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Riding Motorcycles on Gravel: Find the Real Road Less Traveled.

I pulled over to the side of the road and dropped my kick stand. The weight of the motorcycle settled easily onto the asphalt. I leaned forward to rest my weight on the fuel tank, peering at the side road that meandered off to my right and up a mountain.

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 up that side road. I had spotted it on a map a few days before - barely noticeable, switchback after switchback, the entire way up a mountain. It looked like it was one of those roads that you'd talk about with your buddies for a few weeks afterwards.

The reason for my moment of consideration was that this thin little beauty of a road was gravel, and I was riding my eight hundred pound Harley Davidson.

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.

It's worth learning to be comfortable navigating a motorcycle on a gravel road.

I have a history with gravel roads and motorcycles. I grew up riding dirt bikes on gravel roads in Missouri. When I finally got my first road bike, there were two miles of gravel road between the house and the first paved road. I guess you could say my experience riding street bikes on gravel was a baptism by fire.

I've grown to become comfortable on gravel, whether it's on a dirt bike, sport bike, or an eight hundred pound Harley Davidson Road King.

What follows are a few pointers that I've picked up over the years riding gravel roads and a variety of bikes (including my current Harley Davidson Road King).

Note: If you're looking for tips on how to flat-foot through a gravel corner going 40 miles per hour, this article will be disappointing. I'm not going to cover some of the techniques used by the more "gravel and dirt oriented" dirt bike and dual-sport bike crowd. :)

Comments


rtissonic says:

Good info Brings me back when I as into dirt biking
Tue Mar 11, 2014 at 9:01 PM

Mooze says:

Just like a dirtbike-"when in doubt...throttle out" this works although it is counter-intuitive. When we begin to wash out the front tire we tend to want to brake (either front or rear or both). This biases weight towards the front and washes you out quicker (front tire goes sideways). When you grab a fistful of throttle is lightens the front and launches you through whatever was making you slide. When you have some grip in the front you can slow down again. Ride soft-handed too, the bike and you weigh a bit and you will not effectively muscle it. All you will do is induce a slide. I have a super tenere (biggest enduro imaginable) and it does wonderfully when ridden well. My friend's BMW 1150 GS falls down a lot as he is a bit too timid and stiff offroad.Go slow, get loose and don't be afraid to throttle out of trouble.
Tue Feb 18, 2014 at 6:48 AM

Titlerider says:

Nice article. I just started riding in Sept 2012 and I've been deliberately practicing some dirt roads/gravel roads. It is disconcerting and it is nice to read that the bike will still go where I am aiming, even if it feels squirrelly.
Sat Jul 6, 2013 at 8:41 PM

DrAlloway says:

MY number one for riding gravel::

NO Front Brake !

Using the rear brake only is hard for me because, typically, I only use the front. But even a light touch on the front brake while the front tire is in a pile of loose gravel will put you down quickly. Especially going downhill.

Thu Jun 13, 2013 at 5:09 PM

nytrainer says:

Great article! I have several street bikes & don't shy away from a well-maintained dirt road, but for the seasonal/closed roads, I ride my dual-sport, DR650 Suzuki. As a former MXer & dirt tracker, I am very comfortable (Perhaps even MORE comfortable) on dirt, so I am always looking for the unpaved side roads. Lots of terrific view off the beaten path & on the many "forgotten" roads in upstate NY.
Fri Mar 15, 2013 at 10:16 AM

TheFlyingDutchman says:

How true! To really know how to handle a bike in almost all conditions - START YOUR RIDING LESSONS ON A DIRT-BIKE!!! The more you fall, the more you'll learn! Better for your pocket-book to drop a dirt-bike than a road-bike any day. Good simple advice! Nice article.
Fri Mar 8, 2013 at 5:59 PM

EZRider says:

good advise. I try to stay away from gravel, but have ridden it a few times. you are absolutely right, moderation is the key, and relax.
Mon Sep 17, 2012 at 9:45 PM

Hoof says:

I agree that learning to ride on the dirt using a small cc bike is the best method. It teaches you how to slide the rear end out and recover (something nice to know when your bike loses traction in the rain or on gravel). I ride a GL1500 and know just how much damage can occur when you go down. Dirt roads may have some great places to see, but I find myself watching the road so much that I don't see the surrounding sites. Big pot holes, sand, gravel, branches, and such can really make these roads less than fun. I ride than when I must, but they are low on my list of favorite roads. Give me a dirt bike and I love these roads.
Sun Oct 23, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Kruzaholic says:

I have a friend named Bernie. He loves to guide us on paved roads then suddenly we come upon a dirt one. He pretends to check his GPS to go around it but we all know better. With a little laugh from him and the sounds of groaning from us, it's on the dirt we go.
Sun Sep 28, 2008 at 6:30 PM

Tombstone says:

Your article is well written and your advise quite sound. Since acquiring my V-Strom, I've found myself on the road less traveled more and more often.
Tue Aug 12, 2008 at 12:31 PM

Evros says:


Actually, the roads you speak of and depict aren't true gravel roads. These are for the most part, dirt roads and where I am from , that's about 90 percent of what I ride on with all my motorcycles, including my Superglide. The best thing is just to keep loose in general when riding these roads with a heavy bike. You're definitely not going to get the "hookup" on the hard pack dirt as you would on a dual sport or dirtbike due to the tires and the weight and the overall geometry of the bike, it just ain't happening. So keep loose and you may actually want to be in a half sitting/ half standing position once in a while when passing over some recesses in the hard pack which could send you out of control, since the suspension on a streetbike isn't going to cut it and you will have to compensate with your legs. On roads like these, it helps to have an off-road backround , even if you are riding a Honda Goldwing. In fact, all riders should start off road, this is where you learn optimal control of a motorcycle on harsh and uneven terrain and when you get on the street, you'll have alot more confidence. I notice that the majority of people who start riding a bike do not have a sufficient....or NO off road experience and that's a pitty.
Sun Aug 3, 2008 at 4:51 PM

Graybeard says:

I was stationed in Missouri and lived there till 2000. I know of those roads you speak of. I also know that there are hidden treasures and wonderful views down many of those gravel roads. But as you say either in a car or on a bike caution is always the key. Plus the more you do something the better your confidence is increased.
Living here in Florida now the wet roads, lightening and "blue haired ladies" keep me "skeered" enough.
Most off road riding here will be a stuck in the sand deal and the heavier the bike the more stuck.LOL
Thu Jul 24, 2008 at 8:26 PM

TQ says:

I really enjoyed your article. being from Alaska, we do have a lot of beautiful back raods - Now that I live in SUNNY Florida on the West Coast - I am now with a group of women called "Women In The Wind"-IB and we all love to ride - I will be passing this article over so they all can gain some much need knowledge.
Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 3:39 AM

aminshabazz says:

I agree with this... to an extent...

I was on Hwy 1 just passing through the B.W.C.A. in Ely, MN (Superior National Forest) when I came upon a "Road Closed" sign. There was an arrow pointing left saying, down a darkened overgrown path that said, "Gravel road Next 25 Miles". I was not able to enjoy the breathtaking majesty of the deep woods, because I was scared to death that my 1200 pound cruiser was going to fall apart due to the shaking. I stayed in the shallows of the road, but the experience left a very bad taste in my mouth. Then again, the road I took was more of a rough gravel path for logging trucks than a real gravel road, at the time I road on it. The picturesque roads in your pictures look nothing look the dark scary roads I was on in Superior National Forest. I emailed ahead to see if road construction will be done by the time I ride up there again in the summer, because I am never riding that kind of road again.
Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 8:59 PM

felon says:

Erik, I finally got around to reading this. One of the best explanations of non-paved roads I have ever seen! This is a must read for all of those that tend to cringe when following me!!!LOL
Tue Sep 25, 2007 at 7:54 AM

w002kgb says:

I really enjoyed the article Erik and a bit more understanding of what it takes to accept the gravel challenge.
Mon Sep 17, 2007 at 11:11 AM

smburger says:

Thank you for the post! This is very useful information.
Sat Sep 8, 2007 at 7:07 AM

OpenRoadRider says:

Clean? I like my bike dirty. Remind's me of where I've been! ;)
Wed Jul 25, 2007 at 5:26 PM

marvinsc says:

Good Advice but Where is the Advice on Cleaning up the Bike Afterwards?:)
Sun Jul 1, 2007 at 5:08 AM

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