"I’m super stoked for anyone who wants to try riding dirt for the first time or take off-road riding to the next level, because riding is as rewarding as it is challenging, both physically and mentally. There’s a lot to learn, and to keep learning for many years to come" - Kelly McCaughey | Creator of the Ladies East Coast Dirt Bike Event Over and Out
Getting started or making progress can be tough if you’re not set up for success with the right information and guidance. So, whether you are a street rider trying dirt for the first time, or new rider altogether, these tips should help you understand a little more of what to expect, and what to do, as you set your sights off-road.
1. Start Small
I think one of the biggest mistakes newer riders make is to start riding on a bike that is way too big for them. In street riding, as riders gain experience and confidence, they may seek to increase engine size because that affords them more stability and comfort at higher speeds for longer distances.
When making the switch to off-road, many riders think this street experience translates to dirt, but it doesn’t. So, regardless of what cc engine you’re riding on the highway you should always start small with a bike you can handle confidently. There is so much that even smaller bikes can do, so don’t underestimate them.
In truth, riding a smaller bike doesn’t make everything easier. Many things are harder on a small bike, but you can seriously benefit from that! The wheels may be smaller, the suspension leaner – and all that jostling around can do a lot to help you develop core muscles and reactions to sudden movements that would otherwise throw you off.
2. Invest in Gear, practice ATGATT
What’s ATGATT? All The Gear, All The Time. Trust me, because I’m one of the many people who learned this the hard way. And look, even if YOU do everything right, you’re riding in nature so there are variables beyond your control. Slippery rocks, roots, sand, you name it. As they say, “it’s not IF you fall, it’s when.” So gear up!
First, invest in a decent dirt helmet. Dirt helmets and street helmets are different. They are made from different materials, and they are tested differently. Dirt gear companies will also offer different levels of helmets, with the levels being in direct relation to the materials, weight and technical features. If you’re planning on riding a lot, and you like your brain, I say spring for a decent level helmet.
Other types of gear include: knee and elbow pads or braces, neck braces, chest protectors and back protectors.
My favorite piece of gear is the Fox Titan vest. It covers shoulders, elbows, chest and has full back coverage. It’s also connected with mesh, so on hot days I can layer it over a tank top, and on cold days I can layer it under a riding jacket. I’ve taken some serious spills in this thing and walked away un-bruised and un-broken.
3. Learn the Fundamentals
In any and every sport, the fundamentals of form are crucial! Form comes first, speed comes later. There are a ton of different techniques you can and should practice, including these basics:
Body position: A lot of new riders sit too far back on a dirt bike. You should be seated or standing directly above the pivot point of the bike (basically the center engine and foot-peg area). Your head should be just over the handlebars, elbows up and out.
Leg and foot positions: Squeezing with your knees helps steady your body to the bike, supporting your body weight with your legs rather than your arms. You want to keep weight and tension off your arms to avoid getting arm pump and to keep the center of gravity low.
When standing (which you should be as much as possible) you want to be on the balls of your feet so you are more at-the-ready to make different movements. It’s good practice to place your bike on a bike stand, stand on the pegs and practice shifting your feet on and off the brake and clutch back to the balls of the feet to build muscle memory.
I personally don’t ride in sand too much, and upon my first visit to Babes In The Dirt I was advised by my own crew to maintain the grip in my knees, keep the front end light and keep on the throttle. Sure enough those simple tips made adapting to the sand that much easier.
4. Take Advantage of Education
Again, there is so much to learn when it comes to riding dirt and that learning curve can extend for decades depending on what you’re riding and where! A lot of this information that I’m relaying to you today has come to me from people who have coached me, but also from training resources, manuals, magazines and more.
Think for a second about the world’s best Motocross racers. We’re talking about a relatively small group of exceptional athletes out of millions of people in this world, and they still have trainers. They’re not out there just riding; they’re training, and getting feedback and assessment from coaches and training experts.
So, take advantage of lessons, classes and instruction from experienced riders and trainers.
5. Get that PMA!
Positive Mental Attitude is something that can change your life, and I believe the reason I meet so many great people through off-road riding is because they all understand and subscribe to this general practice of PMA.
With street riding you can relax somewhat and just cruise. And yes you can do that on dirt, but it’s more likely that you’ll be focused on the challenges that are right in front of you.
Riding is for sure a mental game, possibly even more than a physical one. Top riders get special training for mental toughness and resilience, and confidence is something that is essential to becoming a better rider.
I still get butterflies in my stomach every time I go riding, but I’ve also learned that riding is the time to cast doubts aside, focus on myself and my ride, and dig deep for that part of my brain that doesn’t have time or energy to waste on fear.
Credit where credit is due: I get most of my knowledge and insight from my husband, Dan Sternaimolo, who has been obsessed with motocross for over 40 years and has taught me a lot but also done me the wonderful favor of encouraging me to read and watch training materials by Gary Semics.
Kelly will be at Babes in the Dirt 4 with a bunch of east coast ladies in tow! Make sure to say hello and feel free to ask her for more tips and tricks on riding dirt.