Welcome to EarthRider, a new blog series about off-road riding. Here at Rider, we focus on street-legal motorcycles, including dual-sport and adventure bikes that can be ridden both on pavement and off. Although many riding skills—balance, visualization, throttle control—apply equally well to street riding and dirt riding, there are many techniques that are unique to riding on loose, low-traction surfaces.
For nearly a decade, most of the off-road skills I’ve learned and experience I’ve acquired have come from Laine MacTague, who provides adventure motorcycle guiding and instruction under the EarthRider banner. Thanks to the generosity of our local BMW dealership, I’ve gone on dozens of free daylong adventure rides guided by Laine (daylong often means from 8 a.m. until well after dark, covering hundreds of on- and off-road miles), and I’ve paid to take his SkillzDrillz courses, a 12-part series of one-day training rides that focus on particular topics or techniques.
Since Laine is based in Southern California and not everyone can go on his training rides, he’s offered to provide some of the theory covered in his off-road training courses as well as drills you can do to practice new skills. We’ll be publishing Laine’s articles in the months ahead, but first, let’s get to know the man behind EarthRider.
Rider: When did you start riding motorcycles and what sparked your interest?
MacTague: When I was young I raced mountain and road bicycles, but I never got into motorcycles. One day after college, I was carrying my road bike in the back of my pickup to a circuit race in Marin County, California. The engine blew up as I crested a hill just south of Petaluma. I had been wondering about motorcycles, and as I rode my bicycle home, I decided to pick one up for the summer and try it out. At that point, just out of college, I couldn’t see how I was going to afford to replace the truck anyway. I bought my first bike about a week later, a 1987 Yamaha Virago cruiser. The leg cast on the guy selling it was a good clue it had been down, but it seemed in good shape so I bought it anyway.
Rider: How did you get involved in dual-sport/adventure riding?
MacTague: Total accident, or a series of them. I bought my first ADV bike when I was a falconer and a handyman. I wanted to be able to carry more tools and do more jobs without having to buy a new truck, and I wanted to be able to take my hawk into unpaved areas, sometimes on narrow trails, to go hunting. The first thing I did on that bike was make a sharp turn out of a side street and hit the throttle hard as I straightened out. My previous bikes were long, low, heavy cruisers, and grabbing a handful of throttle didn’t do much. The new bike was a tall, light BMW F 650 GS Dakar. The front end came off the ground and the handlebar came up to my face so fast that I have no idea how I stayed on.
I decided I needed to learn how to ride all over again. Once I started that process I couldn’t stop. On my Dakar, I felt like a cyclist on the Incredible Hulk of mountain bikes. I love getting out “into the sticks” and exploring, and I love riding in the “zone”—when the bike, the trail and the rider are all in unison, trying to accomplish the same goal. The better I get at riding, the more I have that feeling. I don’t expect I’ll ever stop learning how to ride, or wanting to share what I learn so others can have that experience.
Rider: What is your motorcycle of choice and why?
MacTague: I’m on my fourth BMW Dakar! I can think of changes that would offer improvements, but I don’t see them on any other bikes without some drawbacks as well. I used to get called a Renaissance man now and then—maybe because I trained falcons!—and I think the Dakar is a sort of Renaissance bike. It may not do everything perfectly, but it does a lot of things very, very well, and I value versatility over perfection. Plus, it’s as durable as a hammer.
Rider: When did you start leading rides and teaching classes?
MacTague: I started leading rides in 2006, out of desperation. The local BMW shop arranged a guided day ride in 2005, which hooked me. After months of asking when the next one would be, it occurred to me that, “Hey, I used to lead mountain bike rides, maybe I can find some good places to ride and lead the next ride myself.” The training classes came later. I had built up a solid skill set and placed well at RawHyde’s Adventure Rider Challenge. During the rides, I often got asked how I was doing what I was doing on the bike. I think the first actual class was in late 2006, very informal.
Rider: What sort of classes do you teach and what format do you use?
MacTague: I think of excellent riding as the result of mastering a small handful of skills, each of which enables a rider to accomplish specific riding goals or surmount specific challenges. I base entire classes on each of those skills.
It seems to me that the standard multi-day training course is a great idea for folks completely new to off-pavement riding; they get exposed to all sorts of potential obstacles and challenges, and a large number of skills that they can to use to meet those challenges. But few riders develop mastery after short blocks of time learning lots of new skills in succession. It can get confusing, and it just scratches the surface. In some cases they learn just enough to get themselves into trouble, if they get overconfident.
Most of us are normal humans with normal abilities, and especially for the middle-aged riders who I often teach, it’s better to spend more time on individual skills and building a solid skill set over time rather than trying to do it all at once.
I teach a dozen different daylong classes, each one focusing on a specific skill or interrelated set of skills. The classes build on each other, so I arrange the schedule so that students can make steady progress over the course of a year. We build in plenty of riding time during each daylong class, but I strongly encourage students to get in one or more practice rides as “homework” between classes. In a year, students have completed 12 solid days of in-depth of instruction, and had—hopefully—at least that much practice.
Admittedly, given the commitment required, this isn’t the easiest or most convenient way to learn offroad riding skills, but the transformation over the course of a year—in large part due to regular instruction and practice—is pretty amazing.
Rider: What can we expect from your future EarthRider articles?
MacTague: At its core, EarthRider is about helping adventure motorcyclists who feel nervous, uncomfortable or hemmed-in when riding offroad to become motorcyclists who feel safe, confident and excited when the pavement ends. Even though the training focuses on off-road skills, students often tell me how much the classes have improved their street riding as well. Since not everyone has access to training near where they live, these blog posts will provide a way for riders to learn some skills on their own. I’ll cover specific skills and provide drills to help learn them. I’ll also answer questions along the way—so please post comments!
Adventure riding is all about getting out there and having fun, so it won’t all be skill-based content. I’ll post some adventure ride photos and videos, as well as some stories from the trail—some humorous, some with lessons to be learned.
Rider: What’s the origin of the “EarthRider” name?
MacTague: We’re riding the Earth. Like Kane, only there’s a motorcycle. And there’s no kung fu. Well, very little.
MacTague: EarthRider has survived by word of mouth for over a decade now. We have a website with a SkillzDrillz schedule and lots of useful info, photos and videos. We also have a Facebook page. Or send an email to me at EarthRider.firstname.lastname@example.org. If our schedule doesn’t suit you, we can arrange private or custom training for individuals or small groups.
CONTINUE READING: EarthRider 02: Stop Anticipating the Stop