Learning to be Weightless
The truth is, riding an adventure bike off pavement uses similar techniques as riding a dirt bike on a technical trail.
The biggest difference is that adventure bikes don’t crash like dirt bikes, and the risk of injury and damage from crashing on an adventure bike is far greater due to reduced personal protective gear and the presence of hard luggage, extra weight, windshields and other things not designed to be crashed on a regular basis.
There are many elements needed to ride well off pavement, so for the first part of this traction management series we’ll focus on the concept of “becoming weightless” when riding on rough surfaces, dirt or gravel.
Becoming weightless improves traction, decreases falls, and reduces the risk of injury by reducing or eliminating the number of times you would otherwise fall. We’ve all seen riders standing on their footpegs, and may emulate this style of riding—often not fully understanding how or why we should stand in the first place. Even worse than standing without purpose is failing to stand at those times when it is most critical— such as in deep sand, mud, ruts, water crossings, etc.; times when untrained riders normally sit. Anyone can stand on a smooth gravel road.
The primary reason for standing on the footpegs while riding off pavement is to become weightless by removing your mass (weight) as the rider from the suspension equation. The concept is fairly simple: By standing on the footpegs, the combined center of mass of rider/motorcycle moves closer to the ground, making the bike less top-heavy and quicker to respond to surface change and directional input.
You may ask, “If I stand up aren’t I raising my center of mass, making the bike more top-heavy?” Without getting too carried away, let’s just say “no”… if done properly you are lowering your combined center of mass even though you have raised your personal mass farther from the ground. If riding technique was just about the rider, you would be correct, but since you and the motorcycle are a unit this line of logic is incomplete.
When you stand up, you move the point at which you, as the rider, support your mass, moving it from the seat to the footpegs. The motorcycle’s center of mass is normally near the carburetor/EFI, so by shifting the rider’s weight (supported mass) onto the footpegs the combined rider/motorcycle mass lowers to a point somewhere between the rider’s feet and the motorcycle’s center of mass.
In contrast, when riding in a seated position, the rider’s mass is anchored at the seat where the rider’s weight is supported. Therefore, the combined mass is between the seat and the motorcycle’s center of mass, which effectively raises it.
Nevertheless, just standing does not make you weightless. The second element of standing is allowing the knees to bend and flex with changes in the earth’s surface, like a set of shocks. This can be observed when skilled riders go over large bumps, small hills, or over obstacles. Note that a skilled/trained rider holds his head on a level plane and does not appear to move up or down with the ground surface.
Another way to visualize this concept is to imagine that the helmet is an airplane flying over a mountain range, whereas the motorcycle is traveling over the roads. The plane may have some subtle elevation changes whereas the motorcycle moves up and down rapidly with the terrain. When this happens, the rider is effectively using his legs as shock absorbers, isolating body mass from the movement of the motorcycle—becoming, effectively, weightless.
Once your weight is “suspended” above the bike, allowing the bike to move up and down without moving the placement of your head, your weight is no longer calculated into the total mass equation. One more side benefit, if this is done correctly, is that you also use less energy to ride. Not only is your bike able to self-correct due to changes in terrain and traction, but as a rider you use less muscle energy.
The secret to conserving energy is to use as little muscle as possible. When your motorcycle hits a bump or obstacle, allow your legs to relax and collapse towards you. In reverse, if your bike drops into a hole or drops off an obstacle, allow your legs to extend (from a pre-bent position) and follow the bike down… no energy is used to compress or extend your legs, instead you relax to let the bike come toward you, or relax them to let them extend. This leads me into a whole new topic of effective use of body positioning… let’s save that for a later rant.