Dirt Road Riding - Please tell me it gets less scary!!

by cathy
(Cape Town, South Africa)

Last week, my husband, a friend and I, did a 3 day dirt ride - my first real exposure to dirt riding, and boy, was it scary! It didn't help that early on day 1 I managed to get into a real wobbly - I think it's called a 'tank slapper' when I hit a patch of sand in the road. I didn't have the guts to open up the throttle, as everything I've heard and read tells you to do, but I managed not to throttle off, and not to try to over correct, ie not fight the bike. I really, really thought I was a goner, but the bike managed to come out of it, somehow. Our friend was riding behind me, and afterwards he talked me through what happened, and what I should have done.

Needless to say, that experience really shook me. We had a fair bit of tar after that, then back to dirt (gravel we call it) in the afternoon. The road got really bad - hectic corrugations - and I was forced to learn quickly to ride standing up - previously that position had just felt too insecure, but the road was so bad it literally was the only way I could ride it.

Anyway, I managed, albeit much more slowly than the guys - they were chilled about that, bless them - but it was still scary, and the bike just felt so unstable under me, by the end of the day, the conversation in my helmet was all about how I was never going to do this again. And my hands and wrists were soooooo tired from gripping too tightly!

So, there were still 2 more days to go, and not being one to chicken out of something I've started, I kept going. The roads did improve - so much so that on the last day the road was really firm, with very little loose stuff. However I was still nervous, couldn't get up to more than 90kmh (59mph), and the guys tell me they generally ride that kind of surface at 120+ (74mph+)!

So, please can those of you who ride dirt regularly, and have experienced these feelings, tell me - does it get less scary when you've started out so nervously? It's not like only the elite riders do it, so it MUST get easier, but why do I feel SO much more scared than I thought I would?

(PS I'm not giving up - I do want to go again, but I'm worried I'll never feel comfortable on dirt roads)

Comments for Dirt Road Riding - Please tell me it gets less scary!!

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Jan 05, 2012
Dirt life
by: robin_uganda

You really have been doing great, not quitting part way through. It does take endurance. For me speed is a key. Each stretch I face, gravel, clay, sand, deep puddles--whatever, need to be approached at my speed & I need to simply know that I'm in control.
My Dakar is kinda made for anything Africa can throw at it, but one thing I firmly believe is that having firm, grippy tires is a real key for successful off-roading. I've gone through patches where bikes were all over on their sides since it was so slippery, but my grippy tires pull me through so much. You're right to stick to a lighter bike for a while, although I must say my BMW has incredible balance, better than my old Honda 250--possibly because of the genius design of putting the gas tank under the seat, thus lowering the center of gravity even on such a high bike. Keep at it, you're gonna love it!

Jan 01, 2012
Dirt Road Riding
by: Becky

When riding on dirt, if it get shaky, make sure to get your butt off the seat and stand on the pegs. Also, I found with gravel, if you are up off the seat and give it the gas, you will usually drive right through. I started off dual sport riding with a ke100. I love the versatility of a dual sport. Even though I am short (5 ft) I have been able to have suspension lowered (Durelle Racing is great for this) and I have also experimented with different wheel set ups.

Nov 29, 2011
Watch the speed.
by: Wanda

I encourage you to ride at you own pace. Don't let others pressure you into riding faster than you are comfortable with. Comfort and skill will come with experience. Savor every minute. Sounds like you are already having fun and you just need to relax into it. Be safe.

Nov 28, 2011
Dirt Road Riding
by: Cathy

Thanks so much, everyone, for the tips and all the encouragement! I'm already looking forward to my next ride, now I'm determined to get to the point where I enjoy gravel roads as much as tar!

Nov 26, 2011
practice, practice, practice!
by: kp

I have a Yamaha xt225 dualie, along with a Ducati for street, an fz6 for touring and an sv650 for the track. I spent an entire season on nothing but the dualie on every surface I could find. Riding dirt, sand, gravel and single track makes you a better rider on the street. You're faced with surface changes that make you think and react fast so when you're on the street and that happens, you're less likely to freak. Let loose of the grips some Cathy and let the bike find it's way. You're hands and wrists will be a lot less sore. Have you ever seen that youtube of the guy on the big dresser bike that initiates a tank slapper? He just sits there, lets completely go of the grips and the bike rights itself. Sometimes when I'm on a ride and I lose some confidence, I break down the road into sections. I pick a reference a few miles ahead and tell myself "just make it to that tree" then when I do, I pick another one. For some reason that helps me.

All you need is more time in the saddle. Good luck and keep us posted!

Nov 26, 2011
dirt road
by: Madeline

You go girl, keep riding. I am very happy you kept the course and did not give up. I am not a dirt rider but did learn to ride on dirt with a small Honda and loved it. My advice to you is too keep doing it because practice makes perfect. Don't let those guys talk you down with their comments of riding faster than you, they have larger bikes that can handle the terrain. Go at you speed and comfort, just have fun and relax, don't get to stiff. When I approach gravel and dirt on the road one thing I learned is to still have control of my grips but don't grab them too tight, I find that relaxing my arms helps me get through it. Enjoy the bike and don't focus on the junk on the ground.

Nov 26, 2011
Dirt Road Riding
by: Cathy

My 350 does alright as far as luggage goes - I also travel very light, it has a good luggage wrack, takes a tank bag, and the seat is very comfortable - all the old models seem to have catered well in that dept.

However, on the long open road it has to work hard - top speed is around 140km/hr, which is fine as our highway speed limit is 120, but then I'm really having to work it.

Once I'm more competent/comfortable offroad, we'd like to look for a 650 that can be lowered. I also ride a Suzuki S40, which is a wonderful little bike, but of course no good offroad.

Yeah, I also want it all!!!! My husband keeps telling me "it's not about the bike, it's about the competence of the rider", which I think is true, but man, I wish I could 'fit' them all!!

Nov 26, 2011
by: jp

So, if you were gone on a three day trip, does that bike have room for much luggage? I can pack lite and I'm looking at either sport/tours or dual sports, but I do take a lot of long distance rides on smooth roads and hope to find something I can pack up and be at least comfy enough to not have to stop a lot. The ultra classic I have now has me spoiled in that department. I plan to give up some comfort, but want a tolerable ride on those long interstate days. Lets face it...I want it all.. You keep having fun. I'm sure it gets better.

Nov 26, 2011
Dirt Road Riding
by: Cathy

Thanks, JP, yeah, I forgot to mention the bike - it's a Honda XLX 350, which my husband had to lower for me, being short means I simply cannot ride the tall dualsport bikes. We decided on the 350 because it's lighter, which is apparently a good thing in really technical stuff (and I can pick it up), but our friend on his 1200 just didn't feel half the stuff I did!
Love the sound of your planned trip!

Nov 26, 2011
dirt roads
by: jp

My hat's off to you for sticking it out. I'm currently working on selling my big tour bike for one that is more managable on gravel. I'm tired of having a heart attack every time I see a long gravel construction site and I do want to plan a trip through northern Canada and Alaska in '13 which will include a good bit of long distance gravel. What bike do you have. My guess is that practice makes perfect...if those guys can do it then you know you can too.

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