Riding Gravel, Sand, and Other Loose Material Roads
The day has been a great one and you have been riding on a number of roads that you are not familiar with, or there is construction ahead and all of a sudden, that pristine asphalt ends and the gravel begins. Uh oh, what do you do now? After all, we tend to ride, and practice our skills, on dry pavement where we do the vast majority of our riding (fair weather riders) or for the few times we get caught in the rain.
If you have had a tendency to stay away from gravel roads when riding, you are missing out on so many new possibilities and scenery that you may never experience unless you take “the road less paved” and probably the road less traveled too. Some of the most fantastic real estate that I have seen has come from areas where it is only accessible by gravel. As well, I like to visit the local motorsport park to watch races, and to get there to watch motorcycle racing means that I have to ride on a gravel / dirt road to get there.
Therefore, it is worth it to every rider, regardless of ability, to learn how to be comfortable and confident in riding a motorcycle on a gravel road. Keep in mind that off to the shoulder of the road is gravel, and many a rider has accidentally gone onto this portion of the road and lost control for a number of reasons, the least not knowing how to ride on gravel, or sand and regain control. If you really want to get a feel for dirt, and get into a comfort zone on loose material surfaces, try riding a dirt bike first and get some time on it to know what you can expect. Surprises are not a riders best friend!
When preparing to ride on gravel, or sand or similar, there are just a few things to keep in mind:
1. Study and Read The Signs on the Road
Become “Road Literate” in any language (gravel, sand, clay, hard pack, etc.) before you start to ride on a different surface. Look for those areas of the road where the surface appears to be compacted or pushed away and you can ride on the compressed dirt that lies underneath. (there will probably also be some loose material her as well). In addition, even though it may be easier to “ride the ruts” or shallows with less movement caused by loose gravel, there are usually more pot holes associated with the wheel tracks of other 4 wheeled vehicles that caused the compressed dirt in the first place. Keep in mind some of the variables you have no control over that may have changed the surface of the road, even if you have ridden on this portion before, and therefore you may not find the compressed dirt because of recent grading by a plow or lack of traffic on the road, or heavy rains having caused dislodged material.
2. Easy Does It
The term “Easy Rider” definitely fits here. Due to the nature of the material you are now riding on, you have less traction than on asphalt and sudden or hard acceleration, speed, turning, leaning, and braking can have, shall we say, less than desired results.
Being an Easy Rider means that you will have to overcome your asphalt “street smarts” and ride by a different set of rules. The speeds you are used to have to be reduced to match the new conditions, and inputs from your throttle / clutch combination, and braking will have to smooth and co-ordinated. A sharp turn or leaning at speed is not recommended, unless you want to risk the bike sliding out from under you or diving in the turn.
With braking, as the band Chicago’s song says, “You are a hard habit to break”, or in this instance, brake, avoid using the front brake on any turn and use the back, or “controlling” brake, as your primary, and roll off the throttle, gently!. Why? Using the same principle that I teach my students who are trying to advance their skills, that if you use the back brake prior to the front brake, it reduces pitching forward because it will cause some loading on the front brakes which has less impact on you as a rider, and the bike will seem to squat overall. On loose material, we want the bike to “dig in” at the front as little as possible, and if you roll off the throttle quickly, like on asphalt, the bike immediately becomes heavier in the front as the deceleration of the bike, and forward momentum of you causes this downward motion. Linked ABS is also a good example of how this works. To think of how this happens, watch the bow of a boat sometime when the throttle is shut off. The bow pitches into the water as the natural braking, or friction, of the water and lack of power slows it down. Just be careful to not brake too hard with the rear. If it locks up, then you have to ease off until it slowly starts to turn again (just the opposite of what you would do on asphalt!).
3. Don’t Fight The Bike
If you have ever been riding along and came to a construction site where they have ribbed or grooved the pavement, you know that you have to slow down, and at the same time to allow the bike to “find its path” without trying to fight with it. The same theory applies on loose material as well. The bike will feel as if it is wiggling back and forth, and even sliding at times. Just let it. You as a rider can assist finding the path by keeping your knees to the gas tank, transfer some weight to the pegs and move forward if you can, and remain loose in the arms and shoulders, and keep the throttle onto maintain a safe speed. Do not “white knuckle” as it makes it extremely hard to be loose and be smooth with the clutch, throttle and steering. Just keep a firm, but relaxed grip on the bars. Keep your head and eyes up, and watch where you want to go, as you normally would do. Just continue to glance at the road path you are following to look for rock or material that may cause the bike to shift under you so you will be prepared when it happens, and not be surprised and tense up. When making turns, keep all the above in mind and reduce the amount of lean as much as possible (you will have been going a speed that would not require much anyway, right?)
We sometimes assume that the road surface will always be the same, no matter how many times we ride it. As we all know, the word assume broken up, well, you know! In rural or country areas, gravel ,sand, or any other loose material can end up on the road, especially at corners. Keep this in mind as you ride. In addition, anticipating the dirt road having ruts, potholes, loose material in your path, and soft shoulders are all at the forefront of your “rider radar” and again minimizes surprises.
To summarize, the more experience you gain, and follow these bits of advice, the better you will become and the less fear you will have of riding on loose material roads, such as gravel or sand. When we get in a panic mode, such as riding off onto the shoulder of the road, we tend to let instinct dictate our reaction instead of relying on our experience. Spending time, either on your own bike or a dirt bike on these roads can make all the difference to how your day will end.
(by the way, if you do go off onto the shoulder, slow down using your rear brake, head and eyes up, and roll off throttle gently. Once you have come to a safe, manageable speed, and the height of the asphalt is not to high, slowly work your way back on the road. Sound as if you read about this before. Hmm….)