Over a decade ago, when I decided to take motorcycling seriously (unlike my studies), my first boss was motocross legend Shyam Kothari. At the time I was assisting in his event management company, which was setting up the Pune round of the National Motocross Championship. But secretly, I wanted to be a part of the action on a propah racetrack and not a prat watching from the sidelines. I just didn’t know where to start. When I spoke to Shyam, these were his pearls of wisdom, “You want to go road racing, start riding the dirt-track. I will give you a Yamaha RX100, prepped for the Novice class, start practising and race it.” Looking back, I should have taken him up on his offer. Without doubt I’d be speedier than I am today. Hindsight, as the wise men say, is always 20/20.
With time, opportunities opened up and I found myself lining up on the grid of the Honda and Yamaha One Make race series and even the National Championship. I had a decent, however short-lived, run and was moderately happy. Years later, having taken to dirt riding, I now realise how much better off I would have been on the track if I had listened to the one piece of good (no, great) advice that had come my way from an experienced hand. Gratis that too! So here I am, trying to pay off that old debt and sharing my reasons for getting dirty, with you… gratis. May you use it better than I did.
To begin with, riding dirt and off-road, rids you off the fear of sliding around a corner. On dirt, sliding is second nature. Your rear wheel is going to step out while exiting the bend and your front wheel is going to give you a few scary moments and some wash outs while entering the corner. The good bit is that speeds on dirt are significantly less and the muddy terrain is gentler on the body than the rock-solid tarmac of road-racing.
Broken bones come complimentary in both. But since traction levels on dirt are significantly lower, the rider’s understanding of available grip and the subtle inputs towards correction play a key role in keeping the rubber side down without compromising corner speed. Low grip levels demand that the rider decodes crucial feedback and feel from the motorcycle and returns it with equally fine and smooth input. A practice that soon becomes habit with enough saddle-time and rewards generously on tarmac where traction is plentiful compared to dirt.
Take a high-side crash for instance – the rear wheel starts sliding into the corner, rider reacts by shutting the throttle, the rear wheel catches traction again and the bike promptly sits up straight sending the rider sky-rocketing over the bars in what ends with sky, earth, sky, earth…ambulance. But when the rider is trained in controlling and taming an overly enthusiastic sliding rear tyre, the input changes from suddenly shutting the throttle to staying on the gas and gently moderating it in order to regain grip. I know it isn’t as easy as it sounds and that is exactly where experience in off-road riding comes in handy – it makes it easier to execute. Besides you get a confidence boost. Since you’ve already done this on a surface without traction you know you can do it with the added safety net of traction at your disposal.
There are several such benefits of riding the dirt. We all know that motocross is one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. The fitness and endurance required is enormous and it is bound to be beneficial in the world of road-racing too. So even if you don’t do serious off-road racing, indulge in regular dirt riding wherever and whenever you can around your city. All you really need is an empty patch of dirt.
And remember, from Rossi to Marquez, they all ride dirt bikes to train, and legends like Kenny Roberts Sr and Mick Doohan too came from motocross backgrounds and ruled the sport of motorcycle grand prix racing like very few could.