Choosing a Motorcycle

Which is the perfect motorcycle?  Bret uses a detailed process to select the right motorcycle for himself.  It all comes down to what you need the motorcycle to do – Touring?  Off-road?  Commuting?  Traveling internationally?  Performance?  The right motorcycle can change based on where you are and what you are doing. Website: brettkacs.com

Music from https://filmmusic.io
“RetroFuture Clean” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
License: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Crossing Borders like a Professional

Bret has traveled through 49 countries, most of them by motorcycle, and with very few overpayments, bribes, or harassment.  He discusses the following points that he has learned from his extensive travel, and through his mentor, Miguel.  Topics discussed in this episode are: 1) How to address and use fixers/helpers, 2) Attitude, 3) Professionalism.  Website: brettkacs.com

Music from https://filmmusic.io
“RetroFuture Clean” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
License: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Crashes

Unfortunately, crashes are a significant reality for motorcyclists.  The good news is most crashes are our fault.  In Washington, 75% of fatalities were riders in a curve, with no other vehicles involved, which means they had complete control over the situation.  For off-road riders, nearly all crashes are caused by the rider.  Topics discussed in this episode are 1) Being in a position to take care of yourself, 2) How to reduce injury in crashes by adjusting your attitude and practicing on dirt bikes.  Website: brettkacs.com

Music from https://filmmusic.io
“RetroFuture Clean” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
License: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Sand at the Border

A Lesson from Africa

How sand riding skills saved me

I was perched on the edge of Black Africa, scanning the barren landscape littered with the abandoned hulks of cars left in the minefield which separates West Sahara from Mauritania. This 4km stretch of lawless road is simply referred to as ‘no man’s land’.  It would not be the first or the last border that offered a world-renowned reputation for danger, but it would be only one where my riding skills likely saved my life.

Go to Safetravel.gov.nz and this border region is listed under a ‘Do Not Travel’ advisory. The website states “Do not travel to… Mauritania’s border areas with… Western Sahara due to the risk of military activities, the actions of extremist groups, and the risk of armed banditry and kidnapping… Land mines are also present along the border with Western Sahara.”

Being a white-faced Westerner on a loaded ADV bike, I knew I would be a likely target if the bandits were on the prowl. Mauritania is the least developed and poorest country in northwest Africa and any Westerner traveling through makes for a delightful target with an almost guaranteed payout.

The 4km of road between border checkpoints consists of roughly 60% straight, paved road with the remaining 40% a series of serpentine roads created out of deep sand with rock steps and unknown hazards. I’d been warned to not deviate from the worn path due to the potential of striking forgotten land mines, a warning I took seriously. 

Similar to most crossings between borders, everything started off uneventful although I had an unusual anxiety as I rode along the paved road with no other vehicles in sight. When I neared the end of the pavement, several cars were parked and were surrounded by nine men who were standing in the road, waving me down to stop. I thought that if these men were just opportunistic sales people, they would be closer to one of the borders, or at least have goods to show.  They were just trying to get me to stop. As the small gang began to fan out in front of me, I slowed only enough to spot a gap.  Then, without hesitation, I gassed the bike to shoot through an opening, hoping I’d left them behind to harass or rob another traveler.

I looked in my mirror to see the men piling into the two cars to start a hot pursuit. At the same time, I watched as the pavement dissolved into sand with vehicle tracks running off into myriad of directions. 

With the cars quickly closing the distance between us, I followed the vehicle tracks furthest right, hoping the deep sand and sharp-edged rocks would force them to drop pursuit. I rode into the loose sand, using the most perfect technique: standing on the pegs, weight back, light grip on the bars and, without exaggeration, riding for my life.

The plan worked… almost. The cars followed a track to my left with less sand and without rocks. As I looked across the desert, I could see two United Nations vehicles sitting atop a distant ledge, watching. They were not there to keep me safe and would serve as witness to my demise if things went badly. All the years of playing off-road on large bikes paid off as I rode my heavily-laden motorcycle over the rock path, obviously only accessible by high-clearance four wheel drive vehicles, which helped to keep the two cars at a distance.

As I rode, men hung out of the car windows, yelling at me and motioning for me to stop. I cleared my last rock obstacle with the Mauritania border in sight. All I had to left was to pass through the final stretch of deep sand and I would be safe. The bike shifted left and right, like an a fish fighting to get back into the water. I stayed light on the controls and let the bike move freely underneath as it thrashed left and right until it finally settled down.  The land became more solid and I rocketed to the horizontal bar separating the border officers from ‘no mans land’. Once I was close enough to see the face of the nearest soldier, the two cars turned away and disappeared into the cloud of dust they had created.

As I reflect back, I realize how important the skills I teach ADV riders can truly be. It’s not just about making ADV riding more fun or lowering the risk of a broken bone or bike, it may truly be a life-saving skill.

Riding Weightless

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.