If you’re just getting started on a dirt bike, we know how excited you must be. We’re excited too, but we also know that how well the first few rides go can determine if you stick with the sport. So, before you rev up that engine, check out these common mistakes that beginner riders make and learn how to avoid them.

Starting on the Wrong Bike

There are a lot of reasons to want to ride, but many beginners share the initial desire to go fast. The adrenaline that comes from acceleration, fast turns, and big air is unmatched, so that’s the first thing new riders go looking for. They think the biggest bike is going to provide that unparalleled thrill, so they start riding on a bike that has more power than they can handle. Starting on the wrong bike is one of the most common albeit worst mistakes a first time rider can make.

It should go without saying that the bigger the bike, the more power, but that power is virtually inaccessible to someone who has yet to master the basics. Bike size refers to several factors – the bike’s actual height, but then also the bike’s weight and power output. They’re made in these varying sizes for a reason – everyone is on a different skill level. Whether you’re beginning at eight or eighty, everyone has to start somewhere. There is no shame in starting on something small and developing your skills from there. Just think back on the car you learned to drive on. Dollars to donuts you didn’t learn on a GT-R, nor would you have wanted to. The idea of crashing is stressful enough as it is, you don’t need to worry about doing it in a $100,000 vehicle. This same principle applies to a dirt bike. Start on something too big and you’re going to get tired faster, lose balance at slow speeds, damage the bike, or just scare yourself off from riding completely. Avoid this mistake and these consequences by starting on something small. This will help you learn the basics of body control and general feel of the bike, giving you the skills needed to work your way up to a bigger, more powerful dirt bike.

When picking your first bike, you also need to take into account where you want to be riding – trail or track – and start with the right style. This is important because of the suspension and handling of the bike. Motocross bikes will have stiffer setups to accommodate for big jumps, while trail bikes will have a softer suspension for rocky terrain. Starting on a bike with the right setup will make the ride more comfortable and help you be more confident.

Starting in the Wrong Spot

If you’re just picking up the sport, it’s not the best idea to go where the “good places” are to ride. Those places are going to be better suited for more experienced riders, often technical trails, difficult tracks, or steep hills. While these are great places to get to eventually, beginners are better off starting somewhere relatively flat and clear of obstacles or road hazards. Learning how to shift and get a feel for the throttle-clutch ratio is difficult without adding rocks, ruts, or a hill, so don’t subject yourself to unnecessary accident or frustration.

Start at your skill level and fire your bike up on a dirt road or anywhere flat and non-technical. In these locations, you’ll have an easier time utilizing the power of the bike in the right way, learning to listen to the motor and know when it’s indicating the time to shift. If you’re riding in the wrong gear, you’ll hear it; the throttle response will be limited and the bike will eventually stall. You’ll feel it as well as most shifting is done based on how the bike feels when revving. These basics must be figured out before any serious riding can be done, so beginners need to get the right bike and go to the right place to focus on the imperatives.

Learning to Control the Throttle and Clutch

Another difficult skill for beginners to develop is knowing the timing between clutch and throttle, AKA learning how much to gas it and when. Many beginner riders twist the throttle and release the clutch at the wrong time, resulting in either a stalled bike or an overly fast start that results in a crash. These overly fast starts can lead to wild whiskey throttle and in turn some impressive falls, not only landing you hard on the ground, but also into a fail video on YouTube.

When starting, beginners need to learn how to find the balance between throttle use and clutch release, known in the powersport world as the friction zone. In their handbook, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) defines this as, “The area of clutch lever movement that begins where the clutch starts to transmit power to the rear wheel and ends just prior to full clutch engagement.” The friction zone isn’t something that can be seen or measured, it’s something that just has to be felt. With no exact positon for the clutch or amount of twist for the throttle, beginners just have to develop a feel for the friction zone with practice. Far too many novices try to gas it straight out the gate, their bad habits leading to accidents and damages not far into their ride. There is no “when it doubt, throttle is out” here, there is just practice, patience, and attentiveness to your bike. And, if you’re starting on the right sized bike and a flat, less technical location, you should be able to get that down that much easier.

Looking Ahead

Once comfortable enough with the basics to go on longer rides in different places, many beginners fail to pay attention to their surroundings. As they go down the track or trail, some develop tunnel vision, looking straight down at their front tire or fender. Focusing on the ground they’re currently hitting, big things like a rock or a root often go unnoticed until they’re about to be hit. On the flip side, some riders can look ahead at one large obstacle and focus on it so intently that they end up running straight into it. This phenomenon is called target fixation, or the tendency to head in the direction that you’re looking. Look down at the ground or focus on just one obstacle and it won’t be too long until you’re in the dirt yourself. Everything important happens in front of the bike, so it’s far more important to be looking ahead rather than straight down.

By looking ahead, you can either steer away from impending obstacles or brace for impact. Covering the ground just before you go over it not only gives you the time to process the terrain, it also gives you time to make those imperative split-second decisions.

Not Wearing Gear

Whether they’re purchased brand new or the product of several grueling hours in the garage, bikes can be expensive. Add on the cost of gear, and many beginner riders will opt to learn in jeans and a T-shirt. Such apparel may seem sufficient…until a crash results in road rash or something worse. Although gear may seem like an unnecessary, extra expense, it is absolutely essential to have. One of the few things a dirt bike guarantees is crashes, and you need to be prepared for the inevitable. While a full ensemble is ideal and recommended, the bare minimum is a solid helmet, sturdy boots, knee guards, and set of good quality gloves.

As this gear is the most important, it serves as an investment for a lot of serious riders. There are several premium options out there, but also quite a few setups that offer high-quality in a lower price range. In fact, most beginners can accumulate the necessary gear for under $250. Going with gear from the beginning will also help beginners get used to the feel of riding with gear. Shifting in thicker motocross boots is a lot different than shifting in thin sneakers, so if you get used to the latter, the former will be a shock to you. Getting the hang of riding in sneakers just to switch to boots later will make you feel like you’re starting all over again. Don’t fall prey to the belief that you don’t need gear, and don’t even get on your bike until you’re dressed for an accident.

Neglecting Maintenance

Riders that are just starting on a bike are usually new to the industry , which can make routine maintenance understandably daunting. That being said, you won’t be doing much riding if your bike’s engine is fried because you didn’t change the oil or clean the air filter. Proper bike maintenance is all about being proactive rather than reactive, so beginner riders need know what they’re getting into from the get-go. Key maintenance tasks include changing the oil and oil filter, cleaning/changing the air filter, checking tire pressure, and adjusting/lubing the chain.

Completing these basic tasks educates new riders, helping them understand how and why parts get broken, and then how to fix them – sometimes even on a trail or track. There are so many resources like how-to’s, buyers guides, bike builds and so much more available to riders as well that it has never been easier to work on your own bike (some of the best resources can be found right here).

Taking the plunge and getting started on a dirt bike can be as difficult as it is exciting, so don’t make things harder on yourself by making these common mistakes. If you’re starting, start right. Learn on a smaller bike in a flat location so that you can get a feel for the clutch and throttle, and don’t forget to look ahead instead of straight down. Do this while wearing proper gear and you should make it home safe enough to make sure your bike is in tip-top shape for your next ride.

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If you have questions about how to start riding or stories you want to share, let us know in the comments below. We’re excited for you beginners out there, and we can’t wait to see you on the trails.