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Taking Another Look at the Fundamentals of Riding

John Lavina (October 2014)

Perhaps you've been riding for a couple years and have wondered how and why some riders are just naturally faster than you.  You see photos or video of yourself on the bike and you still look a little bit like a novice.  Perhaps you've wondered how some rider managed to get up that same nasty piece of trail that pitched you, and they made it look easy?  Maybe it's time we all swallow our pride and take another look at some of the fundamentals of riding.

No matter what bike you are riding or what size, all experts agree that good riding position is the key to becoming a better and faster rider.  Maintaining proper riding position allows you to conquer the trickiest obstacles, both the ones you are ready for, and the ones you didn't see.  Good riding position connects you to the bike, and gives you complete and total control, regardless of terrain.  Whether it's motocross, supercross, freestyle or trails, most of the same principles apply.  If you are in a bad riding position, the bike and the terrain will be in charge, which will not only make you slower, but more accident prone as well.

Dirt Bike Rider On Trail

The best thing about riding motorcycles has to be the fact that they are like musical instruments; you do it for years, and always find ways to improve.  It's never too late to become a better rider, but you have to check your ego at the door.  Changing your basic riding position takes a lot of work, and time and commitment.  It will make you uncomfortable, and you may even ride slower to begin with, but this is one of those cases where you have to take a step backward in order to take two steps forward.  If you stick with it for about ten rides, you'll soon be riding faster, with more confidence and with more control. So read on, because this stuff can unlock a whole new world for the novice and for casual riders.

Good Riding Habits

It's easiest to explain good riding habits by discussing the reasons behind them, so let's look at some of the biggest differences in riding habits between novice riders and experienced riders, and how good riding position complements these good habits.  

  1. Novice riders use the gas to control speed.  Experienced riders over-grip the throttle from the top, then twist back and lock their throttle wrist and feather the clutch to control speed.  This makes a huge difference, because the power band is always right there, and the clutch is used to deliver that power to the ground as needed.  Delivering just the right amount of power is the key to traction and drive, powering you through and over obstacles instead of introducing them to you face-to-face.

  2. Novice riders use the controls separately.  Experienced riders use all the controls together, all the time.  Always keep one finger on the clutch, one on the front brake.  Keep your right toe over the rear brake.  When you find your groove you will find yourself using all controls simultaneously.  Dirt bikes are most predictable when accelerating or breaking, because the bike is telling the wheels what to do.  When coasting, the terrain tells the wheels what to do, and that's not good.  You should always be on the gas or on the brakes, or both together.

  3. Novice riders depend on the bike to tackle the terrain.  Experienced riders predict and absorb the terrain, dividing the work equally between rider and machine.  This is accomplished by standing up.  It's easy to get lazy and sit down, but your home riding position should be standing, legs bent, arms bent, elbows up and pointing out, making your limbs part of the suspension.

  4. Novice riders ride on the bike.  Experienced riders become part of it.  Squeeze with your knees while standing up and you'll feel a connection to the bike like you've never felt before.  This is difficult at first, but those muscles will get stronger, and you'll eventually learn to wedge your instep on the foot peg grips to ease the strain on your inner thigh muscles.  A great experiment is to pick a section of rugged trail and ride it first, standing up with your knees out, not touching the bike.  Then try the same section again while squeezing with your knees.  The difference cannot easily be described.

  5. Novice riders look at the trail directly in front of them.  Experienced riders look 50 ft or more in front of them.  They are able to do this because, when in proper riding position, they are already set up to handle any bumps, rocks, or other terrain they didn't notice.  The rocks, ruts, and bumps become small beans to them because this stuff requires no special movements or change in position.  That's why experts can go 80 miles per hour in someone else's dust trail when they can't even see the ground.

    Dirt Bike Rider On Rocky Woods Trail
  6. Novice riders adjust speed to keep from sliding out in corners.  Experienced riders adjust power and weight.  Ever had a little BMX bike and done doughnuts in the driveway, making tighter and tighter circles and taking one hand and one foot off and letting the bike lay down, almost touching the ground, but not quite?  The bike did not fall over because the entire weight of your body was pushing down on the outside pedal, and one hand was holding the outside grip.  The same principle applies the taking motocross style turns on your dirt bike.  You can lay the bike down in the corner, but move your body to the top corner of the seat, as if there's lava down there!  The bike should be doing the leaning, not you.  Get your butt off that seat and PRESS all your weight on that outside peg.  As long you do this you will not slide out.  To roost the berm, raise your outside elbow and use clutch and gas together.  The idea is to go instantaneously from breaking to accelerating at the apex of the turn.  To do this usually involves a period where both gas and breaks are being used simultaneously (don't try this on your mom's car).  You'll know when you get it right because the rear wheel will lock up for a brief moment then go ballistic, blasting you out of the turn like it never happened.

Putting It All Together

When someone pushes on you, you don't think to yourself “Step back and regain your balance!”, you just do it.  In order for good riding position to help you, you have to keep doing it until it is automatic.  That's when you'll see the gains.  The bike will become an extension of your body, not just something you ride on, and hopefully you're riding buddies will soon be treated to a nice dirt sandwich.

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