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Off (road) and running

Why do dirt bikers risk life, limb and the wrath of environmentalists? Because they love the freedom of their family sport.

January 23, 2003|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

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.

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