Digging dirt

My first experience on another bike, on dirt roads
Published November 24, 2008

My dad tried to get me into dirt bikes as a kid. He once asked me to kickstart his 500–my foot slipped off the kickstarter, it whipped up and tore into the back of my heel. Another time, a family friend rode over on his manual-shift ATV and my dad tried to get me to operate the clutch–I ended up flipping the quad (with my dad and me on it) and bending the handlebars out of shape, a story my dad delightedly retells to this day. And I remember my dad frequently urging me to save up for a dirt bike of my own, but I was, as a kid, more interested in PlayStation, and Jet Moto was a good enough approximation.

I was more interested in PlayStation, and Jet Moto was good enough

Fast forward ten years to this weekend, and my dad finally got me on one of his dirt bikes. I was in his neck of the woods for an early Thanksgiving and my lil’ brother (four years old) tugged me down to the garage to show off the motorcycle he rides with Dad. It’s a ’70s Yamaha TT500, at least thirty-years-old but shows its age well despite being covered in a fair bit of dried mud. I fiddled with the controls a bit. Kill switch is on the left handle, and the clutch is so stiff when the bike is sitting that I thought it had to be a brake lever. An hour later, my dad rolled it out of the garage, kicked it to life, and did a warm-up lap down the road to loosen the clutch for me.

I confess a bit of apprehension when I first straddled the bike. The controls on the old bike are not nearly as nice and easy to use as the Ninja’s. I’ve only ever ridden 250cc bikes (my own and the MSF Rebel). I’ve never ridden on dirt. I didn’t have my gear. Or any gear, for that matter, not even a borrowed helmet.

I took it very slow to start, staying in first gear up the driveway to the dirt road that connects my dad’s abode with distant civilization. First surprise: The bike is amazingly easy to control in low-speed maneuvers. Despite my awkward handle of the bike, I was instantly making super slow u-turns without sticking a leg out, which was especially unexpected with my complete lack of experience in gravel. Maybe gravel makes slow stuff easier than street–I’ve really no idea–but I was, if I do say, impressed with my ability to not drop the bike during certain maneuvers.

It wasn’t long before I started kicking through the gears. Though the clutch had softened up, the gear lever remained very stiff. It takes some very deliberate presses to click up and down gears, which would be hell on the streets but wasn’t too bad for the lazy dirt riding I was doing. Not sure how fast I was going, but I’d be surprised if I ever broke 30 mph. The engine’s got gobs of torque so it pulls great from low revs, but it sounds hysterically stressed as the revs build and the power doesn’t seem to match the noise levels. No tach, so I don’t even know if I was short shifting or beating it up, though considering my nervous restraint I assume the former.

The bike just rolls over everything without drama

The best part of the bike is how it kills the roads’ imperfections. I was standing on the pegs to let my legs absorb a bit of washboard but found such effort completely unnecessary. The bike just rolls over everything without drama. Rolling down the same road in my car is like riding an ancient wooden roller coaster (at all of 15 mph), but those imperfections in the dirt were erased by the Yamaha.

After getting used to the gear lever and comfortable with the off-road competence of the suspension, I was having a blast riding back and forth, up and down the road. I wanted to push it harder, find out what’d happen if I deliberately spun the rear tire in a turn, or maybe find a lump of dirt to jump from. I didn’t do any of that–guarded only by jeans, a t-shirt and a pair of New Balance 992s, my riding confidence hit a ceiling pretty quickly.

But my dad succeeded in something he’d been trying for as long as I can remember. He not only got me onto a dirt bike, but also got me wanting one of my own. Granted, I’ve nowhere to ride one, being a resident of The City ™, but I’ve now a longing for something of the supermoto variety. Perhaps a DR-Z 400. If only I had more garage space.