Learning how to ride a dirt bike is not as complicated as it looks – you need proper dirt bike riding tips. It is normal to feel some anxiety and nervousness when you first jump on your new bike. Some of those nerves are probably excitement. Whether you are taking lessons, or are teaching yourself how to ride a dirt bike, you will need to learn some simple techniques to get you started.
In this article, we look at the necessary skills required to get your dirt bike moving and to stop it safely. We also look at two different styles of dirt bike; clutchless (kids dirt bikes), and those with a clutch. Finally, we break down each technique so you can start visualising how to ride before getting on a bike.
If you are starting in Motocross, TeamMA head coach Martin Varrand has written a book for beginners. Click the link to download the Motocross Success Principles Ebook.
Many riders start at a very young age. From four years old, bikes like the Honda QR50 are popular. These clutchless bikes are a fantastic starting point. For older riders, there are many manual, geared options (the linked article features our favourites). Whatever age you are starting at, let’s dive in and find out more.
The first technique you need to learn is how to manage your nerves.
Dirt bike riding tips: Why do I feel anxious and nervous?
We all go through the same process when riding a motocross bike for the first time. Whether you are four years old, or forty-four years old, you may experience butterflies in your stomach, increased heart rate, faster breathing and even trembling hands. These feelings are entirely normal. These signs will return at regular intervals as you begin to ride faster, jump higher and start competing in competitions.
You are experiencing these feelings because of a chemical called adrenaline. When your brain identifies that you are about to do something new or try something risky, it releases adrenaline into your body. Adrenaline gives you all of the symptoms listed, but it also has positive effects. Adrenaline helps you respond quickly; it enhances your performance levels and even reduces pain.
The human body is a complex machine, and adrenaline is your body’s way of preparing you for new experiences, especially those that may pose a danger. When our ancestors came face to face with a sabre tooth tiger or a hungry-looking dinosaur, adrenaline gave them the strength and speed to get up a tree quickly. In some ways, jumping on the back of a dirt bike gives us that same primal response.
The trick with nerves is not to try eliminating them, nor should you see nerves as a weakness.
Rather than fighting nerves and anxiety, learn to manage and respect them. Before any ride, you can help calm adrenalised nerves by remaining well hydrated, carrying out some simple cardiovascular exercises, and controlling your breathing. A correct warm-up routine will tick all of those boxes.
Anxiety and nerves will pass as you grow in confidence. Early on in your riding, they will help you to remain cautious and aware.
Before every ride, carry out the following steps to calm nerves:
- Walk the circuit or trail for fifteen minutes.
- Carry out warm-up stretches
- Do ten minutes of your favourite cardio activity. (Jog, cycle, star jumps, press-ups)
- Take ten minutes or so to sit quietly and control your breathing.
These steps may seem like a waste of time. You may even feel foolish. We guarantee that you will advance quicker if you embrace this warm-up routine. These are the steps pro-riders go through before every race to prepare the mind and body. To perform at your best on a dirt bike, follow their example.
So what about motocross riding techniques and the necessary skills you need as a beginner?
Dirt Bike Riding Tips: How to stop!
We all want to ride faster. However, here is a secret that many do not share. Riding a dirt bike fast is not about how hard you accelerate; it’s about how safely and efficiently you can brake.
Accelerating hard is easy. Your dirt bike will get more stable and go faster the more you twist the throttle. However, braking well is an art form. It is wise to learn how to stop before you learn how to go. Understanding how your bike responds and learning to control braking will ultimately make you faster!
There are three ways to slow a dirt bike down:
- Using the rear (foot pedal)
- The front (right lever) brake
- Engine braking
Dirt bike tips: Using the rear (foot) brake.
Learn this rule; The rear brake is the first brake you touch, but the brake that provides the least stopping power. Use the rear brake to assist the front brake and add stability.
As with all braking techniques, start gently, and increase the pressure as you slow. It is OK to lock up the rear wheel on a dirt bike as long as you are upright. Locking up on a camber (ground that slopes away sideways), will end up with your back wheel sliding away from you, so avoid that.
Dirt Bike Riding tips – Rear braking points to remember:
- The rear brake allows you to drag the back wheel into corners.
- Add the rear brake to increase stability when slowing down.
- The rear brake should provide LESS braking power than the front brake when coming fast into corners.
- The rear brake should provide MORE braking power than the front brake when you are leaning in a corner or are going downhill.
Dirt bike tips: Using the front (right lever) brake.
The most important lesson for the front brake is to use it early enough to avoid locking the front wheel. If you are going too fast into a corner, you naturally grab the front brake aggressively, applying power too quickly. This aggression will cause the front wheel to slide away from under you. (A low side crash).
Your front brake should provide you with most of your braking power. Getting the correct balance between the front and rear brake takes a while.
- Apply the front brake lightly, with increasing pressure as you near a stop, jump or corner. At first, you should be squeezing no harder than you would a tube of toothpaste; increasing the pressure on the leaver rapidly as the bike slows.
- Your front brake is most effective at very low speeds, OR when you are upright. As a beginner, you should rarely apply the front brake while you are in a corner, or when leant over.
- Always pick a braking point that allows you to hit your turn or jump at the right speed. Better to brake too early than hit a corner too hot, (fast).
- Use minimal, to no front brake when going down a hill. Descending is where your back brake can shine.
TeamMA promotes developing technique before speed. As a beginner, you are not racing anyone but yourself.
Your thinking process should go like this:
- See the corner, jump, or reason to stop.
- Pick an appropriate point to start braking.
- When you hit the braking point, touch your rear brake, gently at first.
- Immediately begin applying the front brake, squeezing with increased pressure, so you feel your bike slowing quickly.
- When you reach your mark to turn or jump, stop braking.
- Carry out your manoeuvre.
It is plain to see that the only reason for a crash is not braking early enough in your approach to a corner, obstacle or jump. The further ahead you are looking, the more time you have to plan your braking.
There is a third brake that you can use to increase braking efficiency.
Dirt bike tips – using the engine to brake.
Another way of slowing your dirt bike is to shut the power off to the engine. Engine braking is when the mechanical parts of your engine, (piston, valves, cams, gears, drivetrain) work in opposition to the rear wheel.
When you shut off the throttle of a dirt bike, you restrict the flow of fuel into the cylinder. As the fuel flow decreases, so the ignition of the vapours stops. With no explosion to drive the piston up and down, your bike slows. We call this ‘engine braking’.
Read more about 2 Stroke VS 4 Stroke Engine
Engine braking is very safe and effective when used correctly. Use engine braking to momentarily slow your bike rather than to stop it in an emergency. Rear-wheel braking, as we have learned, adds stability. Engine braking affects the rear wheel, and when used at the same time as the front and rear brakes, you slow down a lot faster, and with greater control.
To use your engine to brake simply close (shut-off) your throttle by rolling it forward. How much engine braking you experience depends on what gear you are in and how fast you are travelling.
Dirt bike riding tips: How to practice engine braking:
Engine braking is a great way to scrub speed off, although not so great for stopping in a hurry. You can learn how to engine brake while staying in first gear. Practice this exercise in a large open space with few obstacles.
Start your bike, and pull away.
Open the throttle gently and then when you feel the bike is balanced, close the throttle again. You will immediately feel your dirt bike slow as the engine drags the rear wheel and drive components.
Repeat, and allow your speed to build up more this time. Shut the throttle off again. Get used to how quickly your dirt bike responds to the closing throttle, and how fast it decelerates, relative to your speed.
As you ride faster, you will change into higher gears. When riding faster, engine braking is more effective when you drop a gear.
From a standing start, the process will feel like this:
- Open throttle – change up to second
- Continue to accelerate
- Change down to First
- Let the clutch out and close the throttle.
You will notice how much more effective the engine braking is when you change down a gear. You can practice this technique through all of your gears.
For now, understand that closing the throttle slows your bike down, relative to how fast you are moving. Changing down a gear and then closing the throttle will deliver even more engine braking.
Dirt bike tips – Pros of engine braking:
- Safe and stable
- Rear (safer) wheel braking so less likely to cause you to crash
- Great for momentarily scrubbing off speed.
- Allows you to get back on to the power quickly.
- A useful ADDITION to your front and rear brakes
Dirt bike tips – Cons of engine braking:
- Engine braking cannot stop you quickly or in an emergency. Do not rely on engine braking as your primary braking function.
- Take care not to change down too many gears at once, as this could cause your rear wheel to lock up.
Engine braking is a useful riding skill. Take time to see how the throttle and gears scrub off speed. Understanding how your bike behaves will help you develop more advanced riding skills later.
Dirt Bike Riding Tips. How to go!
Now you know how to stop, let’s talk about accelerating.
Acceleration is the easiest of techniques. Deliver more gas to the motor by twisting the throttle towards you. When you rotate the throttle, revs increase as the engine combusts more fuel. More combustion means more piston strokes, which in turn drives the rear wheel faster. Shut the throttle off (turn it away from you) to decrease power.
Learn to Throttle Out
Remember this phrase: Slow in, Throttle out.
In the braking section, we said it was better to go into a corner too slow than too fast. The throttle is how you get that time back. Once through the corner, you can twist the throttle and accelerate. The slower you go into a corner, the sooner you can get on the gas to exit.
Dirt Bike riding tips – Practice Your Acceleration
Practice smooth acceleration and deceleration by twisting the gas on, and shutting it off again. Does this feel familiar? It should because it is your engine braking drill. Acceleration is the exact opposite of engine braking.
In Martin’s Ultimate Motocross Handbook, there is a whole section devoted to acceleration and braking. If you want to download it for free, then here is the link again.
Acceleration is the same as any other basic motocross technique. Apply the accelerator smoothly. Hold the throttle with the same amount of pressure as you would squeeze a tube of toothpaste. Any softer could cause you to lose grip on the handlebars; any harder will lead to arm pump. (Arm pump is like a mild cramp in your forearms).
Dirt Bike Riding Tips. How to change gear:
If your bike is an automatic clutch, or single gear (pee-wee/electric), then gears are a simple affair. With a single-speed bike, you can twist and go. When you need to slow down, you shut the throttle and apply the brakes.
With a semi-automatic bike, there is no clutch (left hand) lever. Despite having no clutch, a semi-automatic bike may have up to four gears.
- From neutral, hold the front brake on to prevent forward motion.
- Click the gear lever, down a click.
- Release the front brake and smoothly apply the throttle.
- As you increase your speed, notice how the revs rise. When it sounds or feels like the bike needs to change gear, simply blip (momentarily close) the throttle, and click the gear lever (left foot) up one click.
- Continue to click up for higher ratios until you run out of cogs.
Most semi-automatics seem to have three or four gears. A three gear semi would be one click down, two clicks up. From third, click down twice to find first. Neutral is best selected when you are stopped, with the front brake held on full.
What if my bike has a clutch?
A clutch lever controls clutch plates that engage the drivetrain, allowing the bike to accelerate. Pulling the clutch towards your handlebars will disengage the motor so that it is freewheeling, allowing you to change gear.
When you are riding hard, with the engine under load, you may not need to use the clutch at all when changing up to higher gears. Most bikes require some clutch when changing back down, especially when riding slowly.
Practice these dirt bike tips for changing gear smoothly.
Most beginner riders will find the first gear start difficult. To practice, sit on your dirt bike with feet planted, pull the clutch in, and select first gear. Apply a little throttle and ease the clutch lever out until the wheels start to move.
Do not let the clutch out too fast (dump the clutch). If you do, you will stall.
Neither should you wind the throttle on too hard. This will cause you to wheelie, and likely you will crash.
Slow and smooth. always
Gears on a dirt bike are selected by pushing down for first and up to select second through fifth gear. To get back to first, shift the lever down. Counting the gears is good practice. Always try to know which gear you are in at any one time.
Develop your clutch skills so that shifting becomes second nature. As you start to ride faster, try changing up to 2nd, 3rd, 4th 5th, with no clutch.
Dirt Bike Riding Tips: Body positioning on a dirt bike.
A good motocross rider is continually shifting their weight and focus. Balancing the bike requires you putting weight on one foot, and then the other. You stand up more than you sit down when riding a dirt bike.
Try to visualise each of these maneuvers, and the body position that it requires.
Body position on the straights
Stand balanced on the pegs with your elbows high, knees gripping the sides of the bike.
In the braking zone – corners
Lower your body, and push your ass back when braking hard.
Release the brakes and sit tight into the tank early before you turn. When turning left, stick your left leg out and forward; do the opposite when turning right. Get as far forward as you can!
Once you are through the corner, stay seated. Keep your weight forward as you hit the gas to keep your front end under control.
Body position on the jumps
When you are hitting a jump, you must be in an attack position. Getting defensive and sitting back can lead to a painful crash.
Approach a jump with your legs straight and your knees straight over the pegs. Hinge at the waist so that your chin is forward over the bars. Keep your body parallel to the seat and tank.
Being forward like this will allow you to move the bike sideways while you are in the air, and you can shift weight forward or back to control the pitch of the front wheel.
Practice this position on the tabletops and easy singles until you feel in control of the takeoff and landing.
Seat time is the answer.
You will get more confident with more hours in the saddle. Make time to practice basic drills, watch other riders, keep working on sections that cause you difficulty.
TeamMA is growing every week.
PS! There are elements of riding which can be improved by playing some of the best dirt bike games.
Bonus Tip: Buy the correct Dirt Bike Gear
We always feel more confident when we feel safe. Many riders hit the trails without a TOP quality dirt bike helmet protective dirt bike boots or suitable motocross armour. Proper gear need not break the bank and will go a long way towards making you feel confident.
Keep up the good work, and have fun out there!