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.

Sand & Gravel Tips

Scenario

“Suddenly, my rear wheel began a slight fishtail in the loose gravel road and I calmly increased the throttle in response.  Past experiences had always quickly straightened out, but today the oscillations rapidly moved to the handlebars.

Committed to the acceleration strategy, the handlebars violently shook back and forth and I continued to roll on the throttle…”

Many “experienced” riders offer one tip for riding in loose surface conditions: “Add more throttle”.

I can assure you that you were victim to the ‘helpful’ tips of partial myths and half-truths perpetuated by the riding community.

The half-truth is… adding throttle can be true within two specific elements:

1.  Adding throttle can lighten the front end of the motorcycle, allowing the front wheel to climb out of the soft stuff and get on top.

2.  Adding throttle increases speed and gyroscopic progression that, in turn, increases self-corrective forces along with rake and trail.

The issue with adding throttle as a single response doesn’t take into considerations the specifics of your situation.  For the sake of simplicity, I will identify three of the most significant considerations:

The ‘add throttle’ mantra comes from the dirt bike world, where bikes are much lighter and have a greater self-correcting nature.

While traveling, you are likely on a heavy bike, which may have loading issues (weight distribution) and cannot climb out of deep sand or gravel as easily.

DOT knobbies and ADV tires have far less traction off-road than true dirt bike tires do. Many dual sport tires are not much more than glorified street tires with little deep tread.

The element of momentum and getting the front tire on top of the surface is correct; what was lacking was the knowledge of how to do this without adding speed.

The following are some tips when you find yourself in deep gravel or sand:

1. Ride in a standing position.  While standing, you can shift a greater amount of weight to the rear of the motorcycle.  This helps lighten the front end and also adds traction to the rear for greater drive.

2. Lighten your grip.  If you are using a proper standing technique, you will barely be touching the handlebars.  This allows the rake and trail work properly to self-correct more quickly.

3. Maintain throttle.  Closing or ‘chopping’ the throttle may cause an instant encounter of the dirt kind!

4. Trim the overall speed by massaging the clutch.  You must keep tension in the drive train, so keep the clutch in the gray zone, or friction zone. 

5. Lightly drag the rear brake.  You can further reduce speed and encourage front wheel lift with a very light drag of the rear brake.  A hard jab to the rear brake will cause a rapid transfer of weight to the front tire and will make things worse.

6. Avoid wheel spin.  This can cause the rear wheel to dig deeper into the sand or gravel, reducing forward thrust and the front tire will plow in.

7. Let the front wheel move like a rudder.  Know that steering responses in loose surfaces is delayed, and the rider must be patient and let the bike catch up to any directional inputs.  Riders often expect the bike to respond more quickly and add more steering input.

Although there may be many situations where adding throttle will work, not understanding the full dynamics of the situation may cause things to go badly very quickly.

 

Adventure Bike Rental Tips

It all begins with the quest to own the perfect ADV motorcycle:

You carefully study costs, weight, fuel capacity, maintenance, dealer networks, scour the forums for known issues, and read all the bike reviews… but that’s only the beginning. After your purchase comes the task of customizing your new bike to perfection with collapsible shift levers, cleated footpegs, extra lighting, luggage or whatever your preferences are. Then, after you’ve created the ultimate ADV motorcycle comes the most important part: the process of honing your riding skills to become one with your steed.

As your dreams require rides farther and farther from home, the time requirements and costs grow exponentially. Eventually you realize that it may not be practical to take your perfectly equipped motorcycle with you anymore. I found myself in this situation after returning from a trip through South America, and began setting my sights on more faraway lands.

It’s often far less expensive and less time consuming to rent or even buy local motorcycles at your destination, than to deal with shipping containers, dock unions, airlines and customs. And, in saving you time, it allows more time for the adventure itself.

Tips for customizing an ADV rental or local purchase bike:

Bring your own soft luggage. Buy soft luggage and a dry bag with packing straps so that you’ll know all your gear will fit. Soft luggage may not have the convenience factor of hard luggage but makes up for it in safety and familiarity in the following ways:

  • Reduces the possibility of damaging luggage on the rental that you could be liable for in a tip-over.
  • Eliminates issues of storing plane luggage after you arrive and reduces checked baggage.
  • Lets you feel more personalized and at home with the bike and ensures you’ll know exactly how much weight you have on the bike.

Make room for the little stuff. The convenience of quickly grabbing a set of ear plugs, sunglasses or a phone charger can make things just a bit sweeter:

  • Consider a handlebar bag for the quick-reach items.
  • Take along a small strap-on tank bag. Not all bikes have metal tanks so a strap-on bag is more universal than a magnetic one. A large bag may not fit every motorcycle where a small bag is easier to make fit.
  • Make sure to have enough extra straps. I’m a personal fan of ROK Straps (ROKStraps.com) and highly recommend them.
  • Take along a throttle assist device, such as Crampbuster (Crampbuster.com) or a Throttle Rocker (ThrottleRocker.com).

Bring a seat cover. Long miles on an uncomfortable seat can reduce the enjoyment of your dream trip or even ruin it. Bring along a tried and true product such as a bead seat cover.

Get powered up. Take the time to wire all of your electronics with a common connector so that you can simply add a single pigtail onto the battery. I prefer to use the SAE power attachment as this type is standard and already on many rentals.

Use your own GPS. It can take some time to become familiar with any particular GPS. Using your own unit lets you make sure you have all the maps, tracks and routes you will need.

Bring tools. I have yet to find a rental with a tool kit, it doesn’t take much to build a kit to keep you rolling.

  • Be ready for flats, and don’t forget an air supply. Wire your air pump with an SAE plug and you will be ready to go.
  • Zip ties and gaffer tape can save a trip in a pinch.
  • A selection of wrenches and sockets ensure you’ll be able to install items like GPS mounts, pull a tire to fix a flat, and tighten fasteners that inevitably loosen along the trip.
  • LED flashlights or headlamps are a necessity!
  • A good multi-tool should always reside in the pocket of your riding gear.

A little forward thinking can make your next adventure rental safer, more affordable and fun. Don’t let your dreams slip away. Make your next adventure a reality today and live every day to its full potential!