This is my take on adventure riding and how to begin as a beginner. I do not intend to present techniques for riding or much in the way of riding tips, but simply to provide a map for working your way toward being comfortable on your new adventure bike. This assumes you have gone out and bought a far too large, too tall, too heavy, too complex and very expensive adventure bike. All with dreams dancing through your head of getting out there in your version of the back of beyond. I was the same. Though I’d been goaded into it by friends and I had some experience from way, way back in the day. A time when we were innocent and unaware we needed a special bike, tires, pants, jackets, gloves, helmets and boots to simply ride wherever our curiosity took us. Oh, and action camera. Yeah, we didn’t have those either.
I was still mostly a street guy. Mostly a sport bike guy, though I’d done a good deal of motorcycle traveling back in the day. So, very little dirt experience and no real instruction, I flew two thirds of the way across the country and got on a new to me 2004 BMW 1150 GS Adventure and took the long way home. Later that day I rode ten miles of loose gravel to my brothers farm. On worn 80/20 tires. The bike was thankfully pretty lightly loaded. And at least there was no traffic in the dark. A month or so later I rode the same much more worn tires in sand and mud with some buddies on my first adventure ride. That ride taught me I needed to get some instruction. I figured some knowledge would help me edge toward being more comfortable and capable on the sorts of roads we had ridden. I remembered how my riding improved after taking a weekend of performance riding instruction and racing school.
Now, I figure lots of folks get into this adventure riding in a similar fashion. A few dual sport guys adapt a small dual sport to adventure travel by adding bags and racks and some comfort items. better seats, heated grips and maybe a larger fly screen. Then fuel range gets attended to and pretty soon the suspension gets an upgrade to handle the extra weight of gear. They finally arrive at a heavy tall motorcycle, but low power and not as highway friendly, but it will do the job.
But, lets stop right here and begin looking at that idea of instruction. Professional dirt riding skills instruction.
Now, the reality is that much of the adventure films we’ve all watched take us along with the hero’s to famous or unnamed tracks, following some GPS route only known to the few. Those tracks lead our hero’s through bogs and across raging rivers and broken narrow rail bridges. Truer to my reality is that those are the sorts of situations I’d prefer to avoid. Most of us also won’t be chucking careers and heading off around the world. We have jobs we need to keep, and commuting to be done and only so much vacation time per year. No, most of us will have to find the odd long weekend or few weeks away thanks to an understanding spouse to pursue our new adventure. So, how does one go about that?
Buy a bike, load it up and take off? Sure, that works. But, what if you take a turn up a road, that becomes two track then fades to single track and is beginning to get off camber? What now? Where do you stop to ponder? Where and how to you get a foot down off this huge overloaded machine when that was a struggle at the fuel station, on firm level, dry ground? What now? That first adventure ride I took with friends led me down deep sand roads fully loaded for travel and camping, on very worn 80/20 tires. Now, way, way back in my life I’d ridden my old Norton when it was not so old and neither was I, down some dirt and gravel roads. Some at pretty elevated speeds. And did some other dirt riding with it, so I had some muscle memory of loose terrain and slippy tires. The Norton was a lot lighter than this big BMW. The BMW was and likely still is too tall and too heavy. I liked the motorcycle and I enjoyed this new riding environment. I needed to figure out that confidence thing. But, I also know that confidence comes with experience and knowledge. I need some training.
OK, lets back up and consider this along with what options we have that will lead to success. First up as with any skill-based activity, we could use some instruction in the basics and some technique. Yes, even if you’ve ridden motorcycles for years and years, it is certain there are skills you can learn, bad habits you need rid of and above all, practice of those skills on this big heavy bike. Now, to approach this with as little risk as possible the experts agree that starting off on a small dirt bike is best to gain the muscle memory of those basic riding skills that will translate to that big dream bike. Fundamentally all these skills are based on balance and control. Each skill requires those two elements and learning how to practice with the small bike is easier than a big bike. But, eventually you must ride the big bike and practice each skill.
I liken this to learning to snow ski. It is far easier to learn on short wide skis than long narrower higher performance skis, but those shorter skis can mask bad habits. That is where folks who took off on a toddler dirt bike as kids and rode in vacant lots and eventually the deserts and woods can have a whole basket full of bad habits. For example as an adult on a little 200 cc dirt bike on a dry lake bed you can throw a hip to the outside and get the bike to slide. This works and to an untrained eye looks pretty good and controlled. It isn’t. Add a change in traction and that hip-throw will put the rider over the high side when the tire loses then regains traction. Sliding the inside boot along the dirt flat track or MX style may look the business, but there are dire consequences for any one getting that wrong on a big loaded adventure bike.
So, the first step is find a good dirt bike training school. There are many available around the world. The internet or local adventure bike dealers can be of help here. I went off to a fairly local dirt bike school that Gary Platt runs called MotoVentures for some dirt bike skills training. The school supplies everything from gear to bikes to lunch and expert instruction. I rode into that school on my big adventure bike scared to death of the sandy and soft and wet road in. When I rode out that same road, I had to turn around and ride back and ask if there was a different way in and out because I didn’t notice any of the scary hazards I’d imagined on the way in. I had, in one single day advanced my skill and comfort level riding a small dirt bike to a level that those skills and confidence translated immediately to my big adventure bike. Now, I was not wheeling and jumping the big BMW. Yet. But, I was riding with greater control and confidence thanks to new skills.
The next step logically was practicing those skills on the big bike, and more professional instruction. This is where Jimmy Lewis Off-Road came in.
A good friend and I decided to take the class together. I had another friend and his wife who had done the course.
Hopefully you have embarked on this adventure with a friend who may be of help. I would begin on a small bike learning the basic dirt skills needed to control a dirt bike. The next step is taking similar training on your big adventure bike. There are a few schools that specialize in this. I think this is the most important step. You can learn the basics of music with a recorder, but that isn’t going to get you playing a saxophone in a big band. At some point you will need to take instruction and practice the saxophone. Another very important point here is that of practice. Nobody learns to play the saxophone by playing along with the instructor once.
You have to go out by yourself or with a few friends and practice the skills you first were taught on that small dirt bike and the later skills you were taught on your own big adventure bike. Practicing on your adventure bike will absolutely and without doubt make you a better rider. More confident in sketchy situations whether on the street, in the parking lot or out in the back of beyond. Back to that music analog; in music we practice scales every time we fire up the instrument. Those scales and the notes represent basic skills that amount to the foundation of playing music. Likewise the basic skills taught at each level of motorcycling should be practiced each time we ride. I don’t mean to imply that every ride needs a wheelie and slide and a jump and a front wheel lock up, rather the balance and controls that form the basis of those more advanced skills needs to be practiced every ride. Those skills don’t require excessive speed or large specialized areas.
That photo above of me riding across a small stream? Notice there are no saddle bags or side boxes? I’m also not riding on full knobbies. Those are 80/20 tires, Pirelli Scorpion MT90 A/T tires. They slipped a little in the wet sand as I exited the stream. Also I didn’t take that photo. I was there with a friend. Though I’ve been there a few times alone. A year earlier I rode across that same pooled stream on that same motorcycle, but riding Continental TKC80 knobbies and fully loaded for five weeks on the road. I rode it the same both times. I stopped before the crossing, parked and walked the stream bed to confirm my choice of line. There is no cell service there and when I was there alone, I was alone. I saw two cowboys about ten miles back and nobody for the next ten miles. I was there years before on a BMW 1150 GS Adventure, fully loaded and did not cross since the water was waist deep. There is a go around back to the highway. Maybe a half mile further to backtrack to that than cross. I say this all to illustrate that while training and practice will equip a rider to handle a lot of situations, each rider needs to be mindful of the whole of conditions. Being alone without a dedicated tracker and where nobody really knows exactly where you are, should guide more prudent choices.
Now, that we’ve wandered around training, how about we talk gear and packing? Those two go together. My approach is from the perspective of a backpacker and father of daughters. In that I mean, my preference is for multi-tasker utility in all things, while also being light and compact, but also realizing that each trip I’ll pack more than I need and end top with quite a bit I never use.
When I first had the BMW, I would ride out to El Mirage dry lake and practice my basic skills and challenge myself riding the deep sand tracks around the lake and beyond. I never got to where I liked it. But, I got so I knew I could ride it with enough control to get through it. The KTM 990R is better in the sand than the 1150 BMW, but still a big, tall heavy bike. Loaded for travel it is very heavy. I know this from dropping it on it’s side on flat dry ground. All alone and fully loaded up. That’s where practicing picking up a loaded bike comes in.
I was able to lift the BMW loaded up like that, but only just. My feet were digging and sinking in that sand until I had the bike upright enough to get it to balance on two wheels while I remounted.
I figure this adventure bike stuff is where my motorcycling will end in a few years. I’m slowly closing on three score and ten and the bike is closing on 100,000 miles. I have two more big trips planned, both may expand or contract based on conditions and events. 2022 marks the first of these with a Idaho BDR ride with friends. The next year we have a tentative plan to ride the Colorado BDR. We will see how this adventure progresses.