Dirtbike Riding Techniques and Fundamentals

Mark Rossi

Senior Member
Jan 15, 2011
By Mark Rossi
Hi guys, this is a set of dirtbike riding principles and some techniques. Although there is a basic excepted technique taught the same all over the world, I have endeavored to give an insight into understanding your motorcycle, and the riding principles being the reason why these are the excepted techniques.
Please understand that these principles are much more effective being used to ride a competition motorcycle than your everyday dual sport trail bike.
Body Position: When to sit and stand?
First of all let’s talk about when we should stand riding a dirtbike and why this is more efficient.
We stand while riding a dirtbike for many reasons, first and foremost is so your body can help the suspension absorb bumps. While standing your legs, back, arms and chest can extend and retract to help the motorcycle absorb bumps and jumps. Standing we can also move our body weight more effectively, to balance the motorcycle. Plus standing gives you a better and further view of the terrain, so you can better pick riding lines and pre-empt where you body position will need to be for the next obstacle.
When should we stand?
• A basic rule is whenever possible
When is standing not possible?
• Cornering the motorcycle, although some wide sweeping corners can still be taken standing.
• Under hard acceleration, it is very difficult to accelerate hard while standing.
• Sometimes in slippery conditions or loose rocks it may be better to keep your centre of gravity lower by crouching or sitting, as a high centre of gravity can magnify a motorcycles risk of being thrown off balance.
Now that I have explained why standing is so important, here is the correct body position to stand
• Keep as much inner leg in contact with the motorcycle as possible at all time, from you shin to your knees, it is essential to wear a knee guard or brace to stop your knees bruising while you grip the motorcycle.
• Don’t lock your knees keep your legs a little bent and prepared to absorb bumps.
• Your back should be slightly curved, don’t poke your chest out or push your shoulders back they should be centered.
• Your elbows should be held high so as your forearms are in the similiar line or angle as your motorcycle’s fork.
• Whenever you are not operating the rear brake or gear lever, your balls of your feet should be the part of the foot used to stand on the foot beg.
And after all these things are in line, make sure your body is in a position so you are not exerting force through your arms to the handle bars, either by pushing, pulling or holding your yourself onto the motorcycle. We are effectively trying to transfer all the rider’s weight, to the motorcycle through your legs onto the foot pegs, supporting your upper body with core strength through your stomach and lower back.

Chad Reed doing all the above, his shoulders are a little back as he uses his chest to absorb the landing.

Under hard acceleration, note the position of the elbows and balls of the feet

Cornering: note finger positions, feet position, leaning forward weighting the front, knees tight against the motorcycle.

Standing atack position, note fingers on controls, elbows high, on the balls of his feet, knee's tight against the motorcycle

Balancing a Dirtbike: Where should my body weight be positioned?
First, let’s look at your weight moving forward and backward, whether you are standing or sitting there is one basic simple test that simplifies any confusion to know, how far forward, or back your body should be. That being, if you are not exerting any force to your handlebars your position is correct and balanced.
Obviously as your motorcycle tilts up your body needs to move forward as your motorcycle tilts back your body position need to move back.
Keep in mind your motorcycle has up to 300mm of suspension travel front and rear designed to collapse and absorb bumps, this will also cause the motorcycle cockpit to tilt forward or backward on flat terrain, thus requiring your body weight to move backward and forward to compensate and balance out the motorcycle in a movement.

Kevin Windham absorbing the bikes movement through the woop de doos, notice Kevin's feet, he has the balls on the foot pegs but his heals are dropped. for anybody ever having ridden a horse this is how you attach your feet to the stirrups, it stops yourself being thrown forward, this technique works exactly the same for a motorcycle.

Left and Right
As mentioned above, we need to keep as much of our inside legs against the motorcycle as possible. Gripping the dirtbike with your leg calve muscles and knees will lock the motorcycle from being thrown over to the left or right. Loose bandy legs on a dirtbike will see you continually eating dirt. Therefore with our knees locking tight on the motorcycle, our upper bodies are free to move left to right, hinging at our elbows to transfer our body weight to balance the motorcycle.
But don’t forget to keep your forearm angle, similar to your motorcycles front fork angle and not to exert pressure to the handle bars.
One thing that can alter though riding off-road is your seating position. As you corner in a hunt to give traction to the wheels, you can slide your back side to the left or right edge of the seat. As you lean the motorcycle keep your body at a slightly less lean angle then the motorcycle, therefore loading your weight exerting vertical pressure to your tyres. Or in some cases where traction is a real issue your body can be near to perpendicular while the motorcycle is leant over.
Chris Hollis: notice Chris is on the edge of his seat hunting for traction, his body stays near perpendicular as the motorcycle is leant over, also notice how high his outside elbow is and how his inside elbow is straightened out considerably as he is off centre to his motorcycle.

Motorcycle Controls
Our motorcycle controls being, accelerator, front Brake, rear brake, clutch, gear lever, steering and foot pegs are not a perfect design. These are the part of riding motorcycles that needs isolated drills to improve your ability and co-ordination. The controls need a soft even touch, that is hard to achieve while bouncing around on a mx track or a dirt trail. Often these controls need to be operated in unison of 3, and sometimes 5 controls at one time. So as you can imagine if you where playing a game on a x-box and your avatar needed you to instantaneously co-ordinate with spilt second precision 3 to 4 hand, and 1 to 2 foot controls to create your avatar’s movements, it’s tough.
Lots of rider drills coach’s assign to their pupils are design to help improve these co-ordinations.
Oh yeah, and as I mentioned earlier, the controls are not a perfect design, the controls are hard to reach in unison. You need to train yourself to keep fingers covering the clutch and front brake at most times.
Also your feet basically need to change position on the foot begs from being on the balls, while they reach to operate the gear and rear brake levers then return to the balls virtually every time, you need to brake or change gear.
I also mentioned I consider the foot begs a large part of the controls which may confuse you. Why are the foot’s resting points a control? It is because they are pushed on for numerous reasons, for instances, to steer the motorcycle, or to weight the back wheel for traction, or to preload and control the suspension movement. They are also a lever point to loft the front wheel.
I think we have now covered a basic outline of understanding the first techniques a coach would teach you at a riding clinic. First riding position and then the use of controls, I hope I have given a little insight into those drills you will be asked to do.
Suspension’s effect on a Motorcycle
Before we go any further into learning how to complete the obstacles you will encounter riding a dirtbike. I feel it be imperative to talk briefly about the effect your suspension has on your motorcycle. This is where riding the motorcycle really becomes exciting, interesting and complex
What makes a off-road motorcycle unique to ride is 300mm of front and rear suspension travel working independently of each other. Body position, the throttle control, clutch use, brake use, exerting force to the handlebars and foot pegs all have an effect on your motorcycles suspension, therefore affecting your motorcycle’s balance. . Like any true physic teacher will tell you every action creates an opposite and equal reaction, and this has never been more correct when it comes to the 30cm of suspension your motorcycle has.

Here are 2 extreme examples.
If you ever wondered how a motocross rider can jump distances and heights that seem physically impossible, it is because he understands and knows how to preload his suspension then use the suspension’s coiled energy to release and help catapult the motorcycle of the jump ramp.
Davi Millsaps doing what is known as a seat bounce. As he prepares to launch of this jump, he has loaded and compressed his suspension, ready for the recoil to release and catapult the motorcycle from the jump take off. This is a harder technique than it appears the catapult from the rear suspension can easily somersault the motorcycle, the key to success is to keep the acceleration on all the way off the ramp, and get good traction and drive as wheel spin can release the recoil early.

Or in reverse if you see a motocross rider being able to ride into the face of the jumps faster than his competitors, jumping the same distance, while staying lower in the arc of his jump, this is again because he has the ability to control the compression and rebound of the motorcycles suspension this is known as "scrubbing".
James Stewart scrubbing the motorcycle

The effects your motorcycles controls, and you as a rider have on suspension is complex, a rider needs to be conscious of this remembering every time you suspension is compressed, there is a stored energy that is going to be released in the form of suspension rebound. Controlling and settling the suspension is the basis to advanced dirtbike riding. Knowing the effects, and having the knowledge to use this to you advantage, is the key to a higher level of achievement as a rider.
To be continued,
By Mark Rossi · May 27, 2010 · Filed in Dirt Bike Riding Techniques Part 2 · No Comments »
99% of the corners you turn on your motorcycle are going to require you to slow before the entry to the turn. i.e. use braking. Correct braking will be the first skill to conquer in learning to corner the motorcycle efficiently and smoothly. If you don’t know front wheel braking equates to the majority of your stopping power. I estimate in ordinary conditions approximately 80% of your slowing is done by the front brake. So think about this if 80% of your braking is being applied to your front wheel this is going to cause the effect of your front forks compressing, under heavy braking the forks will compress around 70% of their suspension travel, equating to more than 200mm on your modern dirtbike. Your front wheel is now heavily weighted and the rear lightened. The trail of your fork is now noticeably decreased which helps the motorcycle to turn. It is possible to counter act the compression of the fork a little by moving your body weight to the rear of the motorcycle this is a must when braking over rough terrain or down steep slopes as to stop the motorcycle diving to far through the fork travel or even somersaulting.
A rider on the brakes slowing to the entry of a corner, note: the compressed forks the rider has moved his body weight towards the rear of the bike to help compensate the motorcycles balance

But as I have mentioned every time the suspension compresses there is a coiled energy waiting to rebound. A large key to cornering success is to control your suspension, brake smoothly in a progressive action. You want your front forks to compress evenly with your body position moving from standing to sitting and your body weight forward as the fork reaches its most compressed point.
The body weight towards the front of the motorcycle helps slow the fork rebound and keep the motorcycle more settled and balanced as we transition from braking to accelerating. A fast fork rebound can un-weight the front tyre or send the motorcycle into a wheel stand under acceleration.
Ryan Dungey in the seated position weighting the front of the motorcycle

If you miss-judge your braking it is better to slow more than required, rather than releasing the brake early, as releasing the brake early will cause the forks to rebound prematurely and unsettle the front end.
Transitions are the times on a motorcycle you are most susceptible to crashing. What do I mean by transitions? Transitions are a change from braking to accelerating or vice versa. The transition needs to be seamless or can even overlap in the case of braking to acceleration.
Mark Rossi: transitioning from brakes to power, notice the finger on the front brake, braking is overlapping with the use of the accelerator. Also the clutch is being used at the same time to control speed and traction.

A lapse in time making a transition gives the motorcycle, or more to the point the motorcycles suspension, an opportunity to have a mind of its own and a small bump, rock or unforeseen obstacle can send you tumbling in a transition period.
Kevin Windam in a transition period, note his right hand and fingers as he overlaps his transition from braking to accelerating

The next and final section to corner is the accelerating out of the corner, again the same as we operated the brake in a smooth progressive action, we operate the throttle in the same manner, we are aiming for drive not uncontrollable wheel spin, a little controlled spin is ok, however again we need to be conscious of our suspension, a rear wheel biting and letting go hunting for traction, or a rider revving and chopping the throttle to bring the motorcycle under control will cause the rear suspension to load and unload amplifying the loss of traction, and the possibility of the motorcycle rear swapping from side to side.
Christophe Poucel exiting a corner. note: outside leg against the motorcycle, finger still covers the clutch, outside elbow high, inside leg near the front wheel, knee not locked.

Here are the body positions relevant to all corners.
• The inner leg, of the leg to the outside of the corner, tight against the motorcycle
• Foot pushing down weighting the outside foot peg to give the rear tyre better traction.
• Outside elbow kept high
• Inside foot off the peg, held close to the grounds surface near the front wheel, as close in to the motorcycle as you comfortably can
• The knee of the inside leg does not pass the handlebar (injury preventative)
• Knee not locked
• Fingers covering the clutch control and front brake if possible
Mark Rossi: note: outside elbow high, outside leg tight against the motorcycle, on the balls of the right foot connecting to the footpeg, finger on the clutch adjusting speed, looking ahead. Left knee does not come passed the handle bar

The above techniques are common to all corners next I will talk the side of the technique that alters to work more effectively for different styles of corners.
here are 2 points to think about.
Static Sag
Without the laden weight of its rider, the dirtbikes suspension is weighted and compressed about 25-30mm or about 10% of it suspension travel from the weight of the motorcycle alone. We call this static sag. Motorcycle suspension for road racing are engineered to remove static sag, thus helping the motorcycle settle better in the corner and help reduce wheel standing under hard acceleration out of the corner. For a dirtbike we learn to control static sag and use it to our advantage.
A Motorcycle Clutch
If we used the clutch in our motor cars like we used the clutch on our dirtbikes we would be abusing our motor car clutch and it would not last very long. forget what your driving teacher taught you when it come to dirtbikes. Our dirtbikes clutchs are constantly used to control traction, and to adjust the speed of the motorcycle to what is needed.
Steering the Motorcycle
A motorcycle has a steering mechanism operated by the handlebar. At low speeds we corner by turning the handlebar. However as our speed is increased and we have enough momentum to balance the motorcycle we use the lean to turn the motorcycle.
We can steer a motorcycle using 2 different methods or any combination between the 2 methods. One method is to counter steer the other method is steer with the rear wheel steer .
Counter Steer
To counter steer we actually turn the front wheel a little in the opposite way to the direction of the corner and lean the motorcycle into the corner to make the motorcycle turn i.e. We turn a little right and lean left to make the motorcycle turn a left corner. It may sound crazy but in fact what we are doing is making the motorcycle fall over as the front wheel is steered away from the way the rider is leaning.
Some examples of where counter steering works well to turn are
• A high banked corner also known as a berm
• A sandy surface corner
• a long sweeping corner.
James Stewart Counter Steering on a sandy berm

Kevin Windam counter steering on a flat sweeping corner

Steer with the rear
This is best for tight corners. To do this we over steer using the handlebars turning the front wheel in the similar direction to which want we want to go, then we accelerate breaking traction to slide the rear to the direction we won’t the motorcycle to point.
Ivan Tedesco has turned his front wheel he now will steer with the rear to square up a corner

Jeremy Mcgrath Steering with the rear wheel, notice Jeremy's front brake and clutch operation

To be Continued
Thanks for that post. It was very interesting. My question is about what to do if you are out trail riding at a half decent pace and suddenly come across a stretch of fairly deep soft sand? I have been caught out a few times and it wasn't pretty.
Hi Jon
To ride sand you need your body weight further to the back of the motorcycle to lighten the front wheel. You need to accelerate through the sand so the forks stay extended and you shock stays squatting making the front of the motorcycle higher and lighter.
*It is best to be standing as well. As your body weight is further back and loading the rear suspension you are vulnerable to being thrown forward if you hit a large bump. You need to be able to absorb theses bumps with your legs and lighten the work load of the shock absorber.

*Grip the motorcycle with your knees tighter than normal when riding deep sand, as sand can be unpredictable.

*As mentioned above, you need to accelerate through the sand so your front forks are extended, and your rear shock squats,. So this means either slowing before the sand so you are at a comfortable speed to accelerate into the sand, or sometimes getting out of your comfort zone and go faster.

*Adjust your brake bias when braking in sand, In sand your back brake is now being used as 50% of the braking power.

*The sand will sap your engine power, so you will most likely need to down shift, do this before you hit the sand, be prepared to slip the clutch to keep the engine alive and the rear wheel driving forward.

* Any chop of the throttle will load the front end, then the front end will bite into the sand, which we don't want. So stay on the power, look up and further ahead so you have balance,

* To corner physically force the bike to lay over, while you keep the power on, don't turn the handle bars, keep the handle bar as straight as possible. As you are leaning the bike to turn, you need a certain amount of speed to keep the bike balanced and upright

*Just before you transfer from the hard pack to the sand you can pre-load (bounce the suspension) Time the suspension rebound so the motorcycle is at its lightest when it hits the sand, this will help you get on top of the sand rather than plough into it and bury the front wheel.



Thanks for the reply and the great photos. I could have done with that advice about 15 years ago when I was 40 and riding in only my third ever motocross meeting. It was my first ever season and I was riding in the twinshocks on a 1977 WR 250 Husky. Anyway I entered this race on a friday night at a track called Desertmartin, in Northern Ireland. The whole track was in the sand dunes and it was to be used the next day at the Irish round of the 500 World championship. I knew I was in trouble on my first practice lap. I really thought I had punctures in both tyres the way I was sloughing from side to side through the deep sand and I did actually stop to check. The actual race started and the jumps were terrifying. Infact the first one was so high I was just happy to have got to the top before riding down the other side. It was a bit of a blur. I was totally out of my depth and was landing completely vertically on the front wheel and sometimes the same on the back. The worst part was that every lap I came round and there was Jacky Martens leaning on the rail watching me. I can still see the expression on his face, or at least the lack of expression. I guess he thought he was watching one of those vintage bike parade laps. I can remember trying to hide in shame inside my helmet every time I came round. The only highlight was that for a few laps I had a bit of a race with a guy on a 360 Husky and infact he fell off in front of me so I was doing something right I suppose. I can also remember this never ending series of big jumps before a corner that I got wrong each and every time and it wasn't until I watched the actual 500 race on TV that I realised they were de-acceleration bumps. After the race I could have stayed the night in the van and watched the real race the next day, but I was too embarassed incase somebody recognised me. Thats why I have a thing about deep sand.
Awesome story Jon, to me that is what riding a bike is all about, having a go doing something you love to try.
Wish I had a opportunity to ride at Desertmartin. I dont think I would have the balls to ride the track on a old Husky though.
Is this Jon from Maejo the trials rider?
Yes, that's me and thanks for answering my post.I went back to Ireland last March and went to watch two classic meetings and there was a really good turn out and loads of riders nearly as old as me who were just going out there and having good fun. Everyone seemed to have a smile on their faces. There were quite a few ex-champions from the past and nobody had told them it was time to slow down. I was also amazed at the number of 490 Maicos but apparently you can actually still get new ones.
Nice post, Mark. Just started riding dirt a few months ago and I seriously needed this (as you saw me at the Chiang Dao enduro - that was some ugly form). I took these instructions to heart practicing mini-motocross last weekend.
I just finally got round to reading this thread. Great stuff mark thanks for making the time and penning this up for everyone.

Now when I ride sandy terrain back in my own country through the turns the sand builds up creating it own berms and you just lean it over with tons of power and you're through the turn. in the rock hard clay I have ridden in Thailand it slims really slick, skittery, and the tires don't seem as planted. How do you go about riding through a flat hard hard clay turn quickly and how does the bike react differently? Ie i always feel that I'm loosing my front end in this hard clay compared to the looser textured stuff in the western U.S..
Believe it or not Mr Justin, A sand corner or a hard pack corner takes very similar technique to go through the fastest way.
To ride a flat turn at its fastest, you are looking for a wide line riding and a smooth arc to complete the corner and hold traction. Much the same as a sand corner, but with sand you are riding a smooth arc so as not to knife the front end into the sand and keep you momentum as the sand robs H.P. to accelerate. So the fastest line is the same in this case.
Also both types of terrain demand you to accelerate through all of the turn, any chop of the throttle will in hard pack see you front end push or wash, or in sand bite in and loose momentum.
The only real difference is you can be more aggressive on the throttle and your weight further back with sand, and your body weight is a little more forward on hard pack.
One advantage you can use on a flat turn is you can drift the back in under braking and lesson you corner angle for the acceleration section of the turn.
The rider being far forward on a flat clay turn will stop the front from washing , however you then don't have any weight on the rear wheel to get drive and accelerate out. I believe the best way to get through with speed is to be on that balance point where the front will push if the throttle is reduced.
hope that helps.
We got stuck in some really nasty wet clay in Laos yesterday, was interesting watching midnight mappers technique in the soup clay. He s ridden about 200,000km of dirt in Laos and is always on the pegs and leans forward to stop the front washing out, was very effective and used minimal energy.
A couple of questions in regards to slower, technical off-road riding.

1. When the going gets really slippery (wet season hard packed clay), I revert to sitting and putting my weight up on the tank to make sure the front wheel maintains traction at all costs (weight up front) and to allow myself to quickly stick out a foot to save a slip (sitting down). Is this a good or bad idea?

2. I know you want to keep the balls of your feet on the pegs but, when standing, I really struggle to change my foot position quickly enough to manipulate the shift and brake levers. Any tips?

3. If you're on a really sketchy slow downhill that requires a good bit of front brake, should you still be standing and weighting the back of the bike? Or is it ok to get up forward on top of the tank?
ThePoMoBro said:
A couple of questions in regards to slower, technical off-road riding.

1. When the going gets really slippery (wet season hard packed clay), I revert to sitting and putting my weight up on the tank to make sure the front wheel maintains traction at all costs (weight up front) and to allow myself to quickly stick out a foot to save a slip (sitting down). Is this a good or bad idea?

I'm certainly no expert, but this is what in do:

Standing is still better and less tiring but self preservation means 99% of us will sit down when we are worried we might crash. Taking a fall from a standing position on the bike is not a pleasant experience.

2. I know you want to keep the balls of your feet on the pegs but, when standing, I really struggle to change my foot position quickly enough to manipulate the shift and brake levers. Any tips?

I agree, and to me its all about body position in relation to braking / accel etc.

If you try and change gear standing up when accelerating hard its not easy...but if you stand up, keep your weight forward, head over bars it makes it a lot easier to move you feet / legs. If you are caught out by the accel and lean back then it becomes very hard to shift / brake .

3. If you're on a really sketchy slow downhill that requires a good bit of front brake, should you still be standing and weighting the back of the bike? Or is it ok to get up forward on top of the tank?

Standing 100%.
Dodgy downhill with front brake on and weight forward is just begging to loose the front end.
You've already got the weight transfer from front braking pushing the tire to the dirt.
Standing and keeping your weight over the rear will also help access to the rear brake, its not easy to use rear brake with all your weight forward becuase of the restricted ankle movemement.
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