Dirt riding evolution
Many years ago there were only a few options for people who wanted to ride in the dirt or on back roads.
There were jeeps or trucks, and there were two wheeled dirt bikes.
My first experience in a vehicle that could go a lot of places was on a tractor on the farm. Then I got to ride in a jeep belonging to my friend's dad and we went some what I considered at the time, perilous places.
But the idea of something that could go between trees and rocks, and not stay on a road was an allure. Some people converted various kinds of three and four wheeled tractor or utility vehicles to travel there, but they really weren't marketed for that kind of recreation.
When I started riding in the dirt, I was nine years old and the first machine I was on was a Cushman Eagle (a street scooter) that had been geared down. Then I moved to a Cushman Trailster, a two speed, automatic clutch machine with eight horse power. My friends all rode Tote Gotes, Sherpas and one had a very trick (at the time) geared down Honda 50 he used. We rode around my dad's farm in circles for hours, thinking it was the best thing in the world.
Then one day, one of my friend's dads suggested we load up all the machines in his pickup truck and on a trailer and go and ride out in the mountains around Camp Williams. After that, my view, and my friend's views about what dirt riding was about, changed. Cow paths and farm roads were simple compared to rocky mountain trails that only jeeps had gone up or sand deep as your leg that lie along stretches of back country desert trails.
As we evolved so did the machines. Bigger bikes with huge engines, lots of travel in the forks and trick suspension setups on the back of bikes made them so we could drive them faster and faster.
From those bikes sprung the idea that maybe those utility vehicles with three wheels would be good in a lot of instances, and safer for many people too. People who didn't have the balance to ride a bike, could ride these. Honda introduced its three wheeler and things changed forever.
Then in 1981 Suzuki introduced a "four wheeler" it was a little orange 125 cc machine that had four balloon tires instead of three. I bought my wife one, because she wasn't too thrilled about riding two wheels with a motor. She put black dots on it and deemed it the "Lady Bug."
And suddenly the market exploded. Almost all manufacturers started producing four wheelers within a couple of years and soon they were outselling dirt bikes by far.
During this same time a few started producing go cart like mini-dune buggys you could steer with a steering wheel and drive like a jeep. That evolved into what is today the "side by side." They are four wheelers with two or more seats that you don't have to put your leg over to drive. Perfect for people who like more comfort but the ability to go a lot of places.
Just like the bikes over the years I have evolved, and gotten older. Older is the key here. While I still like a fast ride on a YZ or a CM with two wheels, I no longer own one. I moved from those to four wheelers years ago. Then last year my wife and I bought our first side by side so we would have room for the small grand kids who had become too numerous to ride on the back of our four wheelers.
Having been through all the steps brings up the obvious question. Which are better and for whom?
At this point in my life, dirt bikes are all but gone. A family intervention years ago concerning my propensity to fall down riding them ended that addiction.
But what should people know about the differences between these many machines.
Well here's my take for what it is worth.
Dirt bikes are thrilling. They can go places and fit through places nothing else (except a hiking person) can get to. Obviously in this day and age that is not something we do because we should stay on trails. But for single track trails they are the ticket. And there are a lot of designated single track trails throughout southeastern Utah.
Four wheelers are a very different animal. It took me a long time to appreciate them after years of being on two wheels. With a bike there is a lot of obstacles, such as rocks, washed out road erosion and logs that you can avoid on a trail. With a four wheeler that is not so easy. They are also much harder to get off you when they fall on you (I have had both do that). But overall they are more forgiving to. If you hit a rock the wrong way on a bike, particularly without lots of training, you could end up in a different place from the bike. Often a four wheeler will go right over it and you land on all four wheels. Other advantages: you can pack a lot of gear on a four wheeler that you can't pack on a regular dirt bike. A lot of people now go four wheeler camping, even pulling heavy duty trail trailers with them for all the conveniences that can be had in the back country.
To me the side by sides that are available today are much like a full circle of dirt motorization. I started out with my first experience in a four wheel drive jeep. Now I am probably going to end my time in what one can consider a "mini-jeep" (and in fact there is a manufacturer that builds one of them). The side by side I own is only a 500 cc and has room for two adults and three kids. It has many amenities and with the racks I have either built or bought for it, we can just about carry anything we need while we are out on the trail. But the thrill of the ride is different. As stable as a larger vehicle, they can be tipped over like anything (I have heard the most common injury in roll overs is broken arms because people hold their arms out thinking they can hold them up as they go over). At over 1300 lbs. without all the stuff and kids, they can't easily be pushed out of messes one might get themselves into. Thank goodness for winches.
The three experiences are totally different from one another. Bikes are raw and require lots of concentration to ride and keep upright. Four wheelers are more care free, but four wheels on the ground means more stability, but more territory to maneuver. Side by sides are like driving a small car; steering wheel and individual seats for everyone.
Also remember that different machines have different attributes. A cross country bike is different from a moto-cross bike, just as a two wheel drive race four wheeler is different from a four by four machine used for camping or hunting. Even in the side by sides there are large differences. Some are almost built for utility work while others are made for pleasure riding with lots of speed.
As we (my group of friends) have all learned four wheelers on trips go together well with side by sides. Neither seem to mix well with dirt bikes. It seems the four wheeled machines slow down the bikes, and keep them from going places they want to go ( if you all stick together, that is). Bikers also generally like a different kind of trail than those on four wheels do.
At the end of the day (and I mean literally at the end of the day) you generally feel much more tired and beat up riding a bike than a four wheeler. In the same vein you also are generally less tired after driving a side by side than you are a four wheeler.
All are great; it's just what you want out of the ride that counts. The thrill of riding is the trade mark of a dirt bike. The exhilaration of the side by side is being able to see the scenery and enjoy the ride while not feeling like you are working out at Golds Gym at the same time, like you sometimes do on a four wheeler.
There are compromises to be made on all sides. The best thing to do is figure out what you need and what works for you and your needs.