Go off-road to improve on-road

Word on the street is that taking to the dirt will help you master your road riding. Here's how

Head off-road to brush up your skills

There's a lot more to riding off road than getting muddy. Think about it: there's barely a racer out there who doesn't ride off-road. Most, like Chris Vermeulen, come from a dirt bike background, while those who don't quickly take it up to refine their skills - like Valentino Rossi who uses it to master his sliding technique. So what can we learn from the world of off-roading that will teach us to better ride the Tarmac? A hell of a lot, actually. A dirt bike reacts to rider input in the same way as a road bike does, but in a grossly exaggerated fashion because of the comparatively extreme lack of grip. Just about every skill you need in motorcycling is magnified off-road, where you're forced to refine every input to control tyres that are permanently sliding. Off-road, you can play around with the limits of adhesion, risking only a muddy outfit if it does go wrong. So prepare to get dirty, Here's how to become a better road rider, gleaned from the world of mud plugging.

1. Relax

Being relaxed on any motorcycle is probably the most important aspect of riding. When you're relaxed you're having fun, the bike stays loose underneath you and your riding becomes smooth, fluid and controlled; everything around you is happening at a slow pace which gives your mind the ability to be one step ahead of the game. But tense up and the bike's chassis will transmit every movement and jolt to you and your input becomes jerky; you're fighting the bike and you're not in control. "You can see how the problem is magnified off-road with ruts and rugged terrain to contend with," says KTM Adventure Tours' Jeff Philp. "A tense off-road rider will have a hell of a job staying balanced as the bike crashes him around, he'll catch the ruts and he'll wear himself out - and conserving energy is crucial."
TWO's Niall Mackenzie says: "If you ride tense you're not balanced, you can't react quickly and the bike feels all wrong. Instead, if you relax to a point where your body is flexible and your knees and arms are bent, letting the bike move fluidly underneath you, you'll use the least amount of effort to achieve the best possible result." Learn to relax in a harsh off-road environment and the relative calm of the roads becomes a doddle.

2. Balance

"An unbalanced rider is out of control," says Jeff. "He can't brake, can't steer, all he's doing is concentrating on getting his balance back." Off-road, you're learning to maintain balance while the bike's going through adverse conditions and moving up and down - an extra dimension that taxes your balance. "Say you want to go from A to B and your path is littered with obstacles," says Jeff. "If you just lash your way across, the bike will be bouncing around and it'll be all you can do to stay on top and enjoy it. Instead relax, plan your route and try and find the path of least resistance, picking your way through it by looking ahead. You'll be smooth, flowing and balanced. Maintaining balance is very much about where you look." Niall says: "On the road, you can never look at the front wheel or the obstacle coming up. You've got to constantly look ahead at the next obstacle or corner. If you focus on an obstacle you want to avoid, you'll tense up, lose balance and go there; but if you focus on successfully planning your route ahead you'll give yourself more time, stay relaxed and balanced and ride smoothly and fluidly."

3. Forward vision and focus

Anyone from the Institute of Advanced Motorists to Rossi will tell you how important it is to look well ahead while keeping potential hazards either side of you in your peripheral vision. It's about having a long-term plan - ie, looking into the distance at where you eventually want to be - as well as a short term plan to be able to react to what's in your path. "If you only look directly in front of you, all you'll do is crisis manage, going from one crisis to the next," says Jeff. "But if you look well ahead, you'll manage your trip to ride around that crisis." Off-road the terrain is constantly changing - it's wet, mud, rocks, gravel, slate, dry, rock hard, dusty all in the same journey. And because of that constant change, you're forced to focus a lot harder and react faster and more often. It's everything you need to do on a road bike, but in much more detail, much more often. "Riding off-road is about getting your brain working - 30mph off-road is like 100mph on the road," says Jeff. "If you've been riding quickly off-road working at a very high rate, when you get onto a road bike it feels like you're doing very little. Your brain's got so much more capacity because it's used to working at a higher level, and everything is under control - you can spot the manhole cover, debris and cars coming a mile away. You'll also be able to adapt your riding to different scenarios: you'll understand how much more aggressive you can be with throttle and brakes in the dry than in the wet, and how to deal with the odd shower or diesel spill. Off-road is about constant and unpredictable change with everything coming at you in rapid succession." This is what makes off-road so good for reading the road and reacting to different surfaces.

4. Machine control

Riding a motorcycle is about maintaining grip. And riding off-road is about finding the little grip available and making the best use of it. For this you have to fine-tune the bike's controls: "A lot of road riders don't have much finesse," says Niall. "They're either open or closed on the throttle, on or off the brakes and the clutch is either in or out." But off-road you can feel the effects on grip that every incremental rider input has and you develop a feel that's hard to acquire on Tarmac.

5. Throttle

Dump a load of power into the back tyre in the dirt and it will break traction and spin rather than propel you forward. The answer is a constant and gradual feed of power to the rear tyre. This also means the bike will stay settled on its suspension, letting the tyres get on with the job of gripping. To develop this skill, Jeff makes you ride the KTM dirt track with no idle, which forces you to keep a constant throttle. As you approach corner entry you change down maintaining constant throttle between gears. As you let off the front brake you're cracking the throttle back on in one seemless action to keep the bike balanced on its suspension (ie, not too much load on the front). Jeff continues: "If you give it a handful of throttle on a corner exit, you'll deliver the maximum amount of energy which your tyre cannot cope with. So it spins, breaks traction and either slides or highsides you." As you're cornering, the tyre's contact patch is thin so traction's at its worse. You need to start picking the bike up onto the fatter part of the tyre and feed the throttle in small increments, until you're fully upright with the throttle wide open. With practice you acquire that 'seat of the pants' connection between your right throttle hand and the rear tyre and develop the ability to control minute throttle openings. As you get used to the bike moving beneath you in the dirt, you learn to control it with precise throttle skills vital in iffy road situations (slippery, wet, cold tyres): "Occasionally, I have a moment on the road where the rear steps out," says Niall. "But my brain's already reacted by holding the throttle constant to let the bike straighten out, where shutting it in a panic would cause it to grip suddenly and throw me off." Once these skills are programmed into your brain, you use them all the time.

6. Clutch

Off-road, you'll also develop an affinity with the clutch, using it to control power rather than simply as a tool to engage the desirable gear or to pull away smoothly. In the dirt, it's important to select high gears to soften the power delivery to the rear wheel to help grip, so you cover the clutch with two fingers and feather it out of corners, up steep hills and through ruts. As on Tarmac, balancing the clutch and throttle to control power to the rear wheel becomes second nature. "If you're down-gearing for a corner and dump the clutch, the rear wheel will lock," says Niall. "So you let the clutch out gradually and feather it if necessary, using it like a slipper clutch. You can also feather the clutch out of a corner to get the engine back in the powerband if you're in too high a gear."

7. Brakes

Lack of grip makes braking in the dirt a fine art. Be harsh on the front brake and the tyre will tuck; stamp down on the rear and the back will slide out. As you decelerate, the weight of the bike shifts over the front tyre, which results in better grip so you can apply more pressure to the front brake without it locking.
Meanwhile, lack of weight on the rear means the back brake isn't effective and will lock quickly. As with the throttle, lack of grip in the dirt means you can't get away with using brakes when leant over, so you get the braking done in a straight line using mainly engine and front brake. The gearbox is used to slow the engine before applying gradual pressure on the brake, feeling all the time for what the tyre is doing against the surface. As the front starts to tuck you get enough warning to release the lever, whereas on the road you'd be off. In the dirt, you learn to control the pressure you apply to lever/pedal and gain feel for how much you can get away with. "Road racers have a heightened feel for what the tyres are doing against the tarmac," says Niall. "They can trail the front brake into the corner, letting it off gradually as they turn." You learn to use the brakes as a decelerator rather than a stop/start switch. If you grab a handful of lever the suspension will bottom out, unsettling the bike and forcing the front tyre to work hard, and lock. And the problem isn't just getting on the brakes - getting off them abruptly also upsets the chassis. Ask former trials rider and GP star Kevin Schwantz why he was so good on the brakes, and he'll reply: "I wasn't the best getting on the brakes, I was the best getting off them." He released the lever gradually to avoid the suspension snapping up. Jeff adds: "I forward plan using the gearbox to brake the engine, only using the front brake to help if necessary." Off-road, you'll develop feel and understanding of the differences between braking on various surfaces, and in the dry and wet.

8. Steering

Everyone who rides a bike counter steers - whether they know it or not - or they wouldn't get round corners. But being aware of it means getting precise steering control. It works like this: to steer into a right corner, you push on the right handlebar and vice versa to go left. Counter steering in the opposite direction as you exit a corner - ie pushing on the left handlebar in a right hand bend - will also pick the bike up quickly. "So many road riders don't understand how they go round corners," says Jeff. "But off-road you're changing the attitude of the bike a lot faster so you learn that counter steering is key to precise planning. If you want to turn exactly at that point, you counter steer and weight the pegs." Weighting the pegs in the direction you want to go is enough to steer a dirt bike, but not a road bike. However, weighting a road bike's outside peg as you're leant over in a corner will increase traction. "As a kid, I competed in trials where I learned to weight the outside peg as I cut across the base of a hill," says Schwantz. "This made such a difference in my ability to ride a bike across a surface with poor traction that I applied it to my cornering technique in GPs."

9. Body position

A rider's weight often constitutes more than half a bike's overall weight, which gives the rider enormous influence over weight distribution. And while you can still get away with being sat in the middle of a road bike doing very little, you can't ride the dirt without using your weight to secure traction and balance. To grip, the tyres must dig into the ground so you need to weight the right tyre at the right time - ie moving back to stop wheelspin and forward to help the front tract.
Body position in a corner is different off and on road, but understand the impact your weight has and get used to moving around, and you'll do it all the time. On a road bike, hanging off into a corner shifts the centre of gravity so you don't have to lean the bike as far. This means you have a greater tyre contact patch and can get on the throttle earlier. You'll also shift your body to the rear of the bike to improve traction on corner exit, reducing the chances of a slide, then shift it forward to stop the wheel coming up under acceleration. At corner entry, transfer weight over the front before braking: "If your weight is back as you start braking, there's more chances of locking the front," says Niall. "So I'll be up against the tank as I begin to apply pressure. Then, as I reach that point where the weight is forward and I'm about to brake hard, I push back to get weight over the rear to avoid overloading the forks." Using bodyweight to best effect will drastically improve chassis and tyre performance.

Master your riding

Because of the way the surface reacts to the tyres, riding off-road demands precise machine control and the ability to read the terrain and adapt your riding; knowing exactly when and how to use throttle, clutch and brakes, how to steer, how to move your body and maintain balance, how much grip there is and how to exploit it. In WSB champ James Toseland's own words: "Master the dirt and you'll naturally become a better road rider." So head off-road and uncover the secret to great riding.

CORNER ENTRY

Smooth deceleration, quick turn-in and knowing when and how to use the throttle and clutch are the secrets to fast, safe corner entry

VISION
The rider has already seen the corner he's tackling and visualised his exit. He's now scrutinising what's ahead in search of the next obstacle

THROTTLE
... and gently releasing the brake lever and cracking the throttle slightly all in one seamless action lessens the load on the front tyre

FRONT BRAKE
Gradually easing off the front brake before hitting the apex means the suspension won't suddenly spring back up...

PEG WEIGHTING
Weighting the outside peg pushes the tyres into the tarmac to increase traction

GEARBOX
By using the gearbox to help control entry speed, the bike is now in the correct gear for an instant connection between throttle and rear tyre

CLUTCH
After releasing the clutch smoothly for each downchange, our man now covers it with two fingers

BODY POSITION
The rider has shifted his body weight to the inside of the corner to optimise weight distribution. As a result his knee is on the Tarmac, feeding information on how far he's cranked over

CORNER EXIT

Picking up the bike quickly while feeding in the throttle incrementally and feeling for what the tyre is doing are the secrets to a smooth, fast and safe corner exit

VISION
The focus is still beyond the exit point to the obstacle ahead. The next corner has already been planned for

THROTTLE
Feeding the throttle in incrementally as he picks the bike up, feeling the connection between engine and rear tyre

STEERING
Pushing on the right handlebar helps pick up the bike from the left hand corner as soon as it's pointing in the right direction. To steer into this corner, our man would have counter steered by pushing on the left bar

BODY POSITION
The rider has started to pick the bike up before picking up his body, which he slides back for rear traction. His outside foot is still weighting the peg, helping pick the bike up as well as aiding traction

GEARBOX
The correct gear supplies correct drive, foot at the ready to clutchlessly notch up a cog when the bike is upright

CLUTCH
Covering the clutch with two fingers to smooth power delivery if needed

So what can we learn from the world of off-roading that will teach us to better ride the Tarmac? A hell of a lot, actually.

A dirt bike reacts to rider input in the same way as a road bike does, but in a grossly exaggerated fashion because of the comparatively extreme lack of grip. Just about every skill you need in motorcycling is magnified off-road, where you're forced to refine every input to control tyres that are permanently sliding. Off-road, you can play around with the limits of adhesion, risking only a muddy outfit if it does go wrong.

So prepare to get dirty, Here's how to become a better road rider, gleaned from the world of mud plugging.

Relax

1. Relax

Being relaxed on any motorcycle is probably the most important aspect of riding. When you're relaxed you're having fun, the bike stays loose underneath you and your riding becomes smooth, fluid and controlled; everything around you is happening at a slow pace which gives your mind the ability to be one step ahead of the game.

But tense up and the bike's chassis will transmit every movement and jolt to you and your input becomes jerky; you're fighting the bike and you're not in control. "You can see how the problem is magnified off-road with ruts and rugged terrain to contend with," says KTM Adventure Tours' Jeff Philp. "A tense off-road rider will have a hell of a job staying balanced as the bike crashes him around, he'll catch the ruts and he'll wear himself out -  and conserving energy is crucial."

Visordown's Niall Mackenzie says: "If you ride tense you're not balanced, you can't react quickly and the bike feels all wrong. Instead, if you relax to a point where your body is flexible and your knees and arms are bent, letting the bike move fluidly underneath you, you'll use the least amount of effort to achieve the best possible result." Learn to relax in a harsh off-road environment and the relative calm of the roads becomes a doddle.

Balance

2. Balance

"An unbalanced rider is out of control," says Jeff. "He can't brake, can't steer, all he's doing is concentrating on getting his balance back." Off-road, you're learning to maintain balance while the bike's going through adverse conditions and moving up and down - an extra dimension that taxes your balance.

"Say you want to go from A to B and your path is littered with obstacles," says Jeff. "If you just lash your way across, the bike will be bouncing around and it'll be all you can do to stay on top and enjoy it. Instead relax, plan your route and try and find the path of least resistance, picking your way through it by looking ahead. You'll be smooth, flowing and balanced. Maintaining balance is very much about where you look."

Niall says: "On the road, you can never look at the front wheel or the obstacle coming up. You've got to constantly look ahead at the next obstacle or corner. If you focus on an obstacle you want to avoid, you'll tense up, lose balance and go there; but if you focus on successfully planning your route ahead you'll give yourself more time, stay relaxed and balanced and ride smoothly and fluidly."

Forward vision and focus

3. Forward vision and focus

Anyone from the Institute of Advanced Motorists to Rossi will tell you how important it is to look well ahead while keeping potential hazards either side of you in your peripheral vision. It's about having a long-term plan - ie, looking into the distance at where you eventually want to be - as well as a short term plan to be able to react to what's in your path.

"If you only look directly in front of you, all you'll do is crisis manage, going from one crisis to the next," says Jeff. "But if you look well ahead, you'll manage your trip to ride around that crisis." Off-road the terrain is constantly changing - it's wet, mud, rocks, gravel, slate, dry, rock hard, dusty all in the same journey. And because of that constant change, you're forced to focus a lot harder and react faster and more often. It's everything you need to do on a road bike, but in much more detail, much more often. "Riding off-road is about getting your brain working - 30mph off-road is like 100mph on the road," says Jeff.

"If you've been riding quickly off-road working at a very high rate, when you get onto a road bike it feels like you're doing very little. Your brain's got so much more capacity because it's used to working at a higher level, and everything is under control - you can spot the manhole cover, debris and cars coming a mile away. You'll also be able to adapt your riding to different scenarios: you'll understand how much more aggressive you can be with throttle and brakes in the dry than in the wet, and how to deal with the odd shower or diesel spill. Off-road is about constant and  unpredictable change with everything coming at you in rapid succession."

This is what makes off-road so good for reading the road and reacting to different surfaces.

Machine Control

4. Machine control

Riding a motorcycle is about maintaining grip. And riding off-road is about finding the little grip available and making the best use of it. For this you have to fine-tune the bike's controls: "A lot of road riders don't have much finesse," says Niall. "They're either open or closed on the throttle, on or off the brakes and the clutch is either in or out." But off-road you can feel the effects on grip that every incremental rider input has and you develop a feel that's hard to acquire on Tarmac.

Throttle

5. Throttle

Dump a load of power into the back tyre in the dirt and it will break traction and spin rather than propel you forward. The answer is a constant and gradual feed of power to the rear tyre. This also means the bike will stay settled on its suspension, letting the tyres get on with the job of gripping. To develop this skill, Jeff makes you ride the KTM dirt track with no idle, which forces you to keep a constant throttle.

As you approach corner entry you change down maintaining constant throttle between gears. As you let off the front brake you're cracking the throttle back on in one seemless action to keep the bike balanced on its suspension (ie, not too much load on the front). Jeff continues: "If you give it a handful of throttle on a corner exit, you'll deliver the maximum amount of energy which your tyre cannot cope with. So it spins, breaks traction and either slides or highsides you."

As you're cornering, the tyre's contact patch is thin so traction's at its worse. You need to start picking the bike up onto the fatter part of the tyre and feed the throttle in small increments, until you're fully upright with the throttle wide open. With practice you acquire that 'seat of the pants' connection between your right throttle hand and the rear tyre and develop the ability to control minute throttle openings.

As you get used to the bike moving beneath you in the dirt, you learn to control it with precise throttle skills vital in iffy road situations (slippery, wet, cold tyres): "Occasionally, I have a moment on the road where the rear steps out," says Niall. "But my brain's already reacted by holding the throttle constant to let the bike straighten out, where shutting it in a panic would cause it to grip suddenly and throw me off." Once these skills are programmed into your brain, you use them all the time.

Clutch

6. Clutch

Off-road, you'll also develop an affinity with the clutch, using it to control power rather than simply as a tool to engage the desirable gear or to pull away smoothly. In the dirt, it's important to select high gears to soften the power delivery to the rear wheel to help grip, so you cover the clutch with two fingers and feather it out of corners, up steep hills and through ruts.

As on Tarmac, balancing the clutch and throttle to control power to the rear wheel becomes second nature. "If you're down-gearing for a corner and dump the clutch, the rear wheel will lock," says Niall. "So you let the clutch out gradually and feather it if necessary, using it like a slipper clutch. You can also feather the clutch out of a corner to get the engine back in the powerband if you're in too high a gear."

Brakes

7. Brakes

Lack of grip makes braking in the dirt a fine art. Be harsh on the front brake and the tyre will tuck; stamp down on the rear and the back will slide out. As you decelerate, the weight of the bike shifts over the front tyre, which results in better grip so you can apply more pressure to the front brake without it locking. Meanwhile, lack of weight on the rear means the back brake isn't effective and will lock quickly. As with the throttle, lack of grip in the dirt means you can't get away with using brakes when leant over, so you get the braking done in a straight line using mainly engine and front brake. The gearbox is used to slow the engine before applying gradual pressure on the brake, feeling all the time for what the tyre is doing against the surface.

As the front starts to tuck you get enough warning to release the lever, whereas on the road you'd be off. In the dirt, you learn to control the pressure you apply to lever/pedal and gain feel for how much you can get away with. "Road racers have a heightened feel for what the tyres are doing against the tarmac," says Niall. "They can trail the front brake into the corner, letting it off gradually as they turn."

You learn to use the brakes as a decelerator rather than a stop/start switch. If you grab a handful of lever the suspension will bottom out, unsettling the bike and forcing the front tyre to work hard, and lock. And the problem isn't just getting on the brakes - getting off them abruptly also upsets the chassis.

Ask former trials rider and GP star Kevin Schwantz why he was so good on the brakes, and he'll reply: "I wasn't the best getting on the brakes, I was the best getting off them." He released the lever gradually to avoid the suspension snapping up. Jeff adds: "I forward plan using the gearbox to brake the engine, only using the front brake to help if necessary." Off-road, you'll develop feel and understanding of the differences between braking on various surfaces, and in the dry and wet.

Steering

8. Steering

Everyone who rides a bike counter steers - whether they know it or not - or they wouldn't get round corners. But being aware of it means getting precise steering control. It works like this: to steer into a right corner, you push on the right handlebar and vice versa to go left.

Counter steering in the opposite direction as you exit a corner - ie pushing on the left handlebar in a right hand bend - will also pick the bike up quickly. "So many road riders don't understand how they go round corners," says Jeff. "But off-road you're changing the attitude of the bike a lot faster so you learn that counter steering is key to precise planning. If you want to turn exactly at that point, you counter steer and weight the pegs." Weighting the pegs in the direction you want to go is enough to steer a dirt bike, but not a road bike.

However, weighting a road bike's outside peg as you're leant over in a corner will increase traction. "As a kid, I competed in trials where I learned to weight the outside peg as I cut across the base of a hill," says Schwantz. "This made such a difference in my ability to ride a bike across a surface with poor traction that I applied it to my cornering technique in GPs."

Body Position

9. Body position

A rider's weight often constitutes more than half a bike's overall weight, which gives the rider enormous influence over weight distribution. And while you can still get away with being sat in the middle of a road bike doing very little, you can't ride the dirt without using your weight to secure traction and balance. To grip, the tyres must dig into the ground so you need to weight the right tyre at the right time - ie moving back to stop wheelspin and forward to help the front tract.

Body position in a corner is different off and on road, but understand the impact your weight has and get used to moving around, and you'll do it all the time. On a road bike, hanging off into a corner shifts the centre of gravity so you don't have to lean the bike as far. This means you have a greater tyre contact patch and can get on the throttle earlier.

You'll also shift your body to the rear of the bike to improve traction on corner exit, reducing the chances of a slide, then shift it forward to stop the wheel coming up under acceleration. At corner entry, transfer weight over the front before braking: "If your weight is back as you start braking, there's more chances of locking the front," says Niall. "So I'll be up against the tank as I begin to apply pressure. Then, as I reach that point where the weight is forward and I'm about to brake hard, I push back to get weight over the rear to avoid overloading the forks." Using bodyweight to best effect will drastically improve chassis and tyre performance.

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