Riding motorcycles is not all about tarmac, asphalt and concrete (paver blocks too, on our unfortunate roads). When the monsoon blows up our so-called roads, the nearest slush field is where you and I can always find peace of mind. Just the thought that you were knee-deep in a stream a few hours ago makes the traffic jam into town, worth it. Back at the office, the sound of squeaky clean high heels shuffling hurriedly out of the way of mud-plastered Alpinestars warms the heart even though our limbs are frozen. And when we sit down, the aches tell us that it was a morning well spent.
At such times, questions like ‘Should we ride in slush?’, ‘Is it safe?’ and ‘Can we do it on any motorcycle?’ seem pointless. When you’re out there going as fast as you dare, developing reflexes and improving machine control by leaps and bounds, you know that a few spills aren’t going to matter. Everyone, even Valentino Rossi, agrees that the skills learnt off-road make you a better rider on the road. And you can do it on any machine. To prove it (more to save our lazy selves from preparing the bikes), we took two completely normal motorcycles, the Honda CB Twister and the Yamaha SZ-R, and headed to the nearest patch of forest land.
Stopping en route at a McDonalds to tank up our stomachs, we ran into Farmer Kyle of Gundavli village on his daily morning run to the fields on his trusty old Rajdoot. It turned out that he now owns the McDonalds we were stuffing our faces at, and graciously imposed himself upon us, tagging along for the ride. And we didn’t complain. If there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about handling off-road conditions day in and day out for years on end, it’s this hardworking... motorcycle. And thanks to Farmer Kyle, you will now see how to ride in the slush – the right way, the wrong way and Farmer Kyle’s way, which is neither. Now let’s leave our road techniques where the trail begins, shall we?
Launching In The Muck
Starting at the beginning is the first step, no? For a clean (dirty, actually) getaway, keep revs in the midrange – actually, make that everywhere in the mud. It’s much easier to keep a gently spinning rear wheel under control than one that’s seeing red. Try to feel the rear wheel though the clutch lever and throttle – that’s the greatest tool in an off-roader’s box. Also make sure that the bike hasn’t been slowly sinking into the ground as you’ve been admiring the scenery. If it has, coax the bike out with minimal revs or push it out if necessary.
Always – repeat ALWAYS – stand when off-road. Why? Because it lowers your centre of gravity. If you say ‘What?!’, here’s the explanation: standing on the pegs indeed lowers your CoG because all your weight is now on the pegs – much lower than the seat. So while you’ve been cooking up excuses about vertigo (like me), standing on the pegs is the best thing you can do off-road. Also, your legs act as a secondary pair of shock absorbers and keep the going smooth, allowing you to flow over obstacles – ever seen a skier in action? Keep your elbows relaxed and bent – doing so gives you more leverage to control the bike. Practice riding while standing and do it all – circles and turns at whatever speeds you’re comfortable with.
Braking On The Loose
Before you even think about braking, think of where you’ll brake. Doesn’t make much sense, I know, but it says everything about picking your braking points. On tarmac, you might miss a braking point and compensate later, but in mud, ‘one foot later’ might mean ‘deep puddle’ which in turn translates to ‘epic wipeout’.
Restrict front brake usage to when you’re upright – the rear brake rules the dirt. Keep your weight centred. Even if the rear slides under braking, don’t worry – the slide’s slowing you down to safety.
Farmer Kyle’s faithful Rajdoot’s brakes have never worked, so he doesn’t understand what we’re on about. He simply uses the nearest rock or tree to help him stop.
Accept that the bike will move around quite a bit – something that still scares me silly. Initially, keep speeds low – get used to the inevitable slip ‘n’ slide before attempting Dakar-speeds. Approach corner standing and sit only at the apex to get weight transferred to the rear. As soon as you see the exit, put the power down and stand up.
Mow The Grass
Going fast through grass and shrubs feels great – it’s so peaceful, you wonder why tarmac has to be black. No big tips here, just keep an eagle eye out for anything that the grass and shrubs might conceal, like steep cliffs and the like. To keep your conscience clear and Mother Nature happy, plant plenty of saplings to compensate for destroying all that grass.
Farmer Kyle, by the way, carries around saplings in his side-mounted luggage box, along with a day’s supply of McDonald’s burgers.
Crossing streams has got to be one of the most elemental things one can do on a motorcycle. Whenever you can, you should check how deep the water is – up the creek and without a paddle on a motorcycle never ended well for anyone. Once you’ve decided to get wet, approach the water standing on the pegs and accelerate before you enter. This extends the front fork, increasing clearance for the footpegs, preventing you from bogging down, and transferring traction to the rear where it’s needed the most.
Farmer Kyle agrees, though his reasoning that a ‘dhoti’ is the ideal riding gear for crossing streams (because you can pull it up and tuck it away) holds little water.
There’s Always Slope
Don’t let inclines deter you. Again, no rocket science, just balance your weight and keep even throttle inputs.
Top Mud Tips
Tyre pressure: Even if you do venture out into the wild with street tyres, dropping tyre pressure will help a lot. Roughly 6-10 psi less will do just fine.
Levers: Adjust all hand and foot controls for ease of use when standing. Foot levers should be between one to two inches below the footpegs’ height, depending on foot size. Any more and you run the risk of trapping your feet under the levers if you fall.
If you’re really serious, wider handlebars and proper off-road tyres will make a huge difference. ‘Bars should be a little bit wider than your shoulders and tyres depend upon the type of terrain – if it’s gravelly surfaces you plan to tear up, most on-off road tyres will do just fine. As for more hardcore terrain, you can always make it beg for mercy with knobblies.
Off-roading takes a lot out of you. Take plenty of water and munchies along.
Lastly, as much as we’d like to sound optimistic, you will fall – not to worry, it’s part of life off-road. Make sure you carry a first aid kit and most importantly, think. And remember you’re out to have a good time, so do just that!