My first taste of motorcycling was on dirt. Well, grass. I had a ‘play’ on a friend’s tiny 50cc dirt bike when I was about seven or eight. The little spoked wheels with nobly tyres span as I so very gingerly teased the twist and go around the field and up the short muddy bank under the watchful eye of my friend’s dad. I had already fallen in love with the idea of biking by this point; the Harley Davidson with the sparky purple tank and leather tassels that I walked past on the way to School had done that. But it was that very short blast on that petrol smelling dirty bike that set the dream in concrete.
The bikes lined up outside Off Road Skills HQ.
Fast forward 30 years and I have pretty much avoided mud and dirt since that very day. Yes, I’ve ridden a few miles on gravel and dirt type roads over in the USA and Canada, but apart from that I have stuck to the road. I struggle to relax when I’m riding on anything that might move, and as I’ve gotten older that feeling has definitely grown. I’m an anxious person at the best of times, and so I do my best to avoid things I know bring that out; situations where my inability to bounce might be a problem turn me into a rigidly tense and emotional mess – neither of which help my riding, and not just because you can’t see where you’re going when there are tears.
Bikes lined up ready for riding.
My excitable adventurous dirt-loving childhood self, that still exists inside somewhere, has had her eye on the two-day courses run by Off Road Skills for BMW for years. Every year I pick up the brochure at Motorcycle Live and think about it some more. It’s not cheap, the bikes are tall in my mind, and there aren’t any dirt roads to legally ride in Lincolnshire, but it’s just one of those things I like the sound of.
My F700GS for the course. Bike 21.
I stood looking at my allocated F700GS – bike 21 – wondering if I would be able to reach the floor. I’d gone for the F700GS low version because it was the closest to my own F650GS machine; both had the 800cc engine and similar features that meant it would handle as I expected it to. It was also narrower and lighter than the more popular R1200GS, which to me was a definite bonus. I swung my leg over to see how tall it actually was. I have the factory lowered F650GS with low seat, it fits me perfectly. This one was significantly taller and with my left foot on the ground, even on tiptoes, I could not force my right foot to reach the tarmac on the other side. I was clearly trying very hard – one of the instructors looked at me and said “don’t worry, you can totally ride that”. I’m glad he thought so!
Off Road Skills is a company run by the Pavey family. You’ll probably have heard of Simon Pavey; he’s competed in the Dakar Rally 10 times and is the guy who taught Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman to ride off road before Long Way Down, and then rode the Dakar Rally with Charley a year later. Simon and his team work exclusively with BMW Motorrad to offer GS based off road training for riders of all levels, and have been doing so for years. I had heard excellent things about the courses from others, and when speaking to them at bike shows felt I was taken seriously as a rider despite my obvious concerns about my strength, height and skill level. They listened to my concerns and explained how they would give me the confidence to get over them, and that, for me, was the dealmaker.
At Walters Arena, Brecon Beacons.
I was an absolute bundle of nerves as we left Off Road Skills headquarters to head to the Walters Arena. We had a handful of miles to ride on the road, via the petrol station, which included navigating four or five roundabouts, a couple of traffic light junctions, and a couple of right turns. This is nothing, of course, but remember I couldn’t reach the ground easily, so I basically did everything I could to avoid having to put my foot down. When we got to the fuel station I had my first taste of sliding my bum half off the seat to reach the ground. I sighed with relief when my foot met the concrete and the bike stayed upright. Phew. I kept telling myself I would get used to it, I mean I had no choice, it wasn’t like I was going to grow over the next 20 minutes, and the bike certainly wasn’t going to shrink. No, it was all about confidence, and that was to be the theme of the two days – that, and fun.
Once at the proving ground, a large and reasonably flat expanse of gravel and mud, we were split up into our groups and assigned our instructors. I could have booked a ladies only weekend but wanted to ride with LincsGeek and our friend Paul, who were also keen to do the level one course, and these things are always better when shared. I was pleased not to be the only female rider that weekend, there were about six of us to the 30+ men, and in our level one group there were three of us and seven men. I don’t mind the company of men and generally am not intimidated by blokes, I just hoped that none of the ones I would be spending any time with would be arrogant. Thankfully we had a pretty good group, everyone was in the same boat – learning new skills and being a little nervous about that – it’s strange what brings you together!
At Walters Arena. In the rain. Lots of rain.
I’d done my research before booking the course and knew that the first couple of exercises wouldn’t involve any riding at all. Step one was a very important technique we all needed to master before we headed out onto the trails. Each exercise followed the same pattern: description, demonstration, practice. And so we watched as one of our instructors (we had two with us) lowered their bike down on its side and explained how we should go about picking it up. Easy… position the handlebars correctly, squat nice and close to the bike, both hands under the lower bar, keep your arms bent and take the weight from your legs, and lift. Of course.
Lesson one… picking the bike up. A very important lesson!
I knew how important this was going to be to learn, because I fully expected to drop the bike numerous times. I took advice received earlier from straight talking Aussie Linley, who gave the ladies a bit of a pep talk before we left headquarters, and walked right up to the bike and got on with it. What was the point in waiting?! I took hold of the bike, very slowly and carefully pushed it upright and raised the side stand, took hold of the handlebars and lowered it to the ground as carefully as I could. Thankfully the course price includes any damage, providing you weren’t doing anything ridiculously stupid. There is a support van on site with tools and spare parts to make repairs as needed, and a spare bike just in case things went very wrong. So, I was careful, but not so careful that I put my back out putting the bike on its side.
I saw the guys putting their back into it and gave it a go. I reckon I got the bike around three centimetres off the ground before I put it back down. Wow this thing was heavy. And tall. And difficult to budge. Back to it, with some encouragement from those around me, and I just about managed to get the bike on its wheels again. I know one of the instructors had his hands hovering around the rear of the bike to jump in if I needed it, which was a nice security blanket, but I maintain that I lifted that thing up on my own. Thankfully once was enough and each time the bike went down from then on I was able to ask for help in lifting it up again, and it went down a good few times.
My bike and lid.
After learning how to pick up the bike without ruining our backs, and walking next to the bike over the uneven ground using the engine and clutch (not easy!), we got on the bikes for some slow riding practice. I might be short and not particularly strong, but one thing I have been blessed with is good balance. Once on the bike, standing up on the pegs, I could ride that thing at slow speeds all day long, and with total trust in my ability. We practiced using the clutch to control speed, using our weight to turn the bike, looking where we wanted to go, choosing good lines over ruts and through puddles, changing gear while stood up, and generally had time to hone our slow riding skills.
As we completed each exercise the next one naturally followed on. Still on the large expanse of the proving ground our instructors set up a slalom course so they could teach us about making tight turns and switching direction. As you might imagine, the cones we were to weave in and out of gradually got closer together as the course went on to test us more and more each turn. The first few turns were fine, but they got progressively more difficult and the first few goes I did a couple of turns and then went way too wide and came out of the course. The next time one of the instructors ran the course with me shouting where I should be looking on each turn so I could make the bike go where I wanted to without wobbling. I made it a bit further along the course before missing a cone this time, but still didn’t manage to complete it. Eventually, after dropping my bike a couple of times on particularly tight turns, I managed the whole course twice in a row, giving myself a little whoop inside my helmet in congratulations. Turning: sorted.
Bikes at the proving ground. Most photos don’t include any riding because, well, I was riding!
The inevitable next step was to make things even tighter by teaching us how to ride in circles. Round and round and round, as tight as we could manage. Four cones made up a square we were to ride around, first getting as close to the outside of each corner as we could, and then moving inside the cones so we were turning. This exercise wasn’t only about turning, but also about clutch control and commitment. My bike ended up on its side so many times doing this one, and while I eventually succeeded going left (cue the now traditional whoop to myself), I didn’t manage to get inside the cones going right. Apparently, some people are just better one way than the other – note to self, if you need to turn in the road, set yourself up to do it over your left shoulder.
Rain = mud. Mud = slippery. Slippery = fun?!
After lunch, which was a very welcome proper Sunday roast dinner at a community centre on the edge of the off-road area, it was all about the braking. Having barely used our brakes all morning, we were given exercises to teach us about the rear brake, the front brake, and then controlling an emergency stop. We had fun locking up the rear wheel and skidding to a stop, learning where the locking point was on the front brake, and practicing how to avoid a stall when braking hard. While I had dropped the bike several times in the morning, this was when I met the ground with a thud and a splash. Oh, muddy puddles, how I hate you. It turns out the bike hates them too, requiring the hand guard to be bent back into place, but that’s why I’m not learning this stuff on my own bike! Even with the sogginess, the braking exercises were a lot of fun and I finally realised I’d got the hang of stopping confidently on one foot with my bum hanging off the side of the seat. It was all about reading the terrain and being decisive – deciding before I stopped which foot was going to go on the ground, and leaving the other foot firmly on the peg so I was in the best position possible to keep the bike upright.
My Off Road Skills F700GS.
We finished the afternoon with a decent length ride around some of the trails in the 1000 acre area of the Brecon Beacons that Off Road Skills call home. Some gravel fire roads but mostly mud tracks, the trails were definitely where I wanted to be. It was made clear at the start that we’d booked on a training course, and so we should expect training and not just a couple of days trail riding in the National Park. I was naturally totally happy with that – this was about me improving my motorcycling by honing my skills and learning new techniques – but I did enjoy it every time we went for a ride along the trails; it was an opportunity to put things into practice and set everything in my memory banks ready to take on the next lesson.
The bikes at the end of day one.
If the weather had been a nice that day we’d probably have changed in the toilets and headed to the beer garden for a drink before dinner, but it wasn’t. In fact, the weather was a little unkind to us – the heavy showers and strong winds meant I was soaked through to my knickers for most of the day. While I didn’t let this bother me while riding (a little water and mud never hurt anyone), I was in desperate need of a hot shower, so we made the 40 minute drive back to our hotel in Aberdare for the quickest wash and change known to man, before rushing to the chosen gastro pub for dinner with the rest of the bikers.
Chatting all things bikes, travel and adventure, I had a great meal at The Abercrave Inn – it’s fair to say that the pie and chips was most welcome. We left the pub full of new adventure ideas thanks to the other bikers on our table, and headed back to our hotel to let our bodies and minds rest and recuperate before doing it all again the next day. Drifting off to dreams of dusty dirt roads and motorcycle adventures, I willed my aching muscles to relax and my soaking wet clothing to dry so I could start again the following morning ready and eager to go. It had been an excellent but incredibly tiring day; I was pleased with my progress, my ability to summon both real and faked confidence, and couldn’t wait to get back on that bike.
LincsGeek’s R1200GS and my F700GS.
Find out more about the Off Road Skills courses here: http://www.offroadskills.com/
Day two coming soon…