Throughout my career, I have covered a number of different moto events – witnessing some of the world’s elite riders and what they’re able to accomplish on a dirt bike up close. It’s always been a hobby I have found fascinating, whether it was because of the lifestyle, the equipment or the intensity. But, with absolutely zero experience riding, I could never fully grasp the insight of riders like Ryan Dungey.
Over time, the lingo became easily translatable, the intricacies of the bike became common knowledge and the riders’ impeccable diet and workout routines seemed to be quite standard. However, that feeling of being on the bike, of revving the throttle and hitting the clutch while switching gears, was foreign. So, when the folks at the Motorcycle Safety Foundation wanted to put my butt in a seat and take me through one of their dirt bike education courses, I jumped at the opportunity to finally learn.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation is the foremost authority on professionally teaching riders the safety of riding, while actively promoting the development of the sport to create smart, lifelong motorcyclists. With training locations scattered all across the United States, there are plenty of places to learn and so I made my way to the Honda Rider Education Center – one of the country’s largest training facilities. Located about 25 miles north of Atlanta in Alpharetta, this Honda facility handles a wide variety of the company’s products but also offers a controlled, hands-on, learning environment for training on how to ride side-by-sides, ATVs and motorcycles – both of the dirt and road variety. Each year, the facility teaches about 1,300 street bike riders and about 800 dirt bike riders – with about 73 in November alone.
“There’s a need for it,” said class instructor April Zoby. “There’s a want for it. And there’s a lot of people out there who want to get into the sport and want to get into the industry and want to ride.”
The center provides everything necessary for learning how to ride a dirt bike, from the helmet down to the boots, making certain that riders are wearing all of the safety equipment required. And so, I suited up, a little nervous about what lay ahead but excited for the inevitable adrenaline rush. But, as Zoby pointed out afterwards, the course really begins the night before, with making sure to be fully prepared.
“On our email confirmations, it clearly states to go to bed early, eat a good dinner, eat a good breakfast – all of that stuff comes into play,” Zoby admitted. “People also have to prepare a little bit mentally in order to make the most of it. We try to provide all kinds of classes for all levels of riders.”
Before you can learn how to ride, you must first understand what you’re dealing with and how exactly the bike works. Zoby, and fellow instructor Austin Guest, explained the importance of inspecting the bike, and its various parts, before even starting the engine. Once that was completed, we walked the bikes out onto the dirt course where we began a gradual step-by-step process on riding. First it was moving with your feet on the ground and then turning around by walking the bike. We did it over and over again until we became more comfortable, then the feet came up, the walking turns stopped and we were off. Every new lesson brought about some verbal instructions, followed by either Zoby or Guest performing the task several times for each of us to fully understand what we were about to do.
Eventually, it evolved to tight turns, figure eights, extensive braking and driving over obstacles.
At the end of the day, we were invited on a trail run and, while I felt I had the complete capabilities to ride the bike, the uneven terrain and obstacles stopped me from testing my limits. I did receive a number of compliments, however, including Zoby who said what I learned can sometimes take students two or three days, rather than one afternoon. Sometimes it takes multiple visits to learn how to safely and properly ride but, in the end, it can really prove to be a valuable resource.
But it’s not just valuable for civilians – the armed forces also use these classes as a valuable training tool.
“We get a lot of military guys that get certified to teach a lot of the off-road courses – dirt bike and ATV – to go back to their bases and teach there,” said Guest. “So, they don’t necessarily send the entire group, they’ll send someone here to get certified and then they’ll go back and train [their unit].”
There have been several occasions where they’ve come to the Honda Rider Education Center and learned as a group, though – and it was much more intense. A while back, the center helped teach some Navy SEALs, among others members of the military, with a four-day intensive course. Dirt bikes are often used overseas, like in Afghanistan, as a way to scout ahead of the group and keep an eye on IEDs, or improvised explosive devises. These men came out equipped with 40-pound heavy packs, simulated blue guns and just ripped the trails. They even went through a couple of bikes in the process.
“It was insanity,” Zoby recalled with an enormous smile on her face. “It was intimidating, but it was also an honor to work with them. We took them through the basic dirt bike school – and they got through the entire basic dirt bike school within literally like two hours. They were machines.”
While I wasn’t anywhere close to their level, to be able to effectively ride a dirt bike and fully recognize how exactly it works in the span of about five or six hours was a source of pride but also spoke volumes for the training process and those teaching it. The course was broken down in a way that was not only easily consumable but never left me feeling pressured or out of my comfort zone. It’s no wonder why so many people are going through each year – I know I would recommend it for those wanting to learn.
“By having this school and having this as a resource, we are pumping people into it – just pumping them into it,” Zoby added. And they are buying motorcycles.”