It’s a Dirt Bike Habit


All Rights Reserved © 2015 Thomas W. Day

One of my least favorite excuses for poor street bike motorcycle skills is “it’s a dirt bike habit,” as if I’m too stupid or inexperienced to know what works off-road. Ok, I grant that I’m not that bright and there are a world of things I don’t know about riding a dirt bike, but I’m pretty sure I know more and ride better on or off-road than an over-18 newbie who needs to take the MSF Basic Riding Course to get a motorcycle license. (A subject for a whole different GwAG rant.) Face it, if you were good you’d just ride down to the DMV, take their easy little test, and get your license. But that doesn’t stop a certain portion of the folks who take the Basic Rider Course from explaining away all of their awful habits with “it’s a dirt bike habit”; habits that have been formed from experiences as diverse as riding on the back of Dad’s ATV to mountain biking.

The things that get blamed on dirt bike experience are 1) clinging to the front brake lever with one or more fingers as if it were a lifeline, 2) sticking a foot out any time the bike leans more than two degrees away from vertical, 3) superstition, ignorance, and terror of either the front or rear brake use, 4) staring at the front wheel as if it were about to fall off at any moment at the expense of having the remotest idea where the motorcycle is traveling, and 5) any number of weird and uncontrollable throttle hand positions. There are lots more dumb things that, supposedly, dirt bike riders “all do,” but I’ll leave the list at five for the purposes of keeping this short and minimally pissed-off. 

It is true that riding off-road and, especially, racing off-road is a different animal from street riding. There is no life-threatening situation in a motocross or enduro where you have to worry about maximum braking horsepower. That is one of many reasons why dirt bikes have wimpy little brakes that barely seem functional in street riding situations. Mostly due to my riding style, skill limitations, and attitude, when I raced off-road I was more inclined to lift the front wheel and ride over obstacles and downed riders and bikes than I was to hit the brakes or try to avoid those obstructions. That is simply not a survivable option on the street. On the road, in any given week of commuting, I would be surprised if I didn’t seriously exercise my motorcycle’s brakes at least twice out of necessity and I have a long-established habit of working on my stopping and avoidance skills every day. You have to be able to stop quickly or be ready to offer up the girlyman excuse, “I had to lay ‘er down” when you explain why you are on crutches for a whole riding season. I hope it’s obvious that four fingers are stronger than one or two. It might be less obvious that regularly practicing braking with all four fingers does not limit a rider to exclusively using four fingers every time the brakes are used. You can always consciously choose to only use one finger or two in appropriate braking situations or when hanging on to the bars in precarious (as it is in off-road situations). I always argue that it’s better to have to think about using a less effective braking technique than it is to automatically select the low-power option in an emergency. I could be wrong about that, but it’s still the argument I’d present to any new rider hoping to ride safely for a lot of years.

Clinging to the grips while you are also trying to use the throttle, clutch, or brake precisely is another “dirt bike habit” that is ineffective, unnecessary, and dangerous on the road. I am referring to those riders who are unable to use more than a couple of fingers for braking because they are afraid of losing their grip on the bars. Braking in particular puts a lot of force on the palm of your hand and you are not likely to be bumped loose when you’re applying maximum braking forces. However, if you are really that insecure about loosening your grip on the bars, the chances are pretty good that you’re going to crash sooner or later. When you do, those fingers you’ve allocated under the levers are likely to get crushed when the weight of the bike smashes the lever ends into the ground. 

A few moments on YouTube will demonstrate the difference between the riding techniques of great off-road racers and street racers (search for Valentino Rossi and James Stewart on-board camera views, for example). The road racer hand movements and throttle application looks almost in slow motion compared to the off-road racers. Steward, Dungey, and Carmichael drop the hammer on the throttle like they have no use for anything between full off and full on. Likewise, off-road one finger clutch and brake use is common because you are hanging on for dear life and taking a pounding, physically, for every inch of travel. The street is a different environment. Speeds are higher, traction is more predictable, acceleration and deceleration forces are dramatically higher as a result. Road racing is physical, but it is a substantially different sport. Rossi, Stoner, and Marquez are much more tentative in their use of all of their controls. It’s not accurate to say the road racers are altogether smoother than the off-road pros, but their on-bike movements are considerably less sudden.

The foot thing is just silly in pavement situations, especially on a dry parking lot at speeds that barely require shifting to second gear. At 150mph, Valentino Rossi might stick a leg out from behind his fairing’s air-pocket to add a little drag before entering a high speed corner and James Stewart might plant a speedway-style boot in the apex of a tight corner, but you do not need to pretend you are in either of those situations in typical street conditions. Stick that basketball shoe into a warm chunk of asphalt and you may find your shin trying to occupy the same space as your thigh bone when you discover how much traction those Nikes can grab. More importantly, if you are sticking a foot out to help steer your street bike around a tight curve you are most likely putting your weight on the highside of the bike, which forces the motorcycle to lean further than necessary and a greater lean angle can mean you are working with a smaller tire contact patch and unnecessarily high side forces. And, of course, you look like a total douche to any experienced motorcyclists who may be watching.

Maneuverability is a motorcyclist’s only weapon against the forces of four-wheel evil, four-hooved devils, and two-legged idiots. Stopping or slowing quickly is just one aspect of maneuverability, but if you can’t do it you’re pretty much a set of streamers dangling from your bike’s handlebars. Regardless of what your father, boyfriend, goofy neighbor, or Rush Limbaugh told you, using either brake aggressively and with skill is not a dangerous activity. In fact, if you can’t use your brakes, riding is dangerous.

MMM October 2016

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