This is Joe Motocross. Don’t be like Joe. Not yet.
Well, you could just grab a dirt bike, hop on, fire it up, twist the wrist, and if it doesn’t buck you off, hey, there you go, dirt bike!
In all seriousness, however, when trying to pick out a dirt bike, a whole variety of factors come into play. Dirt bikes are meant to be fun machines you can toss off a jump and land safely, carve up a little muddy path, and ride across, well, dirt, with ease. On the flip side of that, a dirt bike should also be tough enough to survive if you bin it off a jump or lowside into some bushes when carving that corner.
Breaking it down into three easy steps, I will provide you with a surefire way to get onto a dirt bike. Read on!
NOTE: All pictures used in this article are either manufacturer media images or sourced under creative commons license.
Experience & Skill Level
Dirt bikes are different beasts compared to street bikes. If you can ride a cruiser around the city streets, great, but you will be surprised by how different a dirt bike feels and rides. If you’ve been riding dirt bikes for as long as you can remember… well, you wouldn’t be reading this article. So I will make the assumption that you are a newer rider.
If you look at a 250cc single engine on a dirt bike and scoff at that because your Kawasaki Z400 has nearly twice the displacement, you’re in for quite a shock. Dirt bikes are light. A 250cc single in a dirt bike is like a 650cc in a street bike. Treat it badly, and let’s just say you should make sure your health insurance is up to date.
This is why I recommend that for the first bike, and you are under 180 lbs, stick in the 125cc to 200cc range. Also, steer clear of motocross bikes at this stage. Yes, they are “dirt bikes,” but they have one goal in mind only: win races.
And they do that with a whole lot of grunt and can be nigh impossible to control. It is much safer to stick to trail bikes if you want to be 100% off-road to start, or a dual-sport if you want a bit of legal on-road fun too.
The only caveat to that above rule is if you, like me, are 6’1” and weigh 260 lbs. A 150cc for me is great for taking a leisurely cruise down a trail, but if I come to a hill with a grade of more than 15 degrees… let’s just say that the engine might need a beer or two after lugging you up that hill. If you are a larger lad like myself, a 250cc is about the equivalent of a 150cc.
The bottom line is that when looking for a dirt bike, look in the mirror and do a reality check. Do you want to ride one day and spend the next month in the hospital, or do you want to ride every day of the summer with a big grin on your face and your goggles coated in mud?
Be Reasonable With Size
We’re not talking about engine size here, but actual bike size. As the mantra of riding goes: “If you can’t flatfoot it, you probably shouldn’t be riding it.”
Yes, dirt bikes do have much more ground clearance than most street bikes. However, if your feet can’t touch ground when you’re straddling the saddle, it’s too big for you.
At the least, you want to be able to put the balls of your feet down in case you need to “tip-toe” the bike through a muddy pit or take a rest break after riding up a big hill. As well, if you need to suddenly stop to avoid something dangerous, and can’t touch the ground, say hello to your leg getting pinned under a bike!
However, there is hope…
There are professional people out there in the real world that can help you find the right size bike, and they are known as “Sales Guys” at your local powersports dealer. Never be afraid to go in, talk to the dirt bike guys or gals, and try a few bikes on for size. Odds are they will be able to find the perfect bike for your height and weight.
Common courtesy, however, is that when you do have an idea what you want to get, ask for their business card. They helped you find the right bike, it’s only fair they get to sell it to you when you decide to buy.
Try Before You Buy
A lot of adventure sport and powersport dealerships will have manufacturer supported demo days. They very often occur in the middle of spring, all through the summer, and very rarely in the fall, but you never know.
It must be emphasized however, these are learn-to-ride days. The main point of these days is for the manufacturer to sell a bike to a novice or experienced rider that already knows the basics of motorcycling. Sure, as dirt bikes are not road legal, you can’t take them out on the public road, but a section of the parking lot should be roped off for the off-road stuff to be ridden around in circles to get a good feel for them.
In many places that have outdoor motorsports parks or venues that have public days, you can rent a dirt bike and have a spin on terrain these things are meant for. As part of the rental deals, a lot of places also offer quick beginner courses, giving you 30 minutes or so of instruction on how a dirt bike handles, rides, turns, and grips differently than a road bike. Just be sure to rent, borrow, or buy a good off-road specific helmet, and have motorsport grade goggles (ski goggles do not count).
Lastly, if nothing else is available, borrow a bike from your friend. This can be the most “iffy” way to try out a bike because your friend might be riding since age 3 and you’re still learning to control the throttle with your right wrist. That same friend will probably be overjoyed to teach you a few things about dirt riding.
The biggest point, I must repeat, is to check your ego at the door. Don’t hop on a dirt bike and expect to be the next X-Games gold medallist in 20 minutes. A dirt bike can kill you just as fast as a road bike if you’re stupid with it, and often in much more painful ways.
Happy Dirt Biking!
And there you have it. Three steps to find out what dirt bike is perfect for you. There are also a lot of very novice-friendly bikes, such as the Yamaha TT-R125LE, the Honda CRF125F or CRF230F (bigger displacement, but very friendly power curve), or the venerable Suzuki DR200S, one of the best beginner dual sports money can buy.
Just remember: whatever you ride, all the gear, all the time. This is slightly different for trail bikes and dirt bikes, but at the least, proper helmet, gloves, goggles, boots, and a chest protector/armor.