In a previous post, I mentioned about getting off the beaten path and onto the gravel roads to go places you have never seen. If I placed ten bikers in a room and asked how many would prefer gravel over highway, chances are I would get 100% saying highway. And if asked “why”, the most common response is “I don’t like it.”
Looking out my window I begin to reminisce a trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas. I stopped short of the Grand Canyon to marvel the mountains and a waterfall that saw off in the distance. I checked the maps and there were no highways that lead over that way, however there was a gravel road that looked like it might go there.
I usually don't spend much time stopping to think about which way I should go when I'm riding motorcycles, but this time was different. I really, really wanted to go to that waterfall. It looked like it was one of those rides that you'd talk about with your buddies for a few weeks afterwards. The reason for my moment of consideration was that this road was gravel, and I was riding my eight hundred pound Harley Davidson.
It was a tedious ride and took the better part of two hours, but when I got to the base of the water fall, there was not a car in sight and the view was beyond words. One of those Kodak moments that should be the cover shot of some tourist magazine. Something I would never have witnessed if I was not afraid to get off of that blacktop.
If you tend to shy away from gravel roads when riding, you are missing a whole new world of possibilities. Some of the most incredible places that I've found have been off some old gravel road that rarely sees a car, much less a motorcycle.
So why is it that we do not like riding on gravel roads? The answer is the same answer as to why we do not like riding in the rain. We will if and only if we have to, but if we don’t, we won’t. It comes down to skill, practice and feeling comfortable riding your machine and riding on the gravel. If you are afraid of your motorcycle, you will have a white knuckle experience at best and no experience on gravel whatsoever.
The key to riding on gravel is moderate your speed and go easy on everything. The motorcycle knows best.
Don't jerk the handlebars to make a sudden turn. Don't "panic jam" the brakes to slow down. Your rear brakes are your friend. Don't roll your throttle back like your blasting off the line (unless you're trying to throw gravel out from behind you and hit your buddy in the head). Keep your speed under control.
"Reading the Road" is the single best thing you can do to raise your confidence on gravel, BUT, "Realizing that your motorcycle knows best" is the single best way to increase your enjoyment of riding a gravel road. Your motorcycle is going to wiggle on a gravel road. It's going to feel like its sliding all over the place. Your front tire is going to jerk about. Let it. Your bike knows best. This awareness of what your motorcycle is going to do will help you form the appropriate behavior.
The natural tendency for most riders is to try and control every movement on gravel - don't. Just relax, keep a firm but not tight grip on the handlebars, and a light touch when controlling the motorcycle. Don't try to control every movement of the bike, allow the bike to move under you. The law of science that a body in motion tends to stay in motion definitely applies in this instance. Remember, with good tire tread you can ride over oil puddles as long as you don’t panic and grab a handful of brake or throttle - the same holds true here. Smoothness is the secret.
Some riders nervously take both feet off of the pegs and dangle them near the ground when riding on gravel, especially when cornering. That is crazy! If the bike does tip over, the rider may try and hold it up causing ankle, leg or groin injuries. Also, if your right foot is off the peg then the only brake you have left is the front. Yikes!
Keep your head up and your focus on where you are trying to go, the bike will wiggle its way there. This rule probably takes the most getting used to, especially for those with heavier bikes.
- Don't do any quick braking or swerving.
- Get used to some wheel wobbling.
- Relax your grip on the handlebars but keep it firm.
- Keep BOTH feet on the pegs.
- Slow and steady is the key.
- Try to maintain some speed - it is safer and more stable to be moving.
- Find the part of the road where the gravel is less dense.
- Keep your distance from other vehicles.
- If you have to brake, avoid the front brake, and do it gently.
- Remember, there is good road ahead!
I still don't enjoy motorcycling on gravel roads, but I have learned not to dread it. The reason I have learned not to cringe at the sight of those pesky little stones is that there are some pretty wonderful sights and places found at the end of the gravel; and best of all - I'm not climbing the road on foot! Be confident in yourself and your motorcycle and you'll be fine. You will be able to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of places that you will talk about for years to come.
As motorcyclists, we don’t tell the stories of cloudless skies and straight, flat roads - beautiful though they may have been. We tell the stories about dropped bikes, torrential downpours, wrong turns, mechanical failures or the first time we experienced reaching for the fuel reserve switch as we panicked in traffic. But now that you are ready to conquer your first gravel road that takes to you to somewhere totally unexpected, you will have that new story to tell. You are going to be “That guy”.