Have you ever noticed that some days you cannot seem to keep the bike on the trail and out of the bushes? Or that you seem to laying on the ground when you thought you were riding a dirt bike? I have, and thankfully thanks to good protective gear and my amazing riding skills (okay because I generally ride slow) most of the time the worst injury is a bruised ego (with a few notable exceptions that I will ignore). I like to chalk this particular phenomenon up to something I call "Crash Karma". Now before you start getting red in the face and think I am talking religion or making fun of religion, stop. Back away from your screen, breathe, imbibe in something that will help you calm down. When you are ready, come back and finish reading.
Crash Karma is not a religious, spiritual or mystical thing. In fact it's more of a "are you being stupid" thing. Or, in many cases it's a "is your bike set-up for the conditions" thing or some combination of the two. The other day, after a nice Sunday ride we were talking about who crashed, when, how and the amount sniveling and whining that went with the crash. We are a very sensitive group of riders and care about each other's feelings and......okay not true so back to my story. Any way, as we were recounting the adventure and laughing with (always laughing with, never "at") one or more of our riding partners, my son said to me "you never crash". This is, of course, completely false. I have the scars and hospital bills to prove it. But lately I have been either really lucky or really good and haven't really found myself looking up at the sky unintentionally. I like to joke and say it's because there are a couple of guys I ride with that are soaking up all the Crash Karma by bouncing off something hard at least once per ride.
While this is funny after the fact, it's always a little stressful at the time and it got me to thinking about why do we crash? We are trail riders, not racers (for the most part). We don't ride tracks where someone is going to run into you (normally) or land on you after a big jump. But somehow we manage to end up on the ground and the consequences can be very painful and stay that way for a long time. So, after applying my amazing intellect to the problem I have come up with two reasons for the crash problem; being stupid and bike not set-up. As for the being stupid part there is not much cheap advice I can offer on that subject, there are people who get paid lots of money to listen to your problems and tell you how stupid you are. I on the other hand don't really care about your problems, but there are a couple of things I can offer on the subject for free. In my opinion the first thing every rider needs to come to grips with is your own abilities and skill level. Get over yourself, you are not a professional rider, no matter how close you came to "going pro" when you were younger. Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that you should always "play it safe". In fact half the fun of this sport is push your limits, but there is a difference between pushing your limits and being stupid. You know, things like "if you can't see around that corner, slow down, there are other people in the woods that are even more stupid than you are" and of course the old adage, "when in doubt, throttle out". Believe it or not, there is some truth to this one but I will get to that later.
Okay, now that we have gotten past the being stupid part, let's look at bike setup. Most modern dirt bikes are setup from the factory for 180 lb riders that are riding a closed track. Not a 220 lb rider with a backpack riding trails. The first thing you should look at is your spring sag on the rear shock. The pre-load on your rear spring affects how the bike going to handle in the corners, hills, etc. There are lots and lots of videos and tutorials online for how to set your pre-load also known as "race sag". Just keep in mind, most of these guys are thinking track conditions, but the process is the same for us trail guys. Along those same lines, you should seriously consider the rear spring. If you are 250 lbs with your gear on, you need a different spring for the rear shock. Again tons of resources online that deal with this subject.
Once you have your sag issue figured out, you should probably give your "clickers" some thought. These are the adjustments on your front forks and rear shock that control how your suspension is going to respond. Most bikes have two adjustments, these are usually flat head screwdriver adjustments. On many Japanese bikes there is one at the top and another on the bottom (check your owners manual to figure out which is which). One adjusts the compression and the other is rebound. Compression deals with how "stiff" your suspension feels as you go over bumps and jumps. Rebound deals with how fast your suspension bounces back after it's compressed. Most of the time what I see when a bike comes into the shop is that these are set too hard. Believe it or not, for trail riding you want both adjustments on the soft side. If you are riding slow single track you want that suspension to travel smoothly and avoid bouncing as much as possible. Nothing worse than trying to get up a rocky hill and the suspension keep rebounding up with every rock. One thing to keep in mind here, is your front and rear suspension should be adjusted together. On the other hand, if you are riding desert, particularly with whoops, you suspension needs to be a little stiffer and rebound faster. What you don't want is your forks or shocks bottoming out in the whoops. So, my suggestion is first find out what the stock settings are for your particular bike and adjust your clickers accordingly. Then go for a ride with the appropriate adjusting tool (usually a small screw driver) and back your clickers out 1 or to clicks at a time and see how it feels. By the way, this shouldn't be done when you are riding with a group. Stopping every 5 minutes has tendency to inspire other riders to push you off the nearest cliff. As you adjust your suspension pay attention to how the bike feels, is the seat bouncing up and hitting you in the butt? Back the rebound off on the rear shock a click or two. Is the front fork bottoming in the whoops? Turn the compression on your forks in a couple clicks. There is no magic number, it's all about personal preference. Once you get those numbers figured out, right them down somewhere. The setting for fast desert riding may make the bike hard to handle in the woods and vice versa. One last note on suspension, if you have the money to spend (like about $600.00) have your suspension re-valved by a professional. You will be amazed at the difference. Not to mention you now have someone you can talk to about your settings. The last thing on suspension is the adage "when in doubt, throttle out". There really is some truth to this. Unlike your old 10 speed or bmx bike from back in the day, modern dirt bikes have pretty amazing suspension. The front forks will compress a long way, which means that if you can keep the bike straight it will mostly likely roll over just about anything short of a wall. When riding is loose soil or lots of rocks going a little faster is actually better than trying to go slow. Either way, make sure you always wear appropriate protective gear so that when you do find yourself on the ground those rocks don't find a way to poke through your skin.
Apart from suspension the other big thing that many don't understand is tire pressure. If your tire pressure is too high the bike will feel like you are always riding on marbles. Too low and you run the risk of a pinch flat. What pressure you choose has allot to do with terrain, tire type and tube thickness. If you are running a soft MX type tire with a standard tube you need to have your pressure a little higher. High speed desert riding you probably need to be in the 12-14 pound range, slow technical single track a little lower. If you are running a desert tire like a Parker DT or Maxis Desert IT along with a heavy duty tube you can get away with lower pressures. Personally when I still had tubes I always ran a desert type tire with a HD tube. For desert I kept it at about 12 lbs and woods about 10 lbs. I now have the Tubliss system so I am run somewhere between 8 and 11 depending on terrain. Lastly keep in mind, 18" rear tires are less prone to pinch flats than 19" rear tires.
The last thing to keep in mind, your skill level and bike setup will only get you so far. Your ability to read the terrain and make good choices is the ultimate goal. The only way I know of to get better at this is seat time. The more you ride the better you will get at this. You will find that your comfortable riding speed will increase naturally with your confidence level. Also keep in mind your physical shape as you get fatigued physically your ability to make quick decisions gets slower. So don't be afraid to slow down a little. Your riding buddies may roll their eyes at you for being slow, but speaking from experience that's a whole lot better than your favorite orthopedic surgeon rolling his eyes at you in the emergency room.