Off-road riding: Five essential techniques
By Jon Pearson
Although riding off-road requires a few different skills to road riding it is not as difficult or daunting as many think. Whatever type of bike you choose to ride the basics of standing up, steering through your feet, looking where you’re going and treating the clutch, throttle and brakes with clever hands (rather than ham-fists) are simple techniques to practice for a happy life on the dirt.
Why do we stand up when riding off-road? Quite simply to move around on the bike and dictate what happens. Off-road the ground is rarely even; stones, ruts, cambers, tree roots all do their best to make the bike go in a different direction but if we stand up we counteract what the bike is trying to do and stay in control.
The standing position should be a relaxed one: not too far forward resting weight on your hands (if you do you’ll quickly get arm ache and stiff shoulders). Your hand grip should be relaxed on the bars and, crucially, when you transfer from the seated position to standing up, relax that hold to let your wrists come round the hand grips, bringing your elbows up. Don’t let your elbows or your knees get sucked in towards the bikes: basically be positive in your stance, take charge but don’t tense-up. The taller you are the more your need to bend a little at the lower back to bring your upper body forward a little but it is worth re-iterating: relax, standing on a bike should be as easy as standing at a queue for a hotdog.
Steering with your feet
The reasons for standing are about control but that point of contact we have with the bike, our feet is crucial to control: steering. Most of the time when riding off-road we steer through our feet, by pushing and transferring weight between the footrests.
Tempting though it is to sit down to feel more in control and dangle those legs each side, in doing that you instantly remove leverage on the bike. Your legs through your feet are like giant levers to push, steer, change and move the bike in the way you want it to go. Pushing down on one or the other, or reacting to the bike’s movement by counteracting it through the opposite footrest, is an instant response.
Sitting down hands some control back to the bike because you have a harder time reacting to bike movements through your bum on the seat. For example a camber makes the bike want to go in one direction, if you simply transfer weight to the outside footrest it pushes the bike into the bank and keeps you on track. If you’re sat down in the same scenario you’re have to work hard with your torso to get weight across. Plus the ground is rarely flat, it is constantly changing. If you’re on your feet then reacting to these changes is instant and immediately effective.
Looking where you’re going sounds an obvious point to make but for some reason many people automatically shorten their field of vision when they ride off-road. Something about standing up combined with the perceived difficulty of any given patch of terrain (sloppy mud, ruts, tree root or a rock or two) brings a rider’s eyes right down in front of their wheel.
You don’t look that close to the ground when you ride on the road so don’t do it off-road. Looking too near to yourself means everything is constantly coming as a surprise – every rock, log or rut. Looking up means you can read the terrain well in advance and make decisions about which line to take to avoid that rock, tree root or sloppy mud.
Riding off-road requires more ‘reading’ of the road ahead for sure – naturally there is more information to take in than the flat Tarmac surface of a road. But that shouldn’t make you close your field of vision right down to a few metres.
One of the hardest parts about riding off-road is learning feel, it’s the reason why so many off-roaders transfer successfully to other forms of bike racing because they can feel what’s going on with a bike better.
Having good feel on the throttle means using it wisely, being sensitive with it, knowing when to use it and when not to. Using the power earlier to get yourself up a hill, for example, instead of trying to get grip and speed half way up (both of which you’ll struggle with if you haven’t got it by that point) means opening the throttle sooner and progressively rolling it off as you reach the top of the hill. That is what throttle control is all about – it’s not a switch to be deployed in the hope it will instantly get you out of problems.
Remember the throttle goes both ways and can easily get you into a whole load of trouble because you didn’t close it quick enough and didn’t remove the drive earlier. The white knuckle or death grip of the bars never helps, you should be riding relaxed (if you’re not relaxed then slow things down a bit or better still get off for a minute and have a look at what you’re worried about riding over).
That old cliché, “I like a bit of power to get me out of trouble” is rarely true when it comes to the basics of off-roading.
The clutch is easily as important as the throttle off-road. Hard to imagine as a road rider where you spend so much time controlling your speed with the throttle and brakes. But off-road the brakes take on a less important role (NB: not an unimportant role!). That’s because controlling speed happens more directly as well as softly by controlling the drive to the back wheel with the throttle and the clutch. Remove the drive to the back wheel by pulling in the clutch and you’re going to stop pretty quickly as a rule. At the very least it’ll stop you driving forwards and into further trouble.
Importantly though the clutch lever is a subtle way of metering the speed when you’re using just small amounts of throttle to ride. For example when riding at slow-speed or doing tight turns.
On the subject of fingers on levers: you do not need more than two fingers on either the brake of clutch lever. Some road-based riding techniques have you using four fingers on the levers and apart from being unnecessary overkill in terms of power and feel, you are effectively only holding on to your handlebars with your thumb if you do that, which isn’t enough on or off-road. Take a bit more control of the bars with a thumb and two fingers around the grip and the other two will have be more subtle and useful in controlling the brake and clutch.
Biog: Jon Pearson