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Dirty Secrets: Taking The MSF DirtBike School

By Bill Kresnak

DirtBike School I've heard it a million times from the off-road riders in the office:

"If you want to be a better street rider, learn how to ride in the dirt."

So here I am, wearing all kinds of strange clothing, riding a completely unfamiliar motorcycle…and heading right toward a rock.

And I keep thinking, "I'm learning how to be a better street rider from this?"

The rock sits precisely at the entrance to a tight right-hand turn on a trail at the Honda OHV and Environmental Learning Center in Colton, California. I am aboard one of the center's XR250 machines, the kind of user-friendly, forgiving dirtbike a major multi-national corporation might feel comfortable putting into the hands of a rank novice.

The two of us—the rock and I—seem to be on a collision course. Figuring that it's unlikely to take evasive action, I consider my options.

The left side of the trail runs right up against a fence—no escape there. On the right, I calculate that I have approximately 1½ tire widths between the rock and the edge of the trail.

I aim for that opening, and congratulate myself when the rock passes under my left footpeg without contact.

Then I look up and see the whoops ahead.

Through the whoops In all, there are seven of us enrolled in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's new DirtBike School. Courses are conducted at various locations around the country, but this particular class is being held at a very special facility run by American Honda near Los Angeles (see "Our kind of classroom," below). The students range from a 16-year-old learning the basics to older riders, like myself, who want to improve their skills.

Some of the others have no background in dirt-riding. My own experience consists mostly of a single visit to a motocross facility years ago that ended with a broken wrist. I have no trouble admitting that I need training.

DirtBike School Coach Amber Bickel warns us from the beginning that we will be dealing with "real rocks, not foam," along with sand, ruts and plenty of other challenging surfaces. Before we see any of that, however, we get a classroom course in things like safety gear and the need to perform a pre-ride inspection of your bike's tires, cables, brakes and vital fluids.

Our Kind of Classroom

The OHV and Environmental Learning Center at the Honda Rider Education facility in Colton, California, isn't just a place where you can learn to ride the trails. It's also a place where you can learn to take care of them.

The center is a compact 3 1/2-acre facility where five ecosystems—grassland, chaparral, woodland, riparian (along the banks of rivers or streams) and desert—have been created. The idea is to give new off-highway motorcyclists a taste of different types of riding, but also to give land managers an opportunity to see how trails can be constructed and maintained in different environments.

Honda believes this is the first facility in the country to offer OHV training and environmental education at the same location.

"The environmental learning center is a new direction,'' explains Lowell Christensen, the facility's administrator.

To build it, Honda brought in some 2,500 specimens representing 43 species of plants and trees. The company installed 16,000 feet of PVC pipe, along with 49 different watering systems, to provide those species with the moisture they need. In addition, the facility required 7,000 yards of dirt, or more than 300 double truckloads.

The total cost to build the learning center was almost $500,000. And then Honda opened it up—not just to motorcyclists, but to land managers, colleges, and even local schools.

In fact, the Honda center serves as an urban park—not far from businesses and homes in Colton. As such, it's designed to show government officials that motorized recreation can coexist with other land uses.

Among those who have gotten the message are officials with the nearby San Bernardino National Forest Association.

"We've created a 3,400-acre Children's Forest so that children can study ecosystems in a real-life setting,'' says Kris Assel, executive director of the association. "We plan to utilize the OHV and Environmental Learning Center as an ‘urban outpost' for our environmental education and youth volunteer programs.

"Conducting programs here will help us involve more urban youth in conservation efforts and help us communicate that good stewardship is important in cities as well as in the national forest,'' Assel adds.

This is the same sort of information you'd find in the MSF's streetbike-oriented Basic RiderCourse. However, Bickel is careful to point out some critical differences between riding on the street and in the dirt. Since there are no speed limits on most trails, she notes, it's considerably easier for novice riders to get in over their heads, particularly when they're riding with more-experienced companions.

"You tend to get hurt when you bow to peer pressure,'' she warns us. "You ride over your limits, or your bike's limits, especially when you get tired. Ignore people egging you on, and watch your speed.''

Our first session on the bikes takes place in a flat field, where we practice straight-line riding and controlled starts and stops. It's pretty rudimentary stuff for the experienced riders in the group, but it gives us a chance to test the less-certain traction provided by a dirt surface. At first, it feels a little like hitting a gravel patch on the road. But with repetition, I begin to get more comfortable.

Between riding sessions, there's more classroom discussion on a variety of subjects, including responsible trail riding.

"We need to stay on the trails and be courteous to other trail users," Bickel says, noting that many trail closures result from complaints about irresponsible riders.

"Go slow past campers and other people. And when you come across horses, turn your engine off until they go by.''

Those acts of trail courtesy will help keep riders welcome on public lands.

Soon, we're practicing turns—starting with wide, sweeping curves that narrow to tight circles and figure eights. Then we face obstacles, like a wooden beam.

The idea, as in the MSF's street courses, is to simulate on the training range the challenges you'll face in the real world. But by mid-afternoon, we're ready to see what an actual trail ride might be like.

Fortunately, the Honda center is equipped to give novice riders a taste of that, with a trail that winds through five distinct ecosystems. It's a mere third of a mile long, but it shoehorns a lot of riding into that short distance.

We fire up the bikes and take to the trail single file. Winding through actual trees and bushes is immediately different from the cones on the training range. For one thing, it's harder to see around curves to pick up the next obstacle. That leads me into one of the most common pitfalls for novice riders of all types—failing to look far enough ahead.

The rock is a perfect example. I focus on that one obstacle until the bike is past it. As a result, I'm almost into the whoops before I notice them, so I'm out of position on the bike.

Fortunately, the training we've received helps me deal with it. I stand up on the pegs to use my legs for extra suspension, bend my arms to isolate myself from impacts transmitted through the handlebars and roll on a little throttle to take weight off the front tire.

Somehow, I get through it. But I learn a valuable lesson about scanning the terrain ahead and picking up hazards well before I reach them. And suddenly, it strikes me: Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide and Execute—the old SIPDE mental exercise from road riding—is exactly what you need on the trail. And with rocks, bushes, logs, sand, dirt and mud all showing up at the most unexpected times, you get about a week's worth of SIPDE in 15 minutes—exactly the kind of mental training that is guaranteed to make you a better street rider.

I leave the Honda OHV and Environmental Learning Center convinced of two things: First, you really can become a better road rider by learning to ride in the dirt. And second, even if that weren't true, riding on the trail is so much fun I need a dirtbike in my garage.

Getting Lessons