Relax. Your elbows, wrists, and knees are an important part of the suspension system and need to be flexible.
When you encounter a dirt road, slow down and change to a slower gear. Stay riding at a slow pace until you get the hang of it. Look around or through turns. If you're not 100% sure there is no traffic coming towards you then you will need to proceed at a speed where you are totally sure you will not drift into the oncoming lane.
On all surfaces your bike will corner better with your weight pressing down on the ‘outside’ peddle with that peddle at the bottom of its travel. Look ahead at the surface you are riding on, pick your path and concentrate on this line, the wheel tracks left by cars will usually be the most firm and easiest path for you to follow, either side of these wheel tracks and on the road edges and crown the gravel will be softer and more slippery. Avoid the crowns and soft edges of the gravel road and if forced into these sections try not to tense up but to gently slow the bike while avoiding unnecessary turning and work your way gently back to the firm path.
On down hill sections these soft parts are particularly dangerous, fast cornering or braking on down hill sections of loose or soft gravel is a technique that requires considerable practice and experience, from the top of the hill start slowly staying in the firm wheel track paths. Use slightly more rear brake than front, a rear wheel skid is easier to control than a front wheel skid but your front wheel will have the greater stopping power, don’t let the bike build up too much speed, concentrate, stay gently on the brakes and descend in a controlled manner.
If you allow the bike to build up too much speed at the top of the hill it will be difficult to reign in your speed the further you descend.
On dirt roads apart from soft crowns and edges you may encounter pot holes and ‘corrugations’. Corrugations are caused by car and truck wheels and often occur on the entry and exit of corners but also occur on the level straight roads. On the straight and level parts go steady and where possible pick your way through in the smoothest paths. Sometimes it's better to stand on your peddles with a firm relaxed grip of the handle bars and allow the bike to ‘glide’ through a short patch.
When encountered on a down hill section great care is required, breaking and turning are adversely affected.
If you see a corrugated section ahead, slow the bike before you reach the corrugated section whereever possible. Always try to look beyond and through a corner and ensure there is no traffic coming the other way, in the situation where you’ve unexpectedly barrelled too fast into a corrugated, soft or slippery down hill turn (or any turn) try to ‘wash off’ as much speed as you can without locking or skidding either wheel. Lean your body in but try and keep the bike as upright as possible, stay seated, transfer weight onto your outside peddle (at the bottom of its travel), look, will and steer the bike through. With some practice you’ll be surprised how often it works out ok, the bike may drift and squirm a little underneath you, this is normal when pushed hard, but try not to tense up and try to hold your line, believe you can do it.
When riding a bike the old saying ‘where you look is where you go’ applies
In the worst case scenario you are generally better off continuing to lean and turn more and more until you make it through the corner, or at worst till the bike slides out from underneath you and you fall on the low side. Falling off on the low side will cause skin abrasions but is usually a much better choice than running wide, leaving the road and the possibility of collision with a tree or other solid object.
Regarding potholes, where possible you will have been looking far enough ahead to know whether there is traffic approaching or not, in most cases you will be able to safely ride around them, in some situations you will have to go through them, during wet weather the pot hole may be full of water hiding its depth, generally go steady, consider standing on your peddles with a relaxed but firm grip on your handlebars and roll through, for longer sections of mud or water filled pot holes or washouts its best to select a slow gear, stay seated and plough your way through, in rough-wet going it's better to put your foot down if you're off balance and end up with a wet foot rather than risk falling.
Remember to look ahead to where you want to be. Especially when cornering, don’t allow you focal point to be drawn to pot holes and soft edges, notice them and concentrate your focal vision on the path you want to take. Look where you want to go and believe you are going there. In your sight you have a focal point and surrounding this ‘peripheral vison’, use your focal point to guide the bike where you want to go and your peripheral vision to notice the areas you want to avoid.
Concentration is a key factor to safe riding.
When you first ride a bike it may require 100% of your concentration just to keep balance. In this situation you have little or no brain space left to consider other things, like staying on the right side of the road for example. As you progress the keeping of balance becomes second nature and requires only a small part of your concentration which then allows you to spend the excess brain space on other things, like changing gears or correct posture. You can relax your brain on the straight easy parts but when difficult or emergency situations occur concentrate 100% on what you are doing, focus deeply and try really really hard. The distance you look in ahead of you when riding will be determined by your speed, the terrain and road/track surface.
Once you have the knack of riding on gravel roads the enjoyment and rewards are many, the roads less travelled are often the best. Remembering these tips will help get confident and comfortable in no time.