A round-the-world trip on two wheels comes just once in a lifetime. Your adventure bike is standing ready and prepared in the shed, all that’s missing is the riding skills you need for your trip. Motorcycling on the roads is no problem, but traveling on tracks and dirt roads brings with it some real challenges. An intensive course could well be the answer!
Many motorcyclists dream of doing a long-distance trip on their trusty two-wheeler. Eventually you get to the point where you need to make that trip that’s been going round your head all these years actually happen. So … you clear your diary for two months and take the sabbatical you’ve been planning for so long. The motorcycle trip you’ve mapped out will still be great if you stick to the beaten path but will become really brilliant if you get offroad here and there. A challenging gravel track will get you to places you won’t read about in a travel guide.
But, for many motorcyclists the question is how do I handle the bike offroad? Eddie de Vries, editor-in-chief of Dutch motorcycling magazine, MOTO73, does ten thousand kilometers a year on his bike but mainly on asphalt roads. He understands the right riding and observation techniques, but when you’re offroading, there’s also a strong element of being bold and going for it. “We have articles on offroading in our magazine, but we have specialists we call on for those pieces. As a result, I rarely find myself going offroad. It’s a shame really as it’s a great feeling just striking out on a route that leads into the unknown.”
And that would suit the 33-year old journalist, who you could say has got the traveling bug, down to the ground. Eddie can already cross a few countries off his bucket list thanks to the launch of so many new bikes. But, outside of his work too, he enjoys taking off to unexplored regions and this has already brought him to countries like Vietnam, Colombia and Nepal. All by bike, of course. He’s currently planning his next trip for work, to Morocco. Clearly, the rugged landscape of the country is an invitation to get offroad. So, time to get some advice from the experts on a course run by former Dakar competitor Eric Verhoef. With ten Dakar Rally competitions to his name, you can be sure he’ll be able to teach the editor of MOTO73 a thing or two about offroad motorcycling. The course is open to all and, if you’ve got an adventure bike, he’d be delighted to take you offroad and show you what it’s all about. In any event, these tips will give you a good grounding to help you on your way.
Tip 1: prepare well for your adventure
Eric Verhoef: “There’s so much more enjoyment you can get out of your adventure bike. In fact, once you’ve learnt to ride offroad, a whole new world opens up in front of you. It’s important that you approach this new challenge in small steps. Before you start, it’s a good idea to look over your equipment carefully. Clearly, a good helmet is a necessity, but even there you’ve got a range of choices. Always make sure you have a wide field of view and your eyes are well protected. The options include an adventure helmet with visor or a motocross helmet with goggles. Take a careful look at the visor tinting. If you’re going to a hot country where the sun shines a lot, it’s definitely good to have dark tinted ‘glass’. That way you see more contrast during the day – it can make quite a difference. Another alternative is to wear sunglasses under your helmet: then you can have your visor open if you want to and get a bit of fresh air circulating while still keeping your eyes protected. Tough boots and extra protection for your body are very important. Body armor should not be thought of as an unnecessary luxury, because if you do take a fall you want to be sure you minimize injury to yourself as much as possible. I would say knee protectors are a must. Even though you only have to bend out your knee to a minimum on a heavyweight adventure bike, you need to give your knees that extra protection at all times. After all, your knees are very important joints, especially if you want to go offroading. In terms of clothing, there is a wide choice and so all sorts of variations are possible. As long as you’ve got the basics right, that’s all that matters. One thing to remember is that you need to be able to move easily on your bike. It is definitely worth giving consideration to thermal underwear. It’s designed specifically to keep you warm and is very thin. That way you don’t have to wear a thick jumper that may restrict your freedom of movement. My final tip in terms of equipment is to get a camel bag. It might sound like a luxury, but it’s far from it. Make sure you drink a lot: cycling offroad takes much more out of you and uses more energy than riding on asphalt.”
Tip 2: check your motorcycle thoroughly
“Even more important than your personal equipment is, of course, your bike. You need to check that everything is working properly and check all wearing parts. This applies in particular if you’re going to be away for an extended period. If you are in any doubt as to whether any parts are still up to the job, replace them. One key item if you’re going to be riding offroad is tires. Some decent nobbly tires are a must if you’re riding on rough terrain. You might lose a bit in comfort and grip when you’re riding on asphalt, but that’s a small price to pay for the advantages you get once you’re offroad. I would recommend considering the Continental TKC80, the Michelin Anakee Wild or the D606 from Dunlop. So, get good advice on tires from your local dealer. Grip is everything if you’re heading out onto rough terrain with your adventure bike. Another must is hand guards, if they’re not already fitted as standard. The same applies to crash bars. There’s always a chance you’ll take a tumble, and they will help you avoid damage to expensive bodywork. Not only do hand guards protect your fingers from pebbles that are thrown up, they will also increase the chances your handlebars will stay intact after a fall. These are parts that could just make the difference between continuing on your journey or having to stay put with a severely damage bike. What I almost forgot to say is that you should get a shield for the crankcase to prevent a stone strike having fatal consequences for your engine block. As well as tire grip, you need to be sure you can stand securely on your bike. Check whether the rubbers on your footrests will come off. You are usually able to do this on an adventure bike. You need to be sure your boots won’t slip. Another good tip is to check if the handlebars are in the right position. Normally they will be adjusted to an average length, but if you’re slightly below or above average height, it’s worth checking this. You need to be able to ride comfortably in a standing position. If the handlebars are too low, you could consider handlebar risers.”
Tip 3: assume the right posture
“The important thing when you’re riding offroad is being able to feel what your machine is doing. To achieve this, you usually need to get into a standing position. You should not extend your limbs fully as they act as human suspension components. The knees and elbows need to be able to absorb unevenness in the surface you’re on. They won’t be able to do this if they are ‘locked’ straight. Because you’re standing, you also have more pressure on the foot pegs and that’s the main thing for balance too. The position of your feet on the pegs is also important. The ball of your foot should be doing the work. I still see far too many people riding with clown’s feet. It’s dangerous too, because the risk of getting pulled off your bike is that much greater. In terms of your hands, just keep gentle, relaxed contact with the handlebars. In fact, you only need them to apply the gas, to change gear and to brake. Imagine you’re playing the piano. Don’t hold on for dear life or it’s not going to work. At higher speeds you generally steady your bike with your knees, but when you’re going at creeping speed you need to keep your knees slightly away from the machine. That way you can let the bike move nicely between your legs to keep your balance. To get a proper feel of the effect of standing on the bike, do a bit of a test. By letting your machine break out, you’ll feel the difference instantly. If you sit on the seat, your whole body will make the same movement as the bike. Then take up a standing position: when the rear wheel breaks out it will feel much more controlled. Once you’ve experienced this, it won’t feel so worrying next time it happens and that in turn is good for your self-confidence. And, if there’s one thing that’s important for offroad motorcycling, it’s having confidence in your own abilities.”
Tip 4: steering on unimproved roads
“It’s just like skiing. Just because you’ve bought a pair of skis, it doesn’t necessarily mean the next thing you need to do is book a winter sports holiday. Start by learning to ride on rough terrain nearer to home. It’s definitely helpful to go on a course, then you pick everything up that much quicker. Whatever way you approach it, riding offroad needs a different technique to road biking. It’s a good idea to learn the basics first on gravel tracks. Gravel still gives you a reasonably hard surface, but you still need to use all the offroad techniques to stay in control. When you’re riding an adventure bike on gravel, create pressure on the front wheel by standing. Keep your speed low and build up your confidence. Initially, avoid using the front brake altogether and learn to drop your speed using the back brake. It’s not that easy to recover when you lose your front wheel on gravel. Of course, modern bikes have special ABS settings for offroad use that provide extra control. On reasonably hard surfaces you ultimately steer with your body and you think yourself round bends. Look well ahead and make sure you have enough time to anticipate unexpected situations. You need to see your adventure bike as being more like a steamboat, while a true offroader feels more like a speedboat. Its hefty weight means you need to build in a bigger margin. Riding in soft sand demands a completely different technique again, because in this situation you need to make sure you keep the weight off the front as much as possible. You also need to make sure the bike keeps pulling, albeit you don’t want to be giving it full throttle all the time. When the bike is pulling, the front forks will not plunge in. If this does happen, then the front wheel has a tendency to act like a castor. In loose sand try to keep a straight course as much as possible. Keep your weight towards the back and make turns using the rear wheel, once again controlling it using the gas. Weight and application of the throttle are very important for riding on sand. If you’ve never tried it or only have limited experience, I’d definitely recommend doing an offroad course. You need to know what it feels like when it’s working right to be able to ride on sand. If we’re talking about sand, dune riding has to be the ultimate. Be warned, it’s pretty hard-going cruising through dunes on a heavy adventure bike. Having a play in the dunes is great, but I wouldn’t recommend spending a whole day riding in that sort of terrain. But, if you think dune riding is really your thing, then it’s best to get a lightweight offroad machine.”
Tip 5: it can go wrong
“We touched on hand guards and crash bars earlier. These will help to avoid damage if you take a fall. Another point to be aware of in terms of safety is riding with others. If you’re planning to go offroad, make sure there is at least one other rider with you, and always keep each other in sight. If something does go wrong, at least there’s someone there to help. You don’t want to be waiting hours for the next vehicle to go by because you’re in a sparsely populated region. If your bike is lying on the ground, then you need to have the strength to right it again. Given the right technique, this should be within everyone’s capabilities. A good approach is to push your bottom into the saddle from the side with knees bent. Pull one handlebar toward your body and hold it with one hand. Put your other hand down as low as possible on the other side of your body and grasp the bike. It’s then a question of taking small steps backward until the bike returns to an upright position. Don’t forget, by the way, to put the bike in gear so that it can’t roll away while you’re busy righting it.”
There’s one other thing to remember when you’re offroading with an adventure bike: practice makes perfect. Have a go, maybe take a course and get as many kilometers under your belt as possible. You never know, you might be standing at your employer’s door in a few weeks’ time with the all-important news that you’re off on your travels in a couple of months. If that’s you, then we’d like to wish you a fantastic trip!
Photos: Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions