Like most things, to be successful you need to keep things simple. Gravel roads are no exception.
There are only three rules I keep in mind when riding gravel:
- Read the Road.
- Easy on everything.
- The motorcycle knows best
Let's look at each rule in detail.
Read the Road
This is probably the single most important thing you can do to raise your confidence on gravel. Simply put, you're looking for parts of the road where the gravel has been pushed clear and you can ride on the hard-packed dirt underneath.
Most often these will be in the shallow of the road. What's a shallow? Good question. Over time, paths get made in the road where a car's tires push the gravel out to the sides of the road. These are shallows.
I've included a picture below to help.
Shallows are a gravel road's sweet spot. You want to ride in these as much as possible. If you take the chance to stop and look at a shallow, it usually contains very little gravel and just consists of a hard pack dirt surface - like asphalt. Stick in the shallows whenever you can.
As you're ability to read the road and spot shallows increases, you're confidence on gravel roads will grow ten-fold.
Easy on Everything
Why do gravel roads make bikers nervous? For the same reason bikers get nervous when they get caught in the rain.
With less traction you want to go easy on everything including turning, braking, accelerating, and your overall speed. Sudden movements require more traction to execute. If you try a sudden movement on a surface with less traction, like wet asphalt or gravel, the bike is probably going to lose traction and not do what you want.
Don't jerk the handlebars to make a sudden turn. Don't "panic jam" the brakes to slow down. Don't roll your throttle back like your blasting off the line (unless you're trying to throw gravel out from behind you and hit your buddy in the head).
Moderate your speed and go easy on everything.
The motorcycle knows best.
If "Reading the Road" is the single best thing you can do to raise your confidence on gravel, than "Realizing that your motorcycle knows best" is the single best way to increase your enjoyment of riding a gravel road.
Your motorcycle is going to wiggle on a gravel road. It's going to feel like its sliding all over the place. Your front tire is going to jerk about. Let it. Your bike knows best.
Awareness that your motorcycle is going to do this will help you form the appropriate behavior. The natural tendency for most riders is to try and control every movement on gravel - don't.
Just relax, keep a firm grip on the handlebars, and a light touch when controlling the motorcycle. Don't try to control every movement of the bike, allow the bike to move under you. The law of science that a body in motion tends to stay in motion definitely applies in this instance.
Keep your head up and your focus on where you are trying to go. The bike will wiggle its way to where you want.
This rule probably takes the most getting used to, especially for those of you with heavier bikes.
Be confident in yourself and your motorcycle and you'll be fine.
However you may view gravel roads - whether as a white-knuckle experience from hell or an opportunity to find some cool new unexplored place - learning to ride gravel opens up a whole new world of possibilities for you and your bike.
As for that meandering gravel side road up the mountain that I was considering trying on my eight hundred pound Harley cruiser? I ended up on a grassy knoll at the top of a mountain overlooking what seemed to be about one hundred miles of beautiful earth. Needless to say, I was smiling ear to ear.
Enjoy and keep ridin'.
Great info. I've always hesitated to ride through gravel, but this will help.
We are interested in reprinting this in Southern Biker Magazine. Can we do this? If so, what is the author's name so we can credit? My email is Kristin@southernbiker.us
Thu Oct 15, 2015 at 7:54 PM
Good article. Good advice.Just retired up here in Northern Michigan. One thing I've noticed about riding gravel is that the oncoming lane can be smoother if available. I think it has to do with the vehicle pushing the front side of potholes out. Riding a Sportster riding grave is like taking the bike back to its roots.
Tue Mar 10, 2015 at 3:32 PM
I have usually avoided gravel, however i
I have found I'm more comfortable on roads that go along time between gradings. The grader to spread the loose stones into the shallows, making them more difficult to negotiate. My main objection to dirt & gravel is cleaning the bike up after. My Ultra classic is yhe moyher of all crevices.
Mon Oct 6, 2014 at 1:33 PM
Good info Brings me back when I as into dirt biking
Tue Mar 11, 2014 at 9:01 PM
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Thank you for the post! This is very useful information.
Sat Sep 8, 2007 at 7:07 AM
Clean? I like my bike dirty. Remind's me of where I've been! ;)
Wed Jul 25, 2007 at 5:26 PM
Good Advice but Where is the Advice on Cleaning up the Bike Afterwards?:)
Sun Jul 1, 2007 at 5:08 AM