The Roads Less Traveled

Finding peace on the road less traveled

A few years ago I headed out on my brand new BMW K1200LT (some folks argue that “LT” stands for “Light Truck”) on a ride through the twisties of West Virginia. I was riding two up and enjoying a particularly fun roller coaster section when I saw up ahead that the pavement was about to switch to hard-pack dirt. With 900lbs of motorcycle plus a passenger, I forged ahead. Probably because the road became narrower and the prospect of turning that behemoth around was even more intimidating at that moment in time. The first mile or so the dirt was a bit intimidating on this new machine. But, as I rode the next 17 miles, I was surprised to find that I had become increasingly comfortable, even as the road wound its way up and through the mountains. And dare I say that I was actually enjoying the adventure.


When the pavement ends … does your confidence end there too? Many riders who are perfectly comfortable on a variety of paved road conditions become unglued when faced with negotiating unpaved surfaces. In fact, there are those who go to any length to avoid a gravel or hard-packed dirt road if they can. But is there a real reason to be uneasy on “unpavement” or is it just a matter of being unfamiliar? Could riders be missing out on some great riding just because they are reluctant to let the tires touch dirt? Granted, a bike does move around a lot more under the rider on unpaved surfaces and that can be unnerving for those unaccustomed to so much feedback. But does that mean we can never become comfortable with dirt roads–or even seek them out for enjoyment?

In most instances, there is significantly more traction available on hard-pack than a rider might expect. The key things to remember when riding on “unpavement” are to keep eyes up and looking well ahead (instinct pulls the eyes down to the unfamiliar road surface), maintain a light touch on the handlebars and consciously steer the motorcycle with the feet and knees. On curves, let the motorcycle lean beneath instead of leaning with it as is the practice on hard pavement. When slowing, apply brakes smoothly to allow the tires to find traction. And even if they slip a little, simply release them and let the tires regain grip. But the best way to get comfortable riding on loose surfaces is to spend some time on them. The uptight rider can let out a big sigh, ease out the clutch and proceed at a conservative pace. After just a few miles it’s almost inevitable that the rider will become more comfortable with the bike moving around beneath him. Then, by practicing slowing and accelerating on straight sections the rider will get a feel for traction and how the bike responds and gain a level of confidence.

When I think back on that dirt stretch on the LT, I’m so glad that I opted to continue on when the pavement ended. My passenger and I saw some spectacular views as the dirt road wound up to the top of a mountain ridge, revealing a spectacular panorama of the Appalachians–a view we would never have seen otherwise.

When the pavement ends think twice about turning around. There’s a whole world to be discovered on the road less-traveled.


One Response to “The Roads Less Traveled”

  1. Pete Tamblyn Says:

    As StayinSafe’s resident “dirt freak,” naturally I couldn’t agree more with Eric, especially on two of his points. If I may paraphrase, the first being “try it; you’ll like it” and the second relating to all the fine scenery and experiences you’ll miss if you studiously avoid any and all unpaved roads.

    I’m reminded of a father/son trip I did with my son, Jeff, about ten years ago. The only two suitable bikes in the garage at the time were a Honda NX650 and a Transalp, both full-sized what we now call adventure bikes. Since we planned to camp, naturally the rains set in on the first night of our three-day outing. Undaunted, we switched from the paved, up-in-the-clouds Blue Ridge Parkway to the less foggy valleys below, riding predominantly gravel Forest Service roads. These are generally reasonably well-maintained, and it was my pleasure to watch Jeff’s confidence on loose surfaces grow as we rode mile after mile of these lovely routes. We followed robust trout streams, passed spectacular waterfalls and pools, visited a fire tower or two, and ate lunch one day sitting on the porch of a century-old genuine log cabin. A steady drizzle provided great dust control, and offered only minor face shield misting, and our 25-30 mph pace was perfect for spotting all the interesting forest flora. In the few places the gravel was so thin the Georgia red clay showed through, we slowed a bit more just to keep the well-laden bikes well under control. When the skies cleared on day three, allowing us to climb high enough on the paved roads for one spectacular view of the Smokies, Jeff commented that anyone could enjoy this but what we’d seen the previous two days was far more special. In addition, his riding skills were vastly improved, to say nothing of his confidence.

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