This article was originally featured in the September 2017 print edition of Dirt Rider.
As competitive and as specialized as off-road racing is becoming these days, and with series as diverse as EnduroCross, GNCC, WORCS, Hare & Hound, Sprint Enduro, ISDE, and National Enduro, it’s increasingly difficult for an athlete to excel at both motocross and off-road. But over the years, a handful of racers have done just that.
We talked to Mike Brown, Ryan Sipes, Damon Bradshaw, Rodney Smith, and Fred Andrews, racers who made the successful transition from racetracks to race trails, to find out what valuable lessons they learned along the way.
In 2001, Mike Brown was the AMA 125cc Motocross National Champion. Brownie finished third in the FIM 125 World Championships in 1999 and 2000. He switched to off-road racing in the late 2000s, won the 2009 World Off Road Championship Series, and has also raced EnduroCross, GNCC, and numerous ISDE events with impressive results. Up front, Brownie told us he really likes off-road racing. “I enjoy it probably more than anything else just because everybody’s friendly, everybody hangs out, they talk.”
Never Sprint A Marathon!
“In motocross or supercross, you’re sprinting for the entire race from the start,” Brown said. “But in off-road events, especially the GNCC races, since they are three-hour races, you have to pace yourself. You can’t burn yourself out.”
In early 2009, Brownie rode the opening round of the Grand National Championship Series in Florida, and at the drop of the flag he jumped out to an impressive lead. He was still pulling away at the two-hour mark.
“I had about 30 minutes to go in the race and I just hit the wall,” Brown said. “After that I was pretty much done. You go for your two hours and 30 minutes, you go strong, then all of a sudden it hits you at 2:30 and you’re like, ‘I got another lap to go, and I’m done.’ This was in the sand—my hands were rubbed raw and my butt was raw. I didn’t think I could finish.” Brown was able to salvage a fourth-place finish.
“It’s different than motocross,” Brown admitted. “You’re always going to be battling with somebody in motocross, but in off-road you’re by yourself a lot of times. It’s hard to be out there by yourself and still push and to know how fast you’re going. For me, that’s what always got me in the GNCCs. It boils down to knowing when you can push, when you can’t push. You have to figure out your limits. It’s just being prepared and being smart about the race. It’s riding at your ability 80 percent and not 100 percent the whole three hours. If you can get near a good rider and stay with them, it can help you know how to pace yourself.”
Never Be Overconfident
“When I first did an EnduroCross I’d never done anything like that in my life,” he said. “Physically, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a motorcycle. I went to South Carolina and went in practice thinking I knew everything about how to ride a motorcycle. First thing I asked, ‘How many laps do y’all go in the heat race?’ It was only five laps so I was thinking, ‘That’s going to be easy, five laps?’ I went out for practice and I could hardly do one lap. I think I did two laps the whole 10-minute practice session. It was all just technique.”
Never Forget What Your Tires Are On
“If you’re on rocks or roots and you’re turning, you need to get more weight on the front instead of keeping the front end light like you would in motocross,” Brown said. “You’ve also got to be light on the gas. You’re not getting on the gas like you do in motocross coming out in the rocks and the roots. You’re on the gas and you’re off the gas, letting the bike set up and grip across the roots and rocks. You can’t just get a handful and go through the roots on the gas because it’s going to slip out. You’ve got to get traction. It’s all about the clutch and throttle and getting through that stuff, especially if it’s muddy and slippery in the rocks and roots. I think it’s all throttle control through that stuff.”
Ryan Sipes was a three-time 250SX Supercross race winner in 2011 and 2012, but the Kentucky native retired from MX in 2013 after starting a family and devoted his time to racing off-road—specifically, the GNCC series. However, his biggest achievement so far was winning the overall individual title at the 2015 ISDE in Slovakia.
Never Ignore Options
The toughest part of transitioning to off-road for Sipes was learning that there are not always perfectly defined boundaries to an off-road course.
“In motocross, there are banners on your left and right, and you can’t go outside of those, so you might be restricted to five or six lines,” Sipes said. “In off-road, there’s a course that is arrowed, but there also might be other lines just 5 feet from you that are not immediately visible. My instinct isn’t to look for a line that’s not in the racetrack. So at a motocross race, I wouldn’t be looking to go around a jump, but in off-road you can do that. You’re allowed 25 feet on either side of the marked trail, and I had to train myself to look for those.
“It’s happened a lot of times,” Sipes continued. “I would be riding my butt off and trying really hard and it would seem like everybody else was just kind of riding around and they’re keeping up with me, or I’m barely keeping up with them. Then about the second or third lap I’m realizing they weren’t hitting that 3-foot-deep hole and then that big log. They found a way around it. That’s definitely happened.”
Never Get Stuck
Although he has trained himself over the years to keep to the main line, when it comes to big mud holes, Sipes is for finding the shallowest path.
“Sometimes you just have to plow through the middle and hope you make it,” Sipes said. “But more times than not that turns out to be the deepest path and it’s often the line that will get you hopelessly stuck. That’s been an adjustment for me too because you don’t deal with possibly impassable spots in moto. In off-road, I’ve been stuck in the mud for 10 or 15 minutes. I’d definitely try to find a cross line or an edge line now to miss the deep spots.”
Never Give Up
“I’m usually pretty decent in the roots and stuff, and I can be good in the rocks,” Sipes told us. “But sometimes I feel like a total beginner kind of flailing my way through the rocks, where the good guys are on the pegs and balanced through them and hooking up. Like I said, I’ve done it well, but sometimes I really struggle with it. It just takes time and practice.”
Rodney Smith was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2015 for his off-road accomplishments, which included winning five Grand National Cross Country titles, three AMA National Hare Scrambles titles, and five AMA National Reliability Enduro Championships. Smith also participated on several US ISDE teams. However, Smith got his start in motocross, winning the Brazilian National Championship, as well as finishing third in the 1988 FIM 250cc World Motocross Championships.
Never Take Strength Training For Granted
“When you’re doing Six Day qualifiers or hare scrambles and you’re getting buried in the mud and you have to dig your bike out and lift it real hard or kind of push it up the hill, you need a little bit more body strength,” Smith stated. “So it was a little bit of a different training transition for me. Instead of doing quite so much cardio, I started doing more weight lifting and gym.”
Never Stop Cross-Training
“I’d say the most important advice I could give someone getting into off-road is to just go out and trail ride as much as possible,” Smith said. “I started out trail riding as a kid, and when I got into motocross in the ’80s out of high school, even when I was living in South America racing the Brazilian championships, my program was pretty much Tuesday motocross track, Wednesday trail ride, Thursday motocross track. I was already developing my off-road technique even before I started racing off-road. When I retired from motocross in ’92, I did four major off-road events, which included three of the qualifiers for Six Days, and I won all three of them. Then I did the Virginia City Grand Prix race and I beat Larry Roeseler. Then Mike Webb hired me in ’93 to race off-road for Suzuki.”
Never Stop Learning
“Back when I started off-road, we would do a lot of different types of races: ISDE Qualifiers, National Hare Scrambles, AMA National Enduros, and even desert,” Smith said. “I’m finding today, riders are specializing in one category. Either you’re a GNCC rider or a Sprint Enduro rider, you’re a National Enduro rider or an EnduroCross rider. It’s like we don’t have guys who are crossing over anymore.
“But I think racing a lot of different kinds of races makes you a better all-around rider and helps you be better at the series you want to specialize in. I’ve been working really hard with Max Gerston to get him to do the AMA Hare Scrambles series this year on the West Coast, to kind of make him a little more versatile, instead of just being an EnduroCross rider. I think it might help his EnduroCross racing if he can race the whole track a little bit harder instead of just being aggressive on the obstacles.”
Never Forget To Think
“I remember I was racing a Six Days Qualifier up in Bellingham, Washington. I remember coming into one special test and there was just mud everywhere. I didn’t take an extra second to think twice of what I wanted to do, and I buried the bike in a big mud hole. I ended up talking my teammate Steve Hatch into stopping and helping me get out in the middle of a special test. I went on to win the event. I should have been there for the rest of the week if it had not been for Steve stopping. Off-road races are not typically won with just pure speed. You want to be a little bit smarter and take a little extra time and make good decisions during the race.”
Fred Andrews was a top-10 motocross and supercross rider in the ’90s. In 1993, Fred went to the motocross in Gainesville, Florida, and his brother was scheduled to race the GNCC in Ocala the following Tuesday. However, when his brother got hurt, Fred decided to try the GNCC and wound up winning it.
Never Get Psyched Out
“I was a moto guy, and all I knew how to do was go fast,” Andrews said. “So I got the holeshot and I was gone. Scott Summers was running second and he was quite a ways behind me, but every time I would come through the pits Scott’s mechanic would hold out a pit board—making sure I could see it—saying, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll get tired,’ trying to mess with me. Well, that just made me mad and more determined, and I ended up winning that day.”
After that race, Yamaha approached Andrews and offered him a ride, which kickstarted his off-road career.
Never Be Afraid To Stop And Look
According to Andrews, the secret to off-road is thinking on your feet. “There are so many lines in an off-road race, especially a GNCC, that you have to be on the lookout for new lines and always scanning the horizon. Sometimes, you might come to a mud hole so bad that you need to stop and get off your bike and check it out because one mistake in a mud hole might cost you 20 minutes.”
Never Trust The Suspicious Spectator
“I was lucky enough to have my dad at the races back when I did the GNCCs, and he would keep an eye on which line was best as the race progressed and which lines got too deep, and he would point the way when I came through, though he couldn’t be everywhere at once, so sometimes you have to rely on spectators to point the way,” Andrews said.
“For the most part [at a GNCC], the spectators will point you to the best line, but every once in a while you get some guy who just wants to see you get buried in the mud, and that certainly happened to me a couple of times. But then again, it’s usually that same guy who will jump in and help pull you out.”
Never Try To Outsmart The Promoter
Finding lines the day before the race is super important, but according to Andrews, some riders took it too far.
“I remember some riders would go so far as to clear out a line in the brush and then hang a small ribbon in a tree so they can find it during the race,” Andrews recalled. “But I saw ‘Big Dave’ Coombs in the woods one day while I was walking the trail, and he told me, ‘You guys think I don’t know about this, but I move these ribbons when I find them,’ so I don’t think they were as helpful as a lot of riders thought. I never went that far, but we all doctored up lines to make them better. However, once one guy takes it then everybody is taking it.”
Damon Bradshaw was a factory Yamaha supercross racer in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Bradshaw was the fastest rider on the planet during a brief slice of supercross history. After retiring in 1993, the North Carolina native later came out of retirement for a short period to race Arenacross and, most recently, began showing up at off-road races and running the pace.
Never Forget Your Surroundings
“One close call I vividly remember was getting out of shape on the trail and trying to get things gathered up,” Bradshaw recalled. “Well, you don’t have a lot of room to get it gathered up, and then all of a sudden there’s a tree in the way and I busted the front end off the bike, the radiator. So now I was repairing the bike. I’ve hit a tree and smacked myself onto the ground, and it takes a lot of steam out of you. So you obviously have to go fast, but you also have to remember that you’re just inches away from trees, whereas on a motocross track, you get out of shape you run through banners. You run through banners on an off-road course and you’re hitting a tree. I’ve tried hollering and even blowing the horn, but trees just don’t move.”
Never Forget To Occasionally Take a Seat
Riding position can be different, depending on the rider, when it comes to off-road.
“You’re still standing on the pegs a lot because you can only take so much pounding to your back,” Bradshaw said. “I know those guys sit down more than a moto guy. I try to do a little bit of both. I try to watch them and see what they’re doing. I don’t know what reasons they sit down other than that there are just times that maybe you don’t need to stand up. You’re either resting or resting your back or whatever. Moto guys have no idea what it’s like to be on the bike for an hour, much less two or three hours. It’s brutal.”
Never Forget To Look Ahead
“In moto you go out and you walk the track, and then you practice the track,” Bradshaw told us. “You can’t practice the track in off-road. In National Enduro you can’t even walk it. So you’re seeing the trail for the first time. That’s where you need to be able to read the trail and scan ahead of you to look for potential trouble spots. I’ve been trying to hammer that into my head, to look really far forward to try to see the course and see what’s going on. In National Enduro you’re following arrows, so that’s a lot different than following a line on a supercross track. A lot of guys can obviously ride a motorcycle fast, but there’s all of those little, bitty things that they have to really learn to be competitive in off-road.”
Never Blast Creeks
“There are a lot of times in off-road where you have to cross a creek,” Bradshaw explained. “A lot of things can happen. You can slip and fall and you’re going to be wet. Yeah, in supercross you ride in the mud, but when you have to ride through the river in off-road and you’re wet for the duration of the race… Now you’ve got wet grips. You’ve got mud on your gloves. A lot of guys have the ability and the speed, but you almost have to tame it a little bit [sometimes].”