When Marc Marquez slides his back tyre around a corner at 140km/h going almost sideways, time slows down. It captivates everyone watching. He’s the first since Casey Stoner graced the world stage to ride in a way that seems out of control, while knowing exactly what he’s doing. He knows exactly where the limit is and stays within a hair’s width of it lap after lap.
Marquez and Stoner both learned to ride off-road and started their racing careers in motocross.
So what is it about riding on dirt that leads to such an impressive riding style and why did nine time world champion Valentino Rossi build his own flat track so that he could practice off-road?
Benefits of Off-Road Riding
Improved Bike Handling Skills
Knowing where the line between going sideways and completely throwing the bike away is, only comes from crossing that line. You can only know how far to push it, by pushing it too far.
Trying to find this line while on the road can be catastrophic. The first time you slide the back of a bike out, the instinct is to straighten up your body and close the throttle completely, which on-road usually leads to regaining traction and shooting off into the other lane or off the road completely. The better outcome is that maybe you low-side instead, but you still might end up in oncoming traffic or off the road and you’ll certainly do thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to the bike.
The same mistake off-road will usually just be a slow low-side on a bike that’s designed to hit the ground and in protective gear that’s designed for repeat use. You simply get back on the bike and try again.
Once you’ve got the hang of recovering from this situation, you can then experiment with it further while maintaining the same low stakes outcomes.
It’s here where you can play around with throttle control and get instant feedback from how much the bike is spinning the rear wheel and going further sideways. It’s a well-established fact that the faster you can get feedback after inputting a control, the faster you can develop motor skills in that area. When you have 100% traction on road, there’s little feedback from the throttle until you break traction and then things happen so fast that you better hope you’re already practiced. Playing around with throttle control off-road provides a much more progressive outcome and a much better learning experience.
Body Positioning and Balance
Going sideways on a bike is some of the most fun you can have as a human being. Anyone that’s watched a speedway race without being impressed needs to get checked for a pulse.
The usual next step after learning to control a power slide with throttle, is to start learning the effects of body positioning. At first you might try sitting further back to encourage the bike to slide more, until you crash a few times. It’s usually at this point where people start sitting far forward and hitting the corner with more speed and more throttle, so they can slide the bike and maintain control.
With a bit of advice from a more experienced rider, the novice might learn to stick their leg out on the inside of the corner with their foot pointing up, which brings their centre of gravity forward and lower allowing them to hit the same corner even faster while keeping everything together.
Interestingly, it’s this off-road technique that seems to be the impetus of what’s become common in MotoGP over recent years, where the rider takes their inside leg off the bike adjusting their centre of gravity as well as providing wind resistance on the side where they want the bike to turn in. You might even recall who introduced it in 2005: Valentino Rossi.
Braking and Reflexes
Those of us who remember learning to ride at a young age might also remember grabbing the first handful of front brake and the subsequent face plant into the ground.
Hopefully the first time that happens is going slowly off-road so that the front wheel just tucks in and you get a face full of dirt without any real injury. With a bit more experimenting with braking control, you can eventually have both wheels completely locked up while maintaining control.
This is a skill that’s transferable to road riding, but very hard to learn on the road.
Riding Confidence and Overcoming Challenges
In most countries, challenging yourself on a road bike can lead to losing your licence. On most sports bikes you can still be in second gear and already be going 50km/h over the speed limit before you even know it.
It’s almost impossible for riding skills to bloom when the rider can’t challenge themselves. Leaving the pavement and hitting the dirt offers so many challenges whether that be simply racing your friends or taking on a technical hill climb, maybe doing a technical trials section or just trying to hold the throttle open as you lean the bike over in a sweeping corner, trying to send as much roost and dirt flying as possible. Once you’ve challenged yourself as a rider, you can grow as a rider and ultimately become more confident on a motorcycle. Once you’re confident, you can keep taking on bigger and bigger challenges, becoming better with every ride.
Even a casual Sunday ride on the bitumen becomes more fun just by knowing you could open the throttle and be able to handle everything she throws at you.
Off-road Motorcycling Leads to Being a Better Road Rider
As we can see, there’s quite a few benefits to off-road riding, whether that be motocross, enduro, speedway or something else, that can have a direct impact on one’s road riding ability. Obvious skills such as cornering, braking and throttle control are positively impacted, but less obvious skills such as judgement, reflexes and confidence are also boosted. Put them all together and you can see very noticeable improvements across the board.
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