How To Ride A Big, Heavy Motorcycle Off-Road

How To Ride A Big, Heavy Motorcycle Off-Road

There’s no better way to see the world than from two wheels. But, the adventure motorcycles made to do just that are so big and heavy, riding them off the road becomes its own, separate and difficult to master skill. Here’s how to do it.

I’ve learned all this the hard way. Growing up in England, my core competence was always the sports bikes that are most popular there. The key with those is to maximise grip, not encourage slides so, the American predilection for dirt flummoxed me for many years. On my first big ADV ride (across Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec), I ate shit in a pretty major way, giving myself a huge concussion that meant I don’t remember those next few days of the trip. Sadly that means I can’t tell you how to ride a BMW with a busted frame but, because I’ve learned so much since then, I can tell you how to avoid that entire situation.

I’ve had to work at this, and so will you. That crash in Labrador was way back in 2009 but now, five years later, I’ve just completed a trip through British Columbia. I was on the heaviest bike there and one of only two on road tires, but I was the only person to avoid crashing the entire time. If I can manage some semblance of competence on these things, you should be able to figure it out pretty easily.

Let’s assume here that you already know how to generally ride a motorcycle, either on the street or the road, and concentrate instead only on the specific skills necessary for riding a big ADV machine, as exemplified by the BMW R 1200 GS and its ilk.…

Optimise Ergonomics: Before riding one off road, you’ll need to make it so you can stand comfortably and securely for hours at a time, while having complete control. First, put the motorcycle on its center stand or have a friend hold it upright for you. Then, while standing upright on the pegs, examine your reach to the bars. Can you reach them and move them lock-to-lock without bending your back, slumping your shoulders or otherwise contorting your body? If not, you can try and find more height by rotating the bars forwards; if that’s not enough, you’ll need to start buying new bars until you find ones that fit you. You also need to be able to operate the clutch, brakes and shift lever while standing, adjust them so that you can do so.

Also consider the foot pegs. During an experimental ride close to home, try and stand on them for 15 or 20 minutes straight in your usual riding boots. How does that make your feet feel? Are there pressure points or is anything uncomfortable? Most ADV bikes have foot pegs that are too small for long term standing comfort and will need to be replaced with larger, “bear trap” items from the aftermarket.

Standing effectively lowers the motorcycle’s center of gravity by putting your weight through its pegs rather than the higher seat. It also turns you into the world’s least elegant cheetah tail. Yes, by awkwardly hovering over the bike as it jumps around and slides, your beer belly will actually help it stay upright and in motion. Always keep your knees somewhat bent, your legs are your shock absorbers.

Once you have a bike you can comfortably control over longer periods of time while standing, you can move on to the rest of these skills.…

Drop Your Pressures And Fit Good Tires: Typical road tire pressures are 36psi (front) and 42psi (rear). Off-road, you’ll want to go much lower. 20psi is a good compromise pressure at both ends if you need to hit both tarmac and dirt in the same day, but for off-road use only, I’ll go as low as 12psi. Consider what type of wheels you have before doing this. Cast aluminium wheels as found on the cheaper, more road-oriented bikes are weaker, meaning you need to protect them from impacts and keep the tires at 20psi. Spoked wheels are stronger and better resist deformation and allow you to “true” them back into shape if you do ding them, so they facilitate those lower pressures. A lower pressure tire will be less able to cushion the wheel from impacts, such as hitting a large rock.

Look closely at any ADV bike you see in an ad, magazine or video where it’s jumping, sliding or doing anything ambitious on dirt. See those large tread blocks? Those are Continental TKC80s, by far the most capable ADV tire. But, they’re expensive and don’t last much over 2,500 miles. Rawhyde sells a knock off that’s both cheaper and longer lasting. We’ve heard good things.…

Stay Off The Clutch: The advantage of carrying such large, 800 or 1,200cc motors is that these bikes have massive torque delivered low down in the rev range. Basically form idle. That means you can walk them over or around walking speed obstacles without using the clutch. Doing so gives you better control of the motorcycle and is less fatiguing. But, you’ll need to practice to achieve smoothness, do that.…

Except For Wheelies: To clear obstacles like large rocks, logs, the lips of desert washes and the climbs out of streams, you’ll need to be able to hoist the front wheel on-demand. With your pink and ring finger wrapped around the bar, use your middle and pointer finger to quickly whip in the clutch lever, roll on the throttle with the other hand and quickly, with with control, release the clutch. That should get your front end up on one of these beasts without a problem.…

Steer With Your Feet: Find a long, straight, wide, empty stretch of dirt road and ride down it at moderate speed while standing. Practice putting your weight on alternate pegs, achieving the ability to steer the motorcycle while doing so. This is how you steer a dirt bike and how you should steer an ADV bike while off-road too, doing so puts less of a requirement on front wheel traction, which is fishy at the best of times.

Got a slide about to go way wrong? Stomp on the peg on the side the bike is sliding towards to bring it back into line. Stomp hard. It’s the same principal as counter-steering and it works.

Master The Front Brake: While standing, bend at the hip like you’re doing a squat, forcing your but as far rearwards and as low as possible. If it feels like you’re about to sit on the luggage rack behind the passenger seat, you’re doing it right. This should allow you to transfer your weight through your arms, into the bars and down to the front tire to give it its maximum possible chance at finding traction while braking hard. As on the road, squeeze softly initially to load its contact patch, before progressively moving your way up to full braking power.

Find an empty area and practice maintaining control while locking the front brake. It’s dangerous, but one way to do this is to stay on the throttle, pushing the locked front wheel around while you try to keep the bike upright. If you choose to practice that way, please be aware that you will at some point crash, hopefully both you and the bike are prepared for that.

Leave The Electronics On: These are some big, heavy bikes. Ready-to-ride, but before fitting luggage, that SuperTenere I rode through Canada weighs 636lbs! That’s heavy for the class, but even the lightest ADV bikes typically remain 500lbs plus. That means we’re talking about a ton of momentum which means things can go wrong very quickly and quite irrevocably. Fortunately, most of these bikes now come with ABS and Traction Control optimised to work off-road. Practice with yours in a safe environment, learning which settings work best in which conditions and under what circumstances you may want to turn them off.

ABS is a wonderful safety aid on an ADV bike, allowing you to get on the brakes hard if a cow suddenly jumps into the road while you’re head is off in the clouds. But, it’s going to work against you on steep downhills in loose sand or dirt. So learn where it works, consider the terrain you’re riding through and switch it on and off as you ride accordingly.

TC is the same, reigning in slides before they require too much intervention from us humans. But, try and climb a steep hill through loose sand or dirt or mud and, well, you’re not going anywhere. Again, learn its function and use it accordingly.

Don’t think you’re too manly to use these electronic rider aids. ADV riding often involves very long days in very bad weather through very dangerous terrain. And that spells fatigue. Take it from me, crashing five days from the nearest hospital or mechanic is a bad idea and take advantage of any help you can get in not doing that.

Want to learn more? Schools dedicated to these skills are operated by both Rawhyde (in California) and Jimmy Lewis (in Nevada). Go to them, they work.

IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.