Most of the world’s roads are gravel, sand or mud tracks, so if you want to travel overland by motorcycle, you’d better get comfortable with life away from the smooth, grippy tarmac you’re used to. But if you’ve never had the right machinery or the nerve to ride any distance on the rough stuff, then the Off-Road Skills course is a great place to start. I dipped a toe in the water and will definitely be going back for more…
If you’ve often noticed an unpaved track or trail leading off into the distance and wondered where it might lead, then Off-Road Skills should be of interest. The award-winning courses, pioneered in Germany, have been operating in the UK since the turn of the century and the Level One version is specifically designed to appeal to motorcyclists who have never ventured away from tarmac, but have always wanted to explore what it’s like to ride off-road.
The adventure bike market is booming and many riders are keen to make the move away from dedicated road bikes and find out what opportunities are offered by big ‘travel enduros’ such as the BMW GS range, that offer high touring comfort, decent handling and an entry ticket into a whole new world of riding opportunities.
However, many riders don’t want to spend a small fortune on a travel-ready adventure bike unless they can be sure that it will suit them in all conditions – on and off-road. BMW Motorrad’s solution to this has been to provide all participants on its Off-Road Skills courses with a choice of BMW GS ‘rental’ bikes and around 4,000 acres of exclusive off-road paradise in south Wales to try them for size. Sounds like a win, win to me…
On a fresh October morning, I turned up at the Walter’s Arena Enduro Park for the Level One Off-Road Skills course, accompanied by a group of equally nervous motorcyclists, all admitting to a complete lack of skill on the rough stuff. Parked neatly in a long row was a selection of shiny BMW GS bikes, ranging from the single-cylinder G 650 GS to the all-singing, all dancing R 1200 GS Adventure. I opted for the entry-level G 650 GS, which I thought would be the best match for my ability.
A quick kit check by the team of instructors and we were away on the road-legal fleet of bikes to the enduro park, just a few miles up the road. The location is simply stunning: breathtaking views across the Welsh valleys, tracks and paths as far as the eye can see, and extensive woodland to get lost in. During the briefing, our instructor Chris Northover (check Chris’ riding skills here ) promised us that as well as being great fun, everything we learnt could be transferred back to our road riding, where we spend most of our time on two wheels. We then split up into smaller groups and the fun and games started.
After learning the correct technique for picking up these heavy bikes (we would drop them several times over the following two days), further exercises designed to make us feel at ease with the BMWs saw us turning ever decreasing circles and ‘figure-of-eights’ using counterbalance techniques, and correct body positioning and weight, while riding standing on the pegs. The result? Growing confidence on a machine that was completely unfamiliar just a couple of hours before.
Then we moved on to braking and skid control. Take it from me, there is nothing better than showing the group your best skid on somebody else’s tyres, but there is a point to these exercises: if you can learn to recognise when one of your wheels is locking and learn to control it accordingly, then your safety margin increases significantly. Transfer this to your road riding and it all starts making sense. One of the many skills we had to master was to ride with our front wheel locked – a seemingly impossible exercise until shown how. Don’t try this at home though.
Soon afterwards it was up on the pegs and off on the trail. The first ride revealed why BMW had chosen this location and offered an opportunity to see what was still to come. For the beginner there were miles of light trails, loose gravel, gentle inclines and woody tracks, while the expert could expect water crossings, deep sand, near vertical slopes and rocky passes. It was nearly lunchtime though, so we made our way to a nearby pub where everyone compared fishermen’s tales of new-found off-road prowess, while sampling from the hearty menu.
Suitably refreshed we went back for more and learnt the first of many important lessons: when you’re halfway up a steep incline and realise that you’re not going to make it to the top, turn the bike around and have another go. Easier said than done of course. How do you turn a bike around on a 60-degree slope without toppling over? There’s a technique and it has to be learnt, but suffice to say that it can be the difference between an early bath and making it to the top.
That said, the feeling of elation on making it to the summit of an incline that had previously scared the wits out of you, is unsurpassed. Skills have to be mastered, such as the correct weight transfer and gear to provide maximum traction and grip. Although unfamiliar and unnerving at first, you soon become used to the bike moving around beneath you, and find yourself doing things you never thought would have been possible in your quest to reach the top.
And what goes up must come down. Unsurprisingly, there are also invaluable techniques that have to be learned when descending, such as using the gears and engine braking to maximum effect, rather than the hand- or foot-operated variety to get you safely down. Once we’d mastered the first two techniques, we tried with the third – and that added even more skills to our armouries.
With each exercise, confidence grew and there was a buzz in our group as participants enthused about their new abilities. Inclines, crossings and trails that had seemed nigh on impossible were tackled at the right time, in the right frame of mind, and with the help of an instructor if needed.
Friendships were formed out on the trail and in the pub on the first evening, where a real sense of camaraderie could be sensed among the participants all sharing the same goals. Talk began to emerge of planned trips, life-changing adventures in the making and much more. And this was after just one day of the course!
Day two started with a quick refresher and then we carried on working through the structured, skills-based curriculum developed by Dakar veteran Simon Pavey and his team. However, we were too busy enjoying ourselves trail riding on the gravel fire roads and exploring increasingly exciting and challenging sections of Walter’s Arena, to notice. I’d already switched from the G 650 GS to an F 800 GS for the second day, but we also had the opportunity to sample other models in the GS range, such as the F 700 GS or the best-selling R 1200 GS. By the end of the course, I was left with the feeling that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t tackle. My confidence was high and judging by the reaction of those around me, I wasn’t alone.
It takes many years of practice – and a heap of natural talent – to get to the standard of Pavey and company, but it doesn’t take long to master the basics, which is what the Level One course is all about. It doesn’t matter what kind of bike you ride either, but it is important to learn to ride it properly. All the BMW bikes we tested were extremely capable off-road and could have been ridden all the way home if necessary, unlike most dedicated enduro machines.
We’d only had a taste of what to expect (there are Levels Two, Three , Adventure Travel Training, off-road tours and women’s only courses also available) but what better way to spend a couple of days than in the company of like-minded individuals who want to get the same thing as you: top-rate instruction, a real grounding in the basics of off-road riding and some great machinery on which to get started.
Call 08000 131 282 for more information and bookings. All two-day courses include expert instruction, the use of a BMW bike and a head full of memories.