Two CRF250L’s on a Dirt Riding Learning Curve

Terrace Mountain on motorcycleRiding my CRF250L on dirt, into the wilderness, is pure joy.

It’s also a learning curve, steep enough to command respect for the point where my riding skills and the terrain intersect.

Zero; that’s how much riding on dirt roads and trails I had done when I decided to purchase my little red honda dual sport. But when I actually had the bike in my hands, the snow at higher elevations stopped me cold before I could ride any distance on the Forest Service Roads. It was frustrating, but it was also instructive. It taught me to know when to turn around.

Teaching myself to ride on dirt

Fast-forward to now (June 2013): The snow has melted, and my riding has taken me from pavement, to mud, gravel, sand, and rock, in short order — and I’m lovin’ it. I am also respecting it by purposefully learning from each ride.

If I’m not sure how to handle a situation, I experiment under controlled conditions. That’s how I learned how to tighten my turn on loose gravel if I misjudge a curve and enter too fast: hit the back brake just enough to slide the rear wheel out to point the bike into a tighter radius. Well, that may not be textbook, but it works for me.

“Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t,” is my mantra. So I always ask myself while riding, “what’s working here, and what isn’t?” Simple really.

If, like me, you are teaching yourself to ride on dirt roads and trails, do yourself a favor and seek out the tricky surfaces first. Ride in all the mud, deep loose gravel, and rain-soaked hard packed dirt you can find. Practice riding in slippery stuff on straight sections, then in curves. And be sure to get used to turning your bike around on a narrow FSR or trail. In moments like this, you’ll appreciate all the time you spent in the parking lot, practicing slaloms and tight slow turns to get your motorcycle licence.

Do all of this on moderately level ground. Get a feel for how your motorcycle responds, and how you can cooperate with your bike’s movements through the slip and slide. How does it feel to loosen your grip on the bars and prioritize using your body position over the saddle, your knees on the tank, and your feet on the pegs, to affect center of gravity, balance, and steering?

Does it help if you slow down? Does it work better if you gently roll on the throttle through mud and deep gravel? What happens if you brake on slippery surfaces? Which brake works best under what conditions? What about engine braking and gearing?

So yeah, just practice like that on a fairly level surface, then throw in some more difficulties as you progress. Steepen the incline/decline, then move on to rocky obstacle-rich terrain, where you have to scan ahead quickly and pick your path around and over, rocks, mud ruts, deep gullies and such. Experiment with braking on slow steep declines. Find the correct gear to achieve the ideal amount of speed and engine braking you need for control, then add in a bit of back brake now and then.

You read all sorts of riding advice to do this and not that, but it isn’t a lesson until you experience it for yourself. An example: you’ve heard the advice to be very cautious with, or to avoid, the front brake when picking your way down a steep hill. You figure, what’s the big deal? The front wheel has the weight on it going downhill, so wouldn’t the front brake provide more effective and precise control, as you pick your way around boulders and stuff? Good question! But questions and advice are only in the mind. Riding a motorcycle is a mind/body discipline.

You need to physically experience this type of riding advice in a controlled and safe situation. And when you do, you pull that learning into your body. So try using the front brake when you are moving slowly — under safe conditions — turning quick lefts and rights down a steep decline. Hitting the front brake while your bars are turned, may just throw you onto the ground in a heartbeat. The difference between believing it will happen and experiencing it happening, is profound. It will enable you to incorporate the riding lesson into your mind/body memory and abilities. Now, instead of being afraid to use the front brake in these situations, you will develop a feel for finessing it to your advantage — because you have experienced that point where control is lost.

If you practice riding your dual sport in this way on dirt roads and trails, the worst that can happen is you’ll drop your bike and suffer a few scratches and minor bruises. No big deal. But the learning you’ll achieve is a big deal indeed. It can prevent major damage to your motorcycle and/or personal injury — and it will increase your joy of riding tremendously. That’s pretty much my approach to learning to ride in dirt.

Better to practice riding techniques in some safety, than taking a corner too wide, unprepared, and ending up as bug splat on the grill of a logging truck.

You can probably tell that I am a bit of a lone wolf. I like to figure stuff out for myself. My guiding principal is: if I learn to ride on dirt through my own physical and mental efforts, then I will embody the riding techniques I am learning, and be able to employ them when needed, because I will fully understand why and how they are done.

That said, I also think it’s pretty cool to meet other riders who share my enthusiasm and interests. Even better if they happen to ride the same motorcycle as I.

Keith and I ride CRF250L’s on Terrace Mountain

I met Keith on YouTube. His Channel is: OccasionallyEvil. Keith is from my area and he rides a CRF250L. He also rides a Honda ST1300, and a Suzuki GSXR750.

So right away Keith has two bikes up on me plus more recent years of riding experience. Still, it seemed like a good idea to ride in the hills together. Turns out, Keith is also new to dirt riding. Like myself, he purchased his CRF250L very recently as his first dual sport motorcycle. Riding — and learning — together might be a good idea then, don’t ya think?.

We chose to ride a road/trail to a local mountain lookout. It is accessed by a couple FSR’s. It is called Terrace Mountain Lookout.

It was a wonderful ride up until we came to a fork in the road/trail. We chose the less traveled, narrow rocky trail. In hindsight, I am sure that the other, wider more traveled fork, was the better choice.

But we chose the path less traveled. It was steep and narrow, with lots of lose gravel acting like lube under the surface rocks. The video does not at all convey the surface or the gradients (I’ll bet you’ve heard that one before :-)).

Keith was the lead bike when we chose the higher/harder path. And as I came around a hairpin bend, I saw Keith heading for an uphill grade with an even tighter hairpin further up. I was thinking, “no, I’m not going further” when I saw Keith ride on up the steeper incline — until he dropped it. Gravity and steep rocky terrain overcame his momentum and chosen path, and down he went.

I admire his guts, but we both agreed after the fact that it was beyond our current skills sets. The thing is: a minor mistake on a switchback on that kind of incline could have put us over a serious drop off.

So we turned around after picking up Keith’s bike. Keith fired up his GoPro helmet cam as we descended back to Esperon Main FSR.

Here is the video of our descent from that point:

So the video you see here is from the point immediately after the fall, and heading back down. I’m the rider up front in the video; the one with the grey beard and open-face helmet. We took it slow and easy on the way down, since we already had our excitement on the way up.

Once we reached the Forest Service Road, we traveled a ways up that road then turned off on another FSR called Terrace Mountain Main. It was an excellent road. So beautiful and peaceful to ride.

I’ll post a small gallery of photos below that show some of our ride together.

The takeaway riding lessons

I enjoyed my ride with Keith, and I think we both learned a few things about riding our CRF250L’s on the dirt. Some of my personal take away lessons are:

  1. Take responsibility for your skills by owning your learning process
  2. Practice in somewhat safe situations
  3. Be willing to turn back when you encounter conditions well beyond your riding skills
  4. Learn at least one lesson from every ride. Seriously; make a point of this!
  5. Ride in areas that you will enjoy. Have fun. You will learn far more when you are enjoying yourself
  6. Raise the bar on a regular basis. Don’t always go to the same great area you know how to ride in. Go where you will be challenged, a bit at a time
  7. Ride with others who share your interests. You can learn from one another and have a lot of fun together

So now it’s your turn. Tell us about your experiences in the comments section below. Let’s make it a conversation!

Over to you now…