Unless you were lucky enough to grow up riding dirt bikes, it’s very possible that you’ve only stuck to the street when it comes to riding motorcycles. That was the case with me, and I was perfectly happy—until I moved to Colorado some years back. Suddenly I started getting left behind on many weekend rides, as my friends all took off on their dual-sports, bound for scenic fire roads, or organized full off-road rides on their dirt bikes.
So I bought a KLR650 and joined them one Saturday—and got hooked. Riding in the dirt is a totally different kind of fun from what we know as street riders. There are no distracted drivers pulling out in front of us and no cops telling us we’re going too fast. The speeds overall, of course, are much lower off-road anyway, and you learn how much fun 20 mph can be.
Riding off-road is more physically challenging, and therefore quite rewarding when you successfully tackle a tough section of singletrack or an intimidating water crossing. And since dirt bikes are so light (most trail models come in at well under 300 pounds), they’re surprisingly female-friendly, even with their tall saddles.
You may not be convinced riding dirt is for you though, so the first step is to take a class at one of the many dirt bike schools across the country. Most offer beginner classes that provide not just a bike, but also all the off-road-specific gear you’ll need, so you’re not shelling out hundreds of dollars for gear before you even know you want to stick with it.
I’m a fan of training with other women, since we learn differently than the guys and I enjoy the non-competitive attitude and camaraderie, so I recently signed up for the Intermediate class at an outfit called Coach2Ride.
Coach2Ride is based near Anza, California, a couple hours southeast of Los Angeles. It’s run by two former professional motocross racers, Andrea Beach and Bonnie Warch, both of whom are certified by the MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) as well as a host of other organizations. Andrea and Bonnie teach dirt bike, ATV and UTV technique for riders of all ages and skill levels—when I was there, they had a group of three teenage girls who had no moto experience, getting their first taste of dirt!
Since I’ve had a little off-road experience (although nothing on actual dirt bikes), I signed up for the Level 2: Novice/Intermediate class. This is the class you’ll want even if you’ve never been off-road; the Level 1: Beginner class is for those who don’t know how to ride a motorcycle at all.
Our class was small, just me and one other woman with a lot of street experience but nothing on dirt. She had just purchased a Yamaha XT250 dual-sport and wanted to learn how to ride it off-road.
Andrea was our coach (Bonnie was taking care of the teenagers), and she put me on a Honda CRF230F, a simple carbureted trail bike with a 34.6-inch seat and a 249-pound wet weight.
Wait—34.6-inch seat?? Don’t panic…it sounded like a lot to me too, but as Andrea demonstrated as she gave us a comprehensive overview of dirt bike tech, the suspension on trail bikes is tall and soft, so as soon as you sit down it compresses significantly. I do have a tall inseam—34 inches, which is why Andrea chose this bike for me—and when I sat on the CRF I was able to get both feet on the ground easily. If you’re shorter, you’ll likely end up on something suitably smaller, like the CRF150F and its 32.8-inch seat.
For the next few hours, we practiced drills on a big, flat dirt area marked with cones: braking, turning, riding position, how and when to stand up on the pegs, and finally how to roll over obstacles. Andrea gave us the tools we’d need for the second half of the day: an actual trail ride where we got to put our new skills to use!
With only two of us in the class, we both got extremely personalized attention and coaching. Since our coach was also a woman, I felt like she understood better than a guy would how it felt to be a newbie chick on a dirt bike, and she was patient and empathetic with us, pushing firmly but gently when we needed it and backing off when frustration or tiredness set in.
After a short break, we putted off towards the “playground,” a big network of trails on an abandoned turkey farm that offered up a little of everything: hills, rocks, berms, hard pack and even a bit of sand. There, Andrea led us on a path of gradually increasing difficulty, flowing along the trails up and over the big hill in the center, until finally my classmate Terry decided she was ready for a break. She’d nearly stalled at the top of an ascent, a new and steeper route than what we’d tackled so far, and wisely opted to take a breather.
No worries! After we all paused for water and photos, Andrea asked how I was doing and I signaled, “let’s go!” She led me around the network of trails, dialing up the speed until I started to lag behind, then slowing to accommodate me. This is what embodies a good teacher, I believe—the ability to watch and pick up on students’ cues, and adjust accordingly.
She also demonstrated the teacher’s uncanny ability to see EVERYTHING; on one corner I “cheated” by sticking my inside leg out for balance, rather than staying glued to the bike as I’d been shown. Despite the fact that she was ahead of me, somehow Andrea saw what I’d done and immediately stuck her leg out too, pointing at it emphatically. Like a fourth-grader who’d been caught passing notes behind the teacher’s back, I sheepishly grinned inside my helmet and nodded assent.
If you happen to live in Southern California or the surrounding area (classmate Terry came from Las Vegas), I highly recommend Coach2Ride if you want to give dirt bikes a shot. The cost of your class ($199) includes the use of a bike and apparel. For more information, visit their website at coach2ride.com.
Got training? The next step is getting outfitted in the right apparel. We’ll have Part 2 of our Getting Started in the Dirt series soon, where we show you how to choose the right gear.