Riding a lime green Kawasaki, Kyle Lyons races his dirt bike up a steeply graded mound, spinning out his tires and catching air before careening downhill.
He speeds away over a sandy wash, leaving plumes of dust in his wake, his stepdad popping wheelies behind him.
He and his stepdad love the freedom of being off-road. Tearing up a hill on two wheels isn't anything riders can do on a street bike. As much fun as it is to ride in the city, it just isn't acceptable to jump a curb and fishtail through someone's lawn. Sure, burnouts and stoppies are a thrill, but try them in the Safeway parking lot and watch how fast the cops roll in.
Out in the dirt, however, unencumbered by the rules and physical confines of the road, such moves are not just acceptable but encouraged and esteemed. Out in the open, where the horizon seems to stretch out forever, dirt bikers aren't riding to get anywhere but are riding for sensory experience where the buzz of the engine is music, where power comes with a simple twist of the wrist, where it's just them, the land, the bike. And hundreds, if not thousands, of like-minded individuals don't require any explanation for why they'd want to do something so seemingly foolish, so potentially dangerous, so utterly fun as to race their motorcycles through the dust.
Lift the lid on a dirt biker and you'd expect to find a teenage throttle jockey oozing testosterone, but ask most off-roaders how they got started in the sport and they'll tell you it began with their families: Big kids and little kids -- parents and children -- buzzing across the terrain.
That's how it's been for Kyle, 10, and his stepfather, Michael Martin, 39. For the last three years, they've traveled from Mission Viejo to the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area northeast of San Diego, where they rip it up with a handful of other two-wheeling families, bolting over hills and eating dirt as if there were no tomorrow.
"It's fun," Kyle said during a break on a recent Saturday, his face crusted with grit, his sandy hair smooshed and sweaty from his helmet. "You feel free."
For some it's the speed; for others it's the challenge of the land. But whatever the motivation for riding, the sport of dirt biking, like the rest of motorcycling, has exploded in recent years. According to industry analysts and the Motorcycle Industry Council, motorcycle sales have steadily grown over the last decade, with off-road bikes making up an increasing percentage of the total.
Some industry analysts attribute the increase to baby boomers who are rediscovering the sport of their youth and introducing it to their kids. Others say it's the increasing popularity and high-flying athleticism of motocross and supercross racers that's sparking renewed interest in a sport that had been declining throughout the '80s.
Whatever the reason, Southern California is hallowed ground for an activity that marries the thrill of two wheels with the great outdoors. For those who live in urban areas, accessing public lands where off-highway vehicles are permitted can mean a mind-numbingly long drive, but there's a big payoff: miles and miles of nothing in the middle of nowhere. In other words, perfect conditions for dirt biking.
From lush forests and wide-open deserts to aromatic meadows and sandy dunes, riders have the opportunity to explore a diversity of terrain. While moderate temperatures make dirt biking a year-round activity in Southern California, forest areas -- with their relatively high altitudes -- are more popular in the summer when they are warm (not hot), and winter is the only time it's cool enough for riders to enjoy the desert.
And enjoy it they do. Head inland any time between Halloween and Easter and you'll find caravans of SUVs, jeeps, pickup trucks and motor homes trailing any number of off-road vehicles into the normally people-free desert. Weekends are especially busy, with growling four wheelers racing through dusty ravines, grumbling dune buggies rolling through thorny tumbleweed and, of course, dirt bikes carving trails through the sand and rocks.
For non-motorcyclists, dirt biking might seem like a strange and dangerous way for families to spend time together when they could just as easily visit Disneyland and ride Space Mountain. But dirt-biking parents see many benefits.
"It's about togetherness, spending quality time away from the television, away from Sony PlayStation," said Susie Andrew, 37, who was camping in the remote Shell Reef area of Ocotillo Wells with her husband and two sons, ages 9 and 14. All of them were taking a break from riding but close enough to the action to watch the people on dirt bikes and four-wheel ATVs take turns racing up the side of an enormous dirt mound, pausing on its crest and flying back down onto the flat.
"It's a way to keep the kids with us a little bit longer. We know that when they get to be in high school, they'll still want to come out here with us," said Andrew, who was sitting in the shade provided by the motor home she'd hauled from Escondido, along with two ATVs (for her and her husband) and two dirt bikes (for the kids).
"It gives 'em something to focus on other than getting in trouble," said Scott Shacklett, 32, who was in the desert with his 6-year-old son, who trailed him on an ATV. "That's what it did for me as a kid. I've been [dirt biking] for 21 years, and I've never done any drugs in my life. I was focused on racing, riding."
Both Andrew and Shacklett know the risks -- that it isn't a question of if, but when, a rider takes a fall. That's a risk they're willing to take and one they take precautions for, making sure their kids start out slowly, learn to ride properly and wear all the right safety gear.
"We won't let our kids ride without it, not even for a little drive around camp," said Shacklett, after displaying a scar on his forearm. "You gotta be safe. It hurts when you fall."
School for bikers
The seven students attending a recent class of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Dirt Bike School at the Colton, Calif., site, spent the first half hour suiting up in $1,500 worth of safety equipment, putting on knee pads, elbow pads, pants, jerseys, chest protectors, boots, gloves, goggles and helmets, all provided by the school. They wander out to a row of knobby-tired motorcycles, also provided by the school, looking like Apollo astronauts. Their mission: learning to ride over dirt, rocks, sand and logs.
Some of the students have ridden before and are brushing up their skills. But a few of them are entirely new to motorcycling and seem a little nervous about their ability to keep the shiny side up and rubber side down, as they say, especially when they see the railroad ties.
"We're riding over those?" one woman asks.
Yes, but that's later, after they've become comfortable with the abilities of the bike and the sensation of a controlled loss of control. With their knobbed tires and high clearance, dirt bikes can handle many things street bikes would be wise to avoid at all costs -- gravel, mud, wooden planks -- but hazards that are anathema to road bikes are just part of the thrill of dirt.
Recognizing that dirt biking is an entry point to motorcycles for many riders, the safety foundation began its Dirt Bike School in 1998. Children as young as 6 are eligible, and half the students who take the class are younger than 16, according to Robert Gladden, the foundation's Off-Highway Vehicle Program manager. Families, he said, frequently take the class together.
"A 7- or 10-year-old can't throw [a motorcycle] in the back of a pickup truck," said Gladden. "That means families are getting together and going riding."
Of course, a 7- or 10-year-old can't afford to buy his own bike. That's up to mom and pop, who'll shell out $1,000 to $7,000 to buy a new one, depending on the size and style. Dirt bikes range in size from 50 to 650 cc, accommodating riders age "6 to 106," as Gladden likes to say.
Like the beginner's course the foundation offers to street-bike riders, the dirt-bike class teaches students the basics. But unlike those its street-riding course, dirt-bike students also learn about trail etiquette and environmental issues.
"These days you've got so many people competing for land use," said Gladden. "It's important that people who share off-highway vehicle areas not ruin it for the rest of us."
In a single off-highway recreation area, there are motorized vehicles, mountain bikers, horseback riders, hikers, all of whom need to get along in the same space. And that space is becoming increasingly congested.
Dirt biking may be increasing in popularity, but there are fewer and fewer spaces to do it. According to the California Off Road Vehicle Assn. in Orange County, the amount of land available in California for off-highway vehicles, including dirt bikes, has been cut almost in half, from 13.5 million acres in 1980 to 7 million acres today, thanks to efforts by various environmental groups.
"It's like running a preschool in your backyard," said Jim Arbogast, the off-road association's vice president of land use. "Over the years, you start getting more kids, but at the same time, someone's been taking away half your backyard, so the sandbox is going to be used more."
Over the last couple of decades, environmental groups like the California Wilderness Coalition have successfully lobbied state and federal government agencies to protect public lands from off-highway vehicles. Noise and air pollution are among the group's greatest concerns, but it also cites damage to soils and vegetation in desert areas, where there is so little rainfall that it can take decades to bounce back from the damage. In forests, the group says, off-highway vehicles erode hillsides, damage waterways when vehicles spill oil and fuel, and turn up sediment that harms wildlife.
"We're not trying to throw dirt bikes off America's public lands. We're just saying that wherever there's dirt bikes, there's environmental impact," said Keith Hammond, communications director for the California Wilderness Coalition in Davis. "These public lands are also for ... people who want to go hiking or find a quiet corner of the desert that's not full of dirt bikers buzzing around. Dirt bikes have their place, but not everywhere. They need to be managed very carefully to ensure they're not causing permanent damage to important public lands."
In the 27 years the coalition has been in existence, it has helped increase the amount of protected wilderness in California from 2 million to 14 million acres. And it is hoping the California Wilderness Heritage Act that was introduced by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2002 will garner enough support in Congress to pass this year.
The bill proposes protecting 2 million more acres of California land, including 118,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest, 62,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest and 358,000 acres in the California Desert District in San Bernardino County, all popular areas for off-highway vehicle enthusiasts. Although it is unclear how much of that land is available for dirt bikers and other off-highway riders, Arbogast said he's opposed to the bill.
"[California] already has 14 million acres of wilderness, but the environmental community isn't content with that. They want to come over and take more of our land, and I think that's being selfish," he said. "We've already lost half of our opportunities. This is just more of a ding."
'It's all tradition'
Fewer opportunities, however, haven't dampened enthusiasm for the sport, nor have increasingly strict state regulations. Off-road motorcyclists pay $21 to the Department of Motor Vehicles to register their bikes. The fee buys the green sticker that off-road recreation areas require for entrance or, thanks to a grandfather clause for dirt bikes manufactured after Jan. 1, 1997, the red sticker that restricts them to riding at times of year when air pollution is less of an issue.
At Ocotillo Wells, the sun is beaming and the air is thick with dust. Riders can taste it in their mouths, feel it on their skin. They could use long, hot baths, but the filth is just part of the fun of being out in the open, riding free on two wheels.
"It's all tradition," said Shacklett, who was parked with his son, bombarded with clouds of dust from passing riders. "You're born into a family that does it. It just carries from generation to generation. My dad brought me into it, so now he's doing it. It just seems to pass down."
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Hitting the dirt
There are plenty of places for Southern Californians to dirt bike. Among the most popular:
Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area
About 500 miles of trails through 78,000 acres of desert terrain, including washes, sand hills and mud hills. Family oriented.
Where: Off Highway 78, south of Palm Springs, east of San Diego.
Hours: 24 hours, seven days a week, year-round.
Sticker requirements: Green sticker year-round; red sticker restricted to Oct. 15-May 15. (Riders need a green sticker to ride an off-road bike on public lands. Red stickers identify bikes that are higher polluters.)
Info: (760) 767-5391.
Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area*
130 miles of trails through 19,000 acres of high-desert chaparral, including washes, rocky trails and sandy trails. A motocross track is open Mondays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to dusk, and weekends, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., for a $20 additional fee. A fenced-in peewee track is also available for riders on 90cc bikes and smaller for no extra cost.
Where: 60 miles north of Los Angeles, just west of Interstate 5.
Hours: 24 hours, seven days a week, year-round.
Cost: $4 per day, $6 if camping overnight.
Sticker requirements: Green sticker year-round; red sticker restricted to Oct. 1-April 30.
Info: (661) 248-7007.
*Forest-approved spark arresters (a muffler device that stops sparks) required.
10,000 acres of hilly terrain, mostly on dirt -- no sand.
Where: Northeast of Los Angeles -- 10 miles north of Newhall, off Sierra Highway.
Hours: Dawn to dusk, seven days a week, year-round.
Cost: $5 per day, $30 per year.
Sticker requirements: Green sticker year-round; red sticker restricted to Nov. 1-March 31.
Info: (661) 296-9710.
Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area
1,500 acres of beach and sand dunes. No trails.
Where: Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, just off Highway 1.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, year-round. Reservations required for holidays.
Cost: $4 per day.
Sticker requirements: Green sticker year-round; red sticker restricted to Sept. 15-May 15.
Info: (805) 473-7230. Reservations: (800) 444-7275.
Imperial Sand Dunes
60,000 acres of desert, including washes, bowls, hills and dunes. The Glamis area is less family-oriented than other parts of the dunes.
Where: East of San Diego, just shy of the Nevada border, off Interstate 8.
Hours: 24 hours, seven days, year-round.
Cost: $10 per week, $30 per year.
Sticker requirements: Green sticker year-round; red sticker restricted to Oct. 1-April 30.
Info: (760) 337-4400.
Dirt bike school
What: One-day class by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Dirt Bike School. Class begins with a half-hour suiting up in safety gear -- from boots, pants and kneepads to goggles, gloves and helmet -- before students head for the dirt. The school provides bikes and safety gear.
Where: Various areas throughout Southern California. Call for locations.
Cost: $75 for 6- to 15-year-olds; $100 for those 16 and older.
Info: (877) 288-7093.