If you’ve not already, go here to read about day one.
Thankfully, I woke up on Monday morning feeling good. As I turned over and got out of bed there weren’t too many audible groans related to aching muscles, and my kit had more-or-less dried out (apart from my gloves, which Linley kindly replaced so I had a dry pair to wear), and whilst I was tired, I was pleased to be heading back to the Brecon Beacons for day two of my Off Road Skills course. The morning process was very similar to that of the first day, albeit without having to sign in: ride the bikes to Walters Arena in convoy, split off into our different level groups, and get on with the lessons.
R1200GS in the Brecon Beacons.
And bonus – unlike the previous day it wasn’t raining. I wouldn’t say it was sunny and warm, but it was dry and the cloud was not of the thick black variety we’d had on the Sunday. I don’t mind rain per se, but the problem with it when motorcycling, especially on dirt, is not only does it the rain itself get everywhere, it also significantly affects visibility. Mud, the inevitable result of rain on dirt tracks, makes everything super slippery, especially when you’ve been riding through it over and over again. But that’s what the trails are about, right?!
After a short but enjoyable ride on the trails, an important few minutes to get our brains and bodies into gear, we stopped at the top of what looked like a very steep hill. To be completely honest, I can’t remember if we did the downhills on the afternoon or day one or the morning of day two. (Zoe, this is why you normally write a journal when you’re away doing fun stuff, all the days merge into one when you’re trying to recount it later!) But I figured I’d include it here anyway because then this post would be all about the downs and ups of motorcycle riding off road…
BMW GS bikes in their natural habitat. Dirt.
We pulled up at the top of what looked like a steep descent, a very steep and muddy descent, and had a good look over the edge. We were shown and then had to practice three different techniques for descending a steep hill safely, each using the brake and clutch in a different combination to control speed. The first involved simply leaving the bike in first gear and keeping off the brake and clutch, allowing the engine to do the work for you. We were promised that the bike would reach a certain speed and then would stay there, which meant you could concentrate on everything else without worrying about it. However, as I discovered on my first descent, the F700GS had a much higher speed for this exercise than the bigger R1200GS models. Complemented for my commitment to the exercise, and going down that hill faster than was perhaps comfortable for a still slightly nervous rider, I soon switched to my preferred technique of pulling in the clutch to take the engine out of the equation and using the brake to control my speed down the hill. Much better!
LincsGeek riding down the hill after the hill recovery exercise.
In all I must have gone down that hill ten or twelve times, each time becoming more and more confident that I knew exactly how to control the bike, keep it at a speed with which I was comfortable, and make that turn at the bottom without any worry. Friend Midge will be very pleased to know I even heard myself shouting “READY” as I stood up on the pegs for the downhill each time; that mountain bike lesson down in the Forest of Dean really stuck in my mind. There was one particular descent when I managed to stall the bike not long after committing to the hill, but I was proud of my quick reaction and had the engine restarted in plenty of time to have everything as it should be before the right-hand bend at the bottom of the hill. (Yes, a mini whoop to myself inside my lid!)
Having mastered the downhills, and after a little ride around trying out various descents, it was time to learn how to go up hill. In my preparation for the off road skills course I’d spent some time getting lost in blogs and videos that feature the various techniques I was to learn. So, naturally, I knew all about the hill recovery exercise and had already formed my opinion of it well in advance – and I hadn’t been quiet about how worried I was about it. In short, before we would be allowed to go up steep hills on our GS bikes, we must first learn what to do should we fail to make it all the way up. That is, the hill recovery exercise.
Me riding! On my way up the hill before the hill recovery exercise.
The idea of the exercise is that you ride half way up this steep hill, intentionally stall the bike, get off, turn the bike around so it is facing down the hill, get back on and ride to the bottom so you can try again. To hill start a heavy bike like a GS half way up a steep ascent on a rocky, dirty trail is not going to work, it would simply slide down backwards, and so a technique to turn the bike around safely so you can take another stab at it is the best option. In my day one account I mentioned how heavy the bike was, and how short I am. The very thought of holding a bike upright while manoeuvring it to face down again was not altogether a nice feeling; not at all helped by the fact that the first guy to try the exercise dropped the bike and had to pick it up on the hill.
Very carefully getting off my bike. The hill doesn’t even look steep in this photo!
I rode my bike up the hill as per the instruction, stalled it on purpose, sat down, allowed first gear and the engine compression to hold the bike in place, and slowly (very very slowly) got off. I gradually used the clutch as gingerly as possible to allow the bike to roll backwards, turning it so it was facing across the hill. The next part of the technique is to turn the handlebars from full lock to full lock to turn the bike until it’s facing down the hill. The rest was comparatively easy; get on, start the bike up, allow the bike to roll down the hill to pick up speed before letting the clutch out, and ride away to either turn around and try again, or in this case, pull up and let someone else have a go. The whole thing seemed to take forever – the others in the group were so much quicker than me, but even at my slow speed I was very pleased to complete the exercise on my own, and pass the test. I overcame that demon that had worried me for a good couple of weeks, and it felt good.
Paul turning his bike around on the hill.
After lunch, which today was a tasty curry with rice, it was time for the up hills. The key going up steep hills on a bike is to give yourself enough power to make it up the hill without stalling it, while being careful not to overdo it and making things dangerous at the top (this was not an occasion to get air!). On the F700GS this was very simply about keeping the bike in first gear and giving it plenty of throttle, allowing the bike to slow slightly by the top of the hill to make the required right-hand turn. Having enjoyed the descents I had no trouble getting stuck into the ascents, and rode around the circuit taking on that hill over and over again. No problem.
LincsGeek with his bike facing down the hill.
Our final exercise for the course was to practice our technique going up hill on a very steep ascent where you couldn’t see what was at the top. In trail riding there is a rule that if you cannot see what’s coming you stop and walk the feature (water crossing, steep down, steep up) before riding it. But that isn’t always possible, and so you need to be able to go up a steep hill and give yourself enough time at the very top to decide what to do next – turn left, turn right or even stop. Here we had a short sharp hill, steeper than the ones we’d been doing so far, that would require a fair amount of power to get to the top. The exercise was to get to the top, pause the bike without sitting/putting your foot down to give you lots of looking around time, and then ride away.
With my F700GS.
I was feeling really good about my riding by now and didn’t hesitate to ride up this one; a little run up, plenty of power, up to the top of the hill, pausing to look around at the top before riding away and back around for another go. After two or three goes our course at the top was changed and we had to negotiate a tight right and left turn to avoid some rocks, and I must have learnt something because that didn’t cause me an issue either. Not the first time, anyway. The second time I headed up for the modified exercise I stalled the bike at the top of the hill during my pause, and instantly (and quite forcefully) landed on my side. It was quite a hard fall that had both instructors rushing to check I was okay – I was, a bit winded (and bruised, it turned out a day later!), but okay. Over the two days I had dropped the bike many times, but up until this event I wouldn’t have said I “fell off”. They say pride comes before a fall; I don’t think I was being cocky in my riding, but it did remind me that I don’t bounce and I do need to make quick and positive decisions to avoid ending up in the mud. It also reminded me of the importance of jumping straight back on and giving things another go – I got up, got back on my bike, rode back round and did the exercise one last time to prove to myself I could do it.
Walters Arena, Brecon Beacons.
At the end of our two-day course I had a brief opportunity to swap the F700GS I’d been riding for a short blast on the R1200GS. The 1200 is a huge bike with much more power than I’m used to; I never thought I’d be strong or confident enough to ride something so heavy, but it was brilliant! It felt so stable beneath me, incredibly smooth, and like it would cope with just about anything I asked of it. The short ride made me realise how much my riding had improved over the two day course, and gave me an opportunity to ride something I would never have done otherwise. I might even be tempted to test ride one when I eventually decide to change mine. That’s if the new Triumph Bobber doesn’t win…
And with that our time on the trails came to an end. We said goodbye to the beautiful and hugely fun dirt tracks of the Brecon Beacons and headed back to Off Road Skills HQ for our certificate presentations. Sat in the car on the way home, tired, hungry and willing the motorway miles to run down a little faster than they were, I felt just brilliant. My off road skills experience was a very a good one; I learnt a lot about riding, terrain, mud, confidence, and probably most importantly, me.
At the end of the two day course.
It would be cool to try out some dirt trails on a lightweight dirt bike with spoked wheels and nobly tyres some time, you know, to rekindle that childhood memory of total carefree riding. But for now I’ll take the confidence boost I gained from doing this course and allow it to help improve my road riding and make road trips even more fun.
I wholeheartedly recommend Off Road Skills as a company and the level one course. My level one experience lived up to the recommendations I had received and I’m very pleased we booked. It wasn’t a cheap two days but the experience gained and skills learnt meant it was worth every penny. If you are looking for some extra rider training, or to get ready for a fun adventure road trip, then make sure you look them up.
If you want to book a course with the guys over at Off Road Skills, head over to their website for all the details. The level one cost us £500 each including a bike to ride, plus a few extra pounds for gear hire. It was well worth it.