Learning about off-roading and about myself.
Though I’ve had my motorcycle license for over a decade and been riding for just as long, most of my skills have been honed on the streets. I’ve ventured on some gravel roads here and there and haven’t dared hit a track just yet. After landing on a press launch and having to skip the off-roading portion because of my lack of experience, I decided that I was going to challenge myself and learn to ride off-road.
Not long after I made that decision I was invited to attend a Learn to Ride event hosted by Honda—perfect timing if I’ve ever seen one! I packed a duffle bag and headed to Colton, California, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where Honda opened a dedicated rider learning center. The Colton center is one of four learning facilities Honda curates across the US with addresses in Virginia, Georgia, and Ohio as well.
The California center offers both road and off-road training. An asphalt area allows riders of all walks of life to learn the ropes of road riding while a sandbox (or dirt box, really) surrounded by a miniature forest is the playground where techniques in off-roading are taught. Riders don’t need any prior training or even gear to attend—they only need to show up. The center provides the full gear required to safely play in the dirt, including chin guards, elbow and shoulder protectors, pants, long-sleeve sweaters, boots, helmets, and goggles. The cost for the full attire, dirt bike, and 8-to-3 day of coaching: a reasonable $180.
I traveled with my helmet because the idea of sharing sweat with previous riders was anything but sexy. However, the team at the learning center takes a lot of pride in its gear sanitizing process and assured us that all the clothing is thoroughly cleaned, including the helmet pads. I didn’t have to share sweat after all.
The dirt pit and what the team refers to as the “ecosystem” were going to be my classroom on this sunny Saturday. We were a small group of four ladies with different levels of experience, ready to push the limits of our respective comfort zones. Two of my fellow riders hadn’t even been on a motorcycle before. I'm not exaggerating when I say that you can pretty much just show up.
Our two coaches for the day, Jarrod Hanson and Cameron Hunt, come from a dirt bike competition background—a set of skills that easily transitions to a dirt bike with an engine. As for our rides for the day, we had a pair of CRF125F and CRF250F (the dirt version of the CRF250L) at our disposition for the day. The two rookies got the smaller bikes so I got to get my hands on the 250 model—a perfect size to whip around in sand and gravel with enough power to have some proper fun.
To accommodate the less experienced riders, we started with the very basics of riding: from how to start the engine (and shut it down), find neutral, to how to straddle the bike properly and get a feel for the clutch—it was my beginner's riding lessons all over again. While I have extensive experience in the saddle, those baby steps allowed me to get a better feel for the bike—the clutch, the throttle input, the riding position, etc. It was, after all, my first time riding on a dirt bike.
The learning curve was very gradual and easy to adapt to—by the time lunch time rolled in, the two riders who had never touched a motorcycle before were scooting around like pros. I thought I had mastered the art of standing on the pegs, but I was proven wrong. Getting comfortable standing while leaning forward but without putting all my weight in my hands proved to be my biggest challenge. Not even jumping obstacles turned out to be that big of a deal and trust me, when you’ve never jumped anything on a bike before, a 4x4 beam looks pretty daunting.
Once everyone mastered most of the techniques, the coaches lead us through the tiny ecosystem—a small forest with trails, obstacles, bends, and puddles to help us put the new teachings to the test in a more natural environment. Honda designed its tiny homegrown forest with native trees and plants to recreate the type of environment riders would face while off-roading in California. We finished our ride in "the wild" in the sandpit, tossing the bikes around and getting a feel for a bit of wheel slip.
My initial concerns about being able to get out of my comfort zone and learn new tricks were rapidly put to rest. I didn’t even drop the bike, which was a concern I had, mainly to spare my ego. The program is built in such a way that every step is very gradual and the pace is easy to keep up with. Once I started flirting with my personal limits, I was able to push them a bit further and expand them.
I was sore for a few days following my experience—the kind of soreness you get from getting a satisfying workout. Every pang of pain in my legs reminded me I had done something new and it made me proud of myself. Now all I have left to is find a dirt bike and trails in my neck of the woods to tackle. It would be a shame to let all these new teachings go to waste...
What I’ve learned...
- The position
If you are used to street riding, this is going to feel a little weird—almost exaggerated. You have to sit at the front end of the saddle, with the gas tank squeezed in between your thighs. Slightly leaning forward, your elbows have to point outwards when you grab the handlebar.
The feet, instead of resting in the arch, should instead rest on the ball. Yes, you have to move your feet to brake or change gears, no lazying your way out of this.
- Changing gear with massive boots on
Finding neutral when you can barely feel the clutch is a very weird feeling.
- Standing in the pegs
I had done a bit of standing before, so I was familiar with the feeling, but nailing the technique down was more difficult than I anticipated. On a dirt bike, you have to keep your head at level without putting all your weight in your hands that need to be able to maneuver the bike and control the throttle. I’ve never squeezed my knees so hard.
- Two fingers on the clutch, one on the brake
Again, if like me, most of your experience comes from riding on the road, this is one toughest habits to break. I had to keep reminding myself to position my fingers on the levers properly.
- The slide isn’t that scary
On the road, feeling the rear wheel spin and/or slide is an awkward, alien feeling that makes any rider want to slow down and correct the situation. In the dirt, however, you embrace the slide and even have fun testing its limits.
- It’s extremely physical
I mean, I expected off-roading to be somewhat demanding, but it is more physical than I anticipated. Maneuvering the bike, standing up and sitting down definitely gets you a good workout.
This gives me newly-earned respect for motocross racers, amateur off-roaders, and dirt hooligans of all genre.
- Learning off-road is easier
Not technically easier, trust me, however, while you are still taught MSF-approved skills and safety techniques, the context is more casual. The bikes are lighter, the surface you are learning on is softer if ever you take a tumble—it's actually less stressful than learning on hard black tarmac.
Had I known this earlier on in my learning process, I would have started with off-roading before getting on a street bike. Whatever you learn on the trail will serve you on the road.
- You can still learn
No matter how long you’ve been riding for, there’s always something new to learn and a new technique to perfect. I thought in my early thirties I’d struggle to learn new tricks; it turns out I was a lot better at it than I expected. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I’m actually really proud of what I achieved on that day. If you think there’s nothing new you can learn, you should stop riding...