too many words by laura lemay

Dust gets in your eyes

If you’ve been paying attention to the vast ramblings on my web site, you may have noticed that I have a thing for motorcycles. Primarily I ride on the street, with nice street bikes, but something I had wanted to try for a long time is riding on dirt.

Riding on dirt has actually become a fairly popular sport in recent times, due to the inclusion of motocross and supercross into the “extreme” or “adventure” sports genre. Extreme sports, in case you are not familiar with the term, involve the wearing of extremely bright colors, the listening-to of various punk/ska bands, and excessive use of the word “dude.” Think skateboarding. Think rock climbing. Think Mountain Dew commercials.

Actually, riding dirt bikes is extremely good exercise. Motocross riders are actually some of the most overall fit athletes in the world. Consider the following table:

Exercise Calories Burned
1 hour on the treadmill at 4.5MPH 750
1 hour on the stairmaster at level 6 450
2 minutes falling off of a dirt bike,
sliding down the hill on your face,
bike bouncing down afterward and landing on you
at least 1500

(Note: table is unscientific. duh.)

At any rate, I resolved, as part of my vacation, to start dirt riding. To that end, I needed a bike. Conveniently I had bought a bike for just this purpose a while ago, but had never managed to get it running or get it out onto the trails.

Photo of a Yamaha DT175 motorcycle

The bike in question is a 1978 Yamaha DT175, a 175 cc two-stroke that was originally a street/trail dualsport bike (“Enduros,” they call them, although that term always sounds like a european sexual aid to me). The version I bought had lost all its street gear, so I had to register it as an off-road bike, which is not that big a deal because the bike is so thrashed that riding it on the street would be embarrassing.

The previous owner had, to put it kindly, ridden it hard and put it away wet. It ran, but badly; it looked far worse, and it had been modified extensively, primarily through the application of an electric drill numerous times to the airbox. But despite the distinct lack of looks, with some work it ran acceptably well, and when I drove it off the trail and into a bush none of the scratches showed at all, which, given how frequently I did just that, is a spectacular advantage.

Eric and I went riding twice at Metcalf, an off-road motorcycle park just south of San Jose. I practiced primarily in the kiddie ring, a small flattish area with one small uphill loop in which I could practice my slow turns, my upshifts and downshifts, and get my butt kicked by 8 year olds on 80cc minibikes.

My first time on the actual trail was an adventure; I crashed four times in 200 yards, and ended up frustrated, sweaty, with a large number of bruises, scratches, and a small patch of road rash.

But as I discovered, in the world of extreme sports, injuries are OK. A common interaction between dirt riders:

Dirt rider 1: “Dude. Cool rash. What went down?” Dirt rider 2: “I biffed on a really gnarly hill, dude.”

Having injuries in the world of extreme sports and being a GIRL is, of course, doubly cool. So I persevered despite my frustration and we went back out to Metcalf the next week.

I got farther out on the trail this time before I crashed, and managed to swear at the bike, kick it repeatedly, pick it up and get it started before Eric came back to see how I was.

It was just after that first minor crash that I, well, biffed on a really gnarly hill. I don’t remember all that much about what actually happened; I know I was following Eric down a steep hill, and catching up too quickly; I know I hit the brakes perhaps harder than I should have given the traction; and I know I got launched to the right and forward over the bars and ended up wedged between the bike and the hill on the side of the trail.

For several minutes afterward I lay on the ground (laid? lied? I can never keep those straight) wailing, and was unable to explain what was going on to my boyfriend, who danced around me anxiously trying to get me to say something coherent.

But after a couple of minutes I sat up, and then stood up, and managed to feel halfway OK. Hurt, but not excessively so.

Eric pulled my bike off of the trail and rode back to the truck on his bike. I walked — slowly — back over the hill to the ranger’s station to get patched up. There were several very nice rangers there, who apparently have little else to do all day except fix up incompetent riders who crash on the trails.

The damage: a really ugly goose egg and some scratches on my forearm. A nasty purple bruise on my shoulder. A really large bruise on my shin, which was particularly interesting given that I was wearing both heavy motorcycle boots and shin guards. Damage to bike: one very large dent in the tank (I put my knee up to it, and hey! it fits!). Damage to ego: extensive.

Eric walked back up the trails to retrieve my bike, which brings us to the interesting epilogue to this story: Eric is an experienced rider, with lots of dirt riding to his credit — and in the short trip back to the truck he nearly crashed my bike a number of times.

It turns out, upon further examination, that the problems with the Yamaha were not all cosmetic. The forks are noticeably out of alignment, the front wheel is twisted, and the bike has a tendency to lurch to the right when it hits the slightest rut or bump. On pavement, in a straight line, the bike behaves just fine. On actual trails it is a menace and way difficult to ride. In short, my frequent crashes, which I attributed to incompetence, were in all likelihood more attributable to the fact that I just have a terrible bike.

The next step in my dirt riding career will involve the purchase of a less thrashed and more reliable bike, most likely a new Honda XR200 (Laura, entering Honda shop: “Hi, I’d like one of those to go?”). Because despite having a fair amount of nicks and scratches, I am having fun riding the dirt, and I do intend to persevere until I get it right. Or until I break something. Dude.