Time to get dirty at the Adventure Bike Academy
Web Producer James Archibald took himself and his BMW F800 GS off-road for the first time the other week under the expert guidance of Mark Molineux at the Adventure Bike Academy, discovering a whole other side to what it means to ride a motorcycle in the process…
Running BMWs F800GS as my long-term test bike, I wanted to make sure I didn’t fall into the category of those who never take these bikes off-road, even though I myself had never ventured away from the tarmac. Before this year I’ve always owned and lived with sportsbikes or sports-tourers. To say I was a little nervous about slinging myself down a track that has less-than adequate grip was a little of an understatement, so I booked onto a day at the Sweet Lamb Adventure Bike Academy in Wales to get an introduction to riding on the dirty stuff.
The Academy offers a great alternative to more expensive schools in that you can bring your own bike to use as opposed to having to rent a machine to ride. Obviously the shortfall of this is that if you were to have a mishap then it would be on your own bike. To overcome this and pre-empt any shortcomings, I opted to kit my GS with some engine crash bars from Touratech and upgrade the plastic bash-plate to a more battle-ready aluminium offering from BMW.
Sweet Lamb is a beautiful 5000-acre venue that is used for the Welsh stage of the World Rally Championship, so its off-road credentials are legit. There are plenty of differing routes too; from the novice friendly to the hardened enduro rider and courses to suit all levels of ability.
My training started on a level gravel surface where instructor Mark Molineux took the group through the basics of riding off-road, setting simple tasks to help build confidence and prepare us for riding some of the circuits that we would tackle through the course of the day. Learning to look ahead, standing on the footpegs and transferring weight correctly and of course stopping properly were invaluable tools. Although that may seem somewhat basic, these skills were absolutely essential to equip me to ride properly and ground the class with solid foundations.
Then an all-important tea break to assess and prepare the bikes and ourselves to ride the first loop. In my case, it involved letting my tyres down so I wasn’t running them at road pressures, feeling the difference instantly as we made our way to the loop. For others, it meant adjusting the bars for better body positioning and better reach of the controls while standing.
We then made our way to the first of four loops, a relatively straightforward mixture of loose-gravel and rock surface that was perhaps a mile long, the nerves started to set in again as I made my way over to it, with Mark's guidance. He then proceeded to lead us around the loop a couple of times to get a feel for it before unleashing us. Nerves turned into discovery, which turned into excitement as I began to feel the bike finding grip on the loose surface.
Lunch gave time to reflect and take stock of what I had learnt. I was becoming more astonished at the surface I was riding over, thinking that even riding on gravel driveways would have intimidated me only a few hours before.
The afternoon built on the successes of the morning as Mark took us on a big loop that must have been a good few miles long, seeing some of the best of Sweet Lambs offerings while we were at it. While dodging the rogue sheep that were lurking on the hillside we were introduced to a further mixture of terrains and the confidence that was developed in the morning started to steadily grow and inspire me to push a little more. Before I knew it I was spinning up the back wheel more and hitting corners harder without the dread that I was going to slide the GS off a cliff.
Mark then went on to demonstrate the capabilities of what an adventure bike can do by pointing his GS at a stupidly steep incline before powering right up it, turning around at the top and then descending down it again. My confidence had grown since 9am that morning, but the Continental TKC70’s that were fitted to my GS didn’t look like they were going to get anywhere on a slippery slope. None-the-less, it was impressive to witness and gives me something to aspire towards in future off-road pursuits.
Next was a river crossing before we were split into two small groups and introduced to a slightly more technical loop. Covered in larger, loose rocks as opposed to the gravel and loose stone that we had been riding on all day, it was a little harder. And rutted – something that nearly caught me out beautifully as I turned a corner and took a bad line into an unexpected rut that was close to sending me flying. I'm reminded again that forward planning and observation is key to avoid such calameties. With each lap of the loop that completed my confidence grew, the more challenging terrain giving me more to learn from and again build upon the other things I had learnt through the course of the day so far. The whole process was completely addictive, learning and putting new skills into practice at my own pace.
The final loop of the day was the larger route that we had been led around earlier, only this time it was completed at our own pace with far more compitancy. A great way to sum up the days adventure.
Finding a good line and continually learning to feel the bike as it moves around beneath me became a real revelation. It was an absolutely brilliant day that brought with it a new skill-set that has enhanced my riding in every way.
It was easily one of the most fun things I’ve ever done on a bike; I enjoyed it so much that I’ve booked to come back on a weekend course in July. I think riding off-road has become my new favourite thing.
If you fancy a go yourself, check out the Adventure Bike Academy website . Prices start at £95 for a single day and i £180 for the weekend with the option to stay in the purpose built Bunkhouse for an additional £35 per night including breakfast, washing facilities (you’ll need them) and of course a place to put your head down.