Now's the time to try off-road riding

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I always thought that handling a bike at high speed on a circuit represented the very pinnacle of skill, not slithering around a field getting mud sprayed up my back. Oh how wrong can a person be?

“I can’t believe you’ve never ridden a dirt bike,” says MCN’s expert rally-riding Sports Editor Michael Guy, who was bemused when I admitted this glaring hole in my experience. “We’ll have to change that. I can teach you the basics, if you like.”

I wasn’t so sure. Having spent half of my life as a road rider, I was worried I’d be too set in my ways. But the restrictions of this year changed my perspective, so I decided to take Michael up on his offer.

After borrowing some clobber, I found myself standing, feeling a bit awkward, in the middle of a muddy practice ground face-to-face with a rather serious-looking Yamaha WR250F; 30bhp never looked so intimidating. “It’s proper,” begins Michael. “It’s competition spec so it’s really responsive, plus it’s fitted with brilliant tyres and mousses, which keep the tyres functioning if they get a puncture. It’s super-light too. You’ll be amazed at how much your body position plays a part – it’s totally different from road riding.”

He starts to explain the fundamentals of positioning my weight in order to maximise grip and how basically, as a road rider, it’s the complete opposite of what I’d naturally want to do. “In a turn, you need to be really far forward on the seat and then slide your outside butt cheek off the side of the bike. At the same time, your inside arm needs to be more or less straight and your outside arm bent at the elbow. Like I said, totally opposite from what you’d do on track.”

All of a sudden, I feel like a complete novice. Concentrating so hard on fighting my instincts also results in me having to think about the basic stuff too, like simple gearchanges. I can’t remember the last time I felt like I was intensively learning something new; it felt good for the brain – like I’d reawakened it. I can’t get over just how physical it is - riding on the rough stuff is more like exercise than anything I’ve done on two wheels before. But it’s not all about brawn - thought and planning plays a big part too.

“You should be constantly looking, maximising your view, planning ahead and picking the best line. You don’t want to get cross-rutted,” my colleague-turned-instructor says as we look towards the summit of, what appears to me like, a small mountain. For the first time in a long while, I feel nervous and out of my depth. And, in a weird way, I’m relishing the sensation.

With Michael’s instruction swirling in my head, I open the throttle and power up the hill along my predetermined route in a bizarre mix of control and chaos – the bike going mostly where I wanted it to, but also dancing around beneath me.

“This isn’t road racing where everything’s perfect,” Michael says as I splash through a boggy puddle. “You’ve got to accept that things are going to move around, but you’ve just got to let the bike to do its thing.”

All of a sudden, for all my experience, I realised just how little I knew about riding. Half a day on the dirt had re-engaged that wide-eyed open-mindedness that comes from being a beginner. I may not be an enduro champ in the making, but even just a little dabble in the dirt has re-energised my desire to learn new skills, in all areas of my biking life.

TOP TIPS BY MCN’s MICHAEL GUY

“Fight the urge to look down at the front wheel. Lift your head and look at where you’re heading and where you ultimately want to be and the bike will follow.

“Be prepared to get physical. Off-road bikes are lightweight and have huge suspension travel meaning that your body position and where you put your weight has a huge effect on how the bike behaves.

“Try to relax. Gripping the 'bars tight is a natural response when everything is moving beneath you, but try to stay loose. Let the bike do the hard work while you use your feet to weight the foot pegs and your legs to grip the bike to improve stability.”

I DID IT TOO…

Kim Bone, Falkland Islands

“Having ridden off road as a youngster, I returned to biking in 2018 and bought a BMW S1000R. The roads here between Stanley and Mount Pleasant Airport now have tarmac, however the remaining 700 miles of Falklands routes consist mainly of gravel tracks and aren’t the easiest (or safest) to ride on. I loved my Beemer but it’s no good on gravel, so I decided that I was going to buy an adventure-type bike to ride the rough stuff for personal pleasure. Knowing that ‘offs’ would be in my future, I figured it would be wise to get a small dirt bike. I shipped a 2016 Kawasaki KX250F from England and jumped on. What a great decision! I rediscovered my love for off-roading after more than 30 years and have had so much fun relearning those skills. Despite not doing highway speeds, it’s an adrenaline rush to ride relatively slow over technical terrain knowing anything could happen. Since then, I’ve been hooked. Even better was persuading my wife to get a small pit bike to learn on.”

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Emma Franklin

By Emma Franklin

Deputy Editor, road tester, club racer