I had my first dirt biking experience today, courtesy of Kevin Anderson at Dirtbike Camp in Orland, California, USA. Here’s a shot of me suited and booted.
Getting into the gear is no mean feat. You start with the shin pads, which cover from the shin to just above the knee. They go on over your socks. Then come the riding pants which are designed to fit the sitting / standing position on a bike. Then over the pants and shin pads come the boots. Mammoth boots that look like something out of a science fiction movie. They have snazzy plastic clip over buckles and a velcro top section. They feel almost solid once your foot is locked inside.
Put on the jersey. Then the chest protector, slip it over your head and put your arms through the loops to keep the shoulder pieces in place. Now pull on the elbow protectors. Add the dirt bike style helmet with a sun visor and open face section. Over the helmet put on goggles to protect your eyes from all the crap that might collide with them. Finally, put on the gloves, and then you’re ready to ride.
I started on a small, 125cc bike called Lucy. She’s a spirited little beast. Certainly quick enough to get started, and she feels very light when you’re mounted. After flying over the handlebars and nose diving into the dirt, Lucy doesn’t seem so light any more. Trying to get her back upright was not as easy as it looked. But onwards we soldier, it’s not how often you fall down, it’s how quickly you get back up!
The day started with an introduction to dirt biking from Kevin. He talked me through the basics of how to sit and stand on the bike. Stand over bumps and jumps, sit back on the bike in the straights and forward in the corners. Keep your knees in and your elbows out. Stay close to the bars so you’re not pushed around if the wheel turns without your permission.
Then I mounted Lucy and started with circuits round the flat track. Nothing too dramatic, just riding in a circle to get the hang of cornering, accelerating, braking, and so on. After getting a feel for it, Kevin jumps on a bike and says “follow me”. And so it begins…
We start with some fairly gentle corners, lean over, keep your leg out and forwards. That leg really helps if the bike slips in the corners, as it invariably does. Then up and over one or two mounds and round some tighter bends.
As I learned on my basic riding course, the trick to turning a motorcycle is to turn your head. It really is that simple. Look where you want to go and the bike will follow. I’ve had a few panic moments on the highway where I look at the wall, exactly where I don’t want to go, and then harshly remind myself to look down the road. Every time, the bike pulls through. Turn your head. It’s the same on a dirt bike.
Alas, I missed that principle around one ferociously tight turn and somehow managed to leave the bike, face first, over the bars and into the dirt. Thanks to all the various gear it was a non event. I got up, struggled with Lucy until I got her back on her wheels, and fired her up again.
After my quick recovery we were back on the track, following Kevin once more. Now we started over some bigger mounds, and mounds in quick succession, one after another. Pretty soon I realised that Kevin’s bike is actually leaving the ground as he goes over these humps. As we repeat the circuit we’re getting faster and faster, and pretty soon I can feel my bike getting very light at the top of the hills. So feeling fairly confident in my riding thus far, I push the throttle harder and harder.
Yes, I start jumping. The bike is getting some air, as the saying goes. Harder on each of the successive jumps until, on the third jump, my feet fly completely off the pegs. I land half on the pegs, smash down onto the seat of the bike, my feet hit the dirt, and we carry on. That’s the fear Kevin was talking about!
The trick, I’m told, is to hold onto the bike, for dear life in my case. Grip the bike between your knees, toes and heels. Grab onto it and do not let go while aireborne.
After my first mid-air departure from the bike, I took it considerably easier on future circuits. I think my days of adrenaline chasing fearlessness are behind me. No, I lie, I was never even close to fearless. Besides, I decided it was highly unlikely that I would meet any situations on my travels where jumping my motorcycle would be required.
After about two and a half hours of riding, I was exhausted. That and it was 3:30pm, I had 3 hours road riding to get to my destination for the evening, and about 4 hours of daylight remaining. So I took one quick shot on the bigger 250cc bike, closer to my own bike in terms of weight and size, and that was me finished.
Overall, a great experience. I’m definitely a lot less intimidated by the thought of taking my bike off-road now. Lower the tyre pressure, take it slow, and a motorbike will go a lot of places that a car simply will not. Will I be returning to a dirt bike school any time soon? I doubt it. I might pursue some trail riding training, but flying through the air holding onto a motorcycle for dear life is not my vocation. I shall leave it to men better suited to the job than I.