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Since 1999, the #1 Motorcycling Magazine for Women and the Men Who Ride with Them

How To Ride Your Street Motorcycle in Gravel

Tips for riding in reduced traction situations

By Tricia Szulewski, MSF RiderCoach

At some point in your street motorcycling life you’ll find yourself faced with riding in gravel. Roadside pullouts that are not paved and road construction are the two most common scenarios where you’ll encounter loose rocks and/or dirt and sand.

Another common gravel scenario (one where you could kick yourself for not asking about ahead of time) happens when you've arrived at that cute B&B or lodge where you had planned to stay only to be faced with a long, deep gravel driveway.

Gravel happens. Street motorcyclists rarely choose to ride in gravel. You can choose to turn around, but that’s not always an option. You need to be able to get through it in one piece. (Experienced rider tip: when making lodging reservations, always ask if there is any gravel on which you must travel to get there.)

how to ride your street motorcycle in gravel riding
Seasoned motorcycle riders know that riding in gravel is inevitable. So learning to be comfortable riding through it is part of becoming a better rider.

Whether it’s gravel, dirt, sand, grass, or any slick surface, the same rules apply. You want to minimize the motorcycle’s lean and abstain from any sudden input such as braking, accelerating, or swerving.

I’ll say it again:

Minimize the motorcycle’s lean and abstain from any sudden input such as braking, accelerating, or swerving.

how to ride your street motorcycle in loose gravel honda shadow
There are all types of gravel conditions. Part of deciding to ride through gravel is assessing the kind of terrain you’re faced with. Hard packed gravel is best. Loose sand is the worst. Here I am powering through relatively evenly packed-down gravel.

how to ride your street motorcycle in gravel dirt yamaha v star
Terrain like this can be deceiving. It’s mostly packed dirt and sand, but this kind of gravel requires constant scanning for mounds of sand and stones that have formed which can be more difficult to ride through because of the lack of traction, and possibly have you experience a rear tire spin out.

When we lose traction, defined as the “grip of a tire on a road,” it’s easy to lose control of the motorcycle. But don’t lose your head.

If your motorcycle is already in motion and you come up to a patch of gravel in the road, don’t panic. It’s best to maintain the momentum the motorcycle already has and slow down gradually, with very light use of both brakes. Your tires will slide easily, even on a light gravel surface, so if you brake too hard too fast you’ll likely produce a skid, lose control of the motorcycle and you may go down.

how to ride your street motorcycle in deep gravel
Roadside pullouts laden with gravel are actually a good place to practice your gravel riding skills because, so long as there’s no drop or gap between the pavement and gravel, you can stay headed in one direction as you enter and exit the pullout while practicing smooth throttle control.

When the road ahead promises miles of gravel, you can turn around and find another route, or you can use these techniques to get through it.

  • Keep your arms and shoulders relaxed, and steer the bike without fighting against it.
  • Use a gradual throttle roll-on to accelerate and maintain a steady speed, which will most likely be a reduced speed. Try not to stop, but if you have to, start out again by using very light, gradual acceleration, so your tires don't spin out.

  • Keep the motorcycle as straight up as possible, that is minimize lean, which may mean taking wide turns and using most of the road.

  • Keep as much distance between you and other vehicles as possible to allow yourself a lot of extra room to gradually slow down to a stop.

  • Remember the rule that you go where you’re looking, so avoid looking down. Stay focused on where you want to ride to, but continually scanning near and far, checking the road surface conditions so you’re aware of any big rocks or potholes to avoid. Looking far ahead will keep you heading in the right direction.

  • Remember to breathe slowly with controlled breaths to keep your body calm so you don’t tense up. WRN founder Genevieve Schmitt advises using a Pilates breath. “I’m a Pilates instructor so I’m always using my 'Pilates breath' to get me through tense situations calmly—like riding in gravel. Pilates breath is done by breathing in through the nose, and out through the mouth. This kind of breathing is best for controlling your breathing pattern so your body stays calm. The calmer you are, the more your mind will remember what to do so your body can respond appropriately to move you through the gravel successfully.
  • Tell yourself you will get through this.

  • Listen to your inner voice. If you’re feeling confident then go for it. If the voice in your head says to turn around and you can, then listen to it.

  • Don’t allow any negative thoughts to invade your brain like how bad it is to ride through gravel or that you will fall. If you employ the above techniques, you’re likely to power right through and be celebrating that you did so before you know it.
how to ride your street motorcycle in gravel vulcan vaquero
On a motorcycle trip of Northern New Mexico a few years ago, Genevieve and I encountered a gravel roadway unexpectedly. We lowered our speed, used the techniques above and found ourselves still smiling after 20-some-odd miles of it.

how to ride your street motorcycle in gravel genevieve and tricia
A roadside selfie celebrating our gravel ride.

Seasoned street motorcycle riders know riding in gravel is inevitable. If you ride any long distances at all, you’ll likely hit upon road construction where fresh gravel has been laid for future pavement. It’s not a matter of avoidance, but a matter of learning to ride through it.

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Riding Right: Riding in the Rain

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