Step by step guide on how to start and ride your dirt bike and begin to ride like a pro
So you’ve bought your dirt bike or you may be riding one for the very first time. Where do you begin? As with anything new there’ll be a learning curve, but with practice you’ll get better.
How to ride a dirt bike step by step begins with:
- How to start your bike by selecting neutral or by pulling the clutch lever in.
- Knowing neutral is between first and second gear.
- Learning how to shift gears and to know which gear you are in, which is helped by understanding the sound of the engine.
- Understanding how to use independent front and back brakes.
This article goes through a step by step guide of how to ride a dirt bike, this begins with: ‘How to start a dirt bike?’
As you probably already have a dirt bike when you read this article, you know what a dirt bike is. But just in case you don’t, a dirt bikes are another term for off-road motorcycles. They are specially designed for off-road events. There are various types of dirt bike, which include motocross (or scramblers), enduro and trial bikes. In fact in the UK dirt biking is often referred to as scrambling instead.
How to start my dirt bike
You first need to know that there are two types of starter on dirtbikes. These are a kick-start and an electric start. Some will have both though.
Dirt bikes with only a kick start are slightly lighter than the electric start type, as they don’t have a starter motor, but the weight saving is marginal. There are other pros and cons of having an electric start instead of or as well as a kick start, but I’ll save that for another article.
With either version of dirt bike, you first need to turn the ignition to the on position. Most bikes have a neutral light that should illuminate at this stage, assuming the bike has one and it’s in neutral.
How to check if your dirt bike is in neutral
Before you start your dirt bike with either the ignition starter or the kick start, it must first be in neutral (see below for using the clutch instead). If you also drive a car with a stick shift, you may have done this by turning the key with it in gear. If you have, you’ll know the car lurches forward when you turn the ignition key.
The same will be true of a dirt bike. If you press the starter, the bike will lurch forward if it’s in gear. The same will be true if you attempt to start your bike with a kick start when it’s in gear.
To check how your dirt bike is in neutral, first check the neutral light, if you have one. Otherwise if you don’t, rock the bike back and forth backwards and forwards, with your feet firmly on the ground either side . If there’s no resistance and the bike moves freely, then you know it’s not in gear.
If you find it difficult to move back and forth using this method, you need select neutral. To do this, kick the gear shifter lever down all the way to make sure it’s in first gear. Then put your foot under the shifter and carefully lift it up until it clicks. If you’ve done this right, you should now be in neutral.
If you have a neutral light, this will illuminate for you, but if not check it in the same way as described above by attempting to roll the bike back and forth with your feet on the ground. At this stage if you’ve selected neutral, the bike should roll freely.
What happens if I miss neutral?
If you’ve gone too far and moved up in to second gear, you need to start the process again, by kicking it back down into first gear once more.
This time be even more careful about moving the gear shifter up. Do it more slowly and you’ll slip into neutral. Selecting neutral is a bit of a knack, it also depends on the dirt bike too. Some have better gear boxes than others. Also, it will depend on how old the bike is and how many miles it’s done. The more miles, the more stiff the gear box becomes.
This is about practice and getting to feel the difference between the click into second gear and the click into neutral. They are subtlety different.
Using your clutch instead when starting your dirt bike
To start your dirt bike, you don’t have to select neutral. You can depress your clutch instead. The clutch is pulled in using your left hand. If the clutch is pulled in, this will have the same effect as putting your bike into neutral. Pull the left hand lever all the way in towards the handle. Which will disengage the gearbox from the engine.
Once you’ve pulled the clutch in you can then start the bike either with your kick starter or the electric ignition starter. But be careful when you start your dirt bike like this for the first few times not to let the clutch out until you’re ready to move off. Sometimes beginner riders forget they are still in gear and let their hand off the clutch. The bike would jerk forward and you may fall off if you do this.
That’a why for a beginner dirt bike rider it’s better to go for the neutral approach. But to pull away you will need to then put the bike into first gear.
So as a beginner, get used to selecting neutral, as this is good practice.
Starting your dirt bike
Now you know your bike is in neutral or if you’ve chosen to to start it in gear and using the clutch, press the start button or kick the kick start.
At the same time put a small amount of throttle on too, to provide the engine with some fuel. This is done by twisting the handle on the right handle bar towards you. Not too much throttle though, as it will over rev when the engine starts. Also, don’t turn the throttle before you try starting it, as this can flood the engine with fuel.
If you are using the electric starter, this is a very easy way to start your dirt bike. Simply press the button, and after only a very short engine turnover, the engine should spark into life.
Using a kick start to start your dirt bike
If you are using the kick start, this requires a bit more energy. There are two ways to start a bike using a kick start. Either stand with the bike between your legs with one foot on the ground. The other foot needs to be on the kick start lever.
Using a bit of throttle as before (also making sure the bike is in neutral as before), kick down hard and fast on the kick starter. Your bike may spring into life on the first kick, but it may take a few kicks to start too.
The other way to start your dirt bike using a kick start is to stand to one side of the bike. You need to stand on the side where the kick start is obviously, which on most bikes is on the right side of the bike. Keep your left foot on the ground and use your right foot on the kick start. Kick it over in the same way as you would when you are straddled the bike.
As a beginner I’d recommend you use the first method of using the kick start, which is to stand astride the bike. This gives you more stability. When you first try to start using a kick start at the side of the bike there’s more chance of losing control of the bike.
Other kick start tips for beginners
To use a kick start, first pull it out from its position when its flush to the bike. Then using your foot move the kick start lever until it gives resistance. Then with a quick forced push the lever all the way to the bottom of its travel using the ball of your right foot.
If it doesn’t start with the first stroke, repeat the processes until your bike springs into life.
Other considerations to starting your dirt bike
There are still some two stroke dirt bikes around, or you may even have an older four stroke dirt bike that also has a carburetor too. If your dirt bike does have a carburetor you may need to use the choke to start the engine, especially from a cold start.
The choke is a small lever either situated on the carburetor itself, which is attached to the engine, or as a separate pull button under the seat. If you’re not sure where to find this, check in your owners manual. If it’s under the seat, it’s normally found under your seat near to where the battery is. The choke lever or pull button is usually found on the left side of the bike.
But if you’re not too sure whether your dirt bike is fuel injected or a carburetor fueled engine, again please refer to your manual. If you know the engine is a two stroke, then it will be a carburetor for sure.
If you have a carburetor and a choke, but the engine is warm and you’re doing a hot-start, you will not need to use the choke.
Kids dirt bikes
Some kids bikes may be different and not have a clutch, as the gear box is a centrifugal clutch system. The gears are automatically disengaged when the engine is off or when the engine is idling. So when starting a kids dirt bike which doesn’t have conventional gears, don’t worry about selecting neutral or using a clutch, as it will not have one.
Gear shifting on a dirt bike
Shifting hears on a dirt bike is about getting used to the technique.
The gear shift lever is on the left side of the bike and just in front of the foot peg. Most bikes have five gears in total, but some may have six and other only four.
With most bikes, first gear is one click down and then the other gears are up-clicks on the gear shift lever. Neutral is between first and second gear and is a half shift.
What if I select neutral when I don’t want to?
Most riders will at some point select neutral when they don’t intend to. It usually happens when you go to shift from first and up into second gear. If the gear shift lever isn’t clicked enough, instead of moving from first to second, you will click into neutral.
You will soon know this, as at the point of letting the clutch out (See below), and applying the throttle, the bike will over-rev and there’ll be no power to the rear wheel.
The worst that happens in this event is more embarrassment than anything else. All you need to do is to depress the clutch again and click the gear lever again and up into second.
I still occasionally do this and it happens more when I’m tired or fatigued. It can also happen to you if you’re unfamiliar with the bike. So this is particularly important for beginner dirt bike riders to make a note of.
As you begin to learn to ride your dirt bike, pay particular attention to the gear change from first to second. Make sure you exaggerate the gear change to avoid selecting neutral. But if you do, don’t worry as this happens to the best of us and even the pro dirt bike riders!
How do I know what gear I’m in on my dirt bike?
Knowing what gear you are in on your dirt bike is about getting a feel for your bike. Some have a display to show which gear you are in, but not all. This means you will need to get to know which gear you are in.
If you’re a car driver and you use a stick shift (but I know in America the majority of cars are automatic), and although the position on the stick shift tells you which gear you are in, as you become experienced at driving you get a feel for the correct gear.
This is about listening to the engine revs. If the engine is revving too high, which you’ll know by the sound of the engine and the rev counter on your dash, you need to change up a gear. You will also find your speed will have reached its limit in that gear, so by changing up a gear you’ll be able to go faster.
However, if your engine sounds laboured and the ride becomes jerky or it even sounds like the engine is about to stall, this is a good indication that you need to change down a gear. If your engine sounds like it’s about to stall, simply pull the clutch it all the way and this will stop it from stalling.
Over time you will get to know your dirt bike. How well the engine pulls, the sound of the engine and the level of revs and so on. If the bike is not ‘pulling,’ or hasn’t got any power, this usually means you’re in thew wrong gear. If this happens simply shift down a gear and the engine will pull better again.
How do I change gear?
To change gear on your dirt bike is a matter of using your left foot. When you need to change down a gear you put your foot on top of the gear shift lever and click down. To change up gear, put your foot under the gear shift and click up.
To get your bike into first gear I always recommend to click the lever at least five times. This makes sure that if the bike was in fifth gear to start with, you then know it’s now in first.
Neutral has already been discussed above, which sits half way between first and second gear. Selecting neutral is more difficult for first time riders, but this comes with practice.
That’s why unlike many people who suggest to use the clutch and start the bike in first gear, I recommend to select neutral instead. Practicing this at the beginning of your dirt bike riding will help you to progress later on.
To confirm the gear sequence, first gear is one click down. Then click up into second gear, then third gear, then fourth gear and fifth gear. But to include neutral, its’ 1, neutral, 2, 3, 4, 5. However, if your dirt bike has six gears, sixth gear will be straight after fifth.
How to select gears and change gear using the clutch
If you’re not used to driving a stick shift car, then you will be used to your automatic gear box changing the gears for you. But on a dirt bike this is not the case, you need to change gears.
You should always start off in first gear. You could start in second gear, but you are more likely to stall the engine as a beginner dirt bike rider if you attempt to begin in second.
Once you’ve started your dirt bike, as described above, depress the clutch, which is the handle on the left handle bar. This is a handle that’s similar to the brake handle on a push bike. The one on the right side is your front brake lever.
Put your foot on top of the gear shift lever and press until you feel and hear a click. Your bike will now be in first gear.
Now you need to slowly roll back the throttle, which is the right handle drip, and as you do so, slowly let the clutch out. The ideal way to do this is to do it slowly until you begin to feel the ‘bite’ of the clutch. If you can stop at this point, you’ll feel a slight pull forward and the revs of the engine will drop slightly too. Depress the clutch again, by pulling the level in once more.
Practice this method a few times, only letting out the clutch lever enough to feel the ‘bite’ of the clutch and power of the engine to the back wheel. You are doing whats called ‘riding the clutch.’
This is good practice and a way to get a good feel for your clutch on your dirt bike. This is especially true for those that have never used a clutch before on a car either.
Letting the clutch out all the way
So now that you’ve tested the bite point, you are ready to let the clutch out all of the way. Make sure when you are doing this that you have a clear path ahead of you. You don’t want to be crashing into any walls or hedges!
This time instead of stopping at the bite point, you want to let the clutch out fully. But don’t ‘drop the clutch’ which means simply letting go of the clutch. This needs to be done slowly and carefully until you get used to it. I remember my father going on an old bike of mine for the very first time, he let the clutch and and flew off into a hedge. He wasn’t hurt, only damaged his pride!
Taking off on a dirt bike is about a controlled turning of the throttle to increase the amount of fuel to the engine, at the same time as letting the clutch out. These two actions need to happen at the same time. Practicing this technique will improve your skills on this.
Too little throttle at the point on letting the clutch out fully and the engine will stall. If you give too much throttle at the time the clutch is disengaged, the bike will lurch forward either with you on it, or it will leave you behind and in the dirt on your butt!
Practice the combined throttle and clutch movement
It’s a good idea to practice the throttle and clutch movement in the air away from your bike. Don’t do this on your bike with the engine turned off, otherwise you may flood the engine with fuel.
You are looking to perfect a quarter to a third throttle movement with your right hand, to a full hand clutch movement with your left hand.
Any less than this on the throttle and you’ll probably stall, any more and the bike will lurch forward out of control.
What happens when people first begin with moving away on a motorbike is to panic. What happens is they over-rev the engine and turn the throttle more than they should. This is called ‘Whiskey throttle.’ This is what happened to my dad, he opened the throttle and as he spun out of control he opened it even more.
Always remember, if you are going too fast, simply close the throttle by turning the right handle grip away from you clockwise (i.e. clockwise when you look side-on with the handle).
When and how to change gear
Once you’ve set off successfully on your dirt bike, you need to think about changing gear. When you’re a learner and just starting out dirt biking, you don’t need to go very fast. This means there’s no need to go to the maximum speed in each gear.
I suggest you limit your revs to begin with and get used to changing up through the gears, and then back down through the gears too.
The point at which you need to change gear, first make sure your foot is under the gear shift lever. When you start out it will be on top from selecting first gear.
You then need to get used to closing the throttle by turning it away from you, whilst at the same time pulling the clutch lever in with your left hand. Be careful not to pull the clutch in too early, as this will cause the bike to over-rev.
At the point you’ve closed the throttle and pulled the clutch in, this is when you should click the gear shift lever up. This should select second gear.
Then simply let the clutch out and pull back on the throttle handle again. To begin with, do this slowly. There’s no need to open the throttle up to its max. Otherwise you may go out of control. As a beginner, it’s all about slow controlled movements.
Once you’ve increased your speed to a comfortable level in second gear, do the same process and move up into third gear, and so on. You can then go all the way through to fifth gear, subject to the area where you’re practicing and speed limitations.
How to change back down through the gears
Changing down through the gears involves an extra element. You will need to use your brake too. You have a choice on a motorbike between a rear brake, which is worked using the pedal with your right foot. The other brake is the front brake, which is worked using the lever on the right handle bar.
I suggest using the rear brake for now, whilst you are learning to ride a dirt bike. This is much easier than trying to brake with your right hand at the same time as throttling down. Using the rear brake is slightly safer too. If you’re on slippery ground and you use your front brake you are more likely to fall off. This is especially true if you lock your front wheel as you brake. More about this below.
So first apply the brake gently, and as the bike begins to slow depress the clutch using your left hand, remembering to throttle down at the same time. Then, with your left foot on top of the gear shift lever, press down until you feel a click. Let your foot of the brake lever at this stage, or sooner. Then slowly release the clutch and apply the throttle once again.
But if you are bringing the bike to a complete stand still, keep your foot on the brake lever and click down through the gears, until you are in first gear. Bring the bike to a stop and put your left foot out, whilst keeping your right foot on the brake lever. But make sure you keep the clutch completely pulled in,otherwise you’ll stall the engine when you come to a stop.
If you intend to stop there, put the bike into neutral so you are able to let go of the clutch. Don’t let go of the clutch until you’ve selected neutral, other wise the bike will jump forward and probably stall.
I’ve heard that dirt bike riders don’t use the clutch
There are some dirt bike riders that don’t use the clutch. This is more true of dirt bike pro racers. But there are mixed views on this point.
Some dirt bike riders don’t use the clutch other than when they stop and start, or if they get stuck in a rut or similar. Some use the clutch when changing down gears, but not going up in gears.
There’s no real right or wrong. Do what is comfortable for you. Personally, if you want your engine and gear box to last longer I suggest using your clutch. I’ve always used my clutch, but only on certain occasions not used it. But then I’m also used to riding on the road too with a road bike, where I always use the clutch. So it’s difficult to not then use it when I’m dirt bike riding.
I’d suggest you get used to using the clutch on all gear changes when you are learning to dirt bike ride, but then choose later whether you revert to not using it.
How to use the brakes on your dirt bike
The difference between a car and a motorbike is that the front and rear brakes on a motorbike are independently operated, whereas on a car you have one brake pedal to operate both the front and rear brakes.
The front brake is operated by using the right lever on the handle bars. Whereas the rear brake is operated by a foot lever on the right side of the bike. This lever is just in front on the right foot peg.
As a beginner dirt bike rider I suggest you mostly only use the rear brake. The front brake has a tendency to snatch. This can result in you going over the handle bars in extreme circumstances. Also, the font tyre can lock and skid and the bike can then go from under you.
In either of the above two scenarios, you’ll probably end up on the ground. Hopefully the only damage will be to your pride. You also don’t actually have to be going too fast either. I once braked using my front brake not paying too much attention. The ground was extremely slippery and the front wheel nearly went away from me. Fortunately I was able to recover the error, but it was close. I was only travelling at less than 10 miles per hour.
The only damage in this case, because I was going so slow, would have been a red face and laughter.
Use the back brake on a dirt bike as a beginner rider
As a you learn to ride your dirt bike, get used to using the rear brake. This is engaged by depressing the lever in front of the right foot peg. But always be careful with this brake too. As you are getting used to riding your new motorbike, it’s very easy to lock the back wheel too and lose control of your bike.
Having said that it’s much more difficult to lock the rear brake on a bike, subject to the terrain you’re riding on. If it’s extremely wet and muddy, then it won’t take too much to also lock your back wheel too. But if you’re going at speed, this will result in the rear of your bike fish-tailing. If this happens to you, the best thing to do is to let your foot off the brake a little to unlock the frozen wheel.
As you get better at dirt biking and you become a confident off-road biker, you’ll be able to use both brakes to slow down. But even then you will need to be careful when applying the front brake, especially in wet conditions.
Riding position on a dirt bike
More than on a road bike, your riding position on a dirt bike is so much more important. You will need to be confident switching between a sitting position and a standing position.
You will need to stand when you’re going over very rough ground and when you go over jumps. It’s much easier to ride using your legs as shock absorbers. It’s also much better for you for a start. If you sit down when going over extremely rough terrain, especially going at speed, you’ll damage your back and spine. The shock waves that will be sent directly through your spine can cause damage, whereas if your standing up your legs take out the shock.
But it’s more important than just for your own safety. It’s also much easier to control your dirt bike standing on the foot pegs. As the bike bounces around underneath you, you’ll be able to balance out the movements between your hands on the handle bars and your feet on the foot pegs.
This way you’ll have four points of contact and ‘pivot’ points.’
But as you learn, you will probably sit more. It’s only later that you’ll progress to standing like the pros do. With confidence, you’ll be happier to stand up on your dirt bike.
Practice standing on your dirt bike going slow in second or third gear on a straight
I suggest you try getting into say second or third gear and ride along a straight and flat piece of land. As you get comfortable riding along, try standing up with the balls of you feet on the foot pegs. Sit down and stand up a few times, as this will help you to build your confidence standing on your bike.
What you have to be careful of is your new position over the throttle with your right hand. Its sometimes possible to tend to over-rev when you first start standing up. Practice this back and forth along a straight bit of land.
What are the pros and cons of standing versus sitting on a dirt bike?
There are pros and cons of standing versus sitting on a dirt bike.
The pros of standing are:
Pros of standing on a dirt bike
- Legs provide extra suspension and support for your body
- Allows for faster changes in body postion
- Allows for a wider range of body positions
- More control in difficult terrain
- Better balance so less dabs (dabs are putting your feet to the ground)
- The ability to weight and de-weight (more about this on another article).
Pros of sitting on a dirt bike
- Better for beginner riders
- Lower centre of gravity
- Conserves energy on easy sections of a track
- Allows for better acceleration and cornering on smoother tracks
- Safer if the terrain is beyond your abilities
- Easier to dab (i.e. put your feet down) as needed
What to do when cornering on a dirt bike
When you’re cornering on a dirt bike, you will be either sat on the seat or standing. But you need to be comfortable standing up going in a straight line, before you attempt corners standing.
Most times on a motocross track you’ll need to put one leg down as you corner to stabilise the bike. This is easier to do as a beginner rider sat down, but as you progress you need to be comfortable cornering with one foot down and standing up.
Sitting down at the corners as a beginner allows you to put one foot out to help guide you around the corner. As you lean into the corner, and let’s assume this is a left hand corner, you will lean to the left and if you need to you’ll put your left foot out.
Putting your foot out helps to stabilise the bike. More often than not on the off-road tracks used by dirt bikes there are huge ruts, which the wheels get trapped in. These ruts are particularly deep on the corners, more so than on the straights.
Sometimes your front wheel may get into one rut and your back wheel another rut as you encounter the corner.
This is okay, but it can create even more instability. But the best way to stay on your bike is to put your foot down and balance the corner.
Dirt bike safety for beginners
What I’d say is that even as a beginner dirt bike rider, dress like a pro.
This is for your own safety. You are likely to crash at some point, so you need to protect yourself for this eventuality.
The most important kit for a dirt bike is the crash helmet. Never ride a bike without one. If you crash and you hit your head, you may cause major damage to your head and brain.
The other dirt bike protective gear you must have to dress like a pro includes goggles, gloves and full length dirt bike boots. You should also include body armour in your dirt bike protection. This includes a chest protector, elbow and knee guards and you could even include a neck brace.
Don’t skimp on this part of your dirt bike gear. You may spend thousands of dollars on a shiny new dirt bike and then buy cheap and nasty protection. Don’t do this, buy quality gear that’s tested to protect you in case of a crash.
You don’t always have to buy the most expensive gear that the pros buy, nor do you necessarily have to buy all the branded protection. But make sure it has good safety recommendations.
Other tips on how to ride a dirt bike step by step
The good thing about dirt biking is how relatively cheap it is to do. Once you have your dirt bike and the protective gear, apart from repairs and fuel costs, the ongoing costs are fairly minimal. This is of course unless you stack or crash your bike on as regular basis. This may or may not involve major damage and repair to your bike.
Dirt bike fuel use
Dirt bikes are fairly cheap to run. You can ride for a few hours on one tank full of fuel. This can be for 4, 5 or even 6 hours depending on where you’re riding and how hard you ride. But a quick tip if you run out of fuel, is that most dirt bikes have a reserve tank.
On the fuel tap, which is usually on the left of the fuel tank, there’s the ‘On’ position and there’s also a ‘Reserve’ position.
If you run out turn the fuel tap to ‘reserve.’ Hopefully this will give you enough fuel to get you back to your car and trailer or van or back home if you run out from your house.
Depending on how far that is from where you need to return to, I suggest taking it easy on the way back to conserve fuel.
Crashing like a pro on a dirt bike
It is likely that at some point in your dirt bike riding you will have a crash. Crashing is about getting out of the situation as safely as possible, with the minimum of breaks and cuts.
Always remember the bike is a piece of metal (some plastic too), and can be replaced. Whereas you can’t be replaced. You may also need to go back to work on Monday morning, which may be difficult if your leg is broker or worse.
Most of the injuries for dirt bike riders are below the belt. These include broken legs, damaged feet or toes, damaged knees and so on. These injuries are minimise with the right protection.
If you are going to fall off, you are better to keep your feet on the foot pegs. This way you are less likely to get stabbed in the leg by a foot peg.
Also, if you use your foot for stability, pros do this all the time too, make sure your foot is parallel to your bike. This will avoid you twisting your ankle in a crash. Or if the bike falls on your leg, if it’s not parallel you are more likely to twist or brake your ankle.
Another quick tip is to never ride with a full bladder. If you crash with a full bladder, you are more likely to rupture it in a crash. A the husband of my wife’s friend crashed a couple of years ago and did exactly this. He ruptured his bladder and was in hospital for six months after the crash. He did also break his pelvis too, and there’s nothing to say he wouldn’t have ruptured his bladder if it wasn’t full, but it does reduces this risk.
Closing comments on how to ride a dirt bike for beginners
If you can ride a push bike, then learning to ride a dirt bike isn’t difficult. If you already ride a motorbike, but on the road, even better. There are certain aspects about motorbike riding you already know and will be comfortable with, for example setting off and gear changes.
Whichever category you fit into, after a few rides out your body will begin to build muscle memory. What feels strange to you now will become more natural. As you build your confidence, you will get better. As you attempt more difficult tracks or obstacles, you will develop still further.
I urge you to take it easy for your first few rides out. Come back to this article and read it again, perhaps after each of your first 4-5 rides.
Start as you mean to go on, learn in the way I’ve described and before you know it you’ll be riding like a pro.
I hope you enjoyed this article about how to ride a dirt bike step by step
I’d love to hear from you. Tell us about your adventures of dirt biking in the comments below. Please also share your photos. Either from your cameras or videos from your Gopro’s!
If this article hasn’t answered all of your questions. If you have more questions about dirt biking (or specifically about how to ride a dirt bike step by step), please comment below with your questions.
There will also be many more articles about dirt biking for you to read and learn about this fabulous sport and hobby.
Have fun and be safe!