Rick Sieman: How To Handle Downhills

Rick “Super Hunky” Sieman imparts his decades of off-road wisdom to help off-road riders tackle downhills without fear of crashing or wetting pants.

Think about this for a moment. You’re in a race and you come to one of those big downhills that you see expert riders tackle with ease in the bike mags and online websites and videos. You’re not very comfortable with a hill that is very steep. So you put in second gear, stand up, work the brakes very cautiously and start going down the hill. Then, out of the clear blue sky, somebody just passes you up on the outside going about 20 miles an hour faster.

Even on medium hills, too much front brake could cause a crash.

What is this all about?
The next time you get to this hill, you try to go a little faster and find that you are going too fast for comfort. So you squeeze the front brake and the front wheel skids the bike sideways. A fraction of a second later, you find yourself on your back in the dirt staring at the sky. You have just Endoed.

The reason most beginning riders fear down hills is because they have crashed their brains out on them. It doesn’t have to be this way.

You have to learn to accept the fact that 90% of the crashes on down hlls are caused by improper braking, or going too slow.  Yup, going too slow will prevent your bike from skimming across the normal ruts and bumps in any downhill. Combine that with improper braking and you have all the makings of a classic Endo.

When you’re riding a dirt bike on level ground, all you have to deal with is the force of gravity on the bike. When you’re going on a downhill, you’re dealing with gravity plus.  On level ground, you can often go a bit faster to smooth things out. On a downhill, if you go faster your fear level rises.

Never, Ever Lock Up Either Wheel on Downills

Don’t lock up either the front or the back wheel. Any skidding wheel loses most of its braking power. PHOTO: RICK SIEMAN.
Here’s a good experiment to try.  Put your bike in first gear  and then head down a steep hill with the clutch pulled in and the rear wheel locked. When the rear wheel is sliding, get off the brake and disengage the clutch. You will notice that the braking power increases instantly when the rear wheel can turn over.  Leave your bike in gear when attempting any sort of downhill

Don’t ever attempt to do any sort of a turn on a downhill  when using the front brake. Not even a little bit. You’re just about guaranteed a washout  with the front end.  Don’t even touch that front brake when you make the turn. Sure, you can use the front brake right before the turn and immediately after completing the turn, but going to the turn itself… No way.

Always keep your body weight as far to the rear of the machine as you can. Consider, when the bike is pointed down, most of the weight is on the front and very little is on the rear. By keeping your butt back,  you tend to even out the forces.

Keep your feet on the pegs. You’ll find it virtually impossible keep your weight to the rear of the bike if you have your feet off the pegs; this means that the further you slide for on the tank, the closer you are to falling on the ground.

Different Kinds of Downhills

Get your weight as far back as possible. This means that your feet must remain on the pegs.

Fast downhills are very tempting, especially if you are doing well in the race. Whether a downhill can be taken quickly or not, depends mainly on what is at the bottom of the downhill. If the bottom of the hill has a relatively smooth straight run to slowdown in, the hill could be taken at greater speed. One thing to keep in mind;  the heavier your bike is the harder it is to slowdown.

On slow down hills, just remember that the more speed you ride the rough, the smoother your bike rides.  And as long as you can make the curves, that’ll do the trick.

The Biggest Problem with Downhills

These riders are having fun tackling this downhill ascent. Fear of downhills is all in the mind. Proper technique makes them a snap.

The only real obstacle you have left to overcome is in your mind. The average rider will never want to descend a hill  that he can’t stop on. You will probably never  have gotten over the fear of going down a hill, especially a fast rough downhill.  So forget it and ignore the fact that that it is a downhill.  It’s nothing more than a straight pointed down and if you have a smooth run at the bottom, you’re home free. There, gravity will let you stop easily.

Sometimes You Can’t Ride a Downhill
Here is we have to resort to a technique called bulldogging.  First, you kill the engine and leave the transmission in first gear. Get off the machine and lock the tank of the machine under your right arm.   You have the front brake and the dead engine will act as a rear brake.  You can control how this works by engaging or disengaging the clutch. Put both feet wide apart and skid down the hill with your feet near the front axle. Remember, bulldogging a bike down a hill is sort of a last resort.