As much as I love riding off-road, every time I leave the pavement my anxiety spikes. My chest gets tight, my heart begins to race. You see, I didn’t grow up riding mini-bikes or dirt bikes. In my neighborhood, we rode pedal-powered BMX bikes, day and night, jumping off every curb and makeshift ramp we could find. In high school, I explored trails and entered local races on a mountain bike bought with money I earned bagging groceries. But it wasn’t until I was a twenty-something graduate student that I learned to ride a motorcycle, on the street, courtesy of Pennsylvania’s MSF program. That was 1998; it would be another decade—well into my 30s—before I’d venture off-road on a motorcycle.
I test street-legal motorcycles for a living, and I log 30,000-plus miles a year. Sometimes I get to test dual-sport or adventure bikes, but I’m lucky if I get to ride more than a few hundred off-road miles in a year. Operating a street motorcycle is habitual, based on muscle memory I’ve developed day after day, year after year. Operating a dual-sport or adventure bike off-road requires me to consciously rewire my thinking and reflexes, to recalibrate for the limited traction and convoluted camber, tricky terrain and obstacles (ruts, water crossings, rock gardens) found on forest roads or trails.
As with any type of riding, you get out what you put in. If you get some training and practice the drills, your skills and confidence will increase steadily. If you just dip your toe in and try to learn by trial and error, your results may be frustrating, not to mention expensive and possibly painful. I’ve completed several off-road training clinics, and I’ve learned useful skills in every one. And as I accumulate more skills and experience, my off-road anxiety levels become more and more manageable.
Book-ending AltRider’s 2014 Taste of Dakar mini adventure rally in Pahrump, Nevada, were special one-day editions of the Jimmy Lewis Off-Road School, and I had the good fortune of signing up for the Sunday class (it poured down rain during the Friday class). Lewis has a house in Pahrump, and he regularly hosts training camps on his property and in the wide-open desert just outside of town. When it comes to off-road bona fides, Jimmy Lewis’ are first-rate: finished on the podium in the grueling Dakar Rally, four-time International Six Day Enduro Gold Medalist, overall winner of both the Baja 1000 and the Dubai Rally, and former editor of Dirt Rider magazine.
Here’s the thing about accomplished racers like Jimmy Lewis: He doesn’t hold the key to some 11-herbs-and-spices type of secret that, once revealed, will turn you into a supernaturally skilled rider. Lewis emphasizes the basics—balance, clutch and throttle control, braking, etc. Along with his wife, Heather, and other instructors, he teaches you how to do the basics correctly (which sometimes requires un-learning bad habits, or in my case, street-centric habits), and he encourages you to practice them over and over and over. Just as regular exercise is the key to good health, mastering the basics is the foundation of everything else, and the basics apply to any bike at any speed on any type of terrain.
Our daylong training session began with fundamentals such as mounting the bike and balancing our weight on the pegs (while standing, of course), and continued with a series of drills to help us learn the basics of body position, counterbalancing and clutch/throttle/brake control, as well as how to ride uphill, downhill and through sand. Instructors provide guidance and answer questions, and a wealth of tips and strategies are sprinkled throughout the day.
One of my long-time challenges has been off-road turns, especially at speed. While explaining and demonstrating the slow turn/body position drill, Lewis advised us to point our head, shoulders, hips and toes in the direction of the turn. It worked great during the short drill that followed, but it really clicked for me about a month later, during a 3-day, 500-mile test ride in Death Valley on the Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition. I had mile after dusty mile and turn after tricky turn to point my head/shoulders/hips/toes in the direction I was heading, and the technique helped me be more confident and relaxed.
I’ll probably never feel as comfortable riding off-road as I do on the street, but I’ll keep at it. Even though it can be a little scary, especially on big adventure bikes, the payoff—the beauty of the backcountry, the excitement of the unknown, the escape from the paved and wired world—is worth it. The more training I do and the more rides I go on, the easier it gets.
The Jimmy Lewis Off-Road School hosts 2-day classes ($600), mostly in Pahrump, Nevada. Classes can be tailored to adventure bikes, dirt bikes or racing, and for special groups. Special 1-day classes like those held in conjunction with Taste of Dakar vary in price (the 2014 classes were $259).
For more information, visit jimmylewisoffroad.com