So you've watched your friends tearing up the tracks, you've seen a few videos online, and now you really want to try it for yourself... But you haven't got a clue how to ride a dirt bike!
The first time you get onto a dirt bike can be a little daunting to say the least, but remember, the bike will only do what you tell it to do. With the correct understanding, you'll be able to jump on the bike and ride away with no issues. But get it wrong and you'll struggle to even start the bike.
In this post we'll go through everything; from fuelling the bike, to changing gears. You'll learn about all of the controls, and I'll give you a few cool tips to get you off to a great start!
Before attempting to ride a dirt bike, you should get yourself a helmet, a pair of boots, and some gloves. There's lot's more kit you'll need, but a helmet, boots and gloves are sufficient for this first learning phase.
Fuelling your dirt bike
When you're ready to start your dirt bike, you'll first need to add the correct fuel. Four stroke engines will take fuel straight from the pump, so add normal unleaded fuel.
Two stroke engines require pre-mixed fuel, this means you add oil to the fuel before adding it to your dirt bike's fuel tank. This added oil is vital to lubricate the engine's internals, without it your engine will overheat and melt within seconds!
This mix has to be correct to ensure correct lubrication of engine parts, but all dirt bike engines require a different ratio of fuel to oil. To find the correct ratio for your bike, check the user manual, or if you don't have one, a quick google search should help you out.
When you add oil, make sure you are using specially designed two stroke oil. This is sometimes labelled as 2t, and can easily be found online, or in many fuel stations.
Working out fuel to oil ratios
A typical fuel to oil ratio will be 40:1. This means there are forty parts fuel, to one part oil. This is easily worked out by dividing the amount of fuel you have in your can by forty. So five litres of fuel (5 divided by 40) will require 0.125 litres of oil. Or, you could work it out in millilitres, by taking 5000 millilitres and dividing it by 40, which tells you that you need 125 millilitres of oil.
If you find this difficult you can buy bottles with ratios printed on the side, so you just fill the oil up to the correct line.
Don't fill the tank right up when you're learning, as fuel adds weight, meaning you've got more weight to hold up when stopping, turning, cornering, etc. 1 litre of fuel weighs about 770 grams, and most adult dirt bikes hold over 6 litres of fuel, so a full tank of gas will weigh almost 5 KG!
As you can see in the picture above, there are three main controls on the handlebars:
From the riders perspective, while sat on the bike, the front brake is located on the right hand side. Be very careful not to pull this brake too hard during your initial learning phase. The front brake will be very sharp and sensitive, and can easily lock up the front wheel and cause a skid. Adjust the position of this lever to suit your reach and preference, by simply loosening the bolt and twisting it to the desired position.
Twist grip throttle
The twist grip throttle is also located on the right. Give the throttle a twist to make sure it closes and snaps shut before starting the engine. There's nothing more annoying than a sticky throttle, it can also be dangerous if it sticks open while you're riding!
The clutch lever is located on the left side, you'll need this for setting off, and for shifting gears. As with the brake lever, adjust it to a position that is comfortable, and easy to reach from the riding position.
On the handlebars you will also find a kill button which is used to stop the engine with a simple press.
If you have a four stroke, you may also see a small lever that is used for decompressing the engine. The decompression system reduces the cylinder compression at low rpm, for easier starting.
Down in front of the right foot peg you'll see a toe operated lever, this is your rear brake. This is also very sharp and sensitive, and will easily lock up the back wheel, so be light on this lever to begin with.
Starting a dirt bike
When your dirt bike is fuelled, turn the fuel tap on the tank to ON, and you'll be ready to start the engine. So the first thing you'll need to do, is to pull the choke. The choke restricts the flow of air to the engine, thereby enriching the fuel-air mixture to make starting easier.
You can find the choke valve on the carburettor, normally on the left side. If you don't see one, it may be located elsewhere, simply find a cable leading from the carburettor (other than the throttle cable) to locate the pull lever.
Bare in mind that a warm engine will not need choke, so you don't need to pull it every time you start the engine. It's only there for cold starts, or for the first start of the day.
Before you can start the dirt bike, you'll need to make sure it isn't in gear. If you try to start it in gear, it will try to jump forward. You can start electric start motors while they're in gear by holding the clutch lever in; but a kick start engine will be harder to start, as the clutch will always drag slightly.
To find neutral, tap the gear selector (located on the left side in front of the foot peg) with your toe, pushing it down through the gears about five times. The lever is spring loaded, so as you press it, it will always return to the centre position.
As you can see on the drawing below, this will put the bike into first gear. To get the bike into neutral, you'll need to put your toe underneath the leaver, and very gently pull up. If you pull too hard, the selector will go straight through into second gear, so use a very gently pull and feel for a light click as it moves into neutral.
You can tell if the dirt bike is in neutral by rolling it back and forth, if it rolls freely, you're in neutral. If it doesn't roll and the back wheel locks, then repeat the above process until you find neutral.
Kids and learner bikes
Check out my essential kids motocross guide HERE.
Many learner bikes, and also kids dirt bikes will be automatic, also known as twist and go. This means you may simply be able to twist the throttle when you're ready to ride, with no need to select the correct gears. These dirt bikes are preferred for children, as they will be able to master things like balance and braking before tackling the gears; which can be complicated for very young children.
You may also find semi automatic dirt bikes, these bikes have a gear selector, but there is no clutch lever. These learner dirt bikes will usually have less gears than adult dirt bikes, and gears are selected by simply clicking up through them. By pressing down on the gear lever repeatedly you will be in neutral, this makes finding neutral much easier for kids.
Start the engine
You're now ready to start the engine. An electric start bike may have an on/off button, so turn it to on and press the start button. The engine is now running.
If you have a kick start, you can flip out the starter lever that is normally on the right hand side of the engine, and follow the correct process below:
Two stroke engines
From my experience, two stroke engines will always start easier on the compression stroke (top dead centre). To find the compression stroke while sitting on the bike, gently push the kick starter down with your right foot. The engine will turn over, and you're feeling for the point where the kick starter is a little harder to push.
When you find this point, let the starter lever all the way up to the top, and forcefully push it has hard as you can. Some engines will fire straight up, others will take a few kicks. You may also find that the engine needs a touch of throttle, so twist the throttle very slightly. When I say very slightly, I mean just a couple of degrees, any more and you can flood the engine.
When the engine is running, allow around 15 seconds before turning off the choke. If the engine stops, the choke has been closed too early, so open the choke back up and try again.
Four strokes can be a little harder to start, especially when they're warm. It's common to see four stroke riders desperately kicking away after stalling their bike during a race.
The starting method is slightly different for carburettor vs fuel injected engines. Fuel injected engines need some charge in the capacitor to work, if the bike has been sat for a while there will be no charge. In this case, push the starter to turn the engine over about four or five times.
When the capacitor is charged, or if your bike uses a carburettor, use the kick starter to find top dead centre. This is done exactly the same as we discussed in the two stroke section, by simply pushing the starter to turn the engine over, until it becomes harder to push.
If your four stroke has a carburettor, it's recommended by manufacturers that you twist the throttle three times before attempting to start the engine from cold. So twist the throttle from fully closed, to fully open, and repeat three times. This helps to prime the carburettor with fresh fuel, similar to using a priming bulb on a lawnmower.
Kicking from top dead centre
This is the most common way to start a four stroke dirt bike, and modern engines will usually start easily by using this method. You've already found top dead centre, so now pull the decompression lever if you have one, and push down on the starter forcefully with everything you have. Use the whole range of the starter by kicking it as far as possible.
The engine is now running, and after about 15 seconds you will be able to close the choke by simply pushing the lever back in. As with a two stroke engine, if the engine cuts out, it means the choke has been closed too soon, so open it back up and try again.
Warming up the engine
When your engine is running, whether it's a two or four stroke, it will need a couple of minutes to warm up. If you don't warm the engine up you will most certainly see a shorter lifespan from your engine. I always let my engine warm up while I'm putting my pants and boots on, this way I'm not tempted to ride off before my engine's ready.
Two strokes that are cold, or that have been left ticking over for a long time, will need a rev to clear out the build up of oil. Gently open the throttle until the smoke dies off. The engine will splutter for a few seconds, but this is perfectly normal, keep revving the engine until it's running cleanly.
Your dirt bike is ready to ride
The dirt bike is now ready to ride, so first practice pulling the clutch lever and putting the bike into first gear. Pull the clutch all the way to the handlebar grip, and then press down on the gear selector, you'll feel a click as it selects the gear.
You can now let the clutch lever out to start the bike moving forward. Don't let the clutch out fast as you can stall the engine, or in the worst case the bike will wheelie and you'll fall off behind the bike, this is also known as flipping it!
Give the bike a small amount of gas by twisting the throttle, and slowly start to release the clutch lever. You'll feel the clutch start to bite, and the bike will start to move. Be sure to keep the revs high enough to prevent stalling the engine, but not too high that you're riding the clutch, which will cause unnecessary wear.
As soon as you're happily moving along, you can practice stopping again. Do this by pulling the clutch lever back in, and gently braking with both the front and rear brake, until you come to a stop.
Remember, the brakes are designed for racing purposes, and are made to slow the bike as quickly as possible, so they are very sensitive. When using the brakes for the first time, apply very gentle pressure, and avoid very loose surfaces like gravel, as you can easily lock the wheels and skid.
Don't let the clutch lever out after you stop, as the bike is still in gear and the engine will stall. You can either find neutral, as you did before starting the engine; you'll then be able to let the clutch lever out, or you can pull off again.
I suggest starting and stopping multiple times to develop your throttle control, and to get a feel for the clutch. As you're riding along, remember to always look ahead at the path you are taking, and never look down at the bike, or any of its controls.
If you happen to stall the bike, this will be because you let the clutch out too fast, or because you weren't applying enough throttle. Simply try the same process again, but let the clutch out slower, or use a touch more gas.
Changing gear on a dirt bike
When you're happy with your clutch and throttle control, you'll be ready to change gear to gain more speed. So get the dirt bike into first gear and start moving forward. As the revs increase, so will your speed, and you'll need to figure out when it's the right time to change gear by listening to the note of the engine.
You'll soon develop a feel for the right time to change gear, but this only happens through practice and experience. In general, when the dirt bike is travelling at around 15 - 20 MPH, it's ready to change into second gear.
So when you're up to speed, and you're ready to get into second gear, pull the clutch lever all the way in to the handlebar grip, and close the throttle. This should be done simultaneously, in one smooth movement. The revs will drop off, and you can now use your toe to pull up on the gear selector. Be sure to use more force than when you put the bike into neutral, the selector will go straight past neutral, and into second gear.
As previously mentioned, the gear selector will always spring back to the centre position. Be sure to only pull up on the selector once, and feel for a single click. If you pull more than once, or if you feel more than one click, you will not be in second gear.
When you have selected second gear, you can let the clutch lever back out, and gently add throttle. As the revs build you will soon be ready to change into third gear, so repeat the process again, being sure to only click once per gear change.
To remember the gear changing process, say the phrase: 1 down, 4 up.
The majority of dirt bikes will have 5 gears, but some have six, and some smaller bikes have 4. Find a nice long run, and practice shifting through every gear. When you're ready to slow down, you can use the exact same gear shifting process, but instead of pulling up on the selector, you will be pushing it back down.
As you release throttle, and when you shift down through the gears, you will experience engine braking. Engine braking occurs on all engines, but is more pronounced on four strokes. If you drop too many gears in one go, and release the clutch lever, you can actually lock up the back wheel, so this should be avoided.
Harsh engine braking can be useful during a race, but it needs to be practised alongside regular braking. You should also be careful if you're riding a two stroke dirt bike. While engine braking is perfectly safe during normal riding, if done for very long periods it can damage a two stroke engine. This is because fuel consumption is shut off, meaning no oil is being fed to the cylinder.
Braking: How to stop a dirt bike fast
When you're accustom to changing gear, starting and stopping, and you feel more relaxed on the bike, you can learn different braking techniques. Remember what you learned earlier, the brakes are designed for racing, and they are very sharp, so be very careful while practising this step.
The rear brake will not usually cause beginners any problems. It can easily lock up the wheel, but this will simply result in a skid and a little rear wheel drifting. This can become dangerous if you lock up the wheel during a sharp turn, so practice all of your initial braking while riding in a straight line.
To use the rear brake effectively, it's always best to avoid a skid. Although a skid can be fun, and even useful during a race, it will lengthen your stopping time. So practice finding the point just before the wheel locks, and if it does lock up, release the brake slightly and re-apply it with slightly less force.
When used correctly, the front brake will stop the bike much quicker than the rear brake. But the front brake regularly causes problems for beginners who are still learning how to ride a dirt bike. When you grab a handful of brake, the front tire can suddenly lock up or skid, and you'll either fall off the side, or go straight over the handlebars.
To prevent the wheel from locking up, pull the brake lever progressively. If you suddenly pull the brake all the way to the bar, you'll most definitely lock the wheel. But if you progressively pull the brake, you'll avoid a skid, and you'll stop very fast. But remember, even a progressive pull can eventually get to the point where it will lock the wheel, so practice this with caution, and slowly work your way up to heavier braking.
You now know how to ride a dirt bike
You should now have a good understanding of how to ride a dirt bike. When you've mastered the basics of riding, you'll be able to start developing essential skills that all riders need. Practice things like leaning into corners, fast start and holeshot techniques, lifting the front wheel to get through rough terrain, etc. There are lots of skills to develop, so learn one thing at a time, and never try anything without wearing the necessary protective gear.
Check out all of the protective gear you'll need by clicking HERE.
Or find out out to start motocross HERE.