BY: CHAD DE ALVA
Trials bikes are great cross-training tools for off-road and adventure riding, and they also happen to be a ton of fun to ride. Riding a trials bike well requires a skill set and a level of control that translates to other disciplines of riding. If the number of hard enduro legends who come from a trials background is any indicator, trials skills definitely help overall riding. There are a number of benefits to spending time on a trials bike. Three major ways that riding a trials bike will help your offroad and adventure riding are: Balance and Cornering, Bike Control, and Obstacle Riding techniques.
If you’ve never seen one, a trials bike is essentially a very small, lightweight dirt bike (think around 150 pounds/68kg) with shorter suspension and no seat. They are purpose built for riding observed trials, where riders have to navigate a number of short tracks called sections that are chock full of all sorts of turns and obstacles. The objective at a trial is to ride every section without having to put a foot down or going outside of the tape marking section. Each time you do put a foot down you get a point, and going outside of the tape, crashing, or stalling your bike gets you five points. After riding each section at the trial a set number of times, the rider with the lowest score wins.
To make sure that I started off in the right direction on my trials journey, I attended a class put on by Josh Roper, Nigel Parker, and Luke Littlefield – world class trials riders based in Phoenix, AZ. Whether you’re new to riding, or have been riding for years, spending money on a class is one of the best things you can do to improve your skills. A good class, like the one put on by Josh, Nigel, and Luke will provide value to beginners all the way up to pros. The specific coaching and immediate feedback that classes like this provide will help ensure you have the basics dialed and provide pointers to help you get a handle on the new skills you’re currently working on learning.
BALANCE AND CORNERING
Trials riding, like so many other sports, starts with the basics. Balance is foundational to everything else, and the benefits of spending time working on balance are instantly obvious the first time you get back on a dirt or adventure bike. From little things like needing to take a pause on the trail for a second to read an obstacle, to being endlessly comfortable cornering several hundred pounds of adventure bike in the tightest turn possible, balance helps absolutely everything. Josh and his crew start their class with balance drills; the best part about these drills is that they can be done at home in the garage or driveway, and you don’t even need to run your bike. Getting better at riding while on a conference call is officially a thing.
To work on your balance, throw on your boots (and any other gear you want to feel safe) and start working on static balance. Turning your bars will cause your tire to make a larger contact patch with the ground, which will increase stability, as will running the motor thanks to its gyroscopic effect. Just make sure to use that mute button if you’re “working.” Even spending 20 minutes doing this a few times a week will pay dividends in short order, and this is something that can be done on any bike, so get after it.
Balance also directly impacts cornering, and trials bikes are a great tool for building comfort working on turns. Think about it, how many times have you seen other riders drop a bike because they started to turn, got bent out of shape, hit the brakes, and bad things happened? Thanks to their crazy steering angles, lack of a seat, and light weight, a trials bike is the least intimidating motorcycle out there for learning to corner. Spending time working on full stop turns on hard and soft surfaces, and running your front wheel to one side of a rock and your rear tire to the other are all great for building cornering confidence. Josh and crew had us work on corners in a sandy wash and on the side of a hill, both of which are great places to ride in circles for hours on end. After spending time on my trials bike working on corners, I’ve noticed that I’m much more confident taking on spicy corners and switchbacks, and I’m also much less inclined to put a foot down. Spend time working on the basics of balance and cornering. It may not be the most exciting riding out there, but once you recognize the impact it makes to your riding, you’ll understand that it is absolutely worth it.
On an off-road or adventure bike, less than perfect control isn’t usually a big deal – a little extra roost or tire slide makes you even look cool sometimes. Yet riding trials is all about precision control, and sloppy input can mean everything from having to put a foot down to not making it up an obstacle, or worse. Becoming a good trials rider requires you to develop a high level of precision in your bike inputs, and the ways that this translates to other disciplines of riding are numerous. It may seem obvious, but with good handling, you are in control of the bike which means that the bike is going to do exactly what you want, instead of being in a situation where you are just along for the ride. With good control, you can reliably do things like put down the right amount of power to make it up that slippery climb without looping out or slipping sideways on a hill. Likewise, you can confidently ride down that steep section of trail and navigate the sharp turn before the cliff of doom. There are a number of ways to build bike control including braking and clutching drills. Here are a couple from the class:
A great bike control drill is to learn to pop a precision wheelie, where you’re picking the front wheel up and setting it back down in a predetermined spot. Mastering this skill is critical for the obstacle techniques coming up. You can do this in the driveway using the expansion joints in your concrete for pickup and put-down points. Learn how to wheelie with the clutch, the throttle, and your body weight. For braking, try working on stoppies (wheelies with the back wheel in the air). This will help you immensely with brake control and getting all of the stopping power possible out of your front wheel on a given surface. NOTE: This doesn’t work with ABS!
Every off-road rider has been in the following situation: you’re out on a ride and come across an intimidating obstacle on the trail. Can you ride it? If you try it and screw up, are you going to break your bike, or worse yet yourself? Many riders will tell themselves “I’m going to nail that hard obstacle on today’s dirt bike / adventure ride.” But if they don’t end up trying it, or they don’t clean it, they say “I’ll get it next time.” With this mindset, it takes a long time to put in the practice to build real confidence with an obstacle.
Yet trials riding is all about riding obstacles. When you’re on a trials bike, you instantly start hunting for obstacles to see if you can ride them. Then you start linking obstacles together to make sections, and before you know it, you’re running laps on the same obstacles again and again. The end result is that instead of hitting the challenging obstacle maybe once a ride, you’re hitting it multiple times, thus growing your skill set much faster. Practice pays off, and time spent working on any technique will make you better at that technique. Having a trials bike to practice things on is great fun, but there’s no rule that says you can’t practice specific things on your dirt bike or adventure bike. Instead of riding something once a ride, go put in ten laps or more on the section that’s giving you trouble.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Trials bikes are a ton of fun to ride, and the cross training that they provide for other disciplines of riding is profound. The first few times you ride a trials bike it will humble you as you’ll gain a keen understanding of just how much skill and technique matter. Watching pros like Josh, Nigel, and Luke ride their trials bikes, and then realizing how having even a fraction of their skill could impact your riding, is inspiring. It’s absolutely worth it to sign up for a class put on by pro riders. Seeing them in action, and then getting specific feedback that helps you grow as a rider, is some of the best money you can spend on any type of riding. If you haven’t had the chance to ride a trials bike, know that you’re missing out on one of the most enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding disciplines of riding out there. Cleaning a challenging section is very fulfilling, and the benefits that riding a trials bike has on your off-road and/or adventuring riding skill set is an awesome benefit too.