The Evils of Sand and Gravel

Story by Clinton Smout//
September 1 2008

If there are ten riders in a room and they were asked, “Who has fallen off their bike?,” more than half would put their hand up. The old saying is “There are two types of riders; those who have fallen off, and those who are going to.”

If we asked more questions about how did you fall off, where, when and why, we would hear a variety of answers. Sometimes other road users create a situation that has us testing our riding gear on the ground, but more often than not, the “I fell off” reasons have nothing to do with someone else. I would like to look at traction challenges that cause you grief and try to help keep you upright.

Since most of us ride on dry, clean pavement most of the time, we develop habits and skill sets that keep the rubber side down. But those riding habits like braking, cornering and various other skills may not be the best ways to ride when traction changes. Since we encounter sand, gravel and rain less often than dry pavement, we don’t practice and develop the different habits needed to correct our riding skills in those less than ideal traction scenarios.

How do you ride on gravel? Many riders have the most problems in construction zones, on cottage or rural roads, or on the grooved pavement when highways are being resurfaced. In gravel and sand situations, your instinct may be to slow down but slowing down tends to load the front suspension and the steering becomes heavier. Think of a small boat in the water. A reduction of throttle lowers the front of the boat into the water. Your motorcycle does the same thing and is most noticeable in gravel and sand. If you roll off the throttle abruptly or brake hard, the front-end tends to dive making steering sluggish and heavy. When cornering you may lose traction on sand or gravel since it feels like you are riding on marbles.

The secret is to be smooth with your throttle, braking and steering inputs. If your plan is to ride down a freshly graded gravel road then try this. Your lower body (knees and legs) should be tight to the bike by squeezing inwards and your upper body (shoulders, neck and hands on the grips) must be relaxed. With a tight grip on the bars you will end up fighting the front-end as it searches for traction and a path. Keep the gas on and look up where you want to go. The front wheel will be wandering a bit to the left and the right. Don’t sweat it, relax and let it wander as long as you are heading in the basic desired direction. It will only move around a few inches, but it does feel scary at first when you are used to the defined path that pavement provides.

If you have to brake on gravel or sand, try to do so when you are straight up and down (not leaning or turning). Avoid abrupt, hard braking so don’t grab a handful of front brake since the traction under your tire’s contact patch will be very different than what you are used to on pavement. I am convinced that we develop muscle memory from our riding experiences. If all your braking experience is on pavement, then your brain and muscle memory will use too much brake too soon when braking on gravel.

I believe that when we panic, our brains resort back to whatever habits we have and in a scary gravel or sandy situation, many riders will grab the front brake. At our off-road school, I ask street experienced riders to use only the rear brake at first. I want them to forget about the street riders habit of automatically reaching for the front brake. I ask them to jump on the rear brake from about 20 km/h with their weight forward. The resulting rear wheel lockup loses traction and skids easily on the gravel. We practice this again and again until they are comfortable with a sliding rear wheel. Then I ask them to put a little hip ‘English’ into the slide so the back end will ‘step-out.’ This creates a hook turn that simulates what happens if you over-brake or down-shift aggressively on pavement. The rider in this situation may see a rear fender coming around and panic when they realize, “Hey that’s my bike passing me.” If their reaction is to release the rear brake, then a rear wheel sliding sideways that suddenly gets traction again on pavement can create a high-side situation that can catapult the rider over the bars. The idea is to smoothly and slowly ease up on the rear brake. Practicing rear brake slides in gravel will help reduce the panic that riders succumb to in an emergency on pavement.

Once we have students used to sliding a bike around, then we work on using the proper brake input for the situation. You can brake hard in gravel using both brakes, but you have to be very careful not to grab too much front brake or jump too hard on the rear brake pedal. By practicing riding on various road surfaces, the rider will develop the muscle memory that can help prevent panic and get you doing what is best for the particular road condition. It’s much easier and less intimidating to practice those skills on a lightweight dirtbike when you are completely dressed in full motocross gear. Our training dirtbikes are much better designed for falling over than your more expensive, and usually, heavy street bike.

How about cornering on gravel or sand? The scariest time for me is when there is gravel or sand on a paved corner. I’m leaned over in a curve and then I see the traction challenge. The secret is not to panic. Ideally, you’ll want to scrub some speed off before crossing over the gravel or sand if possible by standing the bike up and gently applying your brakes. When negotiating over a traction challenge like water, sand or gravel in a corner, simply try not to do anything abrupt with your throttle, brakes or lean angle. With good tire tread you can ride over oil puddles as long as you don’t panic and grab a handful of brake or throttle. Smoothness is the secret.

Anticipating where sand and gravel is going to be is half the battle. In rural areas, the shoulder of a curve or the on and off ramps are not paved. Cars often shortcut the corner and spray gravel onto the pavement when they drive with two wheels on the gravel shoulder. On rural ramps you can expect traction to be marginalized, so reduce your speed. The faster you go, the more you’ll have to lean. A greater lean angle mixed with gravel or sand on the pavement could create a low side crash. Slow down, anticipate that the problem will be there and ride through it smoothly. If you do have to slow down when turning, please do not use your front brake. It is too powerful and will cause the front-end to dive under. Just using the back brake is advisable in that situation.

Some riders nervously take both feet off of the pegs and dangle them near the ground when riding slowly or cornering. That is crazy! If the bike does tip over then the rider may try and hold it up causing ankle, leg or groin injuries. Also, if your right foot is off the peg then the only brake you have left is the front. Yikes!

In construction zones there are going to be lots of trucks carrying dirt or gravel and sometimes debris falls off of the truck onto your planned tire track. Other road users in greater numbers with more tires will help rid the gravel, sand, rain or debris from the commonly used tire tracks which is another great reason to ride in either the left or right tire track depending on the lane you are riding in. Try not to ride up the middle of the lane where you are bound to encounter more debris.

We all have to ride in less than perfect traction conditions sometimes and the best teacher is practice. Bottom line is not to panic, keep the throttle and braking actions smooth and try to think ahead of where the trouble spots might be before you get into that sandy corner. MMM

Ride safely!

Clinton Smout, Chief Instructor

Canadian Motorcycle Training Services


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