Learning in the Dirt

Top 10 reasons why dirtbike riding is good for streetbike riders.

How to Ride Off-Road Motorcycles

Book: How to Ride Off-Road Motorcycles

Almost everyone agrees that many of the skills learned as a dirt rider transfer directly into streetbike riding. It can be argued that streetbike riders with a strong dirtbike-riding background have much better bike control, more awareness and are safer riders overall than those who have only ridden on the street. So, with no apologies to David Letterman, here is my Top 10 list of why dirtbike riding is great for streetbike riders:

1. Dirtbikes are a better tool for the job.

Dirtbikes are smaller, lighter, easier to control and more confidence-inspiring. If you want to become a better rider, you must practice on a small bike that you can easily control and doesn’t have any physical limitations. Streetbikes are heavy and harder to control at low speeds. Dirtbikes are also responsive and provide immediate feedback, so you will learn more and quicker in the dirt than anywhere else. Riding dirtbikes will speed up the learning process. You will learn more in a few months of dirt riding than you would in years of street riding. Dirt riding is also harder and more demanding than street riding. If you can ride a dirtbike well, you can ride a streetbike, but not necessarily vice versa. In a perfect world, everyone would start on a dirtbike. Dirtbikes are simply a better tool for the job of learning how to ride a motorcycle correctly.

2. Dirtbikes are better to develop your “feel” for motorcycle controls.

The feel we’re talking about here is the fine, delicate feedback you get through your butt and your feet and hands on the controls (clutch, throttle, front brake, shift lever and brake pedal), along with the simultaneous application of those various controls. On the dirt, you can feel more easily for threshold braking, lean angles, the friction zone of the clutch, sliding tires and precise shifting and throttle control. Good feel comes when all your senses and muscles are working together. Dirtbiking helps you “become one” with any motorcycle you ride.

3. Dirt is a better place to learn braking and turning skills and their limits.

Braking and turning are two of the most important fundamental skills you must have to ride a motorcycle properly, and natural terra firma is the best place to learn and develop those skills. To be good at serious braking, you must practice by exceeding the limits consistently and safely to develop a feel for operating right at the limit, where braking is best. For obvious reasons, dirt is the best place to reach those limits. In the same way to be good at serious leaning, you must practice by leaning too much and low-siding to better understand the limits. With proper leaning skills learned in the dirt, there's a greater chance you'll be comfortable when the tires do slide on pavement so you don't panic and overreact.

4. Dirt is a better place to become accustomed to speed.

Dirtbikes are fast, but they’re mild compared to the acceleration and sheer speed that a streetbike can attain. Not many people are prepared and qualified for how fast streetbikes really are. The truth is, most people will only go as fast as they feel comfortable with, regardless of their engine size. Why not learn to walk before you run? Concentrate on control in the dirt first where speeds are slower. Improve your control, which builds your confidence and eventually, you’ll be going faster both on the dirt and the street.

5. Dirtbikes are designed for crashing so you can better explore the limits.

You won’t want to try new techniques and explore your limits if you’re worried about crashing and hurting your bike or yourself. Dirtbikes are small and light, they are built to endure many crashes, and loamy dirt is much softer than asphalt. To ride a dirtbike well, you must not be afraid to crash to have a true perspective of what its limits are. This knowledge will help you on the street, where you won’t have to crash to learn the same valuable lessons.

6. Dirt riding develops improved visual habits.

Reading the terrain is one of the most important fundamentals of dirtbike riding. The countless surface and angle changes in the terrain force you to pay close attention to all the details that lie ahead. If you want to ride motorcycles of any kind, you must become proficient at reading the terrain correctly and always scanning for hazards. In the dirt, those hazards may be sand, rocks, mud, ruts, dropoffs and so on, while on the street, the hazards could be sand, water, spilled oil, potholes, railroad tracks, cars, construction, pedestrians, pets and more. Better to first become an expert at scanning ahead in the dirt than to deal with more serious problems in the dirt.

7. Dirt is a better place to develop good riding judgment.

Riding any motorcycle requires excellent judgment, a healthy respect, good timing and the ability to respond correctly. It is better to develop good judgment at lower speeds in a more forgiving environment like the dirt than on the street where misjudging something will have more dire consequences. Good judgment includes choosing when to go or stop, taking this line or that line or to follow your buddy—or not. We can’t teach someone good riding judgment, but it can be learned safely and developed by riding in the dirt first.

8. Dirt riding is a better place to learn how to help your bike.

In the dirt, you learn how to lean, move forward and rearward on the seat, stand up and move your body side-to-side. You can’t move much on a streetbike, but it doesn’t take much body movement to help it a lot. In the dirt, there’s no such thing as moving too much, and you quickly learn how your body position can really help (or hurt) your bike’s handling. By the time you hop on streetbike, you’ll already have a great knowledge of weight transfer, and it should be a snap.

9. Dirt riding is a better place to learn the importance of staying on line.

Since your only contact patch on a motorcycle is two skinny, little tires, not sticking to your preferred line can cause big problems. It’s a no-brainer that it’s better to learn this in the dirt at moderate speeds than it is on the street at higher speeds. A good example is if you happen to completely miss your preferred line. If you blow it in the dirt, you may run wide on the trail and ride off into the bushes. But if you don’t take the correct line on the street, you could hit something on the road like gravel, potholes or curbs and crash. Or you could run wide in a corner and hit something solid, like a parked car or telephone pole.

10. Dirt is a better overall environment for learning to ride motorcycles.

Besides the fact that a dirt surface is much more forgiving than pavement, softer, there are also far fewer distractions out on the trail than on the street. There are no cars or pedestrians to avoid, traffic laws to obey or pretty girls walking along the sidewalk to distract you. Sure, there are hazards in the dirt, but they’re nothing like the abundant distractions found on the street. Dirt riding is where you should learn to become a great rider so that when you hit the street, those skills will better ensure that you will never make a big mistake in that less-forgiving environment.

“Learning in the Dirt” was excerpted from Gary LaPlante’s new book, “How to Ride Off-Road Motorcycles,” published earlier this year by Motorbooks. LaPlante is a former Arizona State Trials Champion, has roadraced at Willow Springs International Raceway and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and competed in numerous desert events, including the Baja 1000 and Tecate 250. In 1998, LaPlante started MotoVentures, and he has spent the past 14 years teaching practical, real-world motorcycle rider training to everyone from young beginners to military personnel.