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Off-Road Setup 101 for Dirt Bikes


If you're planning on riding or competing in an off-road discipline, establishing an ideal off-road setup that works well for you BEFORE heading out on the trail can prevent smashed fingers & feet, broken engine cases, derailed chains or flat tires, all of which could prevent you (or your rider) from finishing a race, or leave one of you pushing a dirt bike out of the woods.

Riding a motorcycle off-road often challenges riders with everything from trees to rock(s), to manmade concrete obstacles, all of which can damage the bike or injure the rider should either not be adequately prepared so we're going to go over how to build a dirt bike that'll stand up to the nastiest rock sections and manmade obstacles, that way you can be sure the motorcycle will hold up and allow you to finish a race no matter how nasty the manmade obstacles and natural terrain gets.

In addition to protecting the bike and rider from the elements, setting a dirt bike up for the woods will allow the rider greater control of the motorcycle through roots and other challenging terrain, although if you're crossing over from motocross and don't have much experience in the woods, you should take a look at the page that goes over some of the off-road elements that you're sure to encounter on the trail.

Bottom line is whether you're riding off-road with friends and family on a trail ride, or charging through an off-road race such as an Enduro, GNCC Race, WORCS Race or a Hare Scramble, just remember that setting a dirt bike up for off-road use beforehand can protect the rider against smashed fingers and similar injuries while also providing protection of expensive parts and allowing the rider greater control!!




What Kind of Dirt Bike is Best for Off-Road Use?

There are purpose built bikes for the woods but take heart if you don't have one, as a lot of riders have found great success in riding converted motocross bikes off-road, however it's also entirely possible, (and many people do) to ride an on road / off road motorcycle (commonly referred to as "Dual Sport") in the woods with great success, although a converted motocross bike, or a purpose built motorcycle intended for the woods or strict off-road use is a much better alternative due to their enhanced suspension, lighter overall chassis and better power delivery.

As far as which motorcycle would be best to begin with, this would be a hard one to answer as this is dependent upon the rider's skill level, intended use and discipline. However, Most fast woods riders like to start with a motocross bike, then tailor (or convert) the bike as we'll show you below to make it more adept to the off-road environments that are common when riding off-road.

If you're uncertain as to where to start in your quest for the perfect bike,
be sure to check out these tips on buying the right used dirt bike for you.

If you know the perfect woods bike that suits you well, but you're in need of a ride, here's a nice selection of new and used dirt bikes which include the ever popular woods bikes such as the KTM XC's and Husqvarna TXC's & WR's, as well as Yamaha WR's and Honda XR's & CRF - X's (among other popular woods bikes).

How to Protect the Rider

Riding a motorcycle off-road is some of the best fun there is to be had behind the bars of a dirt bike as you never know what's to come, but going out with an inadequately prepared motorcycle and getting fingers and toes smashed has a way of taking some of the fun out of it, so before getting into what we can do to protect the bike, we're going to go over what you can do to reduce any chances of injury.

Fortunately, in addition to wearing all of the proper safety gear, there are available handguards, which depending on the model can protect the rider's hands from airborne (roost) and stationary (trees) hazards so installing hand guards is always a priority for most.

Barkbusters or Other Types of Handguards

Installing a set of handguards on a dirt bike should be one of the first things that someone should do when preparing a motorcycle for off-road use, although you may want to consider the following;

When shopping for handguards you'll likely notice that there are several brands to choose from such as Acerbis and Cycra (among others) and you'll also likely find that there are many different types of handguards as well from the type which are only designed to protect a riders hands from flying roost, to those which can protect a rider's hand(s) from a direct hit from a tree, or other solid object.

"Running Hand guards made it so much easier when riding or racing in the tight stuff, as I'm now able to push smaller trees, branches etc out of the way so I can pass another rider on the edge of the trail without fear of bloodied knuckles, sore fingers or a surprise front brake activation due to an unseen hazard".

The handguards which we've found best are solid aluminum at their core and referred to as a "Pro Series" or "Pro Bend" and these are available for standard size (7/8") handlebars, as well as the larger "Twin Wall" and the 1& 1/8" handlebars. These handguards are generally superior to others as they are constructed with a solid aluminum bar and optional (but removable) "Flags" AKA "Enduro Guards" or simply "Shields" which provide additional protection from brush and roost and are available in a multitude of available colors.

Additional advantages of Pro bend handguards vs those which are of lesser quality is that they are just about indestructible, and due to the bends incorporated into the design of higher end handguards or barkbusters, they allow cables and hydraulic hoses to be routed properly without the cables or hoses getting in a bind or being positioned with sharp angles.

A Final Note About Protecting the Rider;
Assuming you're wearing all of the appropriate riding gear, when riding a motorcycle off-road in the vicinity of rock(s) or tree stumps and fallen tree's, whether seated or standing, it's important to keep the toes of your boots pointed upward and not allow the front of your foot to fall below the foot peg's level, otherwise smashing your foot between a tree stump or a rock and the foot peg may provide a painful reminder to keep your toes up.

Before Putting the Bike on a Stand and Bolting on Armor,
Check Out These Tips for Getting the Controls Setup

How to Protect the Motorcycle from Getting Beat Up

In addition to ensuring the rider is protected and has a nice cockpit to work within, it's essential that the motorcycle's routine maintenance is performed when due, otherwise you may find yourself miles from anywhere with a broke down motorcycle.

Once the maintenance is covered, we can work on protecting the underside of the motorcycle and engine cases, as well as the brake pedal and drive train.

The need for protecting parts from rocks and other obstacles is often necessary to reliably finish a race, and this is especially true in disciplines which include man made obstacles, such as what's commonly seen in an EnduroCross or Extreme Enduro so we're going to show you what's vulnerable, and how to protect it.

How to Ensure the Control Levers Remain Functional

If you spend any time riding off-road, it's almost certain that you'll spend some of that time on the ground where parts get broken so installing unbreakable control levers on the handlebars is almost a must when getting a dirt bike setup for off-road use and should be strongly considered while dialing in the riders cockpit.

When shopping for quality control levers, there are several choices which include ASV, ARC, Sunline and Renthal, but the one we like the best for a clutch or brake lever is the Renthal Intellilever, as this lever allows the perch to be securely tightened to the handlebars so it doesn't move, as it has a highly effective means of preserving the lever due to it's unique ability to temporarily dislocate in a forward, upward or downward direction in the event of a yard sale.

Unfortunately, For dirt bikes such as a KTM which comes stock with a hydraulic clutch, the Renthal Intellilever will not work clutch side, although a different type of unbreakable lever is recommended, as these are a much better alternative to breaking the ear(s) off of a master cylinder, or lever, and / or finding a DNF beside you or your rider's name on the results board.

If one of the higher end lever combo's are not in the budget, at the very least be sure to run a rotator clamp, and or tape your bars as discussed below, as doing either of these will allow the perch to be tightened semi-securely, yet still allow the lever and perch to rotate on the handlebars in the event of a crash.

How to Protect Your Levers for Under $5 with Teflon Tape and Loctite
If you're not yet running unbreakable levers, wrapping the bars with Teflon tape and loctiting the screws is second best for preserving levers, perches and master cylinders, and doing so will allow the lever(s) to be repositioned after being augured into the ground, as well as this will allow the lever to be repositioned during the ride or a race so as to establish the ideal positioning.

Make Sure You Do This When There's Ample Time for the Loctite to Set
  • If the levers are already installed on the bike, use a pen, pencil or whatever you can find and make a small mark on the handlebars on either side of the perch clamp, then remove the screws and the perch with the cable or hose attached.
  • Now judging from the shadow left by the now removed perch (or your marks), wrap this area with a few wraps of Teflon tape being careful to not exceed the width of the clamp with the tape.
  • Next ensure that the screws and screw holes of the perch or master cylinder are clean of any contaminates by cleaning all the parts with an aerosol such as brake clean, followed by compressed air (or allowed to air dry).
  • With the screws and holes clean & dry, apply a thread locking compound
    (Red Loctite) to the threads of the screws.
  • Now install the perch and / or master cylinder(s) to the handlebars directly over the Teflon tape, followed by the clamp and screws coated with Loctite.
  • Finally tighten the screws securely, but just enough to keep the lever in the position that works best for the rider.
Although this is good for testing or temporarily protecting the lever, perch or master cylinder from a crasher, doing so often allows the perch to work itself loose so a rotator clamp and / or unbreakable levers is advised.



How to Protect the Radiators and Cooling System

The radiators on dirt bikes are extremely vulnerable to damage from roost and incoming sticks or tree branches that are common in off-road disciplines, so protecting the radiators and cooling system can go a long ways towards preventing a punctured or badly distorted radiator that leaks and causes the bike to overheat, ultimately preventing you from finishing a race.

The first step in protecting the radiators is to either install radiator guards to provide frontal protection for the fragile radiator core, or better yet, radiator braces, as the later will provide additional support for the radiator, greatly lessening the chances of the radiator(s) being shoved backwards or damaged in a fall, yet will still enable you to run some versions of radiator guards or louvers which can provide additional protection to the radiator's core.

Lastly, when addressing the cooling system, it's important to periodically replace the coolant, ensure you have a high quality radiator cap on and lastly, inspect the hoses.

During your inspection of the hoses, if you notice any hoses in contact with another hose, cable or part, be sure to loosen the hose clamp(s), then twist the hose so it's no longer in contact with anything, then tighten the clamp as doing so will eliminate any chances of that hose developing a leak due to chaffing.

How to Not Lose the Rear Brake Pedal

If you're riding in terrain where roots and vines are common, or you're one for banging bars, it's probable you'll lose the rear brake pedal unless you're willing to protect it from being snapped off by roots and other trail hazards that will find their way behind the brake pedal. Fortunately, there's a quick & easy fix to this dilemma.

Installing a brake pedal with a brake snake already attached, a brake saver, or a homemade cable from the nose of the brake pedal to the frame will lessen any chances of tree roots, vines, or the other guy's bike parts from finding their way between the brake pedal and the engine where they can rip the soft aluminum brake pedal off, leaving the rider unknowingly without a rear brake (until he / she attempts to use it).

As mentioned previously, the best rear brake pedal protection is to install what's commonly referred to as a "Brake Snake" which is truly nothing more than a cable from the tip of the brake pedal, to the frame / engine mount area, as this will allow the brake normal operation, yet it will strengthen the nose of the brake pedal significantly and prevent it's own leverage from destroying it.

Lastly, while on the topic of the rear brake, if you wish the pedal was a little higher or lower than it is, be sure to check out these tips on adjusting the brake pedal height so as to allow you optimum braking control.

How to Protect the Shifter

When riding in rocky terrain, it's not uncommon to drop the bike, potentially resulting in a bent shift lever or worse, a bent shift shaft where it exit's the engine case which can result in a loss of shifting abilities and / or engine oil, but there's a way of guarding against such a calamity.

Most off-road motorcycles are equipped with a folding tip shifter, however, the arm of these are usually steel and when stressed hard enough (such as when falling against a hard object) can actually bend the shift shaft.

A recommended solution is to install an aftermarket shift lever, as these are constructed of a softer aluminum which will allow the lever to bend vs the shift shaft where it exits the engine case.

Lastly, be sure to adjust the shift lever so as to be able to shift effortlessly and remember; when you're not shifting, keep your toes up!!

How to Protect the Engine Cases & Underside of the Motorcycle

If you're going to be riding in rocks and EnduroCross style terrain, installing a skid plate is recommended, as these will protect the underside of the motorcycle from rocks and other potentially damaging hazards.

You'll notice when shopping for a skid plate that they're available in different configurations, from those which only cover the bottom of the frame rails inward, to skid plates which wrap around the engine and cover essentials such as the waterpump, ignition cover and lower engine cases.

For off-road use, we recommend that you invest in a full width skid plate which covers more than just the bottom of the motorcycle as these are easy to install, provide protection of potential DNF causing parts and allow access to the motorcycle for service such as when changing the oil.

How to Ensure You Don't Get A Flat

Riding off-road can often result in flats from both punctures and pinch flats although there are ways of reducing or eliminating the chances of a flat through use of an ultra heavy duty inner tube, or with a foam insert commonly referred to as a bib mousse.

Although we don't cover the installation of a bib mousse, as these are exceptionally difficult and require special tools to install, we do have an excellent article on installing a tire or tube that will show you the proper methods for replacing an inner tube without pinching the tube.




How to Ensure You'll Have Enough Gas

If you're going to be gassing it across the expanses, you're going to need the gas to get back, so while you're working on getting your dirt bike dialed in with the best off-road setup among your class, remember that most motocross bikes have small capacity fuel tanks as they are designed for short duration, closed course competition.

Fortunately, there are oversized fuel tanks for most modern dirt bikes that will allow a much greater volume of fuel to be carried.

With an oversized gas tank you'll be able to ride for greater distances without stopping for fuel and these truly prove their worth if you're planning on competing in an off-road race such as a Hare Scramble, Enduro or WORCS race, as the extra capacity can eliminate a fuel stop, greatly saving valuable distance from your competitors, and time on the clock.

How to Allow Greater Control in Technical Sections

The Need for a Steering Damper

When riding off-road, it's often that one will encounter sections which cause sharp deflections of the handlebars as is common in roots and rocky sections.

Installing a steering damper can greatly lessen the shock transmitted through the handlebars and to the rider over choppy terrain such as the infamous roots and rocks, while also lessening the unnerving deflections of the front wheel caused by the same roots and rocks, ultimately allowing the rider greater control through difficult sections.

A Word About Installing a Flywheel Weight & Weighted Flywheels

Installing a flywheel weight, or a heavier flywheel increases the inertia mass of the crankshaft, and can put an end to stalling in the tight or technical sections while also smoothing the abrupt and explosive power delivery of a modern motocross bike, which in itself ultimately allows better tractability while also lessening the rider's fatigue and lap times by reducing the frequency of stalling.




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