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The Dirt Bike Survival Guide: How You Can Benefit From Dirt Biking

Off-roading is the best way to improve your road riding game.

Updated May 25, 2017

What is a dirt bike? For the sake of a bit of clarity, here’s how the internet defines a “dirt bike” – a motorcycle designed for use on rough terrain, such as unsurfaced roads or tracks, and used especially in scrambling. It’s pretty straight forward, right? We all know what a dirt bike is, most of us have seen one left forgotten in a buddy’s garage – a boxy 80s machine with yellowing plastics, you know the ones. But there’s a lot more to the machine than knobbly tires, an uncomfortable seat, and punishable suspension. In fact, the illustrious dirt bike has quite a rich and flavored history. So like all good stories, let’s start at the beginning…

The History Of The Dirt Bike

Rather than simply throw unnecessary dates around, let’s look at the bigger picture. As soon as mankind stumbles across a new invention, humans are inclined to push it to the absolute limit. When the first motorcycles came on the scene in the late 1800s, it wouldn’t be long until a racing scene developed. Since motor vehicles of any style were relatively new, asphalt tracks that we’re familiar with today hadn’t been invented yet – so our brave two wheeled pioneers raced in the open spaces available to them: the great outdoors. And that’s where motocross originates.

“Cross country motorcycle racing” first appeared on the scene in the United Kingdom, with the first proper dirt bike race or “scramble” taking place in Scotland in 1909. Naturally, the thrill of the sport caused it to evolve and by 1924, official races with factory backed entrants were popping up all over the UK, with firms like BSA, Norton, and Matchless lending their support.

As with most emerging technologies, there’s nothing quite like a war to really kick design and engineering up a notch, so by the time World War II rolled around, off-road machinery and all-terrain vehicles were in high demand. Rigid frames were replaced by front suspension and rear shock arrangements, engine capabilities and power delivery improved tremendously, and the humble dirt bike began to take shape.

By 1966, motocross had made its way across the pond properly with FIM sanctioned events but the 60s also brought something more formidable to the table: the Japanese. Suzuki, Kawasaki, and a little company by the name of Honda decided to enter the arena, and the goal posts changed somewhat. While Japanese sales were slow to start, it wasn’t too long before they became household names. By the early 1970s, when Honda released their 2-stroke CR250M, dirt bikes, scrambling, off-road time trials, and almost everything else were becoming popular pastimes.

Nowadays, there is a massive dirt bike subculture, and niches within niches. What we once simply referred to as dirt biking, off-roading, or motocross, has now expanded to include a wide range of sub categories, including enduro racing, supercross, pit bike racing, mini-motocross, free style motocross, and even extends to supermoto racing. And there’s plenty more on top of those too. Is dirt biking a sport? Oh hell yeah, it is.

Dirt Bike Riding: Who Does It And Why?

Let’s start with the big names of the sport. Dirt bike riding is too wide a term to really list the greats of all of the individual disciplines, but if you’re looking for a few searchable to names to give you an idea of what great dirt bike riders look like, make sure you enter these names into the search bar…

  • Travis Pastrana – The legend himself. AMA Supercross Champion, Motocross extraordinaire, freestyle motocross maverick, and general X Games icon. If you’re looking to see what a humble dirt bike rider from Maryland can evolve into in his final form, well this is as good as you can get.
  • Ryan Dungey – Aside from being the first motocross rider on a Wheaties cereal box, Dungey has a few other accolades to his name. Namely, being a four time AMA 450 Motocross Champion, an AMA 250 Motocross Champion, and a member of Team USA’s winning teams at the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Motocross des Nations competitions. All that and a cereal box deal too.
  • Ricky Carmichael – Between 1991 and 2007, Ricky Carmichael stamped his authority all over the dirt bike racing scene, clocking up titles, awards and accolades across the Supercross and Motocross fields, culminating in over multiple victories throughout his career. In the dirt biking world, he’s often referred to as the “GOAT” – the Greatest Of All Time.

If you’re new to off-road motorcycling, then these names might not be terribly familiar to you. However, there’s another famous “GOAT” that owes a lot of his fame to the humble dirt bike in some capacity. You don’t even need to own a bike to have heard of Valentino Rossi. Rossi may be better known as a MotoGP champion, but as part of his own riding academy training facility, rough roading and dirt track riding is a massive part of his key to success and his training syllabus. The same can be said of reigning GP champion Marc Marquez, or of legendary US riders Colin Edwards or Nicky Hayden.

And that’s really the point of this article. Why do so many premier class GP or road racers spend their free time in the saddle of a dirt bike, on unfamiliar terrain, whilst risking injury? Because it’s the key to their success. Hitting the trails can turn mediocre riders into great ones. It challenges what you already know and throws up new obstacles. It trains your mind as well as your body, and makes you a better rider at the same time.

If you’re used to only riding on sealed roads, astride a modern sports bike – then the chances are that you’re going to be more than a little unsteady when you hit a good old fashioned muddy trail on a dirt bike. On the other side of the coin, if you watch a rider that has only ever ridden off-road and put them on the track behind the bars of a CBR, they’ll be as comfortable as a fish in water within minutes.

So, What Makes A Dirt Bike Different To A Street Bike?

While the answer might easily be found in the question, there’s a bit more to it than the simple “dirt bikes for the dirt, street bikes for the street” answer. Of course, there are a few obvious signs, like the overall shape, the different riding profile, the difference in saddle height, the tires – the list is endless, really. But here are the biggest differences.

Frame

First up, we have the frame. Dirt bike frames are built differently than your regular sports bike equivalents. Dirt bike frames are engineered to withstand different stresses, and built with different materials in mind. Since the nature of off-roading involves a degree of overcoming obstacles and falling over, they’re built to be tough but lightweight. They’re more compact than you’re probably used to as well, keeping the machine as small and sleek as possible.

Suspension

The suspension is also different. Well, in some respects it’s the same, but it’s been tweaked to perform a different job. Dirt bike suspension boasts longer travel, different spring rates and valving, and they’re geared towards tackling tougher surfaces and heavier impacts. Historically, dirt bikes had more advanced suspension systems than their road going brethren, but nowadays the technology has caught up.

Tires

Dirt bikes also come with very different tires to those you’d ideally want to use on the road. Often referred to as “knobbly tires” because of their aggressive treads, knobbly tires offer much better traction and the narrow profile of the wheels allows for easy navigation across uneven surfaces. A common question that appears on search engines is this one: “Do dirt bike tires have tubes?” and while these machines offer both tube and tubeless configuration, a general rule of thumb is that if it has spoked wheels, it’s probably a tubed tire; if it has alloy rims, it’s probably tubeless – though it’s not always the case, it’s not a bad rule to keep in mind.

Rider Stance

The first you’ll probably notice about a dirt bike is the seating position and the saddle. The seating position is quite different to your average sports bike or cruiser riding position. Dirt bike riders tend to keep their weight more at the front of the bike, and control the steering with wider handlebars. By keeping their weight forward, riders keep their weight from interfering with the back wheel if they get stuck in the mud, and the wider steering angle allows for nimbler passage through difficult terrain. You’ll also notice the saddle too. It doesn’t look terrible comfortable, does it? And there’s a reason for that. Dirt bike riders tend to spend a lot of their time standing up on the pegs…

The Overall Package

In essence, they’re a smaller machine, but with a higher stance that offers better ground clearance. If you spend an afternoon trail riding on a dirt bike and then swing your leg over your 600cc supersport, you’ll definitely feel like something’s not right. Sportsbikes and cruisers have lower ground clearance and a lower saddle height compared with an off-road bike, and even that is enough to put off some riders from giving trail riding a go. It shouldn’t though – just remember that it’s a different ride experience.

Finally, there’s the aesthetics. Plastic bodywork here, plastic bodywork there. Few dirt bikes have much in the way of bodywork, save for a headlight cowl, a few bits on the tank, a couple of miniscule side panels, a tailpiece, and the front and rear fenders. They’re not built for maximum aerodynamics. They’re built to get thrashed around the local quarry.

What Are The Similarities Between Dirt Bikes And Regular Motorcycles?

For all of the differences, there are a hell of a lot more similarities. If you already know how to ride a motorcycle, you’ll understand how an off-roader works. The braking is the same, the gear shifting is the same, and guess what? Twisting the throttle is exactly the same. The controls are all the same – but it’s how you use them in different circumstances that makes the difference. The careful application of the brake, for example, tentatively learned on a slippery mud surface allows a road rider to understand different braking tolerances at different speeds, and how the bike reacts. Cautious braking but done correctly can drastically improve corner speed. That’s just one example of many, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

It’s because the principles are exactly the same, but some with a few added benefits that top level motorcyclists frequently ride dirt bikes as part of their regular training regime. So, next time some smart ass makes the comment “Why did he injure himself in between races? What was he thinking, going off riding and racing dirt bikes at the weekend? Does he not realize the risk?” you can now give them a thorough telling off, by listing some of these key reasons.

Dirt Bike Riding: Key Skill Improvements

Confidence

Since dirt bikes are lighter, smaller, and built for abuse, they’re great tools for building your riding confidence. Firstly, they’re sharp and responsive machines that respond to your touch in ways that sports bike never will. They can also handle a wide range of terrain, so you don’t have to worry about taking a spill just because there are four grains of sand on the road. And you will fall at some point, because if you don’t, you’re not joining in with enough enthusiasm. That’s the great thing with dirt bikes and dirt biking in general though: falling is part of the fun, and the bikes are built to handle the kind of bumps and wobbles you’re likely to have. Would you rather drop a dirt bike that’s built for rough treatment or a brand new Ducati Panigale? That’s not even a question, is it?

Understanding

Off-road bikes aren’t equipped with any fancy technology. They’re rough and ready. There’s no relying on traction control, ABS, or dedicated ride modes. Because of their basic nature, riders are forced to learn how to ride and control their bike in a variety of ways to match differing situations. Dirt bike riders generally have a better feel for braking distances, how much lean angle their bike can handle, how to control and use a rear tire slide – and that’s before we even begin to talk about precision clutch control…

Speed

In a straight shootout between a dirt bike and a sport bike, there’s no contest. Sports bikes are much faster, of course – but that doesn’t mean the humble dirt bike can’t teach you a thing or two. The truth is, most riders start their riding careers on something massively over-powered. Anyone that thinks a 600cc super sport is a learner bike has obviously never ridden one properly. Dirt bikes are great learning tools because you have to work hard to make them go fast. The bike will only do so much for you, the rest is up to rider ability. You can learn the fundamentals of getting the most out of the least, and do it in a relatively safe manner. If you can make a dirt bike fly around a muddy field, you can throw a sports bike around a track with ease.

Limits

Very much like the “confidence” section above, off-road bikes are the best for exploring the limits of your motorcycle. You can lean to your heart’s content, and suffer a gentle tumble on the soft earth. You can test those brakes by locking the front and sliding the back – all with little or no consequences. And most importantly, you can learn how to crash when it all goes tits up. That’s right, learning how to fall properly is an art in itself – one best learnt on a wide expanse of sand rather than sliding down a busy highway.

Off-Roading Will Improve Your Awareness

We all like to have a dig at car drivers for not looking out for bikes, or for driving carelessly, for not looking where they’re going et cetera, but there are a lot of times where motorcyclists are just as guilty. The stakes are much higher for motorcyclists, so learning how to perceive potential hazards, maintain their road position, and act accordingly is a very important thing. And here’s how some time on a dirt bike can improve your overall ride experience.

Hazard Perception

There’s a fundamental difference between trail riding and road riding, and it’s this: trails are littered with hazards. Sure, roads and highways are filled with them too, but out on the trail, when you’re hammering through a forest up a dry river bed, the hazards aren’t as obvious. The thrill of off-road motorcycling is rooted in the unpredictability of the terrain. When you go out on that lovely purpose built road that has been specifically and logically designed for the flow of traffic, it’s easy to get surprised and have an accident when the terrain (or your fellow motorists) does something you weren’t expecting.

When you’re riding in the wild though, you’re always scanning ahead. You won’t be looking for big and obvious cars, but you’ll be training your eyes to scan for loose dirt, slippery patches, low hanging branches, big rocks, little rocks, animals, other riders! Anything that could be a potential hazard. Dirt bikers are experts at spotting the hazards well in advance. Become an expert hazard perception guru on the dirt, and you’ll be on another level back on the street.

Positioning

You know that feeling when you execute that perfect corner out in the twisties? It feels fantastic. When you’ve picked the perfect line, got the brakes just right, and got on the throttle for the best corner exit of all time? It’s one of the best feelings there is. However, even the best riders will fail to make that corner perfectly every single time. You can practice though, and one of the best ways is on the dirt. Surprise, surprise.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford track time, then that’s one way you could do it, but if you’re a regular rider like me, then the dirt is as good as it gets. You could use the road, but I wouldn’t recommend it and here’s why. When you’re riding your dirt bike out on the trail, with your narrow tires, if you get it wrong, you’ll fall into a rut and fall. Or you’ll drift out into the trees, and fall over. Or hit a rough patch…and fall over. Once you’ve fallen over a good few times, you won’t want to do it again, so you learn how to keep that ideal line pretty quickly – and how to hit it every time.

If you try that same approach on the road, and hit that pot hole, it could be game over. Or go wide in that corner into oncoming traffic, and it could be game over. There’s no shortage of potential “game over” obstacles on the road. There’s a lot less out on the trails, and while there are still rocks and trees, you’re going to be going a hell of a lot slower.

Dirt Bike Riding Is A Great Way To Keep Fit

Is off-roading a good workout? Hitting the gym is all good, but if you’re like me and can’t stand the monotony of lifting this or stretching that, then thrashing your way along a dirt trail is a more attractive way of keeping fit. Dirt biking is very much an extreme sport, but even at the most pedestrian level it’s an intense workout. If you ride on the road, you’ll know that riding 100 miles from A to B can be a strain on muscle groups you didn’t even know existed, and heading out on the trail – even for short periods – gives you a thorough workout. Here are some of the best fitness reasons for buying a dirt bike…if you have to justify the purchase to anyone…

Strength! – The engine might appear to be doing the hard work, but someone has to steer it in the right direction. Dirt biking requires more strength than you’d think. A lot of the strength exercises will be done passively by your quadriceps and hamstrings when you’re compensating for the suspension over dips, or by abdominals as you turn your body, and of course, your arms get a major work out whilst under heavy braking, by turning the bike, or keeping it in line while you’re dealing with a jump. Let’s not forget the whole body workout you’re going to get lifting your bike when you inevitably (and regularly) drop it.

The Heart! –  Your heart raise will increase significantly while you’re dirt biking around the trails. Fitness coaches have compared the average dirt bike ride to a low level endurance exercise or a decent jog that can raise your heart rate up to the business end of the 130s in terms of bmp – if you go harder though, it can be as good as raising it to the 150 bmp marker too.

Endurance! – Let’s just say that your average time out in the dirt lasts around an hour. That’s an hour of intense cardiovascular exercise. With your increased heart rate and the combined strength workouts that go with it, that’s a fair amount of exercise you’re getting. And the more you do it, the longer you’ll be able to last, and the fitter you’ll become. Not bad, eh?

Balance! – Balance might not be high up on the health benefit level, but in terms of riding fitness, the better balance you have, the better. By standing up on the pegs, by leaning this way or that, you’ll be using a variety of muscle groups; each one tightening and relaxing to compensate for the lean of the bike, or the heavy forward and backward motions too. Good balance makes for great riding. It’s going to help your posture out a hell of a lot too. You’ll have that back straight in no time, that’s for sure.

Fresh Air! – There’s no substitute for getting out of the house, is there? We all like to go for a ride, but many of us can be put off by bad weather. Luckily, dirt biking is great fun in bad weather. Rather than sitting at home reading FaceApp or your Whatsbook on a rainy day, you can get out, have fun, experience real life, and get fit at the same time. If it’s not raining and the sun is shining, boo hoo, those sun-given nutrients aren’t going to hurt, are they?

Getting Started

Hopefully, we’ve sold dirt biking to you. Now it’s time to get started. So, what do you need? We’ll keep the requirements brief for now, but we’ll expand on the important things later. To begin with, here’s what you need to start dirt biking:

  • A Dirt Bike – Obviously. Don’t worry about what type of dirt bike at this stage of the game, just know that you’ll need one. Don’t even bother with a new one, go old school, go second hand. Get a real piece of crap, it doesn’t really matter at the moment!
  • Dirt Bike Gear – You will want some protection. Dirt bike helmets are designed differently to their road going counterparts, and one of those will set you in good stead for the future. Good boots are also an essential, gloves are a must, and if you’ve got any nice pads, they won’t go amiss.
  • Rope In A Friend – I love road riding because it’s quite a solitary pastime, but dirt biking really requires a buddy or two. Since you’re likely to be heading out to remote spots, if you do have a bad fall, or get stranded, you’re going to need someone to call the emergency services, help you push your battered bike back home, fish it out of the river, dispense with their own brand of advice. The list is endless. Convince a friend to join you, even if you have to bribe them.
  • Somewhere To Ride – Not as easy as it sounds. Unfortunately, some people get protective of their land, but all is not lost. There are plenty of places to ride, if you know who to ask and where to look. There are plenty of local forums that share information about agreeable riding locations. In fact, the dirt biking community is one of the most friendly in the world, and everyone is keen to help out new riders and point them in the right direction for “safe” places to ride. You could try asking local land owners for their permission. However, if your local landowner looks like the type to fire off a warning shot at the sound of a BRAP, you’d better give them a miss and look elsewhere.

That’s the brief overview, now let’s look at the all-important “what dirt bike to buy” question…

What Bike To Buy?

There’s no easy answer to this, since the world of off-road motorcycling is so varied. I suppose, a “cheap dirt bike” would be the obvious starting point. Buying new is a fool’s errand if you’re just getting in to the sport, and lucky for you, decent reliable dirt bikes come along pretty cheap, and they’re pretty darn reliable too – if you stick with the big names of course: Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha, KTM and the like. You can’t go wrong with a good old Honda, and there’s usually one sitting in someone’s garage just down the street that you can pick up for next to nothing, providing you’re prepared to get her running… But if you’re looking for the more specific types, then here’s a little overview of the different styles of dirt bikes on the market:

Motocross

Motocross bikes are the modern version of scramblers. They’re designed and built for off-road racing, with a light weight frame and body, and long travel suspension. Motocross bikes aren’t explicitly race only bikes, but a proper one will come without a lot of road comforts, like headlights.

Trail Bikes

Trail bikes are really the road going versions of a motocross bike but with some differences. They’re not built for competition, and they’re often not really well suited to the dirt. Most come with dual sport tires rather than proper knobblies, and the suspension isn’t as heavy duty.

Enduro Bikes

An Enduro bike, on the other hand, is somewhere between a trail bike and a motocross machine. Think of them as a more practical motocross bike, with a more appropriate sized fuel tank, lights, road legal exhausts, and a few more riding comforts. For the most part, they’re road legal, depending on your local laws. This is a great choice for a beginner dirt bike.

Trials Bikes

Unless you’ve got a very clear idea of what you want to do, a trials bike probably isn’t your dirt bike of choice. They’re the kind you see those crazy riders doing insanely precise tricks with. They have no seat, the suspension is short travel, and the bikes are very light weight. Great for jumping from one rock to another on your rear tire, not so good for the absolute beginner.

Pit Bikes

Though small, you should never discount a pit bike. With engine sizes ranging between 50cc and 110cc, they’re a fun alternative to something big and they often come up cheap. They’re great for kids and shorter riders, and a hell of a lot of fun. They’re just mini dirt bikes really, often seen as kids dirt bikes, but they’re not that small. For something cheap to begin with, these are quite good fun.

Supermoto

Now, supermoto shouldn’t really count as a dirt bike. It’s not really a road bike either. What is a supermoto (or supermotard) bike then? Well, they’re like motocross or enduro bikes that can handle the streets, dirt tracks, and irregular jumps. They’re probably not for the beginner, but they are definitely worth looking at a bit further down the road in your dirt biking career…

Of course, on top of these different styles of bikes, you can also choose between two and four stroke engines, and a variety of engine sizes. Whether you go for a two stroke dirt bike or a four, it doesn’t really matter. As a purist, I’d recommend two stroke, but modern four strokes are actually quite fantastic. Then you’ve got the engine size conundrum. Bigger does not necessarily mean better here. You’ve got to think about picking the damn thing up – regularly. You want to think about your skill level too, and the difficulty of the terrain you’re likely to be in.

A 125cc or 250cc is more than enough for a beginner – and even then, I would lean towards the smaller end of the spectrum. Buying too big a bike to handle is one of the most common mistakes that new dirt bike riders make…But that is one of many.

Common Off-Road Riding Mistakes…

There are no shortage of first day failures you can make, but that’s life. You’re never going to get the hang of it on the first try. Here are some of the most common beginner dirt biking mistakes:

  • Overconfidence! – If you’re used to riding on the road, you’ll know that the slightest bit of dirt is enough to bring down a sports bike. You’ll be surprised at just how capable a dirt bike can be. Sand? No problem. Dirt? Ha, no worries. Bumps? What bumps? But just because the motorcycle can handle anything, that doesn’t mean that you can just yet. Take it slow, learn the braking parameters, get a feel for the grip, test different surfaces. Keep it slow. Don’t go thundering off straight away. You will be caught out by something. Ask my collarbone.
  • It’s A Different Ball Game! – As you learn how your dirt bike works, you’ll realize that some things may seem counter intuitive to what you’re used to. Skills you learned for the road may not be particularly useful out on the trail. When you see a hazard on the road, you need to slow down and stop. When you see a hazard on the trail, a patch of slipper clay on that downhill, your best course of action may be to keep those wheels moving at all costs. Braking isn’t always your friend. Coasting can be ridiculously handy. Changing down a gear can be a huge mistake. Treat it as a new discipline, and it will treat you with respect. Ask my ribs.
  • A Fear Of Falling! – You fell off your dirt bike? So what? Obviously, the idea is not to fall off. However, falling off is a vital part of that learning curve, but if you take things easy, you won’t hit that learning curve too hard. Unless you’re riding hard, you’re going have a little bump or a few scrapes. When you’re an advanced off-road rider, you can push your limits – but even then, accidents do happen. As a beginner, stay within your comfort zone, and dip a toe out of it when you feel like you’re ready. Worst case scenario, you fall off first in front of your friends, they laugh at you, and you’ve got to buy the first round of beers later on. It happens. Ask my wallet.
  • Not Gearing Up! – It’s mentioned above clear enough: you will fall off. It might be better to take a tumble off-road rather than on a highway, but unless you take adequate precautions and wear the best gear for the job, you’re not going to escape completely unscathed. At the bare minimum you need a proper helmet, decent dirt bike gloves, and protective boots. In the future, there will be a time that chest protectors and the like will be useful, but as a beginner you shouldn’t be pushing yourself too hard. After all (and despite what we think) a motorcycle is not a toy – on or off-road. It’s a tool that demands respect. Otherwise you might end up with a permanent and a completely avoidable injury. Ask my dentist.

Hopefully, that’s answered any off-road bike related questions. What is dirt biking? It’s damn good fun, great for your riding technique, incredible for your health, and should keep you out of trouble. All you have to do is go out and do it. In the meantime, get online and watch some dirt biking videos and watch the pros in action. Buy some dirt bike games for your Xbox and get into the mindset while you’re on the couch with a beer. Get searching through your local auto trading sites, forums, and newspapers and eye up the price of that Honda. It’s all up to you, now.

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Joe Appleton
About

I’ve done a bit of work here and there in the industry – I’ve even ridden a few bikes for actual money but what it comes down to is this: I ride bikes, build bikes and occasionally crash ‘em too. I like what I like but that certainly doesn’t make my opinion any more valid than yours…

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