by Craig Hightower (Volume 6, Issue 3, 1997)
Local Bay Area chiropractor, Harry Wong, is well known for his monthly street riding clinics. Upwards of a hundred people often show up for his straight-forward classes on riding techniques and street-oriented safety discussions. These classes offer a great deal of information and are geared toward safe riding practices on the street.
But did you know that Doc does the dirt too?
As a matter of fact, Harry is a read dirt enthusiast. He loves to ride at Clear Creek and has been known to frequent Baja in the springtime. I recently attended an evening seminar at Harry's clinic in Redwood City. The topic? Dirt riding techniques and bike setup. Notable attendees? Rodney Smith, Charles Halcomb, Steve Hatch, Eric Mashbir and a host of other talented off-road riders.
In case you've never heard of these guys, here's a list of their accomplishments:
The evening started out with a brief introduction by Harry and then jumped right into a discussion of riding tips. There was a fairly even mixture of novice, intermediate and expert riders so the discussion covered a lot of ground. The first topic was riding position. Both Steve and Rodney race in the National Enduro and Cross Country series and are used to a mixture of terrain and a variety of obstacles. Both emphasized a neutral stance on the bike with rider weight centered on the pegs, elbows held high and attention focused well ahead of the bike.
Control of a dirt bike is more than just handlebar input. A lot of your setup for corners, bumps and obstacles is made by weighting and unweighting the pegs. Many dirt riders choose to ride in a standing position in order to absorb bumps and jumps with their legs rather than their backsides. Steve and Rodney have slightly different riding styles with Rodney spending a bit more time on the saddle rather than on his feet. It has a lot to do with what kind of trails you're riding and how you attack them.
Much of the tight tree riding done in the East Coast races can be done while sitting. The trails are such that you can ride the bike almost like a streetbike due to the amount of traction found in the corners. One of the areas that I have ridden in the midwest has ruts so wide and so deep that you ride around the corners like they are banked turns. West Coast riders tend to have more open trails and more rocks and obstacles making it better to ride standing in order to assist the bike in traversing these sections.
Both riders agree that control of the bike is best maintained by gripping the gas tank with the knees while riding. Whether you're standing or sitting you shold use your knees to grip the tank and help control the bike while on the trail. Rodney mentioned that Bob "Hurricane" Hannah used to cut vertical grooves in his plastic gas tank in order to improve grip. He also pointed out that at the end of an 8 hour enduro, the graphics and plastic on the side of his gas tank are completely gouged from his knees and knee braces sliding back and forth along the tank.
I have found that a great deal of control can be had by tucking my knees in tight similar to a jockey on a horse. This works well in many situation and helps to relieve backside irritation in the really rough stuff.
Using the outside peg for better grip in corners and on off-camber trails was also a good point. Weighting the outside peg will force the tire to conform to the trail and grip better in both cornering and while riding ruts or angled trails.
This technique has also been recommended as a good street riding practice. Some mention was made of sliding body weight forward and back on the bike while entering and exiting corners and while traversing obstacles on the trail. Personally, I've found it to be quite important to get my weight forward over the front end while driving into corners and then slowly sliding back over the rear wheel once I'm out of the corner.
Also it's important to use your body weight as a counter balance when climbing hills. If you sit back too far you run the risk of looping the bike, and if you sit too forward you end up getting too much rear wheel spin and losing forward momentum.
The bottom line is that riding is not just a matter of throwing a leg over the seat and going for a ride; you need to be active while in the saddle.
A great deal of time was spent discussing techniques for jumping logs and other obstacles found on the trail. Having encountered a few of these obstacles myself, I know it can be pretty frustrating and rather scary attempting to jump over a log. The best route to take is to back off the gas just prior to reaching the log to load up the suspension. Using your weight to preload the springs and then hitting the throttle while moving your weight up and off the pegs helps to start the transition over the log. Steve prefers to pull in the clutch once the front end is up over the log so that the back end just follows the front over the log without kicking up and hitting you in the tail end. It also helps to find a rock or a bump on the trail just before hitting the log.
Believe me, it's easier said than done. It's best to practice these techniques on smaller obstacles and slowly work your way up in size and speed.
Another big issue was riding in less than favorable conditions. What do you do when it's really muddy and the trail is heavily rutting? Both Steve and Rodney agreed, it's time to get on the gas. Speed and momentum help to overcome many obstacles. Despite your fear of falling, it's better to get on the gas and let your momentum carry you over and through the ruts. One of my favorite dirt bike mantras is: When in doubt, gas it out! I've heard this over and over and in practice, it usually works. (There have been a few exceptions but I think those have been due to rider error more than anything else.)
Another critical factor in riding in the mud is choosing the right tires and suspension setup. Rodney likes to set up his suspension rather stiff while riding in the mud in order to help him shake the mud loose. Having the stiff setup allows him to hammer over trees and such which in turn helps to shake loose mud collecting on the bike.
My worst problem has been mud packing into the tires and thus losing control. Again, Rodney emphasized picking the right tires with widely spaced knobbies and setting the suspension up on the tight side.
All in all, the discussion provided a great deal of information and a chance to get up close and personal with some very talented riders. Unfortunately, I missed the riding portion of the clinic. Harry had managed to reserve the Upper Ranch at Hollister Hills SVRA. This part of the ranch is used primarily for races and is generally not open to the public.
Twenty bucks was collected from each attendee and in turn was donated to a couple of local charities for good will. From what I heard of the ride, it rained for the first hour and then slowly cleared up for the rest of the day. I'm sorry I missed it!
Whether you're into dirt or not, these clinics are a great opportunity to learn some useful riding techniques. I have found that my street riding has improved a great deal since I started dirt riding. I am less fearful of dirt and gravel in the road and sliding is no big deal. My bike control has improved and so has my confidence level. Besides, it's pretty damn hard to get a traffic ticket while riding in the dirt!
So if you're interested in getting more dirt experience or just want to keep up with your dirt skills, give Harry a call. He normally has a clinic once a month and this time of year he does a great deal of dirt work. He can be reached at the clinic at 650-365-7775.
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