MotoTrek's Bret Tkacs is a professional motorcycle trainer who specializes in adventure bikes. Throughout his classes, he sees students making the same mistakes over and over again. Here are the nine most common mistakes he sees and corrects in his classes.
1. Don't Air Down Your Tires
In the 4X4 world, it's common practice to let some air out of your tires for better off-road traction. Motorcycles don't work like that. Adventure bikes are heavy, and you're often carrying a lot of heavy gear with you. Your tires need that air pressure to do their job and avoid going flat. There are occasional exceptions, such as going over sharp rocks or airing down to escape deep sand when you're stuck. After these hazards, though, you should air right back up again.
2. Use the Front Brake
We're all taught in the MSF course to favor the front brake on the pavement. On dirt, you need more rear brake, since the front is easier to lock up can cause a crash (ask me how I know). Don't neglect the front brake, though. It's still where most of your stopping power comes from, even on dirt. The trick is to use the rear brake to stabilize you, and the front brake to actually stop the bike.
3. Loosen Your Grip
When bouncing over rocks and rough terrain, your natural instinct is to hang on tightly. That's the opposite of what you should do, especially on an adventure bike. You need to allow the bike to move around underneath you and go its own way, to a certain extent. This is disconcerting for new dirt riders with a lot of road experience (again, ask me how I know), but the bike wants to keep going and keep itself upright, so loosen your grip and trust the bike to do some of the work.
4. When the Going Gets Tough, Stand Up
When the terrain gets tricky, standing up on the bike will make allow it to handle things much better. It's counterintuitive at first. It's more comfortable for you, as a rider, to sit. Counterintuitively, standing up actually lowers your body's center of gravity on the bike, moving it from the seat to the footpegs, and the lower, the better. It also allows the bike to bounce over terrain more freely, without your body weight on the seat bogging it down. This is something I'm still trying to get the hang of myself.
5. When You Do Sit, Sit Forward
It's okay to sit on pavement or smooth dirt roads to conserve your energy. When you do, you should still sit as far forward as possible, since that's how the bike is designed to handle your weight. On bikes with long, flat seats, such as my Kawasaki KLR 650, it's tempting to slide your butt backward and stretch out a bit. This means you have to stretch to reach the controls, which is bad for control. I've been known to take a quick stretch back for a few seconds, but never longer than that. I should probably stretch by standing, instead.
6. Skip the Handlebar Risers
Many people use risers to make it more comfortable to ride while standing. The problem is that adventure bikes are already designed to be ridden this way, and adding risers shifts your body too far to the rear of the bike for optimum handling. I demoed a Triumph Tiger 800 a couple of weeks ago, and was amazed that when I tried standing, the handlebars were in exactly the right place, straight off the showroom floor. Though my KLR doesn't have risers, I still need to work on adjusting my handlebars into a similar position.
7. Look Up, Look Ahead
In my past life driving autocross and track days in cars, the number one piece of advice I got was to look farther ahead. It's just as important here. While it's tempting to look down at the rough terrain directly in front of your tire, this prevents you from seeing and adjusting to hazards farther ahead. Personally, I've found that when my bike feels a bit wandery, looking far down the road or trail actually guides the bike where I'm looking automatically, without worrying about the nitty-gritty details of exactly how it's going to get there, even over rocky terrain.
8. Pack Light
The untrue stereotype may be that women always pack too much, but the truth is that adventure riders, regardless of gender, usually pack far more than they need. The extra weight degrades the bike's performance, and the extra bulk doesn't leave enough room for the rider. As Lone Star in Spaceballs said, "Bring only what you need to survive." That means leaving the industrial-strength hair dryer behind.
9. Get Some Training
Some people spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on farkles for their bike but don't spend a dime on becoming a better rider. This is a mistake. My KLR's previous owner equipped it with a Cogent Dynamics suspension, which KLR riders consider among the best available for this bike. As an experienced dirt rider, this was appropriate for the past owner. For me, however, this trick suspension has done nothing to save me from some basic dirt riding mistakes, resulting in some unscheduled dirt naps. Sabrina learned first hand that a little training goes a long way, as did Janaki last weekend. An off-road riding class is definitely the next big purchase I'm planning for my KLR.