Gravel. Since I first started riding, I’ve avoided it at all costs. Which wasn’t really a problem at first: in the Dallas metroplex, there just wasn’t that much of it.
But moving to Oregon has shown me that there’s much more to riding than highways. The main reason I bought the FZ-07 was so I could have a motorcycle on which I could push my boundaries. And gravel was one of them.
When I picked up a bolt in my FZ’s rear tire a few months ago, I saw an opportunity. What if I got new tires, and those tires were slightly offroad capable? What if I finally faced my gravel phobia, and took this bike for a light offroad adventure?
I ran my idea past my friend and adventure hero Amanda Zito, and she loved it. She immediately agreed to take me on a ride, and helped me select and acquire my new tires: Shinko 705s. Which, honestly, look quite badass on the FZ.
I know what some of you might be thinking: isn’t the FZ-07 strictly a street bike? Well, yes. But, it’s not too far off from something like Honda’s CB500X. I drew my primary inspiration, though, from Tiffani Burkett, who is touring the world on her converted FZ-07. We even have the same tires.
Into the Forest
On the day of the ride, J and I met Amanda and her friend Karl at the Latus dealership where they work. The plan was that J would ride Amanda’s CB500X, I would ride the FZ, and Karl and Amanda would bookend us on their Triumph Tigers, connected via Bluetooth.
I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was we’d signed up for 4-6 hours of riding, with an intro to ADV, and Amanda and Karl would take care of the rest.
Without much preamble, we took off down the already-busy highway. From the highway, we headed into suburban neighborhoods and ended up on winding forest roads.
Tight, downhill turns have always been a weak point of mine, and I was still rusty from the long winter, so it didn’t take long before I was struggling to keep up. I tried to breathe and pick my lines, use my head turns. If I was going to make it on the dirt, I had to survive this.
The winding roads led us into Carlton, where we stopped at a surprisingly busy local gas station. It was sunny and clear, and several other motorcyclists and ATV-types were gassing up before their adventures.
A little further into the forest, Karl pulled off onto the side of the road. Right in front of us was a steep, uphill dirt trail that ran from the main road up into the mountains.
We took a few photos, ate some granola bars, and had a quick, final coaching session. Stay loose on the bars, bend your knees when you stand up, and remember that speed equals stability.
A group of Harley guys passed us, and then quickly turned around and pulled in at the campsite across the road. The main road turned to dirt, and they had gone too far. We all had a friendly laugh at their expense, and chatted about how beautiful the day had become.
When the Harley riders asked where we were headed, Karl pointed up the trail. They looked impressed. I tried to act natural. The group watched us mount up and take off, and I prayed to the deity of new tires and beginners that I wouldn’t eat it the second my tires touched dirt.
Potholes and Brain-bouncing Bumps
That first stretch up the trail was a rush. I followed Karl’s lead, trying to stand up on my pegs and pick the cleanest path. It was wobbly, I powered through, and the dirt and the potholes kept coming. Immediately I wanted a break to process what had happened. Had I really just throttled a 690cc street bike up a giant dirt hill?
Thankfully, Karl needed to adjust his saddle bags, which gave my mind time to catch up. Yes, I really had just taken my street bike up this dirt road, and I hadn’t wiped out. And, it was kind of fun, in a bumpy, teeth-chattering kind of way.
Back on the trail, I began to get the hang of standing on my pegs, and tried to follow Karl’s lead wherever possible. Corners were hard — I didn’t trust my bike at all, and it was hard to maintain speed. But I made myself breathe and try to loosen up. Trust the bike.
Karl had told me earlier that the bike wanted to stay upright, all it needed was the momentum and the freedom to work things out. Ten minutes into our dirt ride, I wasn’t sure I believed him, but I was prepared to take it on faith.
The First Crash of the Day (Wasn’t Me!)
The first crash of the day, miraculously, wasn’t mine. We had to veer off into some mud to avoid an over-hanging tree branch I made it through, but J turned too hard, and the mud sucked his CB500X down. Thankfully, it was slow and no one got hurt, so we had high-fives all around.
Minimizing crashes with jokes and high-fives is an important ritual for offroad riding, I’ve learned. If you never fall, it means you haven’t challenged yourself. And if you don’t challenge yourself, you never learn.
After J’s fall, we all had a good time running through a puddle at the bottom of a ditch. I was starting to get the hang of the ride, but the experience took all my energy. Every turn was a process, every pothole an obstacle. It was hard work.
After awhile, we went around a bend and found ourselves by a beautiful, rushing creek. Karl pulled in, and we dismounted to stretch, shed a layer, and eat. I was overwhelmed, by the scenery, by the ride… it hadn’t really sunk in that I’d made it this far on the dirt, on terrain that used to terrify me.
After getting some photos and drone footage of the creek, we were back on the trail. The rest of this leg of the trip is a blur to me — honestly, I can’t even remember how I felt about all of it. Overwhelmed, definitely.
All I know is, when I saw Karl head over a bridge and onto pavement, I about died of joy. I made it! Traction never felt so good.
We pulled into a campground, and I soon learned that the day was not yet over. Karl said this road would take us to Tillamook, but we were going to go up into the mountains instead. And here I was thinking I had made it.
The next leg of our trip was mostly uphill, and I felt pretty good about it. I was going a little faster and letting the bike lean into the turns a bit.
As the ride went on, though, my energy started to fade, and I had to develop coping mechanisms to help me stay loose and throttle on. The first one I tried was quick, labor-like breathing — hee hoo hee hoo hee.
Later, I started talking to myself: You can do it you can do it you can do it. And then, even later, when I lost faith in myself, the bike can do it the bike can do it the bike can do it.
Loosen up, I told myself. Let the bike do its job.
Craggy Gravel, Downhill Corners and Sheer Drops
Finally, I had my first spill, headed downhill on a washed-out trail. Instead of picking the high ground, I found myself holding on for dear life in a crevice. Instinctively, I grabbed the brakes to regain control, and as I came to a stop I found the FZ on the ground.
This was only the second time in my life I’ve fallen on a motorcycle, and the first time was years ago. The fall shook me, but not badly. I did ask Amanda to ride my bike the rest of the way down the hill, but after that I was back on and ready to go.
Soon, we emerged onto a small plateau overlooking a vast valley. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, the forest was vibrant green. It was picturesque.
Everyone else turned their bikes around and parked along the edge of the plateau, but I ground to a halt. “I’m not afraid of heights,” I joked, and walked my bike to the inside of the others.
I wasn’t expecting a fear of heights to hold me back that day, but it did, with a vengeance. I found myself balking at corners I know I could have made, just because they were alongside a cliff.
Later, J and I compared it to riding alongside an eighteen-wheeler for the first time. When you’re a new rider, eighteen-wheelers are terrifying, and your first encounter is fraught with anxiety and adrenaline. With time, though, you get used to them being there, and you learn to cope with them.
After our break on the plateau, we began to descend from the mountain. I was definitely worn out at this point, but I was determined to keep going. We’d been on dirt for several hours, surely we didn’t have much left.
Then, we reached a trail that combined all my fears. It was a downhill corner, on chunky, thick gravel, on the side of a cliff. As I started down the hill, it felt like I was about to launch myself into the ravine.
Ahead of me, J slid out going around the corner. I panicked, certain I would careen into him and send us both over the edge. I tried to stop my bike in the middle of the hill, which worked about as well as it did last time. It was like dominoes. First J, then me. Newbies out.
Amanda and Karl immediately went to work. They got J’s bike upright and out of the way, and then J lifted my bike. Amanda and Karl rode both the CBX and my FZ back up the trail — we were going to head the other way, out of the park.
Karl and Amanda wanted to scout the trail ahead for a future ride, so J and I took a nice long break. As we waited, a teenager and two children on amazingly tiny dirt bikes passed us on the trail. With more than a little jealousy, I watched them navigate the same downhill stretch we had given up on.
The Final Stretch
After Amanda and Karl rejoined us, they outlined the way out of the park. To my dismay, it was downhill the rest of the way. I panicked quietly. Could I make it?
When I’m learning something new, there comes a point where my mind is so overwhelmed and exhausted that everything shuts down. I’m unable to learn anything new, unable to apply the new lessons I’ve learned. That’s where I was on the way out of the park.
Before every blind corner, I slowed almost to a full stop. Every downhill was torture. My thighs ached, my heels were sore, and my wrists were screaming. Eventually, in a particularly long downhill run, I came to a stop. Amanda pulled up alongside me.
“How much farther?” I asked Amanda.
She conferenced with Karl on the Sena. “About a mile, maybe?” she said.
“Okay.” I told her. “I think I’m done.”
I tiptoed the FZ to the edge of the trail, and we shuffled some luggage around so I could fit on Amanda’s passenger seat.
In all, I felt like I’d made the right decision. I was exhausted. And really — I’d spent at least four hours riding on dirt that day. Who cares if I skipped the last five minutes?
After we had all the bikes assembled at the road, we took off to go find food. It was such a relief to hit asphalt again.
We pulled off at a roadside diner, and as soon as we were seated, a quiet exhaustion settled over us. We had been riding almost nonstop since 9:30, dirt since around 11. It was past 5 PM, which made this my longest day of riding yet.
After delicious, well-earned burgers, J and I took off for Portland while Amanda and Karl went back into the forest to scope out another trail. Their stamina amazed me.
An hour and a half later, J and I were back in Portland. In all, I rode 214 miles that day, and on a dirt trail watched my FZ’s odometer flip from 9,999 to 10,000. It might not sound like much, but it was a full day of firsts for me.
So… How did it go?
In the days since this trip, I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself: Did I enjoy riding offroad? Would I do it again?
Here’s what I know: riding offroad has a higher learning curve than I expected. Part of me thought the hard part would happen quickly, then the rest would be fun. Like, if I didn’t wipe out the second my tires hit gravel, the hard part would be over. It wasn’t like that at all.
The hard part is revising your instincts, teaching yourself a new form of riding. The hard part is all mental.
I also know that I enjoyed being in the forest, taking my bike somewhere few FZ-07s will ever see. I loved the views, I loved being outside all day.
After a few days of processing, here’s what I’ve settled on: Now that I’ve experienced what forest trail riding is like, I want to practice on some easy, casual dirt roads to build my confidence. Get some use out of my 80/20 tires.
Maybe, after a summer riding on easy dirt roads, getting comfortable with how it feels to have less traction, I’ll have the confidence to tackle downhill blind corners on the side of a cliff.
And maybe, next time I face that formidable coalition of fears, I’ll make it.
A huge thank you to Amanda Zito and Karl Lipke for taking us newbies out for an adventure! If you’re an ADV rider in the Portland area, be sure to check out Karl’s Mystery Rides for a summer of ADV fun.