There are things out there to get you!
It doesn’t bear thinking about. Deep wash-outs, deceptively tight corners, greased logs, off-camber corners, slimy wooden bridges, bulldust walls, racing roos, hungry crocs, rouge riders, highly polished bullbars, little old ladies or men in hats…Not to mention your own limitations which, among other things, could see you getting lost or off the bike in a very nasty way. There’s a fair bit to consider when heading out for a ride so here are some points that were all learnt the hard way.
The first thing to do is to acknowledge your mortality. Appreciating the risks involved in an activity, especially dirt bike riding, is the first step to reducing the odds of you coming to grief. The rest of the battle comes down to experience. It’s one thing to jump on a bike and do big skids down some lonesome track out the back of nowhere; it is something else to still be doing it 20 years later, without the scars to prove it.
First Day Fever
This is a real killer and it gets everyone at some stage. Your classic case occurs early on any ride, with the stricken rider bursting full of enthusiasm and going hammer-down right from the start. If the symptoms are obvious, the results are even more so. Over-shot corners, near misses and heaps of wheelspin quickly progress to crashes. If they’re lucky there’ll be a sudden rise in the rider’s common sense level after the first crash or two. If they’re unlucky there’ll be a serious injury, and maybe an ambulance or helicopter ride. The common sense usually comes then if it hasn’t already!
The cure is simple. Pace yourself at the beginning of the ride. You may be pumped up and keen to go, but give yourself time to relax on the bike, settle in and get used to the conditions. Get a feel for things, then let the speeds build. Pretty soon you’ll be going smoother than the loose blokes, with a much-reduced chance of injury.
When is a Ride a Race?
Only when you want it to be. Most accidents occur when riders attempt to go faster than their skill level permits, and this usually happens when one ego overtakes another. Face it; there will always be someone faster than you, so if a rider carves by, ask yourself a few questions.
- How far will it be before I have to scrape him off the track?
- What will it prove if I pass him back?
- If I go after him, what are my chances of finishing the ride?
Okay, so you’re still heading off in pursuit but keep in mind that you’re there to enjoy the ride, the scenery and the company, none of which is much fun from the back of an ambulance or on your back in a helicopter. Have a go, but don’t overstep your abilities.
How Fast is Too Fast?
That depends on the skill of the rider. Seven tenths of your ability is about right, fast enough to stay alert and concentrating but slow enough not to get caught out.
Always set your own pace. Don’t get sucked along behind a faster rider and especially don’t wander about after a slower one. The latter is more dangerous because you start pondering the big questions, like what’s for dinner, and forget about what you’re doing. If you’re riding with a slower rider, pull up and give him a chance to get ahead, then play catch-up.
The main point governing speed is how far you can see. If you have a reasonable chance of stopping within your field of view, then you’re pretty safe because nothing can get you along as you stay alert. Nothing, that is, except moving objects…
Things that Move
These generally come in two categories; animals, and vegetables in/on other vehicles. Both can be sudden, unpredictable and very nasty so, once again, stay alert. Roos are the biggest animal hazard in Australia and while they can hop up anywhere, any time, there are ways to reduce the chance of a collision. They are most active at dawn and dusk so slow down at these times, stay vigilant and watch both sides of the track. Most of the time they travel in twos so if you see one, brake hard and watch for his mate.
They love to sleep in the shade during the day so if you’re cruising veer away from bushes at the edge of the track, especially around vermin fences. While we’re on the subject, try to avoid travelling along vermin fences because animals of all descriptions fetch up against them in big numbers.
Watching for stock signs, being aware of the type of animals in the area and keeping your eyes open are the best ways of avoiding animal-based accidents. Treat stock with the respect they deserve. Farmers don’t want bikes carving, figuratively, their mobs up. Slow down and idle through, or if you come up on a mod on the road pull over and stop while it goes past, or if it’s heading your way take a wide line.
Horses need special care so where possible kill your engine as soon as you spot one and roll past slowly. Take real care with kids on horses, and groups of horse riders which may contain novices. Many horse riders will help out with track info if you stop and chat, and more than a few are rather nice…
Never think that you and your mates are the only ones around because even in the most remote places there is still the chance of others using the same track. Keep left on all blind corners. Don’t drift wide and go full noise because there’s the possibility that the bloke coming the other way may not be as sensible as you and is taking up your bit of the track. Crests are another danger spot so keep left on them as well, with a quick up on the pegs for a preview for good measure.
If at all possible, stay out of dust. It severely restricts vision, is bad for your airfilter and probably isn’t all that peachy for your lungs either. Take your time overtaking a vehicle that’s kicking up a lot of dust; a few minutes waiting for some clean air isn’t going to kill you, but riding blind in a dust storm just might. If a vehicle is coming towards you in the desert slow right down and if need be, such as with road trains, stop well off the road. You’ll often find 4WDs and trucks travelling in convoy and the worst way to discover this is by wrapping your bike around a bonnet emblem. It doesn’t matter if you leave the road to play safe, because anything you hit on a bike hurts.
Bike tyres throw stones like you wouldn’t believe so if you’re overtaking a slower vehicle give it plenty of space. Roll the throttle on steadily, move to the right as far as practicable and pass cleanly. Allow as big a gap to open up as possible before returning to the left because pulling in quickly will most likely result in the other vehicle being showered with rocks.
Spare a thought for the position you’re putting the other driver/rider in as well. Slipping past someone and throwing up a heap of dust can be dangerous for the bloke being overtaken because it restricts his vision and can startle him if he’s off in dreamland. Don’t squeeze in a quick pass before danger spots like sharp corners or nasty ruts.
Riding in Groups
The bigger the mob, the greater the potential for disaster. The key to riding in large groups of around 12 or more is to spread out, with say a 30 second gap between the riders. Never ride in another bike’s dust. Your vision is restricted, your airfilter cops a flogging and your eyes and lungs won’t be ecstatic either.
The field tends to spread out naturally but more often than not there’s half a dozen riders hanging off the leader’s rear guard. Drop back. You’re then out of his roost, clear of dust, have a safe braking distance and are far more likely to enjoy the ride. Dropping back a few hundred metres is going to make you about 20 seconds late. Big deal. There’s no question which is the smarter move.
Large groups or constant traffic puts pressure on trails, especially erosion banks. Look for new lines so the bank walls don’t become worn and eroded, and take special care at creek crossings. Avoid forming ruts and berms on wet tracks by swapping lines and searching for harder ground, where the traction is better anyway.
Riding in Pairs
Don’t do this unless you’re pretty confident that the other rider isn’t going to lose concentration and take you out! Riding in pairs has a couple of advantages though. Basically, you’re working the buddy system where you keep an eye on each other and help out if either gets into trouble. You’ve also got an extra pair of eyes to spot roos, wash-outs or logs. And in larger groups it has the effect of closing the field up while still keeping out of each-other’s dust.
There are a few important things to consider when riding bar-to-bar though. First off there’s the keep-left rule. When approaching a blind corner or crest the rider on the right should drop back and move to the left. You can tuck in a couple of metres behind and about a metre wide of the front bike so you stay out of his roost, while giving both bikes room to move and react to any danger. Riding this close is risky though so be very confident about your mate’s abilities before you try it.
The outside rider should also drop back when another vehicle approaches from either direction, or when a hazard comes up. Give the lead rider plenty of room when it comes to bulldust, rocky creek beds and the like. This also puts the outside rider in the perfect position to fill the other bloke in when riding through puddles so if you’re the lead, watch you back.
Looking Out for Each Other
Experienced riders always help each other out. If you see an approaching vehicle on a narrow trail, raise your left hand to warn those behind you. If you come around a corner and run up against a log or something particularly nasty, park your bike and walk back to warn the rest of the group as they come through.
Every group will have at least one rider who hasn’t developed the skill level of the others. Help him out with encouragement and friendly advice, and consider him when picking the route. If you have to ride someone’s bike to the top of the hill for him, do it graciously. Never pressure anyone to step out of their comfort zones; be supportive instead.
Most of what’s been mentioned here is straight common-sense that many riders will already know. For those new to the sport or coming back to it, it may save an injury and it will make riding more enjoyable. Bike riding is great fun. Let’s make it as safe and sustainable as possible as well.