How to Ride a Dirt Bike – From Zero to Hero

Sit back and relax, this is going to be a long one as we look at how to ride a dirt bike…

how to ride a dirt bike

The first time that I rode a dirt bike, I jumped on the bike, kicked it in first, released the clutch while revving it up, and proceeded to go directly into a rather large bush.  Scratched and scraped, I had to pull the bike out of the bushes and try again.  While the tiny cuts and scrapes hurt badly enough, my pride really was aching.

Whether it’s your first time riding, or you are just coming back from a hiatus, it is good to review some steps on how to ride a dirt bike.  Today we will go through how to get started riding, and how to avoid certain mistakes and bad habits.

Ultimately riding a dirt bike is supposed to be fun.  You want to give yourself the best shot you can to be successful.  Riding a dirt bike is actually pretty easy.  You will just need to learn how to do it first.  I promise by the end of your first ride, everything will seem easy enough, and by the end of your 10th ride, the things we go over today will have become second nature.

We are going to start with talking about how to start the bike, how clutches work, shifting patterns, starting drills, riding position, braking, and turning.

So let’s dive in.

Dirt Bike Controls – The first step to ride a dirt bike

handlebars

A dirt bike is going to have a few controls in common on every machine.  When you first throw your leg over the dirt bike, you will be facing forward with your hands on the handlebars.  Let’s take a look at the various controls that are at your disposal, what they do, and how to use them.

Clutch

how to ride a dirt bike clutch lever
Clutch Lever

On the left side of the handlebar will be a lever that you grab with your fingers.  This is the clutch lever.  The clutch engages or disengages the transmission, causing the engine to either deliver power to the rear tire or take the power away.  In a later section in this article we will talk about how to use the clutch.  For now, just remember that the clutch is on the left side.

Make sure you can easily reach this control with your fingers when you are gripping the left handlebar grip.  As you get better, you will learn to leave a finger or two on the clutch, but for now, just make sure you can reach the lever.

Throttle

how to ride a dirt bike throttle
Throttle

Before you start playing with the throttle, find out if the bike is a 4 stroke or a 2 stroke.  If it is a 4 stroke, then it might have an accelerator pump carb which means that if you twist the throttle with the bike off, gas will still shoot into the cylinder, flooding out the engine.  So, if it is a 4 stroke, familiarize yourself with the throttle control after the bike is started.  If you are riding a 2 stroke, then twist away!

On the right side of the handlebars, the grip twists.  If you twist the grip towards you (i.e. rotate it up and back), the RPMs will go up.  This is like the gas pedal on a car.  The further you twist it, the more gas gets delivered, the higher the RPM and the faster the bike goes.  Throttle control is one of the most important parts to riding a dirt bike, so familiarize yourself with it.

The throttle should automatically return to idle when you release the grip.  If it doesn’t you need to take a look at the routing of the throttle cable.  It is not safe to ride a dirt bike that has a throttle that is sticking.  It should have a nice crisp return to idle when you release the grip.

Front Brake

how to ride a dirt bike front brake
Front Brake Lever

On the right side of the handlebars, in front of the grip is another lever.  This activates the front brake. 

When you are first starting out, I would not recommend relying too heavily on the front brake.  Sure it has a ton of stopping power, but that can end up being not great if you are just learning as grabbing too much front break can cause the front end to tuck and cause you to fall.  This is especially true in a turn.

Make sure that you can easily grab the front brake when you are holding the throttle grip.  Ideally you want to ride around with your pointer and middle finger resting on the brake lever so you can grab it if needed.  But for now, just make sure you can reach it.

Kill Switch

how to ride a dirt bike kill switch
Kill Switch

This is most often found on the clutch side of the handlebars and will be a button that turns the bike off.  Usually it is red.  You should find it and remember where it is so you can turn the dirt bike off when you are done riding.

Other Handlebar Controls

Depending on the year of your bike you may have two additional controls that will be on the clutch side of the handlebar.  This is a MAP switch and a hot start.  These are two controls that you don’t really need to mess with too much when you are first starting riding, I am just including them here so that you don’t get confused looking at the handlebars and wondering what they are.

how to ride a dirt bike hot start
Hot Start Lever

A hot start lever is a small lever usually operated by 1 finger on the clutch side of the bike.  What this does is change the air/fuel mixture slightly for starting the bike when it is hot.  Hot 4 strokes are notoriously difficult to start and this helps that a little.  My bike is a 4 stroke, and I rarely use the hot start, opting to just kick it until it starts.  Chances are good you won’t need to use this very often either.

The MAP switch adjusts the ignition curve on a bike.  This is a more advance thing that people racing or looking to dial in performance will use.  If you are learning to ride a dirt bike for the first time, don’t mess with it.

Shift Lever

how to ride a dirt bike shift lever
Shift Lever

Down by your left foot, in front of the foot pegs is the shift lever.  This allows you to change gears and find neutral.  Later in this article we will talk about how to use the shift lever and the shifting patterns and all that, but for now, just familiarize yourself with its location so you are able to reach it with your toe without having to look down.

Rear Brake Pedal

how to ride a dirt bike rear brake
Rear Brake Pedal

By your right foot is the rear brake pedal.  This works similar to a car brake in that you press on it with your toe and it stops the bike.  When you are first learning, you should favor the rear brake pedal over the front brake as it is a more stable way to slow the bike down.

For me, this was a tough adjustment when I was first starting riding.  I had ridden mountain bikes for years, and was used to stopping by grabbing the brake lever on the handlebars.  I had to make a conscious effort to slow down with the rear brake.

As your riding skill develops, you will figure out the way that works best for you, but quick stopping is almost always going to include at least some portion of rear brake usage.  When you first start this should be majority rear brake, but as you get better you might find certain situations where the front brake gets the bulk of your usage.

How to Start A Dirt Bike

There are two major things that you need to know before you start the bike.  First, is it a 2 stroke or a 4 stroke, and second, does it have an electric start.  There will help you know what to do and not to do when starting the bike.  You have to start a dirt bike in order to ride a dirt bike, so here are the steps to take!

Finding Neutral

I always start my bike in neutral.  To find neutral, click the shift lever down as far as it will go, then do a half click up.  This is not always easy to do, and sometimes I have to get off the bike and use my hand to raise it up into neutral.  For dirt bikes (and most motorcycles), neutral is half way between first and second gear.  Some bikes may have an indicator light to let you know when you are in neutral but mine does not.

To tell if you are in neutral, try to push the bike forward a little.  If you get resistance or drag the rear wheel then you are in gear and need to try again.  The bike should roll freely when in neutral.

Starting the Dirt Bike

Let’s get starting a bike with electric start out of the way.  First step would be to turn on the battery if it has been turned off.  Then push the start button until the motor runs.

For the rest of us, here is how to start a dirt bike.

On the carburetor there is a little knob that can be pulled out.  This is the choke.  If the bike it cold, go ahead and pull the choke out as it will make it easier to start.

how to ride a dirt bike kick starter in
Kick Starter Flipped In

On the right hand side, right above the rear foot peg is a lever that rotates out and looks like an upside down “L”.  This is your kick starter.  You will want to rotate the lever out, put your right foot on it and stomp down.  This will cause the motor to turn over and hopefully start up.  Don’t be discouraged if this takes a few times.

Don’t kick furiously

What I see a lot of people do is kick the kick starter rapidly through what looks like less than half strokes.  This has never worked will for me and it looks exhausting.  What I do is slowly push down on the kick starter until I feel like I have reached the maximum resistance (generally indicating top dead center), let it ratchet back up, then give it a good firm stomp.

Use the Throttle Only With A 2 Stroke

If you are riding a 2 stroke, it is fine to turn the throttle a little when you are kick starting to introduce some fuel.  Don’t do this if you are riding a 4 stroke.  Lots of 4 strokes have an accelerator pump carb which essentially pushes fuel into the cylinder when you turn the throttle.  This will cause the air fuel mixture to be out of whack and flood the engine.

Okay, so you now have your bike started right?  Great!  If you pulled the choke out to get it running, give it a minute then push the choke back in and flip the kick starter back in.  Now let’s figure out how to ride a dirt bike.

Clutch and Shift Patterns – MUST know to ride a dirt bike

How A Dirt Bike Clutch Works

Basically all dirt bikes except the ones for small children are going to have a clutch.  The clutch separates the engine from the transmission by way of a series of friction plates.  When you squeeze the clutch in, these plates are separated so there is no power going to the transmission.  When you release the clutch the plates come in contact and become one spinning unit which causes power to go to the transmission.

The clutch isn’t an on or off type thing.  So you want to let the clutch out slowly until it engages, then let it the rest of the way out.  You don’t want to spend very much time in the “engaging” part because that will cause the clutch plates to wear out quickly.  It is fine if you ride the clutch a little bit getting started, but don’t make a habit of it unless you want to spend more time changing out clutch plates than you do riding a dirt bike.

For a closer look at how a clutch works on a dirt bike, we have an article here.

Dirt Bike Shift Pattern

As mentioned earlier, a dirt bike has neutral in between first and second gear.  This effects how you shift a dirt bike because you will hear people say the shift pattern is “one down five up” (indicating a 6 speed transmission), or “one down three up” (indicating a 4 speed transmission).

The one down means that its first gear, then you click it up to get to second, up again to get to third, etc.

Here is a diagram of a dirt bike shift pattern for a 4 speed transmission.

When you shift gears, it truly is a click.  When going from first to second, you take the toe of your motocross boot and click it up once.  The shift lever will return to its normal position after the click so you can easily find it the next time you need to shift.

To downshift, take the toe of your boot and step on the shift lever one click, which will bring it from the higher gear to the lower gear.

Putting the Clutch and Shifter Together

Alright, enough talking, let’s look at how this works in practice.

With the dirt bike running, squeeze the clutch lever (engaging the clutch) and push down on the shift lever (moving the bike from neutral to first gear) and rev the engine slightly.  Now, slowly let the clutch out until the bike starts to roll.

So that is what happens when you are experienced.  Here is what will probably happen to you.  You will squeeze the clutch, kick it into first, and then slowly release the clutch until the bike starts to roll.  Then you will panic, completely releasing the clutch, and the bike will stall out.  That is okay, give yourself a break.

What is happening when this occurs is you are going from slowly delivering the power to giving it full power immediately.  Since there is not enough fuel going to the motor, it hasn’t built up enough power to sustain the roll and something has to give.  So it stalls out.  The same thing happens on a car when you are first learning to drive a stick shift.

Rarely does someone get it right the very first time when driving a stick shift, same thing with a dirt bike.  Just keep at it!

Drill to Enforce Clutch Control

Here is how I learned to use the clutch successfully.  Find a nice flat piece of ground, start the bike up, and squeeze in the clutch.  When the bike starts to roll, pull the clutch all the way back in.  Do this a couple of times so you can figure out where in the clutch pull the clutch actually starts engaging the bike.

Now that you know where the clutch engages, let the bike roll about 10 feet and do it all over again.  Slowly get the bike moving a little bit, pull in the clutch to come to a stop, rinse and repeat.  Do this 10-15 times until you have built up the confidence that you can make the machine do what you want it to.

Your First Ride – Finally you get to ride a dirt bike

Now that the bike riding fine, it is time to get your confidence up actually riding.  For this, stay in first gear and just ride up and down the road, or field, or whatever spot you are using to learn on.  When I first started riding, I don’t think I came out of first gear for the entire day.  I just putted around in first, and this is completely fine.

Once you are moving, you need to start thinking about balance.  Generally, the faster you are moving, the easier it is to balance.  The flip side is the faster you are moving, the more it will hurt when you fall.  This is why I recommend first gear because you can go fast enough to maintain your balance, but typically not so fast that you are going to get hurt badly when you fall.

You will fall, and that is fine.  I felt such a great sense of relief the first time I fell because I had gotten that out of the way.

When you are riding around, try to stay relaxed.  If you get tense, instead of you working with the bike, you start to work against the bike which can cause accidents.  In the back of your mind, constantly remind yourself to stay relaxed and loose.  If you feel you are getting too tense, go ahead and stop for a water break and give it another shot once you have calmed down a bit.

Shifting – How to Ride a Dirt Bike Faster

So by this time, I am going to assume you have gone through the first part of this article and are confident in your ability to start the bike, use the clutch, and putt around in first gear.

So, time to kick it up a notch and kick it into second gear. 

There is some misinformation about when to use the clutch and when not to use the clutch.  The person teaching me to ride told me that you never had to use the clutch to shift gears on a dirt bike.  He was wrong, but lots of people believe this is true.

When to Use the Clutch

You need to use the clutch to shift gears when shifting up under power.  So if you are accelerating and want to go from first to second, pull the clutch in and kick up.  The reason for this is when you are putting fuel to the motor and there is strain on the clutch and transmission, you don’t want to kick put it in a different gear.  This will wear out your transmission.  If you pull the clutch in, it takes the power away from the transmission and you can then shift gears.

When down shifting, you don’t need to use the clutch because you are not going to be accelerating.  There is not an excess of power in the engine that you are fighting against with a shift.

I think that when you are starting off, it is best to just use the clutch every time you shift.  The reason is that it will build good habits.  Using the clutch when up-shifting is necessary, and using the clutch when down-shifting doesn’t hurt anything.

So as you are riding around, get familiar with shifting from first to second, second to third, etc.  If you don’t want to go very fast in the beginning that is fine, just learning how to shift from first to second and from second to first will help you learn the mechanics of shifting, and at this point all we are trying to do is get the fundamentals down.

Stopping A Dirt Bike – How to Use the Brakes

Eventually you are going to want to slow down.

You have two brakes on a dirt bike.  The front brake and the rear brake.  The front brake has a ton of stopping power, but also can cause the front end to tuck and you to get washed out in a turn.  The rear brake is a little more awkward to use when you first start out, but you should really try to favor that as it is a more stable way to stop the bike.

If you think about the physics of braking, when you apply the brake, weight shifts forward.  This shift forward of weight is going to make the amount of traction you have on the rear tire slightly less and the amount of traction you have on the front slightly more.

Since you want to have maximum traction at all times, it is good to think about how your braking affects this.  Since there is comparably little weight on the front tire of a dirt bike, the front brakes are more prone to locking up.  If they lock up you are probably going to fall.  Since the rear brake has both a larger tire and more weight over top of it, it is less likely to lock up.  So, use your back brake more when you are starting.

Brake Before The Turn

You always want to brake going into a turn and accelerate out of the turn.  Your braking should be mostly done before you initiate the turn, and throttle applied smoothly through the turn and the exit.  The reason for this is you want to have maximum traction going through the turn.  Accelerating in a turn will push the weight of the bike down, giving you more traction.  Don’t overdo it though because if you accelerate so much that your rear tire breaks loose then it can get a little dicey.

The main thing to remember at this point is that if you are just starting out and find yourself in the middle of a turn with the brakes applied you are doing it wrong.  You need to be accelerating to safely get through a turn.  Some pros have enough control of their dirt bikes to feather the brakes in the middle of a turn to keep a wheel in a rut, but at this point in your riding career, focus on being done braking before you start the turn.

Body Position to Ride A Dirt Bike Correctly

Now that you have the basics down, it is time to focus on your riding position.  Like the brakes, this is one of those things that will likely seem awkward at first.

When riding a dirt bike, you need to be in a neutral body position.  This means that your weight is centered on the bike.  More than likely, you are sitting way back in the seat because that seems like the right place to sit and is comfortable.  It is not the right place to sit.  In order for you to be in a neutral position you want to have roughly 2 fists worth of space between the front of the seat and your crotch.

how to ride a ride bike incorrect seating position
Incorrect Seating Position
how to ride a dirt bike correct seating position
Correct Seating Position

This will seem like you are really far forward on the bike, but in fact you are right where you are supposed to be.  You can then grip the radiator shrouds with your knees if you want.

If you can go ahead and do this right from the start, you will be miles ahead of other beginner riders.  Body position is one of the most important parts of riding because ultimately you need to be balanced on the bike for it to perform well.  You are probably going to feel hunched forward at first, but this is fine, just get accustomed to it.

Once you have your seating position worked out, remember that you are going to want to be leaning forward when riding.  This will allow you to have the most control over the dirt bike.  Your elbows will be bent and you should be able to see the number plate on your bike.  Basically, your helmet will be over the handlebars.

Rider Attack Position

This is the position that you see most advanced riders taking when riding.  They are hunched forward standing on the bike.  They aren’t standing straight up, but rather “squatting” over the bike.  This allows the rider to either move forward or back, shifting their weight as needed. 

When you are just starting out, it is good to get a little bit of practice standing up when riding, but don’t just stand straight up.  Get into the attack position and try riding around a bit.  It is going to be tough to start out with as it take a lot of strength in your quads to maintain this position.  So, just take it easy and practice standing and sitting the first few times.

Whiskey Throttle

When you accelerate your dirt bike, you need to lean forward and go with the power.  Otherwise, something called Whiskey Throttle will happen.  Whiskey Throttle is when you accelerate the dirt bike, and the force of doing that pulls you further back into the seat.  As you slide further back, your throttle hand rotates back, increasing the throttle and pushing you further back.  Eventually all your weight will be on the rear and you will lose control of the bike.

To prevent this, lean forward when accelerating to counteract the natural forces that will be pushing you backwards.

Turns

Completing turns is something that you are going to have to master.  Luckily, it’s easy enough to do, like riding a bike.  You will need to move your weight forward when you turn, and put your inside foot down towards the ground (toes up) to serve as a way for you to brace against the ground if you go too far over.

Here is a quick video walking you through the mechanics of the turn.

Turning Drills

There are two drills that I think you should try when you are first learning to ride.  The first is to ride in an oval.  Make sure that you switch directions you are going periodically so you can practice turning on both directions.  As you get comfortable with riding in an oval, try and tighten up the radius so you are turning a little sharper.  If you are feeling really good, accelerate towards the turn, brake, take the turn, and accelerate out.

The second drill you will want to do is to ride figure 8s.  This will help you transition from one direction turn to another.  Just run these a few times until you are comfortable with the process.  The more you do them the easier it will get and it will pay huge dividends when you finally get to the track or trail.

Wrap Up

So this was a long article, but don’t let the length of the article make you think that riding a dirt bike is difficult.  After a couple of times out, most of the topics that we discussed will have become second nature.  I wanted to make sure to do a thorough look at how to ride a dirt bike so that you can have a firm foundation to get out here and try it.

Reading an article and actually riding a dirt bike are two different things, so make sure you get out there and practice.  The more you practice and focus on the fundamentals, the better of a rider you will become.  Stay safe out there!

Further Reading

Best Dirt Bikes For Beginners
Essential Gear for Kids
A Twist of the Wrist Vol. 2 – by Keith Code – This book is focused almost exclusively on street bike racing, however there is in-depth discussion about braking forces and turning that are applicable to riding a dirt bike.