Twenty miles west of Yellowstone National Park you will find a place called Island Park, which attracts thousands of tourists and outdoorsmen annually. Highway 20, which happens to turn into Main Street Island Park, is a nice, easy ride, but to get out to Island Park Reservoir there are some bumpy gravel roads.
Knowing how to safely ride a motorcycle on gravel is important for riders, because there are certain instances when there is no other way around and you have to.
How do you ride a motorcycle on gravel? The four most important steps to riding a motorcycle on gravel are:
- Pay extra attention to the road and large rocks
- Stay calm and keep your arms and legs loose
- Keep your body weight balanced over the center of the motorcycle
- Go slow enough that you can put your foot down if necessary
Riding motorcycles is a great way to sightsee and some of the best views are found off the beaten path. Many national parks and forests have paved roads, but you might need to take a few back roads to get to a campsite. Wherever you travel, riding on mountain and country roads will likely take you over gravel. This can be a bit different than street riding, so there are a few things to keep in mind to stay safe.
How To Ride A Motorcycle On Gravel
The key to riding on gravel is to maintain tire traction. Here are a few methods to safely handle your motorcycle over gravel.
- Pay extra attention to the road and large rocks. Look ahead as far as you can to anticipate rough spots, obstructions, or oncoming traffic. Gravel can hide soft spots in the road that make steering difficult if not impossible, resulting in loss of control. You will want to give yourself as much time to react as possible. Plan your route to anticipate any gravel roads.
- Stay calm and keep your arms and legs loose. It is important to stay in control and that means maintaining traction. Traction is the frictional force between your tires and the ground. If you keep your body tight and make sudden movements you run the risk of breaking traction. Ease into braking using both the front and rear brakes and gradually throttle.
- Keep your body weight balanced over the center of your motorcycle. In a street riding setting, leaning with the bike into the turn presses your body weight into the tires’ traction. However, doing this on a gravel road can cause the rear wheel to kick out away from the turn. So when turning on gravel, lean your body away from the turn to maintain balance
- Go slow enough that you can put your foot down if necessary. Slowing down will give you extra reaction time for braking, accelerating, and turning. If the gravel road is winding, be sure to keep to your side of the road which will save you from oncoming traffic you can’t always see.
This list isn’t comprehensive, meaning there is a lot more to being safe than just these few steps. These principles are meant to go hand-in-hand with foundational safety principles, such as wearing protective gear, riding with lights on, following traffic laws, and so on.
What To Do After Riding In Gravel
Not all gravel roads are created equal. Some that are well-groomed may be a smooth ride with no problems. But some roads–even if they get a lot of traffic–can be very bumpy, have potholes or large protruding rocks, or have any level of dust.
Dirt and rocks can add additional wear and tear to your bike. Dirt gets in your bike chain, rocks can jump up and chip paint, and sharp rocks can potentially cause a flat tire.
After taking a ride down a gravel road, you will want to give your bike a good visual inspection. You are going to be looking for any obvious damage caused by the rougher road. There are also a few less-obvious things to check, such as:
- Brakes. Rocks can get caught between the brake caliper and rotor and cause damage, not to mention reduced brake performance. Simply remove any rocks you find and repair any damaged components.
- Tires. As mentioned, look for signs of leaks, such as hissing sounds or splits in the rubber. Check tire pressures and adjust as needed. Also, look at your wheels for any damage.
- Leaks. Rocks can cause damage to motorcycle components. If there is a leak, the dust from the road will stick to the fluid and make it very apparent. Trace the leak back to the source and make the necessary repairs. Check all fluid levels while you’re at it, just to be sure.
- Chain. Keeping your chain clean will help it last longer. Also, inspect the sprockets for any excessive wear and damage. To clean, prop up the rear wheel so that the chain can spin freely and apply chain cleaner. Using a brush, clean off the dirt and debris. Make sure to reapply a chain lube.
- Suspension. Your suspension will be taking the brunt of the rough gravel road, so inspect your shocks and springs for any new leaks or other damage. Make any necessary repairs.
Paint. Gravel can cause dings in your paint, which can be expensive to fix. Be aware of any necessary damage to the paint and look into getting it fixed.
Why Street Bikes Should Avoid Gravel
Manufacturers design and produce motorcycles based on specific riding styles. If you ride a street bike, you should avoid riding on gravel as often as possible. However, if you occasionally need to go off the pavement, this can be done so safely. Here are some reasons why street bikes should avoid gravel.
First is the inherent safety risk. Motorcycle riding can already be dangerous, and that danger is compounded when pushing your motorcycle to do something it wasn’t designed for. Loss of control, skids, fishtailing, and oncoming traffic or obstructions are all examples of additional risks when riding on gravel roads. Follow the steps above and stay as safe as possible.
There is also the danger of having other drivers on the road. Gravel poses the same risks to cars as it does to motorcycles, so watch out. Additionally, cars and trucks and kick up rocks that become dangerous projectiles. You never want to assume that other drivers will watch out for you, so keep yourself in your lane, keep your eyes open, and your head up.
Secondly, gravel roads generally aren’t very smooth, potentially causing additional damage to your bike. Give your bike a good inspection after riding on any rough, gravelly roads, following the steps above. Any extra damage degrades the value and lifespan of your bike.
The final reason has to do with suspension and tires. Most modern street bikes have tuneable suspension systems. This means you can adjust various measurements to maximize handling and ride comfort. This should be optimized based on the rider and the type of riding.
Your suspension system gets feedback from the road force which travels directly through the tires into the shocks and then to the rider. A street suspension tune is designed for a nice ride, but not a lot of large bumps and dips. Compare that to a dirt bike suspension that has a lot of travel and dampening to absorb harsh feedback from off-road terrain. Though different, the aim is to maintain rider control and tire traction.
Tire Choice Matters If You Ride On Gravel
Let’s look more into why tire choice matters. A street bike will generally be equipped with tires designed to dynamically maintain traction as the rider takes turns at higher speeds. Typically, this requires less tread. “Tread” refers to the patterns in the surface of the tires designed to maximize the contacting surface with the road.
In contrast, an off-road tire will have more tread designed to absorb larger imperfections in the road, like gravel, rocks, mud, and so on. “Off-road” tread is characterized as having larger knobs and grooves to achieve the desired performance. Dirtbikes will typically have these types of tires as they are designed for off-road use.
So, if you know you will be doing some extensive gravel riding, look into tires with the right amount of tread. Additionally, you could look into dual-sport motorcycles, which are designed to take on street riding and off-road riding.
However, if you will rarely be on gravel, sticking with a traditional, recommended street tire that fits your riding style is the best way to maintain safety and performance while minimizing the amount of gravel road traveling.
Nevertheless, if you get that urge to get off the blacktop and head down gravelly back roads, keep in mind the tips mentioned above to protect yourself and your bike. After all, you want to see what nature has to offer, which is far more beautiful than a crashed or dinged motorcycle.