In Praise of Dirt: Develop Your Riding Skills

It's a surprisingly good teaching tool

Dirt God illustration
The Dirt GodIllustration by Morgan Schweitzer

Come meet the Dr. Evil of street riding: dirt. It’s gritty, unpredictable, and, when mixed with water, it will turn your Electra Glide into a muddy mess. Worse, running wide on your favorite left-hander means you’ll usually meet dirt at the worst possible moment: leaned over and going way too fast. For many street riders, a disdain for dirt keeps them from just diving in and learning how to ride on terra firma. But by doing so, you’ll become a better rider and not panic whenever you encounter the stuff.

First, dirt riding develops a much wider range of balance and coordination skills than street riding—at lower speeds and with less risk. Second, off-road terrain prompts us to constantly look for the cleanest, smoothest line. And third, dirt riding imparts greater understanding of traction. Although huge grip variances are unusual on the street, dirt-trained riders react more instinctively when they do occur.

“At least 20 percent of our students are pure street riders,” says Raines Riding University Founder Jason Raines, a multitime off-road champion. “The number-one thing I see is them freezing up at a lack of traction, so off-road school is a great building experience.”

Here are four ways to gain some of the skill advantages that dirt riders enjoy—even if you don’t own a dirt bike.

Stand on the pegs. Tighten a bike's turning circle by standing on the footpegs then pushing down on the outer peg—arcing the handlebar the same way—and counterweighting your torso. The reward is improved balance and tremendous maneuverability.

Eyes up. Scatter a dozen markers randomly across an empty parking lot. Then spontaneously choose different ride paths around them, always keeping your eyes up and looking ahead to the next marker. This mimics dirt riding's continuous line selection.

Test for grip. Regardless of whether you ride a CBR250R or a new Chieftain, go find a smooth dirt road. At low speeds only, experiment with careful throttle and brake applications to feel your bike gain and lose traction.

Avoid complacence. While it's easy to zone out while tooling down the highway, in the dirt, even a few moments of inattention can send you to ground. The vigilance practiced while dirt riding can thus directly improve your street safety.

A Few Dirt Schools:

Raines Riding University: www.rainesracing.com

Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Riding School: www.jimmylewisoffroad.com

MSF DirtBike School: www.dirtbikeschool.org

Rawhyde Adventures: www.rawhyde-offroad.com