my usual morning and evening rides. I started with small tracks and then slowly took things further. I have now reached a point where I shamelessly take my 350 kg Harley-Davidson Fat Boy on simple dirt tracks that lead off the highways. That motorcycle is an absolute pig to ride off the tarmac. But I ride it nevertheless just to show myself what I can do. I still have some confidence issues with steep downhill slopes and I’m working towards overcoming those.

 

I believe that you can ride a motorcycle well off-road only if you are confident. But unfortunately, there is no shortcut to confidence. You need to start with training, follow it up with practice, then figure out the correct technique that works for you and finally do stuff pushing your limits every time so that you end up with confidence that only grows. All this sounds like common sense. But unfortunately that’s not how some people approach the idea of riding a motorcycle off-road. I’ve ridden with people so high on confidence and zero training and technique, that they have come with Ducati Multistradas with bald street tyres, attempted to ride the most difficult trails in the Western ghats only to fail spectacularly. I’ve met people who have done courses after courses and end up having a miserable time on a trail just because they haven’t taken the trouble of practicing whatever they were taught. I’ve known people who have bought adventure motorcycles with an intention of riding off-road (not to coffee shops) only to sell them quickly because they didn’t have the patience to learn the basics.

So my advice is to start right at the beginning – training. Events like GTA are obviously better than watching videos. But I would recommend that you watch a decent amount of videos before attend such a formal training event. That will set the stage up well so that you get the most value out of the training session.

Gyaan has been served. 🙂