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19th April 2004

Opinion: Getting Off is Good For You

How can you deal with riding over poor road surfaces? Paul Friday recommends that you start with no road surface whatsoever...

In your regular progress on the Queen's Highway you may encounter the occasional hazard. A good question for beer nights is to ask what one should do on encountering a band of gravel mid-way through a corner. Popular wisdom will have you countersteer, brake on the rear, grip the 'bars tighter or grip the seat tighter.

It's saturday afternoon in the sixties, and Murray Walker is doing the commentary...To be honest, most of us would pinch a handful out of the seat and only react to the hazard once it had passed. If you want evidence, look at the statistics: a large proportion of motorcycle accidents involve no other vehicle. A large proportion of these happen when the rider fails to complete a bend and ends up in the wall on the other side of the road. This is not so much 'I'm a road god and I ran out of room' but 'I failed to get round the corner at my speed of entry'. In other words: this was not an accident until I came along. The obvious solution to the government is to remove the cause: the fewer motorcyclists, the better.

So, how do you prepare for Council maintenance? One way to improve your road skills the Darwinian Method. This is practiced by most couriers and a large proportion of other motorcyclists. It very effective. The only problem is that, if you are found wanting, you don't get another chance. It's not like a computer game, where you save your status before you do the hard stuff. In real life you don't get to reload. I can certainly commend its effectiveness though: the only problem is that the game is scored at the level of the obstacles and not the players. You may be rated million mile DR with spider senses but you can still succumb to ancient Fiesta with bored commuter. This is indeed the way, oh Grasshopper.

So, back to the real world: part-way through a fast corner you suddenly hit a band of gravel. What do you do? Whatever you may think, the answer is that you do what your reactions tell you. Many of the hazards like sudden slides happen too quickly to rationalise. Instead of giving you time to work out what to do, you are either off the bike or past the hazard before your underwear takes the strain. And conscious thought usually kicks-in half a second too late. Reacting just a bit too late is often worse than not reacting at all: you will be feeding-in too much corrective effort just at the point where the bike had sorted itself out.

So how does one learn what to do? One answer to go in search of ruts and gravel on the roads and practice. It will be a merry life, but a short one. The other answer to learn about slipping and sliding in places where there is no oncoming traffic.

Welcome to off-road riding.

You may wonder what possible relevance it has to riding on the road. If all you do is trickle round a few bumps, then the answer is very little. However, if you get some proper training, then you will learn things that will make you a better rider.

For example: everyone hates slippery roads, and perhaps what we all fear most is losing the front tyre. So we fight to keep the bike upright into corners and only use the back brake. We might even put our feet down and paddle. What you will learn by riding off-road is that you can actually brake quite hard on the front without it locking, providing you get your weight well forward. If a corner looks slippy, you get your weight right over the front and even let the inside leg trail forwards as a handy prop. It will then be the back tyre that lets go first, but you will be expecting it and know how to deal with it. And the worst that will happen is that you low-side the bike. This is much less painful and damaging than having the front wash out, or snapping the throttle shut when you feel a slide and causing a high-side.

But this is not something that you can theorise about - when it does happen it will be so quick that you won't have time to ponder which page of the manual it was on. The only thing that works is practice. By learning to corner a bike on loose or slippery surfaces, you will get used to what it feels like. Instead of being paralysed by the feeling of the bike sliding, you will be dealing with how much, how fast and moving your weight and controlling the bike. When you get really good, you will be able to concentrate on style as well. And perhaps the biggest surprise is that a bike doesn't automatically fall over when the tyres slip. Providing the wheels are revolving, a bike has a great deal of self-correcting stability. What you have to learn is the confidence to trust the bike, and the skills to guide it in the right general direction.

Underpants on the outside has *never* been a good look.

So where does one learn to get down and dirty? There are lots of courses throughout the country. The big manufacturers run their own branded courses, and there are plenty of smaller outfits. The courses range from a single day to a whole weekend. For dirt virgins, I recommend just a single day - off-road riding will use muscles you didn't know you had. The things to check are that you get instruction, how much of it you get, the size of the group and the number of instructors, and the ability range of the group. You do not want to find yourself with twenty experts and one instructor who disappear over the horizon. The ideal is short sessions in small groups, where you get time to think about what you have just done and a chance to watch other people trying it.

I was lucky to find a local outfit that is just getting started, i2i Motorcycle Academy. They operate from a field near Helmsley in North Yorkshire. It's ideal, in that the area is compact enough that you can see the other riders making the same mistakes, yet varied enough to provide a full day of riding over different courses and obstacles. It's also good value at 130, which is important in Yorkshire. I did my day and found that I really can corner a bike on dirt, and that I can let the back end spin or slide and not fall off. I also learned that all my years of watching trials riding have given me completely the wrong idea of what off-road riding is about. I had a mind set of riding very slowly, standing on the pegs and conserving grip. I learned that it is better to sit down, let the tyres spin (but under control) and make some progress. I thought the art was balance, but I learned the real art is momentum.

And it really does make a difference on the road. For a start, your bike will feel incredibly stable and your tyres will feel like hot racing specials. You will marvel at the levels of grip and control, and laugh at white lines, cats eyes and bands of grit. You will find yourself leaning over the headlight and flapping your elbows like a crazed chicken stunt rider.

So now I want a dirt bike.

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