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These are the wise words of ten-times Dakar ‘legend’ and Off Road Skills senior instructor, Simon Pavey. He’s a man who should know because he’s done enough standing on Dakar bikes to last most of us a lifetime. More than that he’s spent half his life thinking about and analysing why we use particular techniques to help himself teach off-road riding techniques. Why would you want to stand up? We couldn’t think of a better person to ask.
If it fees l like hard work you’re probably doing something wrong is possibly something you’ll find scribed on my gravestone and also a mighty, universal truth about riding dirt bikes. It shouldn’t be hard work unless you start doing hard stuff, in which case you asked for it. To stand and ride an adventure bike all day long on regular, ‘normal’ trails shouldn’t be taxing. The opposite in fact, it should make things more easy.
Why do we do it then? What makes us stand up and what’s the point? Simple and reasonable questions so they are. We stand up when we ride off-road for some simple reasons: to see better the trail in front of us and to move our bodies in a way that makes for better control of the bike.
It’s important to stand all the time when you’re learning to get better and better at it and so that when you are choosing to stand it’s helping you to ride.
One question you might well ask, and it’s not an easy one to answer, is “when should I stand up?” At the first sign of dirt? Well, no because it’s not easy to answer in a black and white sense because no stretch of terrain is that simple. You have to learn to read the trail and understand what’s easy and what’s not. If it feels like the bike-to-you ratio is swinging towards bike, then stand up and take charge again.
Simon Pavey: “One thing you see all the time is people who’re learning to ride off-road stand up when the going’s easy and they’re relaxed but as soon as they see an off-camber turn or technical section they sit down. It should be the other way around. When you’re going down a massive, wide and easy gravel road where there’s plenty of time to see, think and feel relaxed, well, then it’s fine to sit down, cruise along and be comfortable on the bike. But when you come to a situation where you can’t quite see what’s going on, where the terrain becomes a little more technical, where the corner’s off-cambered or you can’t see round it, then you get yourself up on the pegs, balanced on the bike and get yourself organised with it. That’s why it’s important to stand all the time when you’re learning, so you get better and better at it and so when you choose to stand it’s helping you to ride the terrain.”
“Broadly speaking we want to stand up to choose a line to ride and try to stay on it – to be in maximum control of the bike. To do that you’ve got to be balanced on your footpegs and let the bike move around under you, both side-to-side and fore and aft, to deal with the change in the ground conditions.” says Pavey. The point is you need to let the bike change direction under your feet and control that movement and the way the bike moves through your legs rather than your hands or your backside.
“A really important part of that process of moving around is not upsetting the bike, not fighting the natural geometry of the bike and moving enough to keep it doing what it needs to do. That means letting the wheels do what they’re designed to do and that’s roll over stuff.” Adds Simon.
That’s why it’s really important to learn to stand well – if you’re just standing and holding the bars tight, really rigid in your body with your feet and knees gripping the bike, then you’re actually undoing any good you’ve gained by getting off your backside.
It’s difficult to describe because it comes down to feel but it should be like you’re stood at the bar.
The standing position should be a relaxed one. As Simon says: “It takes a bit of time to get balanced and relaxed in the standing position.” The reason for practicing is the same as anything in life, the more you do it the better you get at it and the more natural the position is when you really need it on technical terrain.
When you ride your bike standing up think about how much your hands are holding the bars, are they relaxed? What about your elbows and wrists? Are they still down where they would be if you were riding seated? What about your legs muscles? Are they all stiff and taking loads of weight? These are all areas to consider when you’re practicing the standing position – it’s a whole body experience.
The default standing position is quite a fluid thing and it does vary depending on your height, certainly it’s important for tall people to bend in the middle to bring their torso to the right place. “It’s really important for tall people to think a little about where they stand and find the right place so their head and their bum are counter-balancing each other. It’s important for tall people to still be stood up pretty straight and not be putting too much pressure on any of their muscles.” Says Pavey.
It’s tempting to think because you’re tall you need higher bars, raised handlebar clamps, a bigger bike or any of these things. The truth is it’s probably because you haven’t found the comfortable riding position for you yet – in short it’s not the bike’s fault, it’s you.
Where exactly that riding position is depends on you, your bike and your body size: “It’s difficult to describe because it comes down to feel but it should be like you’re stood at the bar.” Says Simon.
There’s an obvious place for a footrest to go if you look at the sole of your boot. Don’t have your toes pointing out in the wind and don’t stand either too far forward or too far back on the pegs. Upwards from your feet the standing position for Pavey is solid on your feet but not rigid: “Your legs and knees should be straight, not locked solid but soft, able to flex and move to keep your balance as the bike and terrain changes. Sometimes that’s one knee bending, sometimes both knees but you have to move to keep your balance.” Don’t grip the bike with your knees and don’t let yourself get sucked in to a squatting position, or your thigh muscles will quickly get tired.
Remember that as you stand up from the seating position you need to relax your grip to let your wrists come round and up with you. If you let your hands stay put, you end up riding with your wrists bent. The ideal position for your hands and wrists is up in a line to your shoulders, not bent and drooping into an L-shape. Like we said, there shouldn’t be any part of this position which is hard work but especially your hands and wrists shouldn’t be getting tired. If they are, you’ve guessed it, you’re doing something wrong.
A tried and very well tested way of teaching people for Simon Pavey at his Off Road Skills school is to get people riding one-handed: “It’s one of the best ways of practicing your riding position. Just getting yourself, a little at a time, rolling-on the throttle, rolling-off it, riding some ups and downs, through some bumps and simple corners really helps. What that does is help you sort out your balance and help maintain your balance all the time no matter what the bike and terrain is doing.” The point also is, and this is an important error people make, the balance is coming through your feet just as it does when you’re stood at the supermarket checkout. Not through your hands, arms, shoulders or knees even to hold you rigid on the bike but your feet in a balanced and relaxed way.
This little technique also teaches you that a relaxed hand on the throttle is another reason to be balanced on your feet and not have any weight on your wrists and hands – it makes you smoother.
One giant rule of riding off-road is to get your chin out your chest and look where you’re bloody going! It sounds obvious but the instincts for many people when they switch from asphalt to dirt is to start looking too close in front of themselves and at too many details. That rock you think you’re going to hit isn’t going to move, so staring at it is only going to help you make a bee-line for it.
Keeping your vision up and looking well ahead should really be similar to riding or driving on the road: you should be reading the terrain ahead in order to be ready for it, choose a line, change to a different line, stop, go slower, change gear, go faster or any number of actions.
The point is if you look too close in front you’ll struggle to see and react to what you’re riding over – it’ll all happen too quick for you. You wouldn’t look just in front of yourself when driving a car on the road so don’t do it off-road. Telling yourself to move your head, taking your eyes with it as you move it in the direction you want to go, is the sure-fire way of helping you make a turn (and avoid that tree, or rock, or rut or whatever).
The rules for road riding are fixed, less complicated and ask less of a rider because the ground is asking less of the bike. On asphalt the ground changes less but off-road the ground is more complex, asks more of the bike and rider to get across or over it.
Road riding rules (and teaching) differs in as much as some of them are the opposite off the road. If you look at MotoGP wünderkid Marc Marquez going round a corner his body position and angle of lean, tremendous as they are, counter-balance the desperate desire for his bike to sit up and go straight. To stop it going straight and make it do what he wants to (and because he has such tremendous grip available to him) he leans as far as is physically possible to get around the corner as fast as possible.
Off-road the rules are not only different but the slower you go the more opposite that rule becomes – a very tight, full-lock, first gear turn means you have to stand with your weight on the outside of the bike, the opposite to Marquez, to allow the bike to turn without falling into the turn. It all comes down to “balance” on the pegs that Simon Pavey discussed previously.
Letting the bike move under you is crucial on rough terrain because it needs to move without you going with it all the time. That “balance” is key and the tougher the riding the more you have to move to remain balanced.
If your forearms feel tired when you’re riding standing up you’ve likely got too much weight on them (so you’re bent too far forward) or are holding on too tight. What we don’t want is a white knuckle ride. If that’s the case you need to think again about your standing position and take weight off your hands.
How many fingers on levers is a debatable point for some people, particularly those who’ve had some road riding instruction. There are some simple and basic reasons why you don’t ever need all four fingers on the clutch and brake levers: not least unless you’re riding a pre-war motorcycle you probably don’t need anything like that much force to pull the lever.
Four fingers on the lever means you’re holding on to the handlebars with just your thumb and because the thumb on a human hand sits turned at a different angle to the fingers you aren’t actually holding on with that thumb very effectively. An “effective” hold on the bars is to have two or three of your fingers curled around the grips as well. In short, using four fingers on the brake and clutch lever doesn’t give you enough control of the handlebars and gives you too much power on the lever itself, you aren’t going to be smooth enough and there’s a tendency to grab at the front brake.
On a modern motorcycle you will struggle to convince me you need more than two fingers to operate the brake simply because they are so effective and powerful, even on the road.
How long you have your fingers there on the levers is a little down to preference. Some people prefer to ride much of the time with hands just around the grips and reach for the levers when you need them. The problem with this is when something happens quickly a) your fingers aren’t there ready to react and b) reaching for them can encourage you to grab at the lever and apply too much force. If this is your preference you need to get in the habit of having your fingers there ready good and early before you arrive at the hazard.
Better, then, to have your fingers there more of the time than not, especially when the going is technical. Personally mine are there all the time, constantly and this is mainly because I use the clutch a lot of the time to meter drive to the back wheel and control the bike – possibly as much as the throttle.
Good question and you can if you want but there are times when standing gives you more control. If you ride over any sort of uneven ground sitting down you can do far less to dictate what happens and the ground will try to dictate what the bike does as well as the direction you travel. You can affect this to a degree in a sitting position, with your hands, by moving quickly at your hips or by riding slowly and using your feet, but you can make a huge amount more difference to the course the bike takes, how much both tyres are able to keep hold of the ground by standing up.
Imagine yourself riding across a very steep camber on a mountainside. If you do nothing and sit like a sack of spuds, the bike will turn or fall down the down slope. If, however, you stand and position your body to counter-balance the bike, put your body weight on the outside footrest and push the bike in towards the hill, you’ll find yourself standing in quite a dramatic place with your body and you’ll have better chance of actually making it along the camber.
Think of it in another scenario, a rocky stream for example. When you ride over rocks of all different shapes and sizes they cause the bike to move in all sorts of directions, often in very quick succession. If you sit down to ride these rocks every time the bike tries to go one way or the other you have to react very quickly to move your body, a slow and heavy bit of torso at that, to counter the bike’s movement. If you stand however the bike can move around under you letting your wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles do the things they are good at which is bend or flex. That means the bike moves under you and you transfer weight between your feet to counter the bike’s shifting across the different rocks.
If you can, why don’t you go outside right now and get on your bike in the garden or garage and practice the actual standing position. And when you’ve done that grab you helmet and go for a ride. Get practising…
- River crossings
- Rocky trails
- Tight, loose or technical turns
- A step up (or down) where you have to adjust body position