Ready to tackle some dirt? We’re stoked for you: off-road bikes are so much fun, and dirt trails often lead where pavement doesn’t. But if you’re just beginning, how to start riding dirt, and what do you need to pay attention to?
Riding dirt is a very hands-on experience, so it’s best to find rider training classes near you – or join one of our dirt bike training tours in Andalusia or Romania. Alternatively, you can find rider groups in your area and see if anyone feels like helping you out with the basics. Dirt riders are a friendly bunch, and you’re guaranteed to find someone to teach you.
Then again, learning from friends and loved ones doesn’t always work out, and we know going on training tours isn’t always possible in terms of your schedule, budget, or both.
So in this post, we’ll go over some of the key basics on how to start riding dirt and help you get the hang of it – at least in theory, but you can practice some of this stuff on your own.
Riding Dirt vs Tarmac: What’s the Difference?
Okay, so what’s the main difference between riding your bike off-road versus on-road?
It’s grip and traction.
On pavement, your bike’s tires have excellent grip on the surface, and it’s easy to stay upright and maneuver. In corners on a paved road, even though your bike is leaning into the curve, you’re not falling over because your tires grip the surface well and you’ve got enough traction.
On dirt, the surface isn’t as grippy. The looser the surface (think fine gravel, pebbles, sand, or mud), the less grip and traction you have. If it’s hard-packed dirt, like forest service roads, riding is easy and similar to on-road riding, but when you’re on deep sand or loose gravel, there is little grip to help you.
So how do you compensate for the loss of grip and traction?
To stay upright when riding dirt, balance, body position, and momentum are your best friends. When you have a good balance and are riding smoothly, your bike will roll over any surface – forest trail, rocky climb, sand, or a muddy section. If you’re unbalanced and ride in jerky movements, you’re more likely to tip over.
How to Ride Dirt: Standing Position
If you’re riding easy dirt trails, standing up isn’t crucially important since you’ll likely have enough grip (it’s best to still stand up, though, just to get used to it!).
But when you’re on more technical terrain – again, think sand, deep or fine gravel, or mud – you need to help yourself out by standing up on the footpegs.
Here’s what happens when you stand up:
- Your overall center of weight is lowered – instead of being on your seat, the weight of your body is now on the foot pegs. The lower the center of weight, the more stability and control of the bike you have.
- You have more points of control. When you’re sitting down, your points of control are your handlebars and your brakes (you can’t steer with your butt, no matter how hard you try). Standing up, you can steer the bike with your weight, knees, and body position in addition to handlebars and brakes.
- You are more balanced – which means you have more stability on the bike.
- Using your legs as shock absorbers, it’s easier to ride over bumps, potholes, or small logs
- Your body position helps you control your bike when going uphill and downhill
In other words, when you ride standing up on the foot pegs, you have more balance, more stability, and more control of the bike.
How to Stand on the Bike
What’s the right way to stand up on the bike when you ride dirt?
You should be standing on the foot pegs on the balls of your feet, knees slightly bent, your back straight, your elbows out, and your hands light on the bars.
The most important thing is not to tense up: find a position that feels natural and comfortable, otherwise, you’ll soon get tired. It should feel almost like you’re standing on the ground in a natural position: if it feels like you’re bending too much and your lower back starts hurting, you might need handlebar risers. If your knees are bent like you’re squatting, you’ll soon start feeling your quads and hamstrings and get tired.
Try to ride slowly in the standing position and get a feel for what feels right. The bike will slightly move underneath you, and at first, it feels scary. However, that slight movement is totally OK: as long as you’re balanced and rolling, you won’t fall off. Get used to that feeling and move with your bike, not against it – there’s no amount of muscle that can take on gravity.
Riding dirt is all about balance and finesse rather than pure strength. When you are standing up, it’s much harder to fall because you are free to move and adjust your body position as you need to, and you are balanced and supple on the bike. Even if you hit a section of deeper sand or a muddy stretch, as long as you’re standing up and balanced, you won’t crash.
The key to riding dirt in a standing position is being relaxed. At first, that’s hard: when you’re not used to this position, every movement on your bike that feels unfamiliar will cause you to tense up. That’s completely normal, but do try and relax.
Here is why: imagine a piece of Jell-O on a plate. You can shake the plate, but the blob of jelly won’t fall off – it just sort of wobble and move when shaken, but it’ll stay on the plate.
Be the Jell-O. When you’re supple, flexible, and balanced, it’s almost impossible to shake you off the bike.
We know, it’s easier said than done when you’re just starting out, but make it your mantra: when you’re riding dirt, just keep telling yourself – jelly, jelly, jelly (or scream PEANUT BUTTER JELLY TIME in your helmet, if that works better). If you feel your arms tensing up, focus on your arms and relax them. If it’s your legs, you’re probably bending your knees too much or you’re standing on your toes rather than the balls of your feet; find a more comfortable position and relax.
Tension almost always leads to a tip-over. When you’re holding on to your handlebars for dear life, white-knuckled, guess what: you’re rigid and inflexible, which means you won’t be able to react and correct in time if you hit an obstacle or a sharper turn. You cannot hold the bike upright by sheer muscle power – no one can. When you’re relaxed and balanced, riding dirt feels effortless.
Another good tip to remember when riding dirt is…breathing. Yes, breathing. Whenever you find yourself tensing up, stressing, or feeling unsure, take a deep breath in and a deep breath out.
By the time you’re breathing out, you’re probably already over the obstacle that was scaring you in the first place.
By focusing on your breath, you’re taking the attention away from The Very Scary Thing in front of you and letting your body and your muscle memory do the job for you. Remember, riding dirt is very much a mental game: often, we shy away from more technical terrain or faster speeds not because we’re unskilled or useless, but because of fear. We’ve seen countless excellent riders freeze up and drop their bikes in the easiest places – all because they started doubting themselves or felt they couldn’t do it.
Don’t worry, confidence will come with practice, but for now, just remember that breathing thing. It’ll help.
Using Brakes on Dirt
By now, you feel better and more balanced on the bike, and you know to stay standing up, jelly, and breathe. Cool – now, let’s talk about brakes!
Just like on a road bike, grabbing the front brake on a dirt bike is never a good idea. It’ll lock up your front wheel, most likely causing it to turn – which will send you crashing.
Stomping on the rear brake, on the other hand, isn’t anywhere near as dramatic. Your rear wheel may lock up, too, but it’ll just cause your bike to fishtail a little – and you’ll stay upright.
The best policy, however, is to feather your brakes and to use them both in more or less equal parts. There’s a lot of fun stuff you can do with your rear brake when you’ve built up your skills, but for now, just be gentle and use both brakes together.
In addition, learn to use your engine brake (that is, gear down). This is especially useful on downhill descents and before corners: front and rear brakes slow you down, but the engine brake both slows the bike down and stabilizes it. If you’re coming into a corner too hot, just gear down – the engine brake will slow and steady your bike.
More importantly, plan your braking and stopping in advance. For example, when you see a corner coming up, reduce your speed before the corner instead of grabbing the brakes in the corner. That way, you will enter the corner at a speed of your liking – and in control.
A good way to practice braking is riding in second gear standing up in a straight line on hard-packed dirt, then stopping using both brakes. Get a feel for it; see how fast you can come to a standstill. Next, try a rear wheel brake: ride in second gear, pull your clutch in, and stomp on your rear brake hard. Hold it for a few seconds, allowing the wheel to lock up. Once you’re almost at a standstill, let go. This is a good exercise to get rid of fear of your rear wheel fishtailing or locking up: try it a few times and you’ll see it’s no big deal.
Finally, practice engine braking until it becomes second nature. The more points of control you have in your arsenal, the more confident you’ll feel on the bike.
Plan Your Line
Much like planning your brakes, learn to plan your lines.
What does that mean?
When you’re learning to dirt, always look for ways to make your life easier. Let’s say you’re facing a trail that’s slightly rutted. Before you tackle it head-on, see which line is the easiest to avoid the ruts, then ride the trail following that imaginary line. Or maybe there’s a huge puddle in the middle of the trail; plan your line to avoid it. When you’re feeling more confident, by all means, frolic in mud puddles and battle ruts, but when you’re just starting out, just look for ways to make it easier for yourself.
Speaking of lines: you know the golden rule that you’ll go where you look? Target fixation is real, and it means that if you stare at the scary rock that’s coming at you, you’ll most likely hit said scary rock. Instead, look away from the rock and toward the line you want to follow, and you’ll avoid the damned thing effortlessly. Always, always, always look where you want to go – not where you don’t want to go.
This doesn’t just go for obstacles: when you’re facing a hill climb, for example, don’t look at your front tire or the first few yards in front of you. Look at the crest of the hill instead; this way, you’ll ride up like a pro. If you fixate on your front tire instead, well… You guessed it – it’s tip over time.
Dealing with Oh Shit! Moments
Learning to ride dirt is a never-ending process: there’s always some new skill to master or a technique to learn. And when you’re learning, oh shit moments are bound to happen. That’s OK – as long as you walk away unscathed, dumping your bike is no big deal.
However, there are some tricks to help you get through the oh shit moments. We already talked about breathing – believe it or not, this simple hack helps a lot.
But what about moments when you do panic or feel your bike is out of control?
Let Go of the Throttle
Going too fast, rolling downhill too fast, coming into the corner too fast? Let go of the throttle. Before you do anything else, just let go of the throttle. Rolling off the gas immediately slows the bike down giving you time to decide what to do next – brake, engine brake, or both – and helps to get rid of the panicky feeling.
Let the Clutch Out
If you’re picking your way down a hill and feel like you’re rolling too fast, chances are, you’re holding the clutch in, which means your bike is rolling freely in neutral – and picking up momentum as it goes.
Let the clutch out, and it’ll slow down immediately. It’s the same if you’ve stopped on a hill and feel you’re rolling backward: let go of the clutch, and your wheels will lock up stopping you in your tracks.
Stomp the Rear Brake
If you need to stop quickly, never grab your front brake – instead, pull the clutch in and stomp on your rear brake. This is your best bet to come to a stop quickly and without crashing – the bike may fishtail, but it will be a lot more stable than if you grab the front brake.
All the gear, all the time. No, let us rephrase it: all the good gear, all the time. When you start riding dirt, good protective gear is absolutely crucial for your safety. Don’t buy cheap, crappy gear – you may pay for it later with a sprained ankle or a broken bone. Invest in good quality dirt bike boots, knee braces, hip and coccyx pads (we like Leatt Impact shorts for this purpose), body armor, neck brace, and a good helmet, and never ride without gearing up.
Here at Big Little Rides, we are sworn fanatics of Leatt protectives because their gear is designed in labs along with consulting trauma surgeons to create gear that prevents specific knee, shin, back, and neck injuries; in other words, they’re surgically (pun intended) nerdy about what they do, and we swear by Leatt on all our tours. Of course, you can pick whichever brand you like, just make sure it’s good quality stuff – and that you always wear the gear.
We hope this post on how to start riding dirt has helped you get a rough idea of where to begin, and that we’ll see you braaping out on the trails soon!
Happy dirt riding,
Egle and Jurga