Here are five tips for riding a big adventure bike off-road from a rally bike pro. You’ll find riding techniques, explanations and bike set-up info here to help get you confident on the rough stuff…
Why learn to ride an adventure bike off-road?
Short answer – because it’s fun! Long answer – because adventure bikes are more capable than they have ever been. They offer an amazing breadth of abilities, and come with some wonderful rider aids, but they are still big, heavy and powerful so they require understanding and technique to get the best out of them. This article’s job is to help give you a baseline of riding techniques and best practices so you can get the most out of your adventure bike.
What is adventure bike riding?
It’s possible to have an adventure on any bike from a Honda C90 to a BMW GS, but for the purpose of this article, we’re looking at riding tips for larger bikes, with bigger engines, capable of carrying luggage, with long service intervals and able to cover big distances with ease.
To learn to ride these specific types of adventure bikes, we aim to work with the bike, to understand and then maximise its strengths and minimise its weaknesses. To be able to ride efficiently for long periods we need to get the bike to do the work, we need to encourage it and work with it, we cannot force it in to submission like on an enduro bike for example where the riding tips would be different. With larger capacity adventure bikes, that means maximising efficiency while minimising risk.
A quick word on training
Confidence is the key ingredient to both riding effectively and to enjoying the experience – this is after all supposed to be fun! The best routes to confidence are having good techniques that the rider believes in, and practice.
You can develop these good techniques by trial and error, but that’s a lengthy process and produces dips in confidence along the way. It also often results in adequate methods that work for the task in hand but impose a ceiling to what can ultimately be achieved (and so have to be unlearned at a later date in order to progress).
Instead, good training from someone the rider believes in will short circuit this process dramatically. Reducing the time spent refining poor technique and gaining efficiency and confidence as quickly as possible. It can also minimise the chances of crises of confidence and actual physical harm (arm pump and aching backs whilst riding, and potentially unnecessary and nasty offs).
There are lots of ways to ride a motorbike that will suit different people on different days on different bikes at different events. So, I encourage people to find a coach who will tailor their approach to suit the rider and ensure what they are taught is appropriate to their needs. This is the quickest route to being confident, capable, and safe.
5 Off-Road Adventure Bike Riding Tips
Set your bike up correctly
Before you even start riding, it’s important to set your bike up properly first. The aim is to develop good technique and to gain confidence. Having the bike set up correctly will make that process as easy and effective as possible. I recommend setting a bike up when it is first acquired. Particularly for second hand bikes which may have had some ‘interesting’ adjustments or modifications made by the previous owner. Then periodically if the use of the bike changes and as the rider develops – the type of terrain it is being used on, how the bike is being ridden on that terrain, or perhaps going on a trip with seldom used luggage. Here’s our recommendations.
Adjust the rider controls – the position of the handlebars, clutch and front brake levers, rear brake and gearshift levers.
Set the suspension up – different bikes have different levels of adjustment, but most will allow for rear sag (the preload on the rear spring to suit the rider’s / pillion’s / luggage weight), and the height of the forks in the triple clamps. These are vital to have correct. There may also be adjustments to the shock absorbers front and rear which are also beneficial. This can become overwhelming, if so, a good starting point is to ensure that everything is set to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Understand and use the bike’s rider aids – bikes are increasingly coming equipped with a variety of electronic rider aids: ride modes, power outputs, throttle sensitivity, adjustable engine braking, anti-lock brakes, and traction control. All of which are extremely powerful tools if understood and used appropriately.
Tyres and pressures – the topic of much discussion, and inevitably a compromise for a bike that is being used in different environments, but perhaps the single biggest influence on the capability of the machine. And the confidence of the rider!
- Read and digest the owner’s manual to find out what adjustments there are for your bike’s controls, suspension and rider aids.
- Be confident in making changes, if the starting point is recorded they can always be reversed, or be set to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
- Perhaps seek help from a trusted mechanic or rider coach.
- Be cautious about changing the fundamental geometry of the bike with the likes of large risers for the handlebars or crude means of lowering the bike. They can have dramatic and detrimental effects to the way the bike behaves, and there will be better solutions.
- Be a little careful about taking any advice as gospel (particularly from a single noisy source on the internet). The bike needs to be set up for you and the use that you are going to put it to, which may be completely different to what works for someone else and their circumstances. Find someone that you trust or seek a consensus from a number of people.
Good vision gives the rider the most amount of notice for what is approaching and hence the most amount of time to prepare for it. Corners, slopes, changes in terrain, obstacles, and hazards can then all be arrived at in a calm, controlled and effective manner. Not only does this allow for better technique, but it provides the single biggest boost to rider confidence.
Look up and at where you want to go. The bike will magically follow. Look down or at what you are trying to avoid and at best it will arrive too quickly and shake confidence, and at worst you will hit exactly that which you were trying to avoid.
Position the bike on the road / track to give the best view of what is coming up. As an example, when cornering typically this means entering the corner wide, and staying wide until the exit can be clearly seen. Entering the corner on the inside, or taking a ‘racing’ line and clipping the apex, will usually compromise the exit, reduce smoothness and efficiency, and may be dangerous.
A good riding position, both sitting and standing, will optimise the abilities of the bike, give the rider the best and most efficient control over it, and maximise safety.
Whether sitting or standing the rider’s weight should be centralised on the bike. Typically this means above the pegs. This is how the bike will have been designed to operate and will create a balance between front and rear suspension.
In general, head up with good vision, a straight back canted forward, the rider’s weight in the centre of the bike, elbows wide, pegs just behind the balls of the feet, toes tucked in and gripping the bike between the feet, and making use of the rider’s joints (ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and elbows) for additional suspension.
Being fluid above the bike using the rider’s weight to aid cornering, accelerating, braking and to deal with different terrain.
Apply the points above to ride dynamically, not passively. Be in control of the bike, not a passenger. This need not take any more effort or energy than being slumped on the bike.
When to sit and stand
Compared to dedicated off-road machines, the bikes used for adventure riding are often larger, heavier and longer, with relatively short travel / poor quality suspension, with compromised tyres, and often carrying luggage. The rider therefore needs to adopt a style that helps the bike in these areas that it is weak in and optimises the areas that it is strong in.
Generally speaking, standing up does this by unlocking the rider’s weight away from the bike. ‘Floating’ above the bike allows the bike’s suspension to have an easier time managing just the bike’s weight, as opposed to the bike and rider’s combined weight. The rider’s joints provide their own suspension, supplementing that of the bike. The rider also has a far greater range of mobility whilst standing, so can place their mass appropriately to aid the bike.
If vision is good, and the terrain is smooth and predictable, then the bike needs less help and the rider has the option to sit down. If, however, it is not possible to see far ahead, or if the terrain is poor or unpredictable, then standing will be beneficial.
The more challenging the terrain and the tighter the corner the more important it is to stand. Unfortunately, this can be the reverse of what instinct is screaming at the rider.
On smooth gravel roads with good sight lines, sit if the corner approaching is less than 45 degrees. On the same surface if the corner is greater than 45 degrees then stand. Whenever vision is compromised, or the terrain is more technical, stand. Develop good techniques for sitting and standing positions and ride dynamically. Done correctly it will be possible to ride all day standing up without fatiguing.
Accelerating and braking
As touched upon earlier, the suspension and tyres on an adventure bike are often compromised and need help making the most of the grip available. This is as true on a wet roundabout as it is on a gnarly mountain pass.
There is only a finite amount of grip available between any given tyre and the surface it is on. The contact patch of a tyre is typically about the size of the palm of a hand and needs to support the weight of the bike / rider / pillion / luggage, manage cornering, and allow for accelerating and braking. Possibly all whilst undulating on uneven terrain.
The right techniques will maximise the grip available and be very comforting to the rider. Sudden applications of power or jolts of braking will ‘surprise’ the tyre and severely test the grip that is available.
Smooth gentle application of acceleration or brakes gives time for the weight of the bike to move and start compressing the suspension, building the pressure on the contact patch and hence the grip available. As the pressure builds so more acceleration or braking can be applied, more grip becomes available, and so on (within reason).
Progressive is the word, start very gently then build. Both for accelerating and braking. Don’t ‘surprise’ the tyres, allow the pressure and the grip to increase at the contact patch.
Remember, the front brake does the vast majority of the slowing down (even on steep descents), the rear brake does not contribute much.
However, the rear brake provides stability. Stability is a good thing under braking so a light application (starting before applying the front brake) is very beneficial. Stability is also very advantageous under many other circumstances, so having the skills to use it appropriately are very helpful.
About the author
Howard runs rallyadventurebike.com. Rally Adventure Bike is based in the Southeast of England, they offer a range of products and services focused on the preparation and use of big bikes for rally and adventure bike travel.
“Our adventure academy delivers big bike rider coaching at a number of fantastic sites in Kent and Sussex. From the very first tentative steps off-road to preparation for international rallies, our training is personal, relevant, and always fun!
We also provide full workshop facilities to prepare your bike from anything from a day’s local trail riding, to intercontinental adventure, to competition riding and Rallys.
We only supply parts which have proved themselves during our own competition and travel experiences. We will not recommend any parts that we have not tested ourselves.”
Check out Howard’s off-road training school and workshop here:
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Interested in riding your adventure bike off-road? If you have any questions or tips to share, please drop a comment below.