It’s one of the coolest things you can do if you’ve got dunes in your backyard. Only, it’s way cooler when you do it on a motorcycle. Here are a dozen things you ought to remember
Recently, TVS Racing invited us to an exotic location in Morocco and we were staring at some equally exotic machinery. While we had landed up in Morocco to see team Sherco TVS storm through the Rallye du Maroc, the itinerary also included this. Sampling some of the bikes that Sherco TVS makes for competition purposes. What the itinerary did not tell us was that we’d be riding on sand. I wonder if some long lost genie had been listening to my thoughts all those years ago. Being a tarmac enthusiast with limited off-road experience, I approached the subject with trepidation for I had absolutely zero idea of what to expect. By the end of the day, under the able guidance of David Casteu and his team, I came back wiser and richer. No, I did not find the lamp or the hidden treasure but I did come back with knowledge.
Those big 1200s and 800s are too heavy to be ridden on sand. You will simply bog down and dig yourself in. Only godly skills like the ones that the Dakar riders display might save you but then you aren’t really a Dakar rider, are you? You see, sand offers no traction. Instead it tries to suck you in. So the lighter the bike, the better it is. And of course, vice versa if you haven’t got the point still. The Sherco TVS bikes that we were riding displaced between 300 and 450cc and were super light.
Don’t be kitted out like an arse. Yep, I learnt the hard way so I’m telling you. If you’re going to be riding on sand, any degree of off-road riding actually, invest in some proper off-road gear. That means a motocross style helmet with goggles. Sand gets in through the tiniest and finest of gaps. So the visor on your road going helmet is no good at keeping the fine stuff out. Only close fitting goggles do that job. If you’re riding on sand that means you’re out in the sun. It can get quite hot inside gear meant for road riding. Choose a body armour, knee braces and motocross style jersey and pant. And of course, off-road or at least adventure touring boots. Race boots or street riding boots offer no grip and you’ll find your feet sliding on toothed pegs.
If it’s your first time, then there’s no way of getting around this. I fell thrice in less than 10 minutes. It’s just part of the learning process. You quickly realise that you’re rubbish and there’s a tremendous amount of stuff you have to learn. The good bit? Falling on sand doesn’t hurt anything, other than your ego.
Unless you know how to pick up your bike in rally style, you’ll find picking up a bike in the dunes tougher than anywhere else. Why? Because like the tyres, your feet are on soft ground that offer nothing by way of leverage. So you’ll need help from a buddy until you master the art of picking the bike up. A wingman always helps.
Can’t say this enough times. Riding on sand is a hugely physical experience that will make you sweat. It’s like a full body workout, except that you’re doing it out in bright sunshine. Which means you’ll sweat more than normal. And we all know, sweat is essentially body fluids that need replacement. So hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Dunes create optical illusions. Especially when the sun is high. What looks perfectly flat might turn out to be a crest followed by a deep trough on the other side of a dune. It is in fact so tricky to read the surface that the good fellows at Sherco TVS told us that from lunch, at around 1PM to tea at about 4PM there would be no riding.
The first instinct when the bike starts to do its own thing is to fight and correct it. But the more you fight the bike the more you’ll go wrong and the harder you’ll fall. As long as you’re not reacting in panic and forcing the bike to do something it doesn’t naturally want to do, you’re good. Let the rear fishtail, let the front weave. It takes a bit of time though to get used to this idea.
It’s the exact opposite of what they’ll teach you at road riding or racing schools. Do not lean with the bike when you’re riding on sand, or any off-road environment for that matter. Instead keep your body upright and lean the bike if you have to.
You will need to shift your weight around when you’re riding over dunes. Put too much at the back when you’re climbing up a dune and the rear will dig itself into the soft sand and you’ll find yourself stuck. It sucks, and it feels stupid. Similarly, when you’ve crested the dune and are on your way down the other side shift your weight on to the back. It will stabilise the bike and will keep the nose from digging in and pitching you over the handlebar. Does result in some awkward photos, especially if you’re tall and gangly like I am but what the heck, sharing laughs with a bunch of friends later is part of the package.
When in doubt, flat out. Don’t fall for that gig. Too fast and you’re in for some nasty surprises. Instead maintain a pace you’re comfy with. It’ll give you time to react as well while also allowing you the space to understand what’s happening beneath you. Which means you’ll learn instead of trying to survive. Remember, more than speed, on sand momentum is the key. Also, shutting the gas suddenly will transfer weight to the front, which will help dig the nose of the bike in. Trust me, it’s not what you want.
Never have I ever ridden as much as I did that day without once touching the brakes. Well, okay at the end of each session, yes. But during the ride? No. Especially the front brakes. On more than one occasion, David and his team reminded us not to touch the front brake. Even a fingerful of the right lever will suddenly transfer all the bike’s weight to the front and dig the front end in. Obviously, you’re looking at a helmet full of sand in the immediate aftermath. In a worst case scenario however you might find yourself pitched over the handlebar. The rear brake is far less reactive but will result in the rear end of the bike digging itself in. So how do you stop? Depending on your speed, just pull the clutch in and the sand and its abilities to slow things down will do the trick.
The biggest lesson of that day. I was sipping excellent Moroccan mint tea and staring at the dunes when David walked up and said, “Relax! Just have fun!” His words worked and I did have a ton of fun. Which is the point of it all. The falls, the accidental wheelies and jumps, the panic at a big dune, they’re all part of the fun. And if you have a half decent photographer along then you’ll come back with some snaps you can later post with that word.