Back in May we spent a weekend taking part in one of RallyMoto’s signature biking events, the Wales 500. Designed as a on and off-road navigation challenge for “big bikes”, this was the first time I’d ever taken part in a motorcycle rally. I’ve been riding my GS for quite a few years now, and while I’ve ridden it thousands of miles in more than a handful of countries, including some fun (and not so fun) gravel roads, it was time to give something proper a try.
In short, the RallyMoto Wales 500 is a road and light off road 500km challenge for adventure riders and bikes over 140kg. Designed to be a test of accurate navigation rather than speed, the route was primarily on back roads and easy tracks. Based at the Three Counties Showground close to Malvern (which is really only a few minutes up the road from home), RallyMoto say this is what adventure bikes are built for – long days, varied terrain, and social riding.
We booked onto the event for a couple of reasons. Well, three. The first was to give ourselves an opportunity to use some of the skills we learnt at the BMW Off Road Skills course on our own bikes, which isn’t something that we get to do every weekend. We are still hoping to get to Iceland for a road trip sometime soon, and many of the roads we want to ride are gravelly and rugged, and it’s important to keep our skills topped up so we don’t forget everything. The second reason was to give road book navigation a try; this was the first time I’d even seen a road book, let alone used one to navigate my way along unknown roads and tracks. And the third was simply to try something new and push ourselves and our riding a little bit more than we would normally, by doing something completely different in a reasonably safe environment – a fun biking weekend away with the bonus of a sense of accomplishment at the end.
The weekend cost us a not-cheap-sounding £180 each, however this include everything – membership of RallyMoto, our ACU event and race licence, the challenge entry fee, the roadbook and roadbook holder hire, a fully marshal-supported event, access to sections on normally closed forest tracks, meals on the Saturday and Sunday evenings, and on site camping with normal camping facilities. So it sounds like a lot of money but actually it was a fair price – the only other spend was our fuel and a few snacks, oh and some new tyres to help us feel more confident on the off road sections.
I admit I went into this challenge with a deep-seated worry about what I was doing. I’m no novice rider; I’ve been riding for years, have done big days and long trips, am happy navigating using all kinds of maps, have ridden a few gravel and dirt roads, completed level one of the BMW Off Road Skills course, and love to be out on my bike. But this was new and different. Roadbooks to me are something you see on Dakar bikes in the desert, and water crossings are something that I have no idea what to do with. Most of all, though, I was worried about looking like and being treated like a beginner; the field was going to be full of hugely experienced riders who would curse me as they overtook and laugh behind my back at my rubbish riding. But I’ve always believed that pushing myself and trying new things is the best way to learn and gain in confidence, and this was definitely going to be one of those opportunities.
We made the most of the campsite by arriving on the Friday evening to sign in and get our roadbook holders attached to the bikes – my narrow handlebars needed layers and layers of tape to fudge a fit, but we did manage to get it sorted just about before nightfall. All evening bikers turned up and set up camp, and just as I had imagined, there were a lot of people there who knew exactly what they were doing. Some even turned up with their bikes in their vans – workshops on wheels – and set about getting their motors set up exactly as they wanted for the two days ahead. I just kept reminding myself that RallyMoto set this event up for people like me with limited experience of this kind of thing, and I was going to make the most of it.
The following morning Rallymoto director Burt introduced us to our roadbook and the expectations for the weekend in our first briefing. We were given our start time – which was around 11am – and set about studying the roadbook to see if we could get used to it enough to successfully use it to navigate on the 60-mile-ish introductory ride. The rules seemed very sensible; navigate properly, don’t speed, be courteous in the villages, and come back safely.
Before we were let out into the world of roadbook riding, though, we first had a short off road skill section on the grounds of the Three Counties Showground. This short but technical section was a huge challenge for me, especially as it was just a few metres from the start line where I was already nervous and anxious about the day ahead – I definitely wish it had been at the end of the days riding. Anyway, I made it through without falling off; I did put my feet down more than once but I rode it and overcame it and that was enough for me.
From there we headed out onto some of the area’s winding roads, there are lots to choose from around here, for 60-ish miles (100km) of the rally. The primary purpose of this was to get used to the navigation, which involved getting used to the symbols and acronyms on the roadbook, paying a huge amount of attention to my mileage, remembering to turn the paper around after each instruction, and generally having a heightened awareness of everything going on around me so I could successfully navigate and ride safely at the same time. I actually got used to it quite quickly, thankfully my pre-existing map reading skills played a role here, and found I was able to pretty much keep up with where we were meant to be going. The three of us rode together, taking it in turns to lead from the front and assist with navigation from the back – it’s much easier to notice things that might be useful in combination with the roadbook when you’re not also leading the group. As we rode along we all got quicker at deciphering the instructions in front of us and turning them into directions; having the intercoms helped a great deal too.
We were back at base in plenty of time for LincsGeek and our friend Paul to spend an hour or so playing on the woodland track we’d done at the beginning of the day – I opted out but instead headed over to take photos and cheer them on. Their sheer determination to absolutely nail each corner, hump and root was inspiring.
That evening we had our day two briefing, were given our day two roadbooks – which took so long to roll into our roadbook holders – and ate a yummy chilli with rice and garlic bread. It was early to bed for me as we had a 6.30am start the following day… and it was forecast to rain.
The second day was the big one. The 300 miles (around 420km) would be ridden in low cloud and at times very heavy rain, and would include a fair amount of off road riding. I don’t mind admitting that I was rather scared that the forest sections Burt spoke of being lovely and easy would be a bit like the narrow woodland tracks we did at the start of the first day, but I was ready for the challenge. We got off to a great start; the road riding was through some lovely villages, the roadbook navigation was fine, and the first two forest sections were absolutely nothing to worry about. This is the type of off road riding I enjoy; the tracks were wide, mainly a combination of gravelly and quarry stone, the bends weren’t too sharp and the hills not too steep. It’s a shame the weather was rubbish as the views should have been amazing. When we stopped for fuel and lunch in the middle of the day we did so with what much have been at least half the other riders on the Wales 500 challenge, which meant we were doing well in terms of keeping up and staying on time.
It was the section after lunch that got me. We knew there was a tougher off road section, that it included a water crossing, and those that were listening to the briefing closely knew that this was to be done twice. In all the information running up to the event we were told that everything had been ridden on a big bike on normal road tyres to make sure it was doable, and that was the thing I had in the back of my mind at all times – I was on the Metzeler Karoo Street tyres, which are a decent 70/30 split tyre, and they helped me feel confident. In my mind I was thinking this water crossing would be a bit like a ford, or a big puddle, and I absolutely imagined it would be clear and easy to ride through.
This off road section was significantly gnarlier than the forest sections we’d already ridden. The weather was bad and the surface was muddy and slippery, and littered with ruts, rocks and pot holes and muddy puddles. This was by far the most technical off road riding I’d done, and it took a lot for me to remember my skills – look ahead, keep relaxed, use my weight, breathe… I didn’t do a bad job, my riding certainly wasn’t pretty, but I stayed upright, weaving my way around the rocks and larger holes, and splashing through a few of them. And then I heard “oh” on my intercom; LincsGeek had made it to the water crossing, and it was a lot bigger than we’d considered.
I mean, it wasn’t huge. There will be bikers reading this who dismiss my worry, I’m sure.It was just bigger than anything I’d done before, bigger than my confidence was willing to stick around for, and very muddy. There was no telling what the surface under the water was like, and knowing what the track had been like to this point, I was not expecting it to be lovely and smooth.I stopped and watched as others went through, with different levels of success. Some rode it as if it was a bit of tarmac, some bounced up and down like it was a mogul run on a ski slope, some put their feet down to steady themselves, others had to stop and start again midway through. Of the three of us, LincsGeek went through first, bouncing up and down, wobbling from side to side, but making it across without putting his feet down or having to stop. Paul was next; he went straight down the middle, and did have to put his feet in the water to steady himself at one point, but made it across fine. Well if they can do it…
The thing is, events like this are very much a personal challenge. That’s the whole point. No-one else was going to ride it for me; I had to at least give it my best shot. Worst case scenario was me and my bike would get very wet, and to be honest I was already wet through to my pants so that wasn’t any excuse. I clocked on the roadbook it said keep left, so I took a very deep breath, and went for it. Lots of revs, lots of clutch, eyes fixated on where I wanted to end up. And that was it, I was shaking and needed a moment for the adrenaline to subside a bit before we continued, but I had done it, and I was elated. Challenge: overcome.
At the end of the gnarly track the marked route would take us left onto a narrow tarmac lane, and eventually back to that same off road section to give us a second go at that water crossing. We stopped for a rest and after speaking to a couple of other riders, made the decision that we’d successfully defeated the water once, we were tired, cold and wet, and we would skip this loop and fast forward the roadbook a few miles instead. I truly believe that you have to know your limits, and that while the Wales 500 was designed as a challenge, it was also there to be enjoyed, and we didn’t want to ruin the fun we’d already had by pushing things too far. I’m a bit stubborn and don’t like to feel failure, but this wasn’t a fail, it was a good choice. We still had a good few hours of riding to get back, which took us along even more varied roads in Wales, including revisiting the forest tracks from the morning that we’d enjoyed riding.
We stopped for a leg stretch about an hour from the finish to find the bolts holding my head lamp to my bike had fallen out somewhere down the road, and it was being held on by the cable… still working! I thought it was a bit rattly at the front…! Oh and it had cracked so I needed a whole new light assembly when I got home – expensive! Thankfully we always carry cable ties and gorilla tape, which got be back to base and home again, which was at least something.
We rode through the start finish line about 12 hours after we’d started, and while we hadn’t technically completed the whole route, we celebrated all the same. We enjoyed paella in the evening sunshine and chatted with other Wales 500 riders who’d all had different experiences of the route; some raced around and had been back ages, some arrived as night fell, some missed out more than we did, others rode home on very broken bikes. The thing we all had in common was that it was a great yet very challenging day out on the bikes. Oh and the mud, we were all covered in mud.
The combination of navigating using a roadbook, following someone else’s route planning (I’m used to at least being involved in the way we are heading), riding lots of little lanes and through small villages, chugging along of off-road forest tracks, yucky rain and thick low cloud, getting cold, doing loads of miles, starting before 7am, and that particularly gnarly off road section with deep ruts, scary looking rocks and the biggest water crossing I’ve ever done in my life, made for an incredibly interesting day out. We might not have completed the full 500, but this was a motorcycling achievement none-the-less, and one I will smile about for years to come.
The RallyMoto Wales 500 was a really excellent weekend. If you’ve got a big adventure bike and fancy doing something a bit different, I would recommend it. Challenging? Yes. Tiring? Yes. Fun? Yes. Would I do it again? It’s not a no… but I haven’t rushed to put the date for next year in my diary just yet. The experience was a great one, and I’m glad we decided to do it, but there are so many other things I want to do – so many places I want to visit – that it might not be on the cards for 2020. We’ll see, though, never say never.
RallyMoto put on a whole host of similar events in the UK and overseas, check their website for all the details.
We booked and paid to attend and ride the RallyMoto Wales 500 ourselves – a personal challenge and an opportunity to experience something completely different. This is not a sponsored post.